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Too many people?

When she was young, my great aunt – a tiny sprightly woman who painted vast canvasses –  had wanted to become a nun. Then she met a Flemish poet and they fell in love. She agreed to marry him on one condition: that they have 12 children. True to the old baking tradition, they made 13.

Her niece, my mother, also briefly flirted with the holy life. Her tryst with celibacy was equally convincing. As the eighth of her brood, I approach the subject of global population with a touch of trepidation. By anyone’s standard of reasonable family size I really shouldn’t be here.

But then the subject of population – and in particular population growth – is one that seems capable of provoking all kinds of emotions.

Today there are around 6.8 billion people occupying this planet. That’s up from 5.9 a decade ago. By 2050 it is projected to top nine billion (see box, below).

Talk of ‘overpopulation’ has been with us for some time. Already, in 1798, when there were a mere 978 million people in the world, mathematician Thomas Malthus was warning of an impending catastrophe as human numbers exceeded the capacity to grow food.

Often the cause of concern is the speed at which others – be they people of other races or social classes or religions or political allegiances – are reproducing themselves, threatening, presumably, to disturb the wellbeing of whatever dominant group the commentator belongs to. 

This was epitomized recently by Michael Laws, Mayor of Wanganui District in New Zealand, who proposed that in order to tackle the problems of child abuse and murder, members of the ‘appalling underclass’ should be paid not to have children. ‘If we gave $10,000 to certain people and said “we’ll voluntarily sterilize you” then all of society would be better off,’ he told the Dominion Post newspaper.

Most contemporary worries about population are less offensively expressed. For many, the issue is primarily an environmental one. The logic is simple. The more people there are, the more greenhouse gas is emitted, the more damage is done. Any attempts to reduce carbon emissions will be negated by runaway population growth.

This was echoed recently by the Financial Times when it called for an international debate on population. A leader column argued: ‘World population growth is making it harder to achieve cuts in carbon emissions’ and went on to quote a disputed London School of Economics study (since found to be the work of a student funded by the Optimum Population Trust) maintaining that spending on family planning is ‘five times more cost effective at cutting carbon dioxide emissions than the conventional low carbon technologies’.

The UK-based Optimum Population Trust goes further, suggesting that to achieve sustainability we should be aiming to reduce global population by at least 1.7 billion people.

How reasonable is all this? Is population really the big taboo that liberals won’t touch? Or is today’s panic over population as irrational as earlier panics turned out to be? I’m about to try and discover. First stop is Marrakech, where 2,000 of the world’s leading demographers are gathering for the 16th International Population Conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP).

The population panic
Are 2,000 demographers in denial?

Two small boys are picking olives off a tree in the central reservation on the road leading to the Palais de Congrès in downtown Marrakech, where the week-long international conference on population is about to begin. The boys place the olives in a bag before moving on to the next tree.

That’s it! That’s what’s missing. Small boys!

I had been trying to work out why Morocco felt so different on this occasion compared with my two previous visits to the country. The first, in 1975, left me with a memory of being constantly besieged by gangs of small – and not so small – boys. They were offering their services as guides or porters or protectors from other boys offering their services as guides, porters or protectors...

On my second visit, in 1987, I was doing a feature for the UN Population Fund which involved following the story of a woman who had just gone into labour. Back in her village a couple of days after the birth, the young mother still looked exhausted. She said she did not want any more children. Five was enough. ‘She seems quite determined,’ I commented to the midwife who had arranged the visit. She shrugged. ‘Maybe. But her husband wants to have more. It’s a question of status for him.’

Since then, Morocco has experienced a sharp decline in its fertility rate. Instead of women having seven or eight children, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, they now have two or three.

Fertility dips

I flick though the two fat booklets provided for the population conference. There are hundreds of sessions on many different aspects of the subject. But there seems to be little relating to a global population explosion. Are these researchers living in a bubble? Don’t they hear the raised voices of concern outside their discipline?

As I continue looking, I’m relieved to see that from midweek onwards there are some sessions on the link between population and environment.

But for the moment, the issue of ‘total fertility rate’ – that is how many children women have during the span of their reproductive lives – seems to be the focus of attention.

*Keypoint* - Fertility rates around the world are falling. If this trend continues, it will help stabilize global population size.

Since the 1970s fertility has declined considerably, not just in countries like Morocco but worldwide. This makes for a global average of around 2.5 children per woman.

In 76 countries the fertility rate has actually sunk below replacement level – which is set at around 2.1. This means that the current population is not reproducing itself. It’s most noticeable in Europe but there are examples from every continent, including Africa.1

In developing countries the average fertility rate fell by half, from six to three children, between 1950 and 2000. But in many countries of sub-Saharan and western Africa, women are still having five or more children on average.

In terms of the big global numbers, what happens in India and China, the two most populous countries, has the greatest impact. India today has a fertility rate of 2.7 (down from 3.5 in 1997) and is expected to hit replacement level in 2027. China’s drop from 5 or 6 per woman before 1970 to around 1.5 today, looks likely to persist. ‘The accumulated evidence suggests that lifting the one child policy would not lead to a resurgence of  uncontrollable population growth,’ say researchers from the region. China, they say, ‘would benefit from learning from its neighbours, Korea and Japan, how difficult it is to induce people to increase childbearing once fertility has fallen to a very low level.’2 As a consequence, China’s population should start shrinking by 2023.

