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The Last Taboo

There are 7 billion humans on earth, so why can't we talk about population?

JUST AS THE festival of Durga Puja ends, another winds up. Kali Puja is Kolkata's other favorite celebration of a goddess, this one the violent agent of change for whom the city is named. The flower business is exploding at Malik Ghat, the city's oldest wholesale flower market. Hundreds of vendors, buyers, and tokriwallahs (basket carriers) shuffle through the narrow lanes overflowing with miles of garlands of orange and yellow marigolds, and tons of red hibiscus, white gardenias, greenery.

Squeezed into the crowds, I'm a head taller than many people, and far taller than some, though I measure only 5 feet 8 inches. Many of the people around me are tiny and slight, even the men, with delicate bones in wrists and ankles, as if they could, like birds, take flight. Here and there a fat, wealthy matron appears, plowing through the crowd like an errant iceberg riding a deeper, faster current, her sari glittering with woven gold. I'm struck by how some of us are literally siphoning the flesh and blood from the rest of us, segregating ourselves into beings so calorically and structurally different that paleontologists of the distant future might well classify our fossilized skeletons as separate species.

The problem is long in the making. Ever since Homo sapiens invented agriculture, we've sported super-prolific birth rates, counterbalanced by brutishly short life expectancies averaging a mere 10 years. We bred and died in boom cycles busted by famines, natural disasters, diseases, and violence. Beginning around 500 AD, we suffered centuries of bust, ravaged by the Black Death and its piggybacking disasters sweeping west from Asia—the last check on our growth. Nothing since then, not the lethal 20th century, with two world wars, an influenza pandemic, and the emergence of HIV/AIDS, has reversed our growth. (See chart above.)

Driven by inescapable biology that seduces us with the joys of sex, we populate, and then some. We plan our families. Or we don't. Two hundred million women have no access whatsoever to contraception, contributing to the one in four unplanned births worldwide and the 50 million pregnancies aborted each year, half of them performed clandestinely, killing 68,000 women in the process. As for the conventional wisdom that poor rural couples actively plan to have large families because of high child mortality or to provide for their care in old age, not true, says John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London. Instead, poor people have large families simply because they, like most of us, have sex many, many times in their lifetimes and some of those times, or even all of those times, they do not have, or do not use, contraceptives, or their contraceptives fail. "For a fertile couple, nothing is easier," says Guillebaud.

Ecologists tended to frame the population issue as people vs. nature, while human rights activists found this analysis to be simplistic and even racist.

Planned or not, wanted or not, 139 million new people are added every year: more than an entire Japan, nearly an entire Russia, minus the homelands and the resources to go along with them. Countered against the 56 million deaths annually, our world gains 83 million extra people every year, the equivalent of another Iran. That's 1.6 million more humans alive this week than last week and 227,000 more people today than yesterday—all needing food, water, homes, and medicine for an average lifespan of 69 years. We are asking our world to supply an additional 2.1 trillion human-days of life support every single year. Eventually, most of these 83 million new people added every year will have kids, too.

Understood or not, the exponential growth model—also known as the Malthusian growth model—runs in the background, amplifying our childbearing choices. In a new twist on the downstream effects, statistician Paul Murtaugh of Oregon State University decided to investigate the environmental price tag of a baby. "Suddenly we can gauge our carbon emissions from all kinds of lifestyle choices, like cars, appliances, and airplane flights," he says. "But there's no calculator computing the carbon emissions of a child—and her children, and her children." (Murtaugh ran the statistical analysis on mothers, because following lineages of both parents was computationally prohibitive.)

Scenes from rural Bengal, where a microloan program called Bandhan teaches women basic hygiene and sex education. The result is a revolutionary way to battle poverty and disease. Scenes from rural Bengal, where a microloan program called Bandhan teaches women basic hygiene and sex education. The result is a revolutionary way to battle poverty and disease. Girls in a Bandhan primary school.Girls in a Bandhan primary school."The results surprised me," he says. "Using United Nations projections of fertility, and projecting statistically through the lifespan of the mother's line—some lineages being short-lived, others indefinitely long—an American child born today adds an average 10,407 tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of her mother. That's almost six times more CO2 than the mother's own lifetime emissions. Furthermore, the ecological costs of that child and her children far outweigh even the combined energy-saving choices from all a mother's other good decisions, like buying a fuel-efficient car, recycling, using energy-saving appliances and lightbulbs. The carbon legacy of one American child and her offspring is 20 times greater than all those other sustainable maternal choices combined." (See chart ["Little Bundle of Carbon"].)

