Population Explosion - Do Unto Others

O DDS are you’ll never even meet any of the estimated 247 human

beings who were born in the last minute it took to type this great news.

In a population of 6 BILLION, (May 2000) 247 is a demographic hiccup.

Now, consider, in the minute that followed there were another 247, and then another minute meant 247 more babies, then ----- you get the idea. By May, 2001 at this time, those minutes passing will have produced nearly 130.000,000 (that’s One hundred thirty million) newcomers to the great human mosh pit! Now, that kind of crowd is awful hard to miss.

For those folks inclined to fret that our earth is heading for the environmental abyss, the population problem had always been one of the biggest causes for worry----and with very good reason. The last time humanity had occasion to celebrate a new century (like we’re doing now) there were 1.6 billion people here to party with---- or a quarter as many as we have at this celebration. In 1900, for example, the average life expectancy was, in some places, as low as 23 years; now it’s 65. mean-ing the extra billions are staying around longer and demanding more from the planet.

The 130 million (or more) births registered annually----even after subtracting the 52 million deaths----is equivalent of adding nearly one new Germany, each year, to the world’s population.

But, things may not be as bleak as they see. Lately, demographers have come to the conclusion that the population locomotive—while still cannon-balling ahead—may be chugging toward a stop. In country after country; birthrates are easing, and the population growth rate is falling. To be sure, this kind of success is very uneven. For every region in the world that has brought its population under control, there’s another where things are still exploding. For every country that has figured out the art of sustainable agriculture, there are others that have worked their land to exhaustion. The population bomb may yet go off before governments can snuff the fuse, but for now, the news is better than it’s been in a long, long time. “We could have an end in sight to population growth in the next century:’ says Carl Haub, a famous demographer with the nonprofit Population Research Bureau. “That’s a major change.”

Cheering as the population reports are becoming today, for much of the past 50 years, demographers were bearers of mostly bad tidings. In census after census, they reported that humanity was not just settling the planet but smothering it. It was not until the century was nearly two-thirds over that scientists and governments finally bestirred themselves to do something about it. The first great brake on population growth came in the early 1960s, with the development of the birth- control pill, a magic pharmacological bullet that made contraception easier—not to mention tidier—than it had ever been before. In 1969 the United Nations got in on the population game, creating the U.N. Population Fund, a global organization dedicated to bringing family-planning techniques to women who would not otherwise have them. In the decades that followed, the U.N. increased its commitment, sponsoring numerous global symposiums to address the population problem further. The most significant was the 1994 Cairo conference, where attendees pledged $5.7 billion to reduce birthrates in the developing world and acknowledged that giving women more education and reproductive freedom was the key to accomplishing that goal. Even a global calamity like AIDS has yielded unexpected dividends, with international campaigns to promote condom use and abstinence helping to prevent not only disease transmission but also conception.

Such efforts have paid off in a big way. According to U.N. head counters, the average number of children produced per couple in the developing world—a figure that reached a whopping 4.9 earlier this century—has now plunged to just 2.7. In many countries, including Spain, Slovenia, Greece, and Germany, the fertility rate is well below 1.5, meaning parents are producing 24% fewer offspring than would be needed to just replace themselves–in effect throwing the census in reverse. A little more than 30 years ago, global population growth was 2.04% a year, the very highest in human history. Today, in the year 2000, it’s just 1.3%. “It was a remarkable century,” says Joseph Chamie of the U.N. Population Division. “We quadrupled the population in just 100 years, but that’s never going to happen again.”

Sunny as the global averages look, however, things get a lot darker when you break them down by region. Even the best family-planning programs do no good if there is neither the money nor governmental expertise to carry them out, and in less- developed countries—which currently account for a staggering 96% of the annual population increase—both are sorely lacking. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, the fertility rate exceeds seven babies per woman. In India, nearly 16 million births are registered each year, for a growth rate of 1.8%. While Europe’s population was three times that of Africa in 1950, today the two continents have about the same count. At the current rate, Africa will triple Europe in another 50 years.

Many of the countries in the deepest demographic trouble have imposed aggressive family-planning programs, only to see them go badly—even criminally—awry. In the 1970s, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi tried to reduce the national birthrate by offering men cash and transistor radios if they would undergo vasectomies. In the communities in which those sweeteners failed, the government resorted to coercion, putting millions of males—from teenage boys to elderly men—on the operating table. Amid the popular backlash that followed, Gandhi’s government was turned out of office, and the public flatly rejected family planning.

China’s similarly notorious one-child policy has done a better job of slowing population growth but not without problems. In a country that values boys over girls, one-child rules have led to abandonments, abortions and infanticides, as couples limited to a single offspring keep spinning the reproductive wheel until it comes up male. “We’ve learned that there is no such thing as ‘population control:” says Alex Marshall of the U.N. Population Fund. “You don’t control it. You allow people to make up their own mind.”

That strategy has worked in many countries that once had runaway population growth. Mexico, one of Latin America’s population success stories, has made government-subsidized contraception widely available and at the same time launched public-information campaigns to teach people the value of using it. A recent series of ads aimed at men makes the powerful point that there is more machismo in clothing and feeding off-spring than in conceiving and leaving them. In the past 30 years, the average number of children born to a Mexican woman has plunged from seven to just 2.5. Many developing nations are starting to recognize the importance of educating women and letting them—not just their husbands ----have a say in how many children they will have.

But bringing down birthrates loses some of its effectiveness as mortality rates also fall. At the same time Mexico reduced its children-per-mother figure, for example, it also boosted its average life expectancy from 50 years to 72—a wonderful accomplishment, but one that offsets part of the gain achieved by reducing the number of births.

When people live longer, populations grow not just bigger but also older and frailer. In the U.S. there has been no end of hand wringing over what will happen when baby boomers—who owe their very existence to the procreative free-for-all that followed World War Il—retire, leaving themselves to be supported by the much smaller generation they produced. In Germany there are currently four workers for every retired person. Before long that ratio will be down to just 2 to 1.

For now, the only answer may be to tough things out for a while, waiting for the billions of people born during the great population booms to live out their long life, while at the same time continuing to reduce birthrates further so that things don’t get thrown so far out of kilter again. But there’s no telling if the earth—already worked to exhaustion feeding the 6 billion people currently here—can take much more. People in the richest countries consume a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and as poorer nations push to catch up, pressure on the planet will keep growing. “An ecologist looks at the population size relative to the carrying capacity of Earth,” says Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute. “Looking at it that way, things are much worse than we expected them to be 20 just years ago. How much better they’ll get will be decided in the next half- century (see chart below). According to three scenarios published by the U.N., the global population in the year 2050 will be somewhere between 7.3 billion and 10.7 billion, depending on how fast the fertility rate falls. The difference between the high

scenario and the low scenario? Just one child per couple. With the species poised on that kind of demographic knife edge, it pays for those couples to make their choices carefully.

Fertility Graph - Do Unto Others

Reported by William DoweIl /New York,

Meenakshi Ganguly/ New Delhi and

Dick Thompson/Washington


TIME Magazine

April-May 2000, (pgs. 44-47

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