Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

LATE last month, readers of many newspapers and journals may have been pleasantly surprised to learn that the so-called “population bomb” that has frightened demographic experts for decades is running out of its explosive power.

By Paul Kennedy

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 3 Dec 2004, 11:42 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:55 AM

The United Nations Population Division, which provides figures on population trends each year, has recently been downsizing its estimates. With 6.3 billion folks on our planet right now, the UN agency predicts that the total world population will flatten out at around 9 billion by 2050.

That is not exactly good news for those who believe that we have already passed thresholds of the earth’s sustainability. Still, that overall figure is considerably less than those offered a decade or so ago. No wonder this news got attention. As the headline of a major article in The New York Times on Aug. 29 declared: “Demographic ‘Bomb’ May Only Go ‘Pop’!”

But before we break open the champagne bottles, let’s take a closer look at the figures. The world is a complex place, and there are vast discrepancies, demographically speaking, between its many regions and even within regions. Overall, the trend is downward, but it makes a difference whether you are living in Lahore, Pakistan, or Frankfurt, Germany, as we shall see.

The main reason for the decline is simply that birthrates have been falling both in developed countries (though not all) and developing countries (though, again, not all). There is no single reason that explains the demographic transition, but the experts point to two main causes:

The first is that more and more families are now living in cramped cities rather than in the countryside. Having five or six children is useful if you live on a shanty farmstead and can have them mind the chickens or gather firewood; if you have moved into a one-room apartment in a slum neighborhood in, say, Sao Paulo, having a large family is a definite encumbrance. So, ironically, as the shanty-cities explode in size on the edges of capital cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia — some already have 20 million inhabitants — the fertility rates generally tumble.

A second cluster of reasons concerns the changed role of women within both developing and developed societies. If nimble-fingered Thai women and older girls get a job in a new electronics assembly plant outside Bangkok, family standards of living sharply increase. These women are likely to marry later than females in rural communities, and they don’t want to have to manage a large family.

The rise in access of girls and women to secondary and even tertiary education, painfully slow though it may be in some countries, also reduces average family size because it, too, delays marriage and increases career options. Finally, as life expectancy for women rises in many lands, there is less pressure to have a family early.

Changes in women’s career opportunities and lifestyles in the developed world are equally fascinating, and also have important demographic consequences. Educated young women nowadays have all sorts of opportunities that were denied to their grandmothers. If you work for a law firm, or run your own travel agency or other business, you have little time for raising a family. Or you may just want to stay single and have a good time until Mr. Right comes along, if ever.

Plus, there is little incentive to marriage if the assumptions of the men in your society remain antediluvian.

Though impossible to prove conclusively — since all decisions on one’s family size are by nature personal ones — there seems to be a strong correlation between cultural assumptions about a woman’s place in society and the national fertility rate, which is probably why rates have fallen less rapidly in the United States, Britain and Scandinavia than in Italy, Japan and Spain.

Is this slowing of the pace of the world’s population growth to be welcomed? On the whole, yes — for our environments, for health-care reasons, for the cause of gender equality. Yet there are several aspects to this story that ought to give us cause for pause:

The first is the demographic implosion in Europe, Japan and Russia. Environmentalists might welcome a much shrunken Germany and Italy, but there may be unintended consequences. An aged society is a cautious and conservative one, not likely to make the changes necessary to keep up with the 21st century.

More crudely, where will you find your armies? If German parents have four children and one is conscripted, that is one thing; but what happens when parents have only a single son or daughter? And how on earth will things turn out in Russia, which is losing 750,000 souls each year and is forecast to see its total population tumble from 145 million at present to around 105 million in 2050 if current trends are not arrested? Clearly, fertility rates can fall too far.

Secondly, the broad-brush picture of declining rates of population growth across North Africa and much of Asia (China, South Korea, India) misses the “standouts,” those places where the demographic projections point to further heavy increases: Yemen, Central Asia, Central and West Africa. Pakistan, with the same current population as Russia with 145 million, is forecast to reach 345 million (!) by 2050 — if it hasn’t broken apart by then.

In almost all these cases, the countries in question are collapsed or close-to-collapsing states suffering from internal conflicts, lack of women’s rights, environmental exhaustion, and frightening levels of poverty, whether in the countryside or in the new shanty-towns. There is cause for worry here.

One final thought. Even if the fertility rates across the entire developing world miraculously stabilized today (the replacement fertility rate is 2.1 births per woman), we would still confront the challenges posed by the billion or more young people who are already born and are currently between the ages of 5 and 20. How, especially, can global society reach out and assist the disadvantaged girls and young women whose lives are far removed from their sisters in, say, Sweden and Canada? Or, equally daunting, how do we handle the hundreds of millions of angry, energetic young men, lacking education and jobs, and flooding the streets of Fallujah or the Gaza Strip?

There are no easy answers to such questions, and anyone who offers a single one is delusional. But it is worth reminding ourselves of these challenges lest we fall into the danger of glancing at newspaper headlines that tell us our global population nightmares are over but do not also note that some serious demographic problems remain to challenge us.

More news from