What's in a Word?
What's in a word? Plenty when it comes to
population terminology. Demographic language is often freighted by controversial
associations with geopolitics, sex, power, gender, race, religion and personal rights.
"Population control" is a
prime case in point. The term is now out of favor with experts in the field, because it
implies force - a negative thing to most. Control can mean governments controlling what
should be the decisions and are the rights - of individuals, men trying to control
women, industrialized nations trying to weaken the power of developing nations' increasing
numbers, or whites trying to reduce the future numbers of people of color.
To stress the voluntary nature of the
actions sought, experts use terms like "stemming," "stabilizing"
or "slowing" population growth. Similarly, "family planning"
is preferred to "birth control" a term that dates back to the time of
Margaret Sanger's crusade for women's rights to use contraceptives.
"Overpopulation" is also a
misnomer. If we have too many people, who are the unneeded? Developing nations and the
poor suspect that the wealthy may be referring to them. Besides, a newborn can represent
not only a new mouth to feed but two new hands with which to build and a new mind to
create the future.
The subject of debate is better described as
"global population issues" or "population policy," in
order to stress the need to assess human numbers in the context of desired living
conditions and development.
"Immigration" is taking on
negative connotations in the United States and in Western Europe as a globalizing economy
and population crowding bring rising numbers of newcomers who could threaten jobs, social
services and the predominant culture. As the new wave is largely nonwhite, some whites
fear that immigration will dilute their power.
In the developing world, however, "migration"
tends to connote an admirable ambition and courage to seek work or a better life away from
home. Many immigrants migrate again, or return home when conditions change or they achieve
their purposes. More than 90% of all births now take place in developing nations, a fact
that helps explain relative attitudes toward trans-national human traffic.
Doomsday scenarios are passé. Thomas
Malthus' dire warnings of rampant disease and famine sparked talk of "triage"
and "lifeboats" to describe the coming necessity of deciding who should be
allowed to live in a world eaten out of house and home by too many people.
The "population bomb" is
somewhat discredited. Growth rates peaked in the early 1970s, and we are now living in
that explosion's fallout: global numbers doubled from 3 billion in the 1960s to 6 billion
in mid-1999, and continue to rise but at a slower rate. Improved health services have
managed to keep the increased billions alive, though often in a deprived state. Population
specialists now concentrate on "quality of life" of the millions of newborns who
will be hard-pressed to find education, health care and work needed for a meaningful life.
Today, "population momentum"
from the 1960s baby boom continues to drive human numbers upward. Growth will continue for
at least another generation as the new millennium's record 1 billion teenagers enter their
reproductive years. The question now is: when will we achieve "population
stabilization," where growth stops?
The answer depends upon whether commitments
that the world's nations made at the ICPD in 1994 are fully honored: to programs
furthering "birth spacing," "reproductive health" and
"women's rights"; boosting "sustainable development";
and improving the earth's "carrying capacity" and the human "quality
of life." These terms stress not sheer population numbers but the broader vision
of global well-being.
"Acceptable risk" describes
the health risks associated with many modern contraceptives, while "relative risk"
compares that small danger to, say, riding a motorbike in city traffic. The definitions of
each are under challenge from women's groups, who note that all but two modern methods
(condoms and male vasectomies) make women take the risk.
Not Just Words
It's not just political correctness to watch
your population language. Many of yesterday's terms were rooted in detached calculations
that dehumanized people and the process of family-building. People universally resist
bean-counter reckoning in deciding the size of their families. Population specialists have
moved beyond mere number-crunching to understand what population increase means to
individuals - and this change in perspective has changed policy and language.
Most governments in developing countries
have adopted family planning policies in an effort to balance their national populations
with available resources. They have shouldered two-thirds of the costs involved, asking
industrialized nations to help with the rest. The term "commitment"
involves not only political will but the provision of human and material resources as
well. It is this commitment that is at stake today.