When I was a graduate student in Denver, Colorado I sported a small pin that said, “Stop at Two.” The reference was to the number of children a couple should have in order to limit the growth of the world’s population.
During the early ’60s it was assumed that the population of the world would stabilize at around 6 or 7 billion — it reached 7 billion in 2012. The actual population of the world when I was born in the early ’30s was slightly more than 2 billion. The projections today are that the world’s population will level off at about 11 billion and then begin to decline.
British cleric Thomas Malthus predicted in 1798 in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” that due to the exponential growth of population and the arithmetic growth of the food supply that it was imperative that population growth be checked. He proposed several checks that would result in a more sustainable level of growth and avoid what has been called the Malthusian Catastrophe – one of them was to have fewer children. The pin that said “Stop at two” apparently did not have much impact!
In 1964 the rate of world population growth reached its peak – 2.1 percent annually. Since that date the rate of growth has diminished and is currently 1.13 percent, which adds about 75 million people annually to the world’s population. For a population to reach “zero growth” or a stable population, the number of children per family needs to be 2.1, but this takes time to stabilize.
Population growth in the U.S. is less than 0.8 percent, which is very high for a wealthy modern society. The growth rate in industrially, developed, Western countries is low and for several countries it is negative – more deaths than births! This has led to the assertion that “economic development is the best contraceptive” or “the rich get richer and the poor get children.” There is a great deal of truth in this assertion as there is a strong inverse relationship between income and the number of children a family has (the higher the income the smaller the family size.)
In an article titled “How Europe is slowly dying despite an increasing world population” (the reference is to more deaths than births) it is clear that Europe is experiencing a demographic crisis. At the other end of the continental growth scale is Africa and especially Sub-Sahara Africa where the birth rate is nearly four times as great as in Europe.
In a list of countries provided primarily by United Nations agencies, there are 16 countries that are growing at more than 3 percent per year and 24 that have a negative growth rate. Among those with more than 3 percent growth all but four are in Sub Sahara Africa, the remaining being in the Middle East.
Of those with a negative population growth most are from previously Communist countries in Central or East Europe. Omitting very small countries or territories where the loss of population can be explained by out-migration are Greece, Portugal, Spain, Germany (all west European) and Japan – all very wealthy countries. In 2014 Germany’s growth was -1.4, Portugal -0.5, Spain -0.3 and Japan -0.2 – all below replacement level.
Japan is an especially interesting case of falling population. Their situation is exacerbated by its unwillingness to accept migrants from other parts of the world. The west European countries, on the other hand, are filling their need for additional workers by accepting migrants from the Middle East and parts of Africa.
In a Washington Post article titled “It’s official: Japan’s population is dramatically shrinking”, the projections are quite clear. From a population in 1920 of 55 million it reached 127 million in 2015, but due primarily to falling birth rates it is predicted to fall to 83 million by the year 2100.
These demographic transitions received a greater deal of attention in past years, but it seems that it is returning as a serious international issue. China became very aware of the trends and instituted the one-child policy which their government declared avoided 400 million births.
This was such a radical policy it evoked strong feelings from many and there are many questionable findings bantered about concerning its consequences. On the other hand it is reported that 75 perecent of the Chinese population supported the policy. In recent years the policy has been altered and there is greater government flexibility.
Just what the future holds in the next century or so with reference to this issue is not clear, but with the added international focus on the environment, global warming and the degradation and loss of arable land, strong and humane policies based on the best possible information is imperative. We hear of end times and the apocalypse and I would argue that we hold the keys to our future and there is very little room for miscalculations.