Zero Population Growth Research Paper

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The term zero population growth encompasses both an urgent call to reduce the number of human beings and a neutral description of anticipated future demographic conditions. In either case, social scientists have not debated whether the world will reach zero population growth but when, at what level, and with what costs or benefits along the way.

Population growth has periodically preoccupied theorists since ancient times, but fears of overpopulation emerged in earnest in response to the unprecedented demographic expansion that accompanied the post—1650 global agricultural revolution. (From 50 million in 1000 BCE, the earth’s population increased slowly to 545 million in the year 1650, and then more than doubled to 1.2 billion in 1850 [Kremer 1990, p. 683]). At the turn of the nineteenth century, the British economist and pastor Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) famously argued, “Population, when unchecked, increases only in a geometrical (exponential) ratio. Subsistence (the food supply) increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (Malthus [1798] 1959, p. 5). During much of the nineteenth century, leading European classical economists, especially John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), incorporated Malthusian precepts and argued that population growth leads to diminishing economic returns as poorer land is brought under cultivation and an excess of workers drives down wages. Yet Thomas Jefferson (1743-1846) and other American intellectuals dismissed the notion of a population-resources problem as inapplicable to their imagined wide-open and egalitarian nation.

The Malthusian Era

The closing of the American frontier, as declared by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1890, engendered a Malthusian revival (that is, calls for immediate zero population growth). Moreover, as immigration to the United States surged and a pseudoscience of race matured, the desire to limit total population growth became intimately related to anxiety among many elite, white Americans that native-born Americans were having fewer children than non-white immigrants. A trans-Atlantic eugenics movement sought to breed a better population by encouraging more births among the genetically “fit” and discouraging them among the “unfit.” The mixture of eugenics and Malthusianism contributed to the passage of restrictive immigration laws in the United States in the 1920s.

During the 1930s, Malthusian concerns abated. Birthrates in the industrialized world, in response to the Great Depression, continued to decline. For the first time, the prospect of zero population growth in the wealthy European and North American nations seemed a possibility. One group of economists, led by Great Britain’s John Maynard Keynes, overturned the classical economists on the matter of population growth; they argued that population growth spurs economic progress by creating more consumers and economies of scale. Many economists and demographers, however, disagreed. They continued to espouse the traditional view that a smaller population would be good for the economy; in their view, the economy could grow through higher consumption per person rather than through a sheer increase in numbers.

After World War II (1939-1945), overpopulation concerns reemerged. A few social scientists and policymakers suggested that the war had been caused by population-resource pressures in the Axis nations. Many more became alarmed by the skyrocketing rates of population growth in the developing or Third World, which resulted from better hygiene and public health, and by the baby boom in the United States and other wealthy nations (from 1945 to 1964). Two best-selling books of 1948, Fairfield Osborn’s This Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival, briefly generated a revival of radical Malthusian ideas.

The postwar Malthusian resurgence was undercut somewhat by optimism that modern science would alleviate resource scarcity by better extracting natural resources and even creating new ones from scratch. In particular, atomic power and the Green Revolution in agriculture (the higher yields produced by crop breeding and pesticides) promised nearly unlimited energy and food supplies. In addition, while many postwar intellectuals concluded that population growth in the developed world caused aesthetic problems (e.g., more garbage and less parkland) as well as cultural concerns (e.g., more conformity and less privacy), they doubted whether it engendered true resource scarcity.

Still, in the 1950s and early 1960s, most social scientists continued to espouse a moderate anti-population-growth position, if not the strident Malthusians’s goal of a rapid transformation to zero population growth. The dominant paradigm within the demography profession was demographic transition theory. This was the idea that industrialization and economic development first drive population increase because medical and sanitary improvements lower mortality well before cultural norms of (copious) childbearing shift. In the next stage, however, birthrates drop in response to the new gender and economic arrangements that accompany modernization. Eventually, population decreases. Demographers concluded, however, that waiting for modernization to run its course was not sufficient; population expanded too rapidly in the early stages and the resulting poverty actually blocked the further progress of modernization. They reached a consensus that direct intervention (e.g., family planning aid) was needed to induce the transition to lower birthrates. In a seminal 1958 study of India, two American economists, Ansley Coale and Edgar Hoover, predicted that lower birthrates would substantially increase incomes in that nation. The Coale-Hoover thesis informed efforts to invest in family planning programs for the developing world. In the 1950s, the American philanthropic sector (especially the Population Council, founded by John D. Rockefeller III [1906-1978] in 1952) took the lead in promoting such programs and fostering population-related research.

The Zero Population Growth Movement Peaks

The United States government did not articulate an official anti-population-growth policy, but it did incorporate population-resource concerns into cold war geopolitical strategies. The idea that population growth generated conditions conducive to communism was fundamental to the development of foreign aid programs to the Third World as well as diplomatic efforts to promote international resource conservation. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. government began providing direct technical assistance and grants for family planning programs overseas and at home.

