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A World Divided on Population

March 19, 1989|Donella H. Meadows | Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental and policy studies at Dartmouth College

PLAINFIELD, N.H. — For the first time in history the Census Bureau has projected a slow decline for the United States population. It will not happen until well into the next century, after the momentum of the baby boom carries us from our current 248 million people to 300 million. But if our fertility rate stays as low as it is now, even with steady immigration, a decline is inevitable.

We are not the only nation facing a population decline. In seven European nations, population growth rates are already zero or negative. Over the next 35 years West Germany's population is expected to decrease by 10%, from 60 million to 54 million. Sweden's population is expected to drop during that period by 6%, Switzerland's by 8%.

Yet total world population is expected to double over the next 40 years. It will grow by 85 million people this year, equivalent to the total population of Mexico, and the largest one-year increment ever.

"Every human society is faced with not one population problem but two," said the late Margaret Mead. "How to beget and rear enough children, and how not to beget and rear too many."

Our world has both problems in different places. We have two demographic worlds, one declining, one soaring. They are directly correlated with two economic worlds, one rich, one poor. As they say, the rich get richer and the poor get children. Of the 85 million new human souls this year, 16.3 million will be African, 9.6 million Latin American and a whopping 51.7 million Asian. More than 90% of the population growth will take place in what we call the Third World.

For a population to maintain its numbers, women must bear on average slightly more than two children each. In the United States the average number of children born to each woman is now 1.8. In Canada it is 1.7. Denmark is averaging only 1.4 children per woman, West Germany 1.3.

In Mexico average fertility is 4.0 children per woman. In Nigeria it is 6.6, in Kenya 8.0.

The Third World since 1960 has added more people than the total populations of North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and Oceania combined. About 665 million additional jobs will be needed in the developing countries over the next 20 years, just for children who are already born. That is greater than the total number now employed in all of North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and Oceania.

Since 1950 Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has grown from 43 million to 105 million people. In the next 35 years Nigeria is expected to add another 206 million people. Barring disaster, that means the Nigerian population will grow from 43 million to 311 million in just 70 years--one human lifetime. The implications for the land, the cities, the economy, the politics, the people of Nigeria and of West Africa--and of the world--are staggering.

The population numbers would be even more sobering if the world had not made tremendous progress over the past 20 years in economic development and family planning. Average fertility in the Third World has dropped from six children per woman to four. Use of contraceptives has increased from 9% among married women of reproductive age to 43%. The world population growth rate has dropped from 2.1% per year to 1.7%. That apparently small change makes a big difference--if the growth rate were still 2.1%, the number of people added this year would be not 85 million but 105 million.

Why is rapid population growth so devastatingly correlated with poverty?

One theory has it that people are poor because they go on reproducing and dividing their land, their food, their everything over too many children. Population growth makes poverty. Another theory reverses the causation: Poverty makes population growth. Poor people have many children because children are needed to work and to support their elders--and because children don't cost much if you don't have to buy them Reeboks and send them to college. Having children is one of the few powers the poor can exert over their own lives, and one of the few hopes of getting ahead.

There is a third theory. World fertility surveys indicate that anywhere from one third to one half of the babies born in the Third World would not be if their mothers had access to cheap, reliable family planning; had enough personal empowerment to stand up to their husbands and relatives, and could choose their own family size. Economic development brings lower birth rates because it brings to women the pill, literacy and self-determination.

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