How Brazilian Soap Operas Can Save the World

A population boom in the developing world threatens to devour the world's resources. The telenovela can help.


Earlier this month, a paper by 22 prominent biologists and ecologists warned that human population growth and economic expansion have brought the earth nearly to a tipping point. Published in the journal Nature by lead author Anthony Barnosky of the University of California, Berkeley, the paper foretold mass extinctions within a few human generations as the consumption of resources tear apart the ecological web. However, in a presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado Thursday, Dennis Dimick, the executive editor of National Geographic magazine, pointed to a fascinating theory of curbing population growth: The Brazilian soap opera. "Within two generations, Brazil went from seven kids per family to two," he told a crowd of festival attendees. The drop in fertility rate coincided with a rise in "soap operas about aspiring to a better life ... Women are feeling stronger and better about themselves." 

He pointed to a 2011 report on the phenomenon that appeared in National Geographic:
Scholars have tracked the apparent family-size-shrinking influence of novelas, Brazil's Portuguese-language iterations of the beloved evening soap operas, or telenovelas, that broadcast all over Latin America, each playing for months, like an endless series of bodice-ripper paperbacks. One study observes that the spread of televisions outpaced access to education, which has greatly improved in Brazil, but at a slower pace. By the 1980s and '90s all of Brazil was dominated by the Globo network, whose prime-time novelas were often a central topic of conversation; even now, in the era of multichannel satellite broadcasting, you can see café TVs turned to the biggest Globo novela of the season.
The secret sauce of influence is the telenovela's subtle promotion of extravagant materialism by means of a smaller family as opposed to the relative poverty of large families. It's also had the effect of promoting urban lifestyles:
While I was there it was Passione, featuring the racked-by-secrets industrialist Gouveia family, who were all very good-looking and loaded up with desirable possessions: motorcycles, chandeliers, racing bicycles, airplane tickets, French high-heeled shoes. The widow Gou​veia, resolute and admirable, had three kids. Well, four, but one was a secret because he was born out of wedlock and had been shipped off to Italy in infancy because ... uh, never mind. The point is that there were not many Gouveias, nor were there big families anywhere else in the unfathomably complicated plotline.
Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage
While Dimick cited several hurdles to overcoming the world's population problem, he singled out educating women about family planning and life expectations as a crucial obstacle. "Just investing in girls can have this huge ripple effect," he said. "2.1 kids per woman. If you can get that and hold it, then that's the magic number." In Brazil, which is hitting that "magic number," the phenomenon has been dubbed the "Machisma" movement, which is an interesting sort of private-sector-led birth control. While sordid tales of sex and betrayal don't seem like a net benefit to society, if the goal is stigmatizing a lifestyle of big families and constant childbirth, it seems to be working.