Quiz time: historically, which birth control method works best? Hint: it’s not a pill or a device or even a practice.

Over and over again, scientists and demographers have determined that the absolute best method of lowering the size of families is economic growth in society. When a nation boosts its economic status from poverty-stricken to developing to developed, the number of per-capita births invariably drops dramatically. The higher the degree of development, education and income in any given country, the lower the fertility rate.

During a 1974 United Nations population conference in Bucharest, India’s minister of population, Karan Singh, famously said it this way: “Development is the best contraceptive.”

Yes, I know—it seems like a complete paradox. In fact, that’s what scientists call it: the demographic-economic paradox. If you could afford more children, wouldn’t you have them? Apparently not, given the example of history. What do you suppose the reasons for this paradox might be? Interestingly, most researchers credit at least five specific causes:

  • Reduced childhood mortality in wealthier societies—not as many children die young, so the imperative to have many children is reduced.
  • Increased life expectancy—public health improves, with more resources devoted to health care, so people live longer, and therefore fewer people are needed to do the society’s work.
  • Urbanization—people move from rural areas to cities, and no longer require the large families necessary to do intensive agricultural labor.
  • Higher educational levels—with rising economic fortunes, more people receive more education, effectively postponing the starting of families at very young ages.
  • Improved female literacy and independence—women who make their own decisions often want fewer and healthier children, and want careers, as well.

Of course, now that we’ve had reliable and generally effective oral contraceptives available for almost sixty years, it also stands to reason that more affluent societies can better afford birth control, too.

Economists call this pattern the Demographic Transition Model—which maps that familiar societal transition from high birth and death rates to lower ones, as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic base.

Imagine, if you will, how another major transition—the inevitable, already-occurring move away from nationalism and toward globalism—might impact the world’s birth rate. An even more profound change than industrializing a single society, globalization means a reduced emphasis on national borders, an increased focus on worldwide issues, and a freer movement of goods, capital, services, people, and technology. With globalization, and by bringing more and more people out of poverty, birth rates drop dramatically.

Want proof? The world’s overall fertility rate reached its peak in the late 1960s, and has actually declined rapidly since the 1990s. Some scientists project that the effective global fertility rate will actually drop below the replacement rate (about 2.1 births per 1000 people) sometime in the 2020s. This could stabilize the Earth’s population by 2050, much sooner than the United Nations projects.

As the process of globalization proceeds, demographers say the Earth’s birth rate will continue to drop. For those who want to follow those trends, take a look at this website, which clearly and simply shows the Earth’s population and its growth patterns.

So here’s the obvious conclusion—we can best reduce and control our planet’s population explosion by doing everything we possibly can to develop and unite it. Limiting human population means eliminating dire poverty and uniting humanity, in other words. The Baha’i teachings directly support this view:

… in the future there will no doubt be a general improvement of standards of life and of health, but there will also be the full exploitation of unused and as yet unsuspected resources of the planet along with the control and tapping of its sources of raw material, with a great increase in productivity. … other principles found in our teachings indicate probable means to be employed in the future for the solution of these problems [of overpopulation] such as, the spiritual solution of the economic problem, the abolition of extremes of poverty and wealth, promoting the realization of the oneness of mankind, and universal education. – The Universal House of Justice, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, quoted in The Baha’i World, Volume 16, p. 343.

When more people rise out of poverty, when people unite across borders, when wars cease, we know the birth rate goes down. Reducing poverty and hunger benefits everyone. For that reason alone we need to do everything we possibly can, now, to make the Baha’i vision of a poverty-free world a reality:

One of the most important principles of the Teaching of Baha’u’llah is: The right of every human being to the daily bread whereby they exist, or the equalization of the means of livelihood.

The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, that everyone, as far as possible, according to his rank and position, shall share in comfort and well-being.

We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing; those who possess several stately palaces, and those who have not where to lay their head. Some we find with numerous courses of costly and dainty food; whilst others can scarce find sufficient crusts to keep them alive. Whilst some are clothed in velvets, furs and fine linen, others have insufficient, poor and thin garments with which to protect them from the cold.

This condition of affairs is wrong, and must be remedied. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 151.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.


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