By the late 1960s, the peak of the annual global population growth rate (about 2.1 percent from 1965 to 1970; Cohen 1995, p. 54), famine in Africa, and burgeoning mass environmentalism propelled an organized zero population growth movement, the high-water mark of postwar Malthusianism. The fear now was that population growth—in both the developing and developed worlds—would ruin the world’s ecological systems, not merely threaten the food supply. In 1969, the American biologist Paul Ehrlich (b. 1932), author of The Population Bomb (1968), spearheaded the creation of the group Zero Population Growth. This organization created widespread awareness of the putative population problem and generated significant publicity. The Limits to Growth, a widely debated 1972 study by a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, used a crude algorithm of resources, pollution, and population to predict the collapse of the world system in 100 years. Most proponents of zero population growth primarily emphasized education and the need for voluntary reductions in fertility (and to a lesser degree, promoted public policies such as the elimination of tax benefits for families and the legalization of abortion rights). A small but vocal minority, however, reduced the staying power of the population movement by calling for such radical measures as involuntary sterilizations of women after they had given birth to a certain number of children.

As the 1970s began, the U.S. government briefly accelerated its engagement with the population question beyond the question of funding for contraception, but ultimately abandoned the issue all together. President Richard Nixon offered a special message to Congress endorsing a gradual transition to zero population growth. In 1972, after meeting for two years, the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by Rockefeller, called for several moderate measures to hasten the arrival of zero population growth in the United States. Nixon, however, immediately distanced himself from the commission’s final report, and in particular its call for abortion rights (the Supreme Court would not decide the epochal case of Roe v. Wade until January 1973). Personally opposed to abortion, the president was also embracing a political strategy of appealing to Catholic and culturally conservative voters.

Wider forces than presidential politics ensured the rapid demise of the zero population growth movement. Ascendant conservatives, led by Julian Simon, celebrated the purported economic and cultural benefits of steady population growth (1990). In addition, the birthrate decreased noticeably in the early 1970s, which took some of the sting out of the zero population growth movement’s critique. Many opponents of the zero population growth movement accused it—unfairly, for the most part—of seeking to primarily regulate the fertility of racial minorities. Other critics insisted that blaming population growth for environmental and social ills was a copout compared to attributing primacy to technology run amok and the inequalities of capitalism.

Toward Zero Population Growth

By the late 1970s, the Malthusian moment had passed in the United States. Domestic and overseas family planning policies had become institutionalized, but policymakers no longer seriously considered intervening to reduce the birthrate. The environmental movement largely abandoned its support for zero population growth due to an anti-immigration stigma increasingly attached to this position. China’s adoption in 1979 of a one-child policy, which engendered myriad human rights violations (even though in many locales, especially the cities, the policy merely codified existing trends), further increased the stigma surrounding population policy. At the 1984 World Population Conference, the U.S. delegation famously declared that population growth was a neutral phenomenon. In the early twenty-first century a few Malthusians around the world continue to argue that population growth, especially in wealthy, high-consumption nations, is a major cause of global warming and will eventually have ruinous consequences for the worldwide standard of living and the environment. Some economists continue to argue that the transition to lower fertility leads to a demographic dividend for developing nations. But demands that world leaders act to slow down population growth are few and far between.

The United States has become something of a demographic outlier. Currently, the global population increases by about 80 million, or 1.2 percent, per year, but developing nations account for virtually all of that growth (World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision 2007). Many industrialized nations such as Japan and Italy are headed toward zero population growth and should actually be in decline in fifty years. In contrast, in the United States, high levels of immigration and relatively high birthrates among immigrants and the U.S.-born alike have put the nation of 304 million (in 2007) on a path toward 570 million in 2100, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s middle-range projections (Methodology and Assumptions for the Population Projections of the United States: 1999 to 2100 2000). Some experts fear the possible geopolitical consequences of this demographic trajectory, such as a further dependence on foreign oil. But most experts celebrate the supposed economic benefits of steady population growth. Perhaps the greatest demographic fear in the United States is of an aging crisis. That is, many social scientists worry that Americans are not having enough babies (future workers) to pay the imminent Social Security bill of the baby boom generation.

Assuming that fertility declines continue on their present course, the United Nations Population Division predicts the earth’s population will reach 9.2 billion in 2050 (from nearly 7 billion in 2007) and then crest soon thereafter (World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision 2007). Since the 1970s, the zero population growth movement has faded into near irrelevancy, but if early twenty-first-century trends hold, zero population growth will nonetheless be achieved in the not-too-distant future.


  1. Coale, Ansley J., and Edgar M. Hoover. 1958. Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries: A Case Study of India’s Prospects. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Cohen, Joel E. 1995. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton.
  3. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. 1972. Population and the American Future. Washington, DC: General Printing Office.
  4. Critchlow, Donald T. 1999. Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Easterlin, Richard A. 1996. Growth Triumphant: The Twenty-first Century in Historical Perspective. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
  7. Kremer, Michael. 1990. Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million BC to 1990. Quarterly Journal of Economics 108 (August): 681–716.
  8. Malthus, Thomas Robert. [1798] 1959. Population: The First Essay. Foreword by Kenneth E. Boulding. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  9. Meadows, Donella H., et al. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
  10. Osborn, Fairfield. 1948. This Plundered Planet. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  11. Simon, Julian L. 1990. Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, and Immigration. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  12. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2007. World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision. United Nations: New York.
  14. S. Census Bureau, Population Division. 2000. Methodology and Assumptions for the Population Projections of the United States: 1999 to 2100. Population Division Working Paper No. 38. Washington, D.C.
  16. Vogt, William. 1948. Road to Survival. New York: William Sloan Associates.

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