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The Birth Dearth

Is the population explosion over?

[Taken from The Globe and Mail, Saturday, December 13, 1997, Page D9]
By Ben Wattenberg (The New York Times Magazine)
After decades of jeremiads about the imminent overpopulation of Earth comes mounting evidence that fertility is in free fall around the globe. The implications -- environmental, economic, geopolitical and personal -- are both unclear and clearly monumental.

For 30 years, one notion has shaped much of modern social thought: that the human species is reproducing itself uncontrollably and ominously.

In his best-selling book of 1968, "The Population Bomb," Paul Ehrlich warned that "the cancer of population growth must be cut out" or "we will breed ourselves into oblivion." He appeared on the Johnny Carson show 25 times to sell this idea. Lester Brown's "29th Day" compared people to geometrically multiplying waterlilies; on the 30th day, the world would end. A study by the Club of Rome (which it later renounced) described how rapacious humans would soon "run out of resources."

A 1992 documentary on Ted Turner's CNN described the impending global chaos "as the planet's population grows exponentially." Just recently, Mr. Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, were honoured at a gala for Zero Population Growth, which preaches the mantra of out-of-control population.

The issue of global warming, linked to soaring population growth deep into the next century, is front-page news.

Thirty years of persistent alarm. But now, mounting evidence, from rich nations and poor, strongly suggest that the population explosion is fizzling.

Earlier this month, for the first time, the United Nations Population Division convened expert demographers to consider aspects of low and tumbling fertility rates. That discussion is a step toward a near-Copernican shift in the way our species looks at itself.

Never before have birth rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long all around the world. The potential implications -- environmental, economic, geopolitical and personal -- are both unclear and clearly monumental, for good and for ill.

The free fall in fertility can best be seen in "World Population Prospects: The 1996 Revision," an eye-opening reference book published by the UN, from which most data used here are drawn.

From 1950 to 1955, the global "total fertility rate" (roughly speaking, the average number of children born per woman per lifetime) was five. That was explosively above the so-called replacement rate of 2.1 children, the level needed to keep a population from falling over time, without immigration.

This scary growth continued for about 15 years until, by 1975 to 1980, fertility had fallen to four children per woman. Fifteen years after that, the rate had fallen to just below three. Today, the total fertility rate is estimated at 2.8, and sinking.

Five children per woman. Then four. Then three. Then fewer than three. In estimating the population for the year 2050, demographers were caught with their projections up. Suddenly, worldwide, 650 million people were "missing." Many more will be missing soon. They will never be born.

But what about women in those teeming less-developed countries, those swarming places where the population bomb was allegedly ticking away most loudly? Even there, the fuse is sputtering. Their fertility rate in 1965 to 1970 was six children per woman. Now it's three, and falling more quickly than ever before in demographic history.

These are broad numbers. Consider specific nations. Italy, a Roman Catholic country, has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, the world's lowest rate -- and the lowest national rate ever recorded (not counting instances of famine, plagues, wars or economic catastrophes). India's fertility rate is lower than the U.S. rates in the 1950s. The rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 to 3.4 -- in just 10 years.

European birth rates of the 1980s, already at record-breaking lows, fell another 20 per cent in this decade, to about 1.4 children per woman.

The demographer Antonio Golini says such rates are "unsustainable." Samuel Preston, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Population Studies Center, calculated what will happen if European fertility changes and moves back toward a rate of 2.1. Even then, by the year 2060, when its population levels off, Europe will have lost 24 per cent of its people. Japanese and Russian rates are also at about 1.4 children.

In Muslim Tunisia, over three decades the rate has fallen from 7.2 to 2.9. Rates are higher, but way down, in Iran and Syria. Fertility rates are plunging in many (though not all) sub-Saharan African nations, including Kenya, once regarded as the premier demographic horror show.

Mexico has moved 80 per cent of the way toward replacement level.

In the United States, birth rates have been below replacement level for 25 straight years. There was an uptick in the late 1980s, but rates have fallen for five of the past six years. The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics reports solidly lower levels for early 1997, which will "continue the generally downward trend observed since early 1991" and will soon be reflected in U.S. Census Bureau projections.

This sounds strange. After all, human beings have gone through a half-century of the greatest population growth in history, and such growth has not quite ended.

What's happened is that two powerful trends -- the population explosion and the baby bust -- are at war. They can coexist, but only for a while. The recent evidence makes it clear which of these trends will prevail: the baby bust.

The population explosion is a long-distance runner. From 1750 to 1950, global population increased from one billion to 2.5 billion. From 1950 to 2000, it will increase to six billion. Remarkable. But the baby bust is also a marathon player.

In the United States in 1790, women bore an average of 7.7 children. Benjamin Franklin saw children "swarming across the countryside like locusts." But for two centuries, except for a bump during the baby boom, U.S. fertility has fallen steadily. Since 1972, the fertility rate has averaged 1.9. (Among the lowest rates are those experienced by Jewish women and black women with college degrees.)

An explosion and a bust? It sounds contradictory. But the number of potential mothers today was set two and three decades ago, when they were born, and when birth rates were much higher. and the rates in most less developed countries, though falling rapidly, are still above replacement. Life expectancy has been climbing.

