Population and Development Issues


Sharon Cohen and Christopher Garran

One of the most popular units in our course on modern world history focuses on demography. In this unit, students are encouraged to think critically about ideas and try to discover answers for themselves. Modern world history is a course for juniors and seniors, and the unit on demography occurs at the end of the yearóa point when we think students are most ready to accept that some questions may not have clear answers, but rather, only rational possibilities. We hope students leave the classroom with a basis for understanding the recurring public debate over ìthe problem of overpopulation.î


The Lesson Plan

Goal: Students will be able to explain why population growth is uneven across the planet, and to understand the public debate over ìthe problem of overpopulationî within the contexts of American history and recent U. S. economic policies.

Objectives: Upon completion of this unit, students will be able to:

n Identify the changes in world population growth before and after the Industrial Revolution

n Apply the Demographic Transition Theory to current data on world population available from the Population Reference Bureau1

n Define ìoverpopulationî and explain its implications for worldwide economic development

Procedure: This unit can be expanded or condensed depending on previous student experience with the history of demography and with the use of tables like the ìPopulation Data Sheetsî from the Population Reference Bureau.


Day One

1. Students make general observations about historical population trends using the data shown in Figure 1.

2. To help students consider factors that affect population growth or decline, the teacher shows them the chart in Figure 2 and asks: What happens to population growth at each stage? What might account for the changes in birth and death rates in these different stages?

3. The teacher leads a discussion on the following points:

n Why did the worldwide human population stay stable until the late eighteenth century? Death rates and birth rates were about equal. There were as many people dying as there were being born.

n Why did the worldwide human population begin to increase dramatically after 1760? The scientific, agricultural, and industrial revolutions made more and better food available to more people, so there were fewer people dying of starvation and malnutrition. Women who get better nutrition conceive more easily. They kept having as many babies, more babies survived, and people started living longer.

n What were some reactions to the growing population? The teacher introduces students to the ideas of the first demographer, the Englishman Thomas Malthus. His study of population growth late in the eighteenth century led him to conclude that the world population was growing faster than the food supply, thus threatening global starvation. He also observed that population grows exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8) rather than arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4).

4. The teacher explains the ìlaw of 70î for calculating population doubling time. Demographers since Malthus have watched the population continue to grow as better and more food is produced. They use the ìLaw of 70î to calculate how long it will take for a country or region to double its population:


The ìlaw of 70î:

70/growth rate = population doubling time


The formula for determining a countryís population is as follows:


Births ñ Deaths ñ Emigration + Immigration=
Total Population in a Country


Homework: Students record where their clothing, food, and other daily items of importance were made.


Day Two

1. Students discuss the place of the United States in the world market based on their homework data. Students predict the value or detriment of a growing world population on the economic growth of the United States and other industrialized countries. Discussion should include:

n the stability of world markets (places to buy and sell American products)

n migration (push/pull factors that make people leave economically stagnant areas to go to economically vibrant areas)

n pollutionís impact on industries, e.g., fishing

n the link of depletion of forests to ozone depletion

2. Working in pairs, students examine data from a current Population Data Sheet (available from the Population Reference Bureau, Inc.) and record the data on the worksheet shown in Figure 3.

3. The teacher leads a class discussion on which regions of the world have the highest birth rates, why some countries have reached zero population growth, and what implications there are for heavily populated, resource-stretched regions.

Homework: Students use data to write an editorial on whether Malthus was right and his ideas about population growth are applicable in todayís world. The editorial should address some or all of the following questions: Will the world population grow beyond the availability of food and other resources? Are there limited resources? How else might a growing world population have a negative impact on the world (e.g., pollution, war as an effect of competition for limited resources)?


Day Three

1. Class Reading. There are two suggested short readings that may help students broaden their understanding of the extent to which population growth is a problem or a stage on the path toward economic development. If pressed for time, the teacher should select one reading and direct the culminating discussion toward that one focus.

a. Students read pp. 162 - 171 from The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell (New York: Lyons and Burford, 1990). It presents reasons why people in agriculturally-based economies need to have many children. Students discuss economically-rational choices people in less developed countries make about family planning. Students consider the thesis that in developing countries children are seen as assets because they can contribute income to the family, but that in industrialized countries children may be seen as costs, because of the large amount of money invested in their upbringing.

b. Students read Virginia Abernethyís article, ìOptimism and Overpopulation,î in Atlantic Monthly, December 1994. It examines how colonialism and development aid provided since World War II have enabled populations in industrializing countries to grow. Students compare developing countries today to England before the Industrial Revolution (the British model of industrialization).

2. Culminating Discussion. This discussion encourages students to use their new understanding of the causes and effects of population growth to predict whether a growing population will help or hinder the efforts of developing countries to industrialize. Students should realize that there is a range of interpretations and analyses of this topic.


For further research, students could trace family planning efforts by the World Bank, the U. S. government, or a non-governmental organization (NGO) over the last thirty years to identify the differences in attitudes and approaches to the issue of ever-increasing world population growth. v



1. Information on publications that can be used in class can be obtained from Population Reference Bureau, 1875 Connecticut Ave., #520, Washington, DC 20009. Telephone: (202) 483-1100.


Sharon Cohen and Christopher Garran are social studies teachers at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland.