Head Counts

August 24, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- What follows may sound like some facts you may have read over the years:

''Population is growing more slowly than previously expected in both the more developed and less developed regions.''

''Between 1990 and 1994, world population grew at 1.57 percent per annum, significantly below the 1.73 per annum at which population has been growing for the past decade and a half.''

''The population of Eastern Europe has declined by 1.1 million persons between 1990 and 1994.''

''Evidence increases that a broad-based fertility decline may have begun in sub-Saharan Africa.''

''New data indicate that a rapid fertility transition is occurring in Iran. . . . Past fertility declines are continuing in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.''

The strange thing about these quotes is that they do not come from anti-alarmists like me, but from a new United Nations press release, issued in conjunction with a new data volume, ''World Population Prospects: 1994 Revision.''

That data, in turn, is designed to serve the U.N. Population Conference scheduled for Cairo in September.

It is a very interesting document. It maintains that world population will grow to 9.8 billion people by the year 2050 in its ''medium fertility-variant projection.'' And a flat 10 billion in 2054, it says.

It gets to that figure in curious ways, including setting the ''medium'' criteria well too high.

Moreover, U.N. statisticians maintain that the global medium variant Total Fertility Rate (lifetime births per woman) in the growing number of modern countries will go up substantially from now to 2050. This in a world where fertility is falling rapidly everywhere.

Why? Ask the U.N. They believe that countries will somehow not allow their fertility rates to stay below the ''replacement rate'' of 2.1 children per woman.

But just about every modern country in the world now has such below-replacement rates. Italians and Germans are bearing only 1.3 children per woman. Japan is at 1.5, Korea at 1.7, which is the aggregate rate for the ''More Developed Regions.''

It is through calculations like this that the U.N. gets to its near-10 billion figure that we will hear trumpeted by the population alarmists.

That level, we will be told, will threaten the world as we know it, replete with famine, pollution, species decimation and war. Of course, there are tragic wars going on in places with both growing populations and shrinking populations -- Rwanda and Bosnia, for example.

A more realistic estimate is a top global population of about 7 billion to 8 billion people by 2050, which may then actually proceed to decline moderately. That will occur in a world growing wealthier, some of which wealth will be used to provide technology to reduce pollution.

This is not to say that in some areas of the world population growth is not a problem. It is, probably of a minor-to-moderate dimension. That was the conclusion of a distinguished panel of the National Academy of Science a few years ago.

Moreover, the advanced nations should help individuals everywhere to control their own reproduction, as they see fit, just as we Americans have such a right. I even think America should pay for some of it.

But what we will hear from now to Cairo is souped-up harum-scarum driven mostly by environmentalists and U.N. officials. Why? They are seeking -- what else? -- a higher spot on the global agenda and more funds for their programs.

I had the honor of serving on the U.S. delegation to the last U.N. Population Conference, in Mexico City in 1984. Believe me, it ends up more as public relations event than policy conference.

The alarmist, gloom-and-doom argument has been going on for decades, even though the predicted catastrophes have not happened, are always pushed out further into the future, and keep changing (from ''ice age'' to "global warming").

In fact, by most serious measures, the world has done pretty well while the population ''exploded.''

I believe we shall survive, and prosper. If we don't, it won't be because of too many human beings.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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