New Internationalist

Consuming and Conceiving

Issue 088

First the good news. The rate of world population growth,already below two per cent a year, is going to keep going down in the 1980s. That’s how the 1980 ‘State of World Population’ Report, produced by the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, starts its annual survey. Then the not-so-good news. The world’s population is still going to increase from its present 4,400 million to over 6,000 million by the end of the century.

Again the Report is cheerful, with news that big improvements in the health of children in the Third World in the last two decades have substantially reduced the death rate. But the obvious consequence - tens of millions of youngsters surviving to childbearing age - gives pause for thought. It’s easier, the Report points out, to reduce deaths than births. Self-evident, perhaps: no-one wants their offspring to die and most will be happy to cooperate with immunization programmes, use newly drilled clean water wells, and take advice on infant feeding. Where infant health leads, family planning decisions lag. In countries where one in three children used to die before reaching adulthood, parents still want large families to ensure there is someone to look after them in old age. When those nagging feelings of insecurity fade, when parents can be confident that all their sons and daughters will survive, then present birth rates will drop still more.

The U.N. report also throws light on the industrialised West, pointing out that the population ‘problem’ is every bit as much the responsibility of the affluent. ‘it is worth remembering,’ probes the Report, ‘that population growth is a problem only when resources cannot meet the needs of the people … and that is as much a problem of the regulation of the use of resources as it is of regulating births. It’s a powerful point when every Westerner consumes 20 to 40 times as much of the world’s finite resources as someone from the developing world. When it comes to the population issue, consuming is as relevant as conceiving.

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