Y6B: The Real Millennial Threat

Thursday, September 16, 1999

Published on 9/16/99

Think the population explosion is over? Think again.

On or about October 12, 1999, human population is expected to reach 6 billion. While it took until about 1800 to reach the first billion, the trip from 5 billion to 6 will have required a mere 12 years. Those born in 1930 will have seen humankind triple within their lifetime.

That makes all the more surprising the strange take of the national media, which over the past few years have been full of stories like “The Population Explosion Is Over” (The New York Time Magazine) or “Now the Crisis Is Global Under-population” (Orange County Register). These contrarian stories are based on two recent demographic trends: fertility in nearly all developed nations has fallen below the population-stabilizing “replacement” rate (2.1 children per woman, where mortality is low), and fertility is declining in most of the developing world. These trends led the United Nations to revise its population projections, reflecting a slower rate of growth than previously forecast.

“Slower,” however, does not mean slow. At the current global growth rate, 1.5 million people—roughly a new metropolitan Milwaukee—are added every week. Despite fertility declines, birthrates in much of the world remain high. For example, Guatemala’s fertility is 5.1 children per woman, Laos and Pakistan’s 5.6, and Iraq’s 5.7. And those are not even the high end of the spectrum: Afghanistan’s fertility rate is 6.1. The 43 nations of East, West, and Central Africa average 6.0, 6.2, and 6.3 children per woman, respectively. Countries that have reduced their birthrate to three or four children per woman are also growing very rapidly. This is partly because of “population momentum,” in which earlier high fertility yields a large proportion of young people. Even fertility rates fractionally above replacement can perpetuate rapid growth.

What if every nation’s fertility stayed at its present level? Human population would exceed 50 billion by the year 2100—if the earth could support that many.

The UN “medium” projections (perhaps) the most realistic) now assume that fertility in developing nations will fall to about 2.2 children per woman over roughly the next 30 years. Even so, world population would reach 8.9 billion by 2050. The 2.9 billion gain would itself equal the world’s entire human population in 1957.

Most future growth will occur in the most distressed regions of the earth, many of which are already experiencing severe deforestation, water shortages, and massive soil erosion. In the medium projections, sub-Saharan Africa’s present population of 630 million will more than double to 1.5 billion by 2050. By that time, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan will also more than double, as will Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Bangladesh will grow by two-thirds, and India will increase by more than half a billion persons to 1.5 billion.

These projections presume that many more people will soon have effective access to family-planning services. That may not happen. One reason is the abysmal failure of most rich nations to provide family-planning aid at levels like those envisioned at the population conference at Cairo in 1994. In the United States, such aid to developing nations has become hostage to the debate over abortion, even though access to contraceptives reduces abortion rates. Family-;planning aid from the United States has been slashed by at leas 30 percent since 1995, and is now a fraction of what it needs to be.

There is still time to attain world population stability through means that respect human freedom and dignity—ant that therefore are conducive to women’s equity and empowerment. “I have the audacity to believe,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, “that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirit.” It will take many steps to reach that dream. A gentle but early end to the population explosion is one of them.
William G. Hollingsworth The author wrote Ending the Explosion: Population Policies and Ethics for a Humane Future (Seven Locks Press, 1996) He teaches at the University of Tulsa College of Law
Article was originially printed in the September/October 1999 issue of Sierra . For information on reprinting this article, email mercedes-millberry@utulsa.edu.