A Dramatic Drop in Human Fertility

March 18, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- We're going to hear a lot, soon, about how there are ''too many people'' and ''people spoil the environment.'' That will be a central thesis of the massive U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in September.

Is it so? A recent article in Scientific American (''The Fertility Decline in Developing Countries'') sheds light on one major aspect of the argument. Birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa -- the last main redoubt of super-high fertility -- are plunging.

Kenya offers a dramatic example. It has been the fertility Frankenstein of the Less Developed Countries. In 1977-78 it had a Total Fertility Rate of 8.3 children per woman.

But by 1989 the rate was 6.7, and in 1993 dropped to 5.4, of which the Population Reference Bureau said: ''The 20 percent decline in just over four years is one of the swiftest ever recorded.'' (It takes 2.4 children to reach population stability in a developing society, and 2.1 in a modern one.)

The new African data mean we will likely get less global population than imagined. It means that whatever the environmental threat posed by population growth (if any) will be less than predicted. It means that the explosionists will have a more difficult time promulgating demographic doom (a proclamation-in-waiting deferred from the U.N.'s raucous 1992 environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro).

Paradoxically, it may mean that the U.N. will have a better case for more global family-planning money. The Clinton administration is anxious to pitch in.

Kenya is not alone, according to demographic experts Bryant Robey, Leo Morris and Shea O. Rutstein, authors of the December 1993 Scientific American article. Zimbabwe, Botswana and others have also seen dramatic drops.

More important, the authors report healthy leading indicators of change elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, even where little economic growth is apparent: rise in age of first marriage, more education for women, more use of contraception, greater urbanization.

Says Mr. Rutstein about falling African fertility: ''What was a controversial theory a few years ago, is now clearly established.''

This is happening against a backdrop of stunning decreases in fertility over three decades in Latin America (a 50 percent drop in Mexico and Brazil), Northern Africa (Egypt down 42 percent), and Asia (64 percent in Thailand and 43 percent in Indonesia, with new data due soon showing lower Indian fertility rates). Add to that what's happening in former Iron Curtain nations. The Russian rate has collapsed from 2.1 to 1.4. Incredibly, the total fertility rate in the former East Germany has fallen below 0.8 children per woman.

Moreover, the ongoing birth dearth continues in many parts of the developed world. Spain is now at 1.3 and Japan at 1.5 and sinking. (''Never before have [fertility rates] reached levels as low as those recently observed in some countries,'' according to the U.N. Population Newsletter.)

With all this one would think that forthcoming U.N. population projections would use lower fertility assumptions, at least slightly. The current U.N. ''medium'' projection shows global population growing from 5.4 billion today to 11.1 billion in 2100.

That is based on an assumption that population will decline to a 2.1 TFR, well above the current levels of modern nations. The U.N.'s ''medium-low'' scenario yields a 6.4 billion population in 2100 (and sinking) and even that projection is keyed to a 2.0. rate, higher than modern norms.

New U.N. projections will be issued prior to Cairo. But the earlier assumptions will not change. ''The recent data are too new to go with,'' says Larry Heligman, chief of the U.N.'s Estimates and Projections Section.

That decision tends to certify population levels that are unlikely (10 billion people by 2050 in the current ''medium'' series vs. 7.8 billion in the more likely ''medium-low series''). It bolsters the U.N.'s case that more money is needed for family-planning services (which is one part of the modernization process pushing down fertility, and come what may, we will have several billion more people). It bolsters the case that population growth creates food shortages (wrong) and reduces natural resources (wrong).

Most important, it lends extra weight to the idea that population growth leads to environmental despoliation (arguable). That view, a potent lever for power-hungry global regulators, has major economic and political consequences. It will be the subject of a later column.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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