These factors create "population momentum," which automatically yields more people -- for a while. Soon, however, reflecting the recent sharp reduction in fertility, the number of potential mothers will be much lower than previously anticipated.

Fertility will most likely drop below replacement level in many less-developed countries. It already has in 19 of them, including Cuba, China, Thailand and, probably soon, Brazil. The momentum then turns the other way. A bust, like an explosion, moves in geometric progression.

What about the unexpected -- for example, the unpredicted baby boom? U.S. birth rates soared from 1945 to 1965. Could this happen again? Yes. But the boom followed two unusual circumstances that had artificially depressed fertility: a harsh economic depression and a blistering world war. In part, the boomer kids made up for the kids not born earlier.

In the past, demographers drew neat charts with rates falling to the 2.1 replacement level and staying there. But young adults conceiving children, or not, aren't thinking about an invisible line called "replacement." They're thinking about a good life for themselves and the children they elect to have, in new and modern circumstances. Their recent individual actions have collectively sliced through the invisible line like a laser.

What is causing this birth dearth? Paul Demeny, the editor of Population and Development Review, points to the famous "demographic transition" theory, which he describes as the move "from high fertility and high mortality to low fertility and low mortality, with lots of complicated and contradictory things going on in the middle."

One of the main factors pushing this transition is urbanization -- reflecting the shift from wanting more children to help on the farm to wanting fewer mouths to feed in the city.

Among the many other factors are more education for women, legal abortion, higher incomes, unemployment yielding lower incomes, greater acceptance of homosexuality, new aspirations for women, better contraception (including "morning- after pills," endorsed by new U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines), later marriage, difficulty conceiving at older ages, more divorce and vastly lower infant-mortality rates. When parents know their children will survive, fertility rates plummet.

These trends toward modernization are continuing along some new ones. For example, the black American fertility rate is down to about the national average; black teen-age birth rates have declined by 20 per cent since 1991.

For the environment, the prospect of fewer people than expected should be good news. The spectre of a population explosion has been the Archimedean lever of environmental thinking: More people cause more pollution, more people use more resources and more affluent people do more of both.

But the good news may make it more difficult to sell bad news. For example, the demographic models used in global-warming calculations are based on projections keyed to a population of 11.5 billion people. Inevitably, these numbers will have to be revised sharply downward, and the threat will be reduced. But even if there are not as many billions as were expected, there will still be enough billions to make a big mess.

The case for exaggeration has been diminished; the case for environmental realism remains powerful. Consider geopolitics. In 1950, roughly 32 per cent of the world's population lived in "the West" -- the modern nations of Europe, North America and Japan. Today, 20 per cent do, and in 2050, it will be more like 12 per cent.

So what? Arguably, a large population is a necessary but not sufficient condition for global power and influence. India is not a global power of the first magnitude; Belgium will never be.

The West has been the driving force of modern civilization, inexorably pushing toward democratic values. Will that continue when its share of the population is only 11 per cent? Perhaps as less-developed countries modernize, they will assimilate Western views. Perhaps the 21st will still be another "American century." Perhaps not.

In the past 50 years in the United States, the population has doubled. That escalator of consumer demand won't continue. American population in the next half-century will probably grow much more slowly, perhaps by less than 30 per cent, with most of the increase in the next 20 years.

Europe may become an ever smaller picture-postcard continent of pretty old castles and old churches tended by old people with old ideas. Or it may become a much more pluralistic place with ever greater proportions of Africans and Muslims -- a prospect regarded with horror by a large majority of European voters.

Meanwhile, much of the population in developing nations is moving upscale, providing additional fuel for the global consumer economy.

Eventually, demography blends into psychology. There is likely to be a lot more personal sadness ahead. There will be missing children and missing grandchildren.

In an article in The Public Interest, titled "World Population Implosion," demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, of Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute, looks ahead and writes that "for many people, 'family' would be understood as a unit that does not include any biological contemporaries or peers" and that we may live in "a world in which the only biological relatives for most people -- perhaps most people -- will be their ancestors." Lots of people without brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins, children or grandchildren -- lonelier people.

A lonelier world? It's not lonely enough now? Some observers say friends and colleagues will become "like family." Do not count on that if you end up in a nursing home. Young DINKs (double income, no kids) may be cute. Old LINKs (low income, no kids) may be tragic. Clergymen say the saddest funerals are those in which the deceased had no offspring.

"Pronatalist" policies, such as the newly enacted $500-per-child tax credit in the United States are important, but the results are uncertain. An even now, we seem to be moving toward a more atomized life.

During the most affluent moment in history, many young people say they can't afford to have two children. People well into their 60s look vainly for grandchildren. Adoption, already excruciatingly difficult, may well become more so.

Will the rest of the United States look like Manhattan, which has the country's largest concentration of people living alone (48 per cent) except for a former leper colony in Hawaii?

First the population was growing too fast. Now in many places it has sunk too low too quickly, with more to come. Is there cause for concern? Certainly, but not for despair.

The demographers at the UN conference were not talking about a world where people can't control their destiny. Quite the opposite. We are in control, and are changing how we see ourselves and our world.

(Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, moderator of the PBS program "Think Tank" and author of "The Birth Dearth.")

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