Population Trends: Myth and Reality

Nicholas Eberstadt  has written extensively on population issues over the past few decades. His writings are an important antidote to the gloom and doom prophets such as Paul Erhlich. In this article (written for the Winter 2006 edition of the Wilson Quarterly), he argues that we are heading for a population crisis: but a crisis of too few people, not too many.

Entitled “Doom and Demography” the article examines current trends in demographics, and assesses our tendency to keep catering to the gloom merchants, even though they are persistently proven to be false prophets. In spite of all the scare mongering, trends are looking up: “Troubled as the world may be today, it is incontestably less poor, less unhealthy, and less hungry than it was 30 years ago. And this positive association between world population growth and material advance goes back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century.”

The numbers are well known. There were around 1.6 billion people in 1900, and over 6 billion in 2000. How did this happen? “It was not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits – rather, it was because they finally stopped dying like flies. Between 1900 and the end of the 20th century, the human life span likely doubled, from a planetary life expectancy at birth of perhaps 30 years to one of more than 60. By this measure, the overwhelming preponderance of the health progress in all of human history took place during the past 100 years.”

Much of that is due to the improved health conditions that took place during this period, resulting in healthier babies: “Among the most important proximate reasons for the global stride forward in life expectancy was the worldwide drop in infant mortality rates.”

This health explosion has led to economic well-being, argues Eberstadt: “All other things being equal, the health explosion could be expected to contribute to the acceleration of economic growth, the increase of incomes, and the spread of wealth. And, as it happens, the 20th century witnessed not only a population explosion and a health explosion, but also a ‘prosperity explosion’.”

He continues, “Suffice it to say that the 20th century’s population explosion did not forestall the most dramatic and widespread improvement in output, incomes, and living standards that humanity has ever experienced. Though severe poverty persists in much of the world, its incidence has been markedly curtailed over the past 100 years.”

Our problems now are that of population implosion, not explosion. Thus, “more than half of the world’s population lives in countries with ‘sub-replacement’ fertility – that is to say, places where current childbearing patterns, if continued indefinitely without migration, would lead ultimately to population decline. Some of today’s largest developed nations are expected to see population declines during the next 30 years, ranging from four percent in Germany to 12 percent in Japan (and even higher in Russia). But the great majority of current sub-replacement populations are in Third World states. Since desired family size is the single best predictor of a society’s fertility (at least in countries without involuntary population-control programs), this also means that a growing number of poor people the world over are choosing to have small families.”

Just how far can these negative growth trends continue? “We simply don’t know. Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore all have birth patterns today that, if sustained, would imply barely one child per woman per lifetime. In northern Italy and other parts of Europe, fertility levels consonant with less than one child per woman are now evident.”

While overall population growth will take place for a few more decades, our real worry- especially in the West –  is a dwindling population, not an exploding one.

Concludes Eberstadt, “As best we can tell, world population growth rates peaked in the late 1960s and are barely half as high now. The inexorable corollary to sub-replacement fertility is population graying and, absent immigration, population decline. Get ready to read lots more about them.”

Eberstadt does not here spell out the policy implications for such a birth dearth. Politicians must struggle with these issues. But the crisis in population needs to be taken seriously, for it will affect all of us.


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