The population boom is busting

November 20, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Finally, after all these years of demographic doom-saying, population proliferationism and exponential extrapolated explosionism, comes a new report from the United Nations and a headline in the New York Times: ''World Is Less Crowded Than Expected.''

Really? Than expected by whom? Than expected when?

Apparently, not expected when it should have been expected by Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations Population Division, who is quoted in the Times story: ''We had some glimmer that this was occurring several years ago, but we weren't sure if it was simply a blip. Now we actually have concrete results showing this is a global trend.''

Several years ago? A glimmer? A blip? Actually, global fertility and birth rates have been declining -- rapidly -- beyond expectations -- for more than a quarter of a century.

The U.N.'s own population data show that worldwide fertility rates were at a stratospheric 5.0-children-per-woman level in the 1950 to 1955 period. Fifteen years later, from 1965 to 1970, the level was still 4.9 children per woman.

The cry of the Population Explosionists reached full throat. After all, it only takes a little over two children per woman to merely ''replace'' a society at a long-term stable rate. Five children per woman would end up, it was said, yielding a global population of 10 billion, no, 12 billion, no, 15 billion people -- even 20 billion people! (Such were the estimates, from establishment organizations and scare groups alike.)

Then fertility began falling like a heavy stone. It has continued to fall right through the 1990-1995 period, as reported in the U.N.'s new ''World Population Prospects: the 1996 Revisions.'' The current global total fertility rate is 2.96 children per woman.

Consider what that means: In just the last 25 years, the world has gone from about five kids per woman to about three per woman, which is roughly two-thirds of the way to demographic stability. (Fertility in Bangladesh dropped from 6.2 children in 1980 to 1985, to 3.4 in 1990 to 1995.)

Why stop at 2.1?

There is no particular reason to think that global fertility will stop at the 2.1-children-per-woman ''replacement rate.'' It is not magic number. New data from Europe are somewhere between astounding and terrifying. From 1990 to 1995, from an already low below-replacement base, 37 of the 39 European nations have seen further declines in fertility rates. (The demographic behemoths of Luxembourg and Finland had minuscule increases, but remain in the 1.7 to 1.8 range, about 15 percent to 20 percent below the rate needed to maintain stability.)

Italy, Germany and Spain have rates in the 1.2 to 1.3 range. At that level, according to one estimate, Italy's population would decrease from about 57 million today to about 37 million by the year 2030, and continue to fall rapidly.

Moreover, just about every developed country in the world has a below-replacement fertility rate (including the U.S., with an estimated rate of 1.97 for 1996, down for the sixth straight year). There are 27 countries officially designated as ''developing'' that have below-replacement rates.

Nothing like this has happened before in history.

But neither the United Nations nor the most important population and environmental organizations choose to stress this condition. The United Nations chooses a 2.1 global rate in the year 2050 and labels it ''medium-variant,'' which is commonly interpreted to mean ''most likely.'' That yields a population stabilizing at near 11 billion people, roughly doubling from the 5.7 billion people today.

Forget it. It's not going to happen. The United Nations' ''low-variant'' assumption is closer to the mark and ends up with a population which tops out at about 7.7 billion in 2040, and then sinks.

Why such ongoing, systemic distortion? Lots of answers are bruited about. Popucrats need their budgets for legitimate family-planning services; apocalypse-mongering is seen as a way to get such budgets. Politics plays a role; proud nations do not want to be seen as shrinking. Environmentalists live off of crises; diminishing long-term population takes the air out of the panic balloon.

It's reached a point where most everyone believes in a population crisis. But you needn't.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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