Population

Population

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Population

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Dear Kenneth Hill,

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       My recent article in the New York Times Magazine was titled "The Population Explosion is Over." The logical suspects piped up, and according to the Times' "Letters" section, the piece "caused a mini-boom of angry readers to suggest that he [me] re-check his [my] numbers--and their implications for future generations."
       I have. Let's talk about numbers first. The data I use are correct and come directly from World Population Prospects: 1996 Revision, published by the United Nations. My thesis comes from those data: Never before have birth rates and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long all around the world. There is every reason to believe that these downward trends are still in motion, notwithstanding the Chicken Little rhetoric still coming from population and environmental activists.
       Let's look at aspects of the global Total Fertility Rate, which, roughly speaking, represents the average number of children born per woman, per lifetime. A rate of 2.1 children per woman, the "replacement rate," is needed to keep a modern population stable over time. Why? Parents, of which each child has two, eventually die. If they are not "replaced" by two children, population ultimately declines.

  • In the More Developed Regions (where we live, and including Europe and Japan) the TFR has fallen from 2.8 children per woman in the 1950-55 time frame to 1.6 today. Red flag! Alarm bells! That 1.6 is almost 25 percent below the replacement rate.
  • In the Less Developed Countries, those allegedly teeming, swarming places where the putative population bomb is allegedly ticking, the fertility rate was six children per woman as recently as 1965-70. That was truly explosive. But now it's three, and falling more quickly than anything previously seen in demographic history.
  • Italy, a Catholic country, has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, the lowest rate in the world--and the lowest rate in the history of the world (absent famines, plagues, wars, or economic catastrophes). The Japanese rate has plunged to 1.4 children per woman, which, if maintained, would cut the Japanese population in half by the middle of the next century. In Russia, it's also 1.4. The all-Europe rate is 1.5 children per woman.
  • American rates are much higher than Europe's but have nonetheless been below replacement for 25 straight years. There was an up-tick in the late 1980s, but rates have fallen for five of the last six years, and the National Center for Health Statistics reports lower rates for the early part of 1997. (Ken, we can consider the matter of immigration later in this thread.)
  • In Muslim Tunisia over the last three decades the rate has fallen from 7.2 to 2.9. Rates are higher than that, but way down, in Egypt, Iran, and Syria. The rate in India is lower than the American rate in the 1950s. The rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 to 3.4--in just 10 years! Mexico has moved 80 percent of the way to replacement level. Fertility rates in many (not all) sub-Saharan African nations have dropped solidly, including Kenya's--a country once regarded as a demographic horror show. For decades the sub-Saharan Africa rates seemed stuck at a stratospheric 6.5. But since the early 1980s, rates have come down, to 5.8--obviously still very high, but about a fifth of the way toward replacement-level fertility.

       This sounds strange to the modern ear. We have gone through a half-century of the greatest population growth in history, and such growth has not yet ended. We're due for at least an additional 2 billion people by 2050, even in the United Nations' Low Variant projection. That's a lot. But then global population will likely start shrinking. Repeat: shrinking. What's happening is that two powerful trends--the population explosion and the baby bust--are now at war. They can coexist (because of "demographic momentum"), but only for a while. Mounting evidence makes it clear which trend will prevail: the baby bust. (Recently, for the first time, the United Nations convened a working group of demographers to give guidance regarding how deeply to cut their Middle Variant projections in 1998.)
       We can talk about a variety of plausible scenarios and their implications. I think the new data make it likely that total future global population will fall far short of current MV estimates and quite possibly make a happy mockery of some gloom-and-doom prophecies, notably on the global-warming front. I think the effects of this demographic sea change may make it economically difficult for elderly pensioners; harm some businesses (try building new houses in a depopulating country); possibly change the geopolitical balance of influence away from America and the West; and make for a lonelier human species with missing children, missing grandchildren, children missed, and grandchildren missed. On the other hand, of course, global population growth must end sooner or later.
       Stipulated: Talk about implications is conjectural. What is not conjecture is that we are entering a new demographic era, and that the change will affect most every aspect of our lives. We ought to pay close attention to what's going on. We ought to think about what, if anything, we should do about what's going on. Simply repeating the old, alarmist, explosionist bromides is both wrong-headed and harmful.
       Look forward to our chat.

Best,
Ben