Population fears fade as world fertility falls

London Times 02/03/03: Sarah Baxter

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THE myth of overpopulation this century is to be buried in a United Nations report which will show that average fertility rates will decline to western levels by 2050.

Fears of a population time bomb have dominated environmentalists’ and demographers’ predictions for decades. Malthusian doom-mongers will be disconcerted by the UN findings, out later this month, which will reveal that women are likely to bear an average of only 1.85 children in all countries by the middle of the century.

Families in developing countries are beginning to limit the number of their offspring as much as those in the West.

“All the evidence suggests fertility is falling rapidly in developing countries with no sign it is going to stop at the magical number of two,” said Larry Heligman of the UN population division. “Countries are changing, society is changing.”

In Thailand in the 1970s, women were bearing five children. The most recent figures, for 2000, put the average at just under two. Jintana Aromdee, 33, comes from the rural northeast of Thailand, where big families were the norm until her generation. She has chosen to have only two children, a daughter of seven and a son aged two.

Infant mortality and childhood diseases previously made it imperative for families to raise sons to work in the fields, while daughters did manual work and household chores.

But as prosperity grew, clean water and basic healthcare meant children were more likely to survive. At the same time, family planning education gave parents new options. “Children are expensive,” said Aromdee, who now lives in Bangkok. “All my sisters and cousins, we have only small families.”

Women currently bear on average 2.7 children worldwide, but figures for the West are much lower. In Britain, the fertility rate is 1.61 per woman. In Italy, where the Pope appealed to his flock to produce more babies, the figure stands at 1.2. In Spain it is 1.13, and Russia 1.14.

The real surprise, however, has been the rush towards western birth rates in previously exploding populations. In Iran, where women bore on average 6.5 “soldiers for Islam” at the height of the Khomeini revolution in the early 1980s, family planning has brought the figure down to just 2.75. Similar downward trends can be seen in Indonesia, India, Tunisia and Brazil.

The UN releases an authoritative report on population trends every two years. In 2000 the average fertility figure for 2050 was estimated at 2.10 children — the replacement level — but recent shifts have been so remarkable that the forthcoming report for 2002 will reduce this projected world average to 1.85. The current western average stands at 1.6.

Alarmist predictions of a world population of more than 10 or 11 billion by mid-century will not be reached, said Heligman. The number is more likely to grow just beyond the 8 billion mark, where it will begin to level off and decline. By 2075, the earth’s population could have shrunk by half a billion.

Environmentalists who have predicted famine and scarcity will be confounded by these figures, said Ron Bailey, author of Ecoscam: the False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse.

“Their fears have been driven mostly by biologists, who compare human beings to antelope or deer. Animals turn more food into offspring, but countries with the most food don’t have more offspring.”

However, Carl Haub, of the Population Reference Bureau, warned that the UN is jumping the gun. “We’re not in the same situation as in the 1970s, but we can’t dismiss the problem glibly,” he said. “If fertility declines to only 2.5 by the mid-century, we’ll have a population of 27 billion in 100 years. The world may not be able to support that number of people.”

A more likely worry, said Jacqueline Kasun, author of Too Many People?, is that developing countries will find it difficult to support the elderly. Already Europe is worried by a population crunch, which will leave it with a high- spending welfare state, but few earners to support it.
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