Murtaugh's research shows that even though India has a much larger population and a higher rate of population growth than the US, its overall carbon legacy is vastly reduced, due to its population's drastically lower levels of consumption combined with shorter lifespans (63.8 years on average for India, versus 80.2 years for the US). At current rates, an American child has 55 times the carbon legacy of a child born to a family in India. While India is conservatively predicted to grow by 400 million people by 2050, the US is projected to grow by 86 million. But take those additional Americans and factor in their 55-times-higher carbon legacy (at current national consumption rates), and they will equal the legacy of 4.7 billion Indians.

"The irony," says Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women, "is that just as some Americans are starting to learn to live more like traditional Indians—becoming vegetarian, buying locally, eating organic—aspiring middle-class Indians are trying to live more like overconsuming Americans. The question really is, which kind of people do we want less of?"


FROM HER MODEST apartment off Elliot Road in old Calcutta in the 1930s and '40s, my impoverished, generous, gregarious, and free-thinking grandmother was a go-to authority for girls or women in trouble. They visited her in secrecy, teary or resolute, alone or with a mother, sister, or friend towing them by the hand. The problem was a boyfriend or a husband or too many children or a secret affair or incest. The solution lay in my grandmother's rare network of connections spanning the Eurasian, Indian, and British communities. She listened and consoled, scolded as she deemed fit, then advised where to go, who to see, and how to come up with the money for a survivable abortion.

Like most Eurasians in India, my grandmother was forced to live outside both Indian and British societies, compelled to leave home and earn wages long before either British or Indian women—in effect, pioneering a vast course change that would span the breadth of the 20th century and beyond. The three of six children that my grandmother lost to early deaths were part of the seesawing changes between fertility and mortality that saw India's population quadruple between 1901 and 2001. Looking back now, we can see that India's population course in the 20th century took a surprisingly predictable path—because we know what Thomas Robert Malthus could not know: that nations wend through multiple stages of a demographic transition on their way to and through industrialization.

Until the late 18th century, everyone everywhere subsisted in the nasty, brutish, and short conditions of stage one: extremely high birth rates coupled with extremely high death rates, resulting in slow population growth. Malthus himself lived through Britain's stage two: the onset of urbanization and industrialization and a true population explosion, as birth rates leveled but death rates plunged dramatically. Stage two first occurred in northern Europe and was spawned (ironically, despite Malthus' fears) by more and better food: the superior nutrition of corn and potatoes imported from the Americas, and an agricultural revolution brought on by scientific advances in farming. Stage two was also triggered by a revolution in our understanding of disease, which led to better handling of water, sewage, food, and ourselves. The primary driver behind this new science of hygiene was increased literacy among women, who wrote and read health-education pamphlets, and who managed the daily cleanliness of families and hospitals.

The ripple of change that comes from empowering women—what some call the ‘the girl effect’— is uniting the once-divided conservation and human rights communities.

India today is navigating stage three, as fertility rates drop closer to death rates. Stage three includes a contraceptive revolution, different in every time and place: in Europe 200 years ago, a revolution of coitus interruptus and condoms; in India today, birth control pills and, often, sterilization after the first son is born. This pivotal phase coincides with profound cultural changes, as women end their isolation in the home to enter the workplace and network with other women. Wage-earning women claim more responsibility for childbearing and child-rearing decisions, leading to a revolution in children's lives, as the decision is made to pay for schooling—a costly choice necessitating smaller families. This choice is strongly influenced by female literacy, since women who can read even slightly are more likely to send their daughters to school.

