It is well known that population growth accelerated at an unprecedented rate over the twentieth century. That the planet now sustains approaching eight billion people is often bemoaned. But when pressed, it is difficult for policymakers, politicians, the public and sometimes scholars to pin down just what makes population growth problematic, and even harder for them to find solutions. As political and intellectual history, the world population problem is a complicated object of inquiry too. It is a tight knot of tangled motivations, humanitarian aims and hidden agendas, some obvious and odious to us now, others less so. Unlikely alliances formed as multiple interest groups joined funding, research and lobbying forces, attempting to understand and to modify fertility and mortality rates on regional and world levels. At the same time, unexpected transnational allies blocked advocacy of voluntary fertility control, and rejected the very idea that world population growth constituted a problem for intervention.
This chapter traces the ways in which population came to be seen as an international and global problem over the twentieth century and into the present. It focuses on the organizations and institutions through which world population was examined as well as politicized, including the chequered uptake of reproduction and population matters within the League of Nations, the United Nations (UN) and their multiple agencies. Philanthropic foundations and then non-governmental organizations (NGOs) weighed in earlier and more strongly, with discussion, research and activity that involved a range of population experts from geographers to birth control researchers, economists to ecologists. Throughout, sexual and gender politics were linked to a changing global political economy, intimate relations to international relations, and population growth to political unrest. Population growth and aspirations to control it at a world level thus became the business of major movements, from eugenics to feminism to environmentalism.
Global Malthusians and World Eugenics
Around 1800, Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population linked the regulation of human population growth and world history. In this early limits-to-growth argument, Malthus wrote about the world as an island, in which spatial limits on cultivable land, and hence food, necessarily affected population. That forced the constant regulation of fertility and mortality. Early twentieth-century ‘neo-Malthusians’ took this idea and sought to shift the means of that regulation from uncontrolled to planned measures, and from death (infanticide, abortion, starvation, disease, infant mortality) to the prevention of life (new forms of contraception).