According to the United Nations, 21 countries already had a declining population in the period 2000-2005.

Shrinking families

In almost all nations women are tending to have fewer children. The most populous countries with below-replacement fertility are China, Brazil, Vietnam, Iran, Thailand and Korea, in order of population size.

Source: United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs – Population Division, World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision

Most populous countries

(in millions)

Source: United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs – Population Division. Wikipedia, 2009.

World population

Although predicted to keep growing until 2050, world population should level out in the latter half of the century due to the effects of declining fertility.

Warning: UN demographers currently offer eight variant projections for the future, with the median (just over 9 billion) being the most cited. All projections are conditional assessments based on current numbers, age structure and trends and reasonable assumptions about the future. This 2050 projection ranges from slightly under 8 billion to slightly over 11 billion.

Source: United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs – Population Division, World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision

Chickens and eggs

The rapid extension of family planning and contraceptive use around the world is to thank for this decline in fertility. Population worriers make much of the projection of nine billion by 2050. But were it not for three decades of successful family planning that figure would be closer to 16 billion, points out Australian demographer Peter McDonald.

Here in Morocco, for example, only five per cent of women used contraception in the late 1970s – today 63 per cent do.3 But another crucial factor is the progress made in getting girls into school. This, more than anything, delays childbearing, encourages greater spacing between children or even opens out the option of not having children at all.

It’s the perfect chicken and egg. Education means lower fertility – and lower fertility can mean more education. One of the immediate benefits of the so-called ‘demographic dividend’ that comes with fewer children being born is that school rolls fall, educational resources are not so over-stretched, and there is, in theory at any rate, more money available per child for education. In practice, the money may be wasted or misdirected. But in South Korea, for example, where the demographic dividend was invested in education, the results in terms of economic and social development over the past few decades have been astounding.

The same felicitous connection exists between health provision and fertility rates. Statistically, a child’s chance of survival improves hugely in a smaller family where resources – both physical and emotional – tend to be more concentrated. And if children have a better chance of surviving, their parents will not feel they need to have so many. This is one of the reasons why in countries where there is the greatest poverty – those of sub-Saharan Africa, for example – women both have the most children and lose the most children as infants.

No sex please, we’re Japanese

At lunch I get talking with a researcher from Italy, which (at 1.3) has the lowest fertility rate in western Europe. She tells me: ‘The traditional idea of motherhood is still very strong in Italy. Modern women who work and have careers don’t want to be sucked into all that. They do not get enough support from either the state or their partners, to be able to work and have children.’

In Japan too a growing number of women are childless, hence a national fertility rate of just 1.2.

Young Japanese women are better educated than their mothers and have more career opportunities. In spite of this, traditional, patriarchal family values prevail. Though there is a ‘departure from marriage’ and a third of marriages end in divorce, cohabitation is still frowned upon, as is having children out of wedlock. The rate of celibacy is high for both sexes, compared with the West.

In South Korea the taboo against unmarried women having children is so strong that the overwhelming majority seek abortion or adoption. A woman who chooses to go ahead with a pregnancy and, worse still,  keep her child is socially ostracized. She may lose her job, be rejected by her family and will be denied state benefits available to other parents. 

Despite such harsh attitudes towards single mothers, policymakers in the region are getting anxious about falling fertility. According to Noriko Tsuya of Japan’s Keio University: ‘The new Government is promising to beef up child allowance by 2.5 times but so far attempts to encourage people to have children are not really helping.’

The anxiety is partly fuelled by national, cultural, psychological fears. ‘A population in decline suggests decay,’ observes demographer Paul Demeny of the Population Council, a leading research NGO. ‘It is associated with the collapse of ancient civilizations.’4 Perhaps a smaller population will reduce a country’s clout on the world stage, the thinking goes. Or it might slow down economic growth.

But even Japan’s pronounced fertility decline is ‘far from cataclysmic’, according to Demeny. The country’s population is set to dip from 127 to 102 million in 2050 – still higher than its 1950 figure of 82 million.

For Demeny the global trend towards falling fertility means ‘we are moving towards negative rates of growth, and stabilization at a lower population size. A lower population will lessen ecological footprints.’3


But how does that tally with growing numbers of people in the world? Remember that median projection of nine billion by 2050?

One effect of falling fertility is that our current population growth is temporary. According to the UN projections, world population peaks in the latter half of the century at about 9.2 billion, then declines and stabilizes. That’s not to brush aside environmental concerns (see pages 17-20) or the need to treat population projections with caution. But it does put into perspective the alarmist claims of runaway population growth.

One effect of smaller family size, however, is that it changes the age structure of a population and that, coupled with people living longer, leads to another source of mounting panic – population ageing. Which we come to next...

  1. United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs – Population Division, World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision, New York 2009.
  2. Noriko Tsuya, Minja Kim Choe, Wang Fen, ‘Below Replacement Fertility in East Asia: Patterns , Factors and Policy Implications’, paper for IUSSP, Marrakech 2009.
  3. Thérèse Locoh/Zahia Oudah-Bedidi, poster session at IUSSP, Marrakech 2009.
  4. Session 139 at IUSSP, Marrakech 2009.

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