In India today, 75 percent of men are literate, compared to only 54 percent of women—one of the most lopsided ratios among newly industrialized nations. The statistic corresponds directly to fertility. In the state of Bihar, next door to West Bengal, where literacy falls below the national average—to 60 percent for males and 33 percent for females—the total fertility rate swings up to four children per woman. Conversely, the southern Indian state of Kerala, which boasts 94 percent male literacy and 88 percent female literacy, has reached a below-replacement-rate fertility that resembles the industrialized world's, at only 1.9 children per woman.

Whether we are a world of 8, 9.1, or 10.5 billion people in 2050 will be decided in no small part by the number of illiterate women on earth. Of the more than 1 in 10 people who can't read or write today, two-thirds are female. Locate them, and you'll find an uncannily accurate roadmap of societal strife—of civil wars, foreign wars, the wars against reason embedded in religiosity, the wars against equality ingrained in patriarchal and caste systems.

Sheryl WuDunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor (along with her husband, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof) of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, explains: "When women are educated, they tend to marry later in life, to have children later in life, and to have fewer children. In effect, you have a form of population control that's peaceful, voluntary, and efficient. Plus, educated women do better in business, raising economic growth rates, and lowering societal conflict. If we could achieve universal literacy for women, we'd have a much better shot at peace around the world."

Some call the power of empowering women "the girl effect," and it is uniting the once-divided conservation and human rights communities in common cause. A model of it, developed in Bangladesh and West Bengal, is beginning to ripple out through India's 565 million women. I'm chasing the tendrils of this through the outskirts of Bagnan in West Bengal, a farm town inhabiting the low-lying landscape between the Rupnarayan and Damodar rivers. The countryside here has been sculpted by centuries of human use: seasonal wetlands excavated into a patchwork of rainwater ponds and rice paddies, the diggings compiled to afford a few feet of livable clearance above flood level.

I'm trailing Soumitra Dutta, a physician and consultant to Freedom From Hunger, a California nonprofit at the forefront of grafting health care and education onto microloans. Dutta, in turn, is trailing Trideep Roy and Nabanita Mondal, employees of a Bengali microlender, Bandhan ("togetherness"). We step over cloths full of drying rice, dodge foraging hens, duck under low-hanging laundry, weave between sleeping dogs, sidestep trails of hay edging the paths and the placid, dung-producing cows feeding on them. We pass clusters of houses shared by extended or multiple families, each painted orange, red, or green. On the walls, circular brown patties of cow dung, India's rural fuel source, are drying in the sun. Each is imprinted with a woman's or child's slender fingerprints.

We're welcomed at a small green house by Supta Halder, a tiny woman wearing a bright pink sari and an air of authority. She ushers us into the back room of her two-room house and invites us to sit on the bed. Five years ago, her family could not live in this room, she explains. The roof leaked. The walls were crumbling. Nor could they farm a parcel of land inherited by her husband, a teacher. Unable to adequately feed themselves, the family struggled with relentless poverty and poor health.

So it had been since time immemorial, and so it might have continued into the foreseeable future. Except the plot took a twist in the form of a tiny loan of $42 offered in 2004 to Halder from Bandhan. With that money, and with four subsequent loans eventually totaling $780, Halder began to repair her house, more than doubling her usable square footage. She reconditioned her husband's acre of land, building a pond for collecting monsoon water to farm fish and to water her new crops of rice and flowers. She developed a business, buying wholesale saris in Kolkata, riding the train three hours each way, and bringing them home to sell to the women of Bagnan, many of whom were also receiving Bandhan loans, growing businesses, and finding themselves with the unfamiliar pleasure of disposable income.

Supta Halder estimates her age at 43 or 44. The fruits of her many labors are visible in this multipurpose room: the new television and VCR, the new bed frame—even her daughter-in-law, preparing us refreshments in the next room, married to Halder's son only a year ago, in a match likely facilitated by the improved prospects of the Halder family. Halder's energy is barely contained within her small frame and the swirl of her sari. In my world, she'd probably be a CEO—or knocking herself out against the glass ceiling.

Her daughter-in-law offers us stainless-steel cups of water, elegantly presented on a tray. I smile, then hesitate, stalled at the crossroad between etiquette and experience.

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