The origins of population as a concern for the general public begin with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), the father of modern demography. His most famous essay on the principles of population, originally published in 1798, was the source of enormous controversy at the time. Malthus argued that human populations increase at a geometric rate, where resources to sustain that population only increase arithmetically, leading him to believe that life will eventually be destroyed. Envisioning that war, famine, and disease were the only means of population control, but Malthus later acknowledged that human behavior could yield a population reduction through abstinence and delay of marriage. Malthus' essay had a significant effect on both Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, inspiring Spencer to conceive his social theory about the survival of the fittest, which later became a central idea for Darwin's theory of evolution. National population censuses were also conducted after this idea was introduced to the world, which later helped compile statistics for any necessary governmental intervention.
Looking at today's populations of India and China and their overwhelming country numbers, introductions of global programs for population control and family planning were employed to manage "excess fertility" (Lock and Nguyen 2010).


Health Impact

Overpopulation occurs when a particular number of people occupying a specific geographic location exceed the resource capacity of an area. A population requires basic necessities in order to survive where they are located. While that demand for food, water, and shelter may increase, supplies may remain fixed in quantity and availability, creating a problem in resource depletion. The reason for a rise in the number of people may be the result of increased births, decreased mortality rates, or the growth of migration to a specific locality. The result may be poor living conditions, unequal distribution of resources, and an overall unsustainable environment for the affected population. Often debated, overpopulation may only be associated in reference to certain regions, restricting its scope. Overpopulation may also be included in an argument that would support the justification for population control.

Medical Anthropology Research

Mahmood Mamdani’s report on a birth control program conducted in rural Khanna in the Punjab in 1954 recorded that he had spoken with large families who had been given a pill form of contraceptives by a family planning organization (Lock and Nguyen 2010). These villagers believed that small families caused poverty, and had accepted the medication when given to them personally by health workers but had not actually used them for their intended use. Instead they were accepted so as not to be rude, and later stored away or used as decorative objects. The villagers believed that economic and family security were both entirely reliant upon a greater number of members in a family. They had also believed the health program was being facilitated upon their village to limit their family sizes, or perhaps this program was designed take-over their village resulting in a failed attempt to aid this developing area of the country.

Another study, which was conducted by anthropologist Emma Tarlo in India, during a time when widespread flooding in combination with food supply shortages made population a problem to the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi 1975. A state of emergency was declared by Gandhi, granting her powers to implement strict birth control programs, including coercive sterilization programs which amounted to over 800 million sterilizations performed in one year alone (Lock and Nguyen 2010). Monetary incentives were given to health care workers when they achieved their allotted quota, where people living in urban slums of the lowest socioeconomic class were chiefly targeted. Tarlo’s documentation of employer incentive targets for sterilization, such as the withholding salaries in there was proof that the procedure had been carried out, further supported the evidence that the lowest economic levels were disproportionately sterilized. Also there were accounts in a Delhi city ruling that tied proof of sterilization to the right to have government-supported housing and government loans, forcing a choice between homelessness or sterilization. Tarlo noted that sterilization had more to do with property rights then with family planning.

Applied Work

Efforts to deal with this problem have primarily been through family planning education and governmental policies. The People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong’s birth planning ideology of population reduction has dramatically reduced population numbers ever since the policy was launched in 1979. Studies conducted in key locations by anthropologists have established family planning education. Once population is controlled in a specific area, all other problematic health, economic, and environmental issues are handled more adeptly. Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist and demographer, has been recording specific connections between governmental policy and its affects with birth planning in China (Lock and Nguyen 2010). Her exposure of the “population science” in China, shows the interlacing of science, and technology with politics, policy, and power have not been the most straightforward process. When the government first initiated the scheme of a one-child family, the original intentions were to create a “voluntary small-family culture.” Effectiveness and success for carrying on the family name unfortunately became entirely dependent on universal access to birth control techniques such as sterilization and abortion. Improvement of supervision over reproduction was later introduced because there was corruption and extortion by government officials over families that did not comply with these rules. However the favoring imbalance in the sex ratio to males is unmistakably associated with government policies in connection with population control and unfortunately a social cost to the Chinese population.

Online Resources

Voice of America host Shaka Ssali discusses global population growth effects on sub-Saharan Africa's development.

Paul Gilding speaks about the world population and asks have we made the Earth full.

Jack Cafferty from CNN poses questions around population control being mandatory?

Further Reading

The Official Blog of the U.S. Census Bureau

World Overpopulation Awareness


Goodkind, Daniel. (2011). The World Population at 7 Billion. Source of Population Chart

Landow, George. (2001) Herbert Spencer. The Victorian Web. Brown University. http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/spencer/spencer.html

Lock, M. Nguyen V.K. (2010) The Right Population. An Anthropology of Biomedicine. 115-130.

Malthus, Thomas. (1998). An Essay on the Principle of Population. Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project.