Saturday, June 19, 2021

Emily Klancher Merchant's "Building the Population Bomb"

Emily Klancher Merchant is Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of California, Davis. She has published work on historical demography and environmental history in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Social Science History, International Migration Review, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Merchant applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Building the Population Bomb, and reported the following:
Remarkably, the first full paragraph on page 99 is the hinge between the first half of the book and the second:
In the second half of the 1940s, [Frank] Notestein and [Kingsley] Davis [demographers at Princeton University’s Office of Population Research] each changed their views on population growth in the Global South, moving in different directions. Notestein began to suggest that high fertility was not a symptom of stalled modernization in the Global South but its cause, and that yet-to-be-developed contraceptive technologies could, if disseminated through appropriate family planning programs, reduce aggregate birth rates and thereby stimulate modernization. Davis began to see high fertility as a threat to the global environment, contending that preservation of the Earth’s ecosystems required an immediate cessation of population growth, which could not be accomplished without more direct intervention. Histories of population thought and policy in the twentieth century have overlooked the differences between Notestein and Davis after 1945. This may be because, over the next two decades, each position generated popular support and material resources for the other, synergistically producing a global consensus that the world’s population was growing too quickly and that family planning programs could solve this new ‘population problem.’ Notestein and Davis aligned themselves with separate nongovernmental organizations—Davis with the Population Reference Bureau and Notestein with the Population Council—but these organizations worked together to shape public opinion and government policy regarding population, both in the United States and in what was coming to be known as the Third World.
For this particular book, the page 99 test works surprisingly well. The book as a whole explores how human population growth became a subject of scientific expertise and an object of governmental and philanthropic intervention in the twentieth century. The paragraph quoted above describes the key turning point in that story.

The first half of the book documents the rise of demography (the social science of human population) in the United States between the world wars and explains that, prior to World War II, American demographers were more concerned with falling fertility rates in the United States than with rising growth rates abroad. During and immediately after World War II, they began to look beyond their own national borders. Data for most of the world were sparse and unreliable, but demographic theory indicated that mortality rates were beginning a sustained decline in the Global South, which would stimulate rapid population growth unless fertility rates came down as well. Just before this paragraph, I demonstrate that Frank Notestein and Kingsley Davis — the leading American demographers of the mid-twentieth century — saw population growth in the Global South as a symptom of poverty rather than a problem in its own right, and recommended development aid as the most effective means of slowing population growth.

Page 99 summarizes how the attitudes of American demographers toward population growth in the Global South changed after 1945. As it suggests, the idea that population growth was a problem in and of itself did not originate with demographers, nor was overpopulation a singular concept. The remainder of the book documents the rise of two separate concepts of overpopulation and the ways each captured support from a different group of scientists. I argue that these two separate factions of the population control movement worked together just long enough to create a global consensus in the 1950s and 1960s that the world’s population was growing too quickly and that governments, intergovernmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations needed to do something about it, before coming apart again in the 1970s.
Visit Emily Klancher Merchant's website.

--Marshal Zeringue