The Population Dud


After years of “successful” population-control efforts, experts are realizing that their fears were groundless. And as fertility rates continue to drop, well below expected levels, new concerns are emerging.

It dies a slow death; still it dies. At a recent UN meeting, the myth of over-population died just a little bit more. Officials at the UN Population Division officially announced that they were lowering their predictions of world population by as much as 1 billion people.

Only two years ago, the UN statisticians had thought that the world would reach a population of 9 to 10 billion people by the year 2050. Now they think it will reach only 8 to 9 billion. At that point, they contend, world population will begin to decline.

This is nothing short of a declaration that the population bomb went off, and hurt exactly nothing. What is more, there is at least some talk at the UN that this rapid reduction in human fertility may be a problem.

Replacement level — and beyond

In early March Dr. Joseph Chamie, head of the UN Population Division, hosted another in a series of meetings with population experts to explore the question of national and global fertility reduction and subsequent demographic change—in other words, the aims and results of population-control efforts. At the start of the meeting the Population Division showed its hand:

For decades, demographers have assumed that fertility rates in developing countries will eventually fall to replacement level — about 2 children per woman — and then stabilize at that level. However, over the past decade, more and more developing countries have joined the developed countries in seeing their fertility levels fall below this replacement fertility floor, challenging the assumption that there is some inherent magnet drawing populations to a replacement-level equilibrium.

This was rather startling news. Those who follow population trends already knew that rich countries had reached replacement levels of fertility, and had in fact fallen below the magic number of 2.1 children per woman. (This is the fertility number at which it is thought that countries reach a kind of population equilibrium; their total number neither grows nor shrinks.) Now it seemed the poor nations had begun to follow suit.

What the Population Division has discovered in only the past few years is that the fertility rates in those nations that fall in the “intermediate range” of fertility transition had fallen like a stone. “Intermediate range” countries, in the classification system of population experts, are those that maintain fertility rates between 5.0 and 2.1 children per woman. These include countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, and the Philippines. The Population Division report said these countries “have recorded striking reductions in fertility rates to levels below those needed to ensure population replacement.” Since these are also among the most populous countries on Earth, the fact that they will soon stop replacing themselves is very big news indeed. Because of this dramatic development, the Population Division says only a few countries — almost all of them in Africa — now remain above the replacement level.

The Population Division is agnostic regarding the cause of the shift in fertility figures. The Division’s report indicates that “there is little consensus regarding the specific conditions for fertility decline,” but points out that there do exist certain “commonalities” among the countries that are experiencing declines in fertility. These commonalities include the socio-economic factors of “decline in mortality, female education and labor force participation, and family planning programs.”

The report says there is no “single or even ‘most important’ factor in the explanation of fertility decline.” Even so, radical feminists were quick to claim credit for the fertility decline, claiming in the New York Times that it was the spread of “reproductive health” around the world in the past few decades that brought us this “good news.” At a UN meeting on April 1, the UN Population Fund also gave the credit to the spread of “reproductive health” — a phrase which is routinely used among UN officials to stand for access to legal abortion.

Misplaced fears

The litany of arguments against population growth is something we have come to know by rote. The world, we have been told, is awash in a contagion of people. At some point, we were warned, we would be swamped by rapidly growing populations, and run out of food, natural resources, and perhaps even comfortable places to stand. A poster that appeared on the walls of dormitory rooms at American colleges during the 1970s showed a world so full of people that some had to live on crowded beaches, and some were even pushed into the water. According to these dire predictions, widespread starvation and massive death rates were to characterize our future.

The more popular argument today is that out-of-control consumption patterns in rich countries is burning a hole in the ozone, and that the world will soon fry — but perhaps not before the sun’s rays melt the polar ice caps and swamp our luxury beach houses, not to mention all the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Not long ago, greenhouse gases were supposed to become trapped in the atmosphere and cause a global ice age.

Of course, neither global famine nor a new ice age has occurred. Moreover, natural resources are more plentiful and accessible now than ever before, and American farmers alone produce more than enough food to feed the entire world. Even so, these scare tactics resulted in the implementation of multi-billion dollar programs to bring what many population planners saw as grossly excessive rates of fertility down to replacement levels, and thus eventually to zero and even negative population growth. Much thought has been devoted to the question of how we might actually reduce population, to reach what the theorists called the proper “carrying capacity” of the Earth. Some said that the carrying capacity is as low as 2 billion people. Since that figure is well below the current level of world population (roughly 6 billion), one can only wonder what could be done with the “extra” 4 billion human beings.

It is a fact that the world’s population has grown, and sometimes grown rapidly. Still, fertility rates began dropping long ago, in the 19th century. The rapid population growth of the 20th century occurred for reasons unrelated to fertility. Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt of Harvard University and the American Enterprise Institute famously said population growth accelerated, “not because we reproduced like bunnies but because we stopped dying like flies.” Chamie agrees, saying that the enormous increase in human longevity is the greatest achievement of the 20th century. Still, old myths die hard.

Now, a different sort of concern

But in recent years, new thinking on world population trends has added a curious new concern to the mix of alarmist predictions. Surprisingly enough, much of this new thinking has come from the UN, and specifically from Joseph Chamie’s Population Division — the official statisticians for the UN in the field. (The Population Division is distinct from the UN Population Fund, which is engaged in practical activity to curb population, rather than theoretical study.)

This new development began in 1997, when Chamie hosted an expert group meeting that reported that many countries had done so “well” in meeting the fertility challenge that they were no longer replacing themselves, and had actually dropped below the magic number of 2.1 children per woman. What had happened, however, was that these countries — for the most part, relatively wealthy nations — did not stop at the magic number. They proceeded to go lower. Some countries went significantly lower. Italy dropped below 2 children per woman. So did Spain. So did others.

Population experts, and even some analysts in the popular press, now began talking about a whole new set of problems associated with this newly discovered development. They observed that if the natural demographic pyramid — in which a large group of young active workers support a smaller group of elderly people — became inverted, an economic catastrophe would surely ensue. Some economists today believe that Japan’s long-term economic recession is at least partially due to the fact that the Asian nation was the first to reach the point at which the number of citizens over the age of 65 exceeded the number under the age of 15: a clear case of an inverted pyramid.

The results of this demographic shift are likely to include extreme economic dislocations, inter-generational competition for shrinking social services, and severe difficulties in sustaining pension funds and health-care benefits. The president of the European Commission warned last year that by the year 2050, nearly one-third of European pension systems would collapse. In some countries, he said, population figures would actually be in decline by that time; he suggested that the Italian population could drop by as much as 41 million. Joseph Chamie says that “future” is already here; the population implosion is occurring right now. He points out the Russian Federation lost 800,000 in population last year alone.

What should be done? After sounding this new alarm at the 1997 meeting, Chamie’s group held another expert group meeting two years ago that explored policy considerations for meeting the challenges created by this “graying” of various national populations.

It is generally understood that economies grow on the strength of young workers. Ireland is an economic miracle today partially because of a remarkably young work force: 50 percent of all Irish citizens are said to be under the age of 25, and a whopping 75 percent of Dubliners are below that age. In order to meet the challenge of rapidly aging workforces, some of Chamie’s experts said it might be necessary to encourage women to have more children. It was noted, however, that Sweden tried that policy some years ago, and while the effort was briefly successful in encouraging new pregnancies, the Swedish population soon fell back into an anti-natal trend.

One of the main proposals advanced at the Population Division meeting was that countries facing a decline in population could solve their problems by allowing increased immigration. But here too there were practical problems. One expert calculated that Japan, for instance, would have to bring in up to 800,000 workers a year in order to keep its economy going. Japan is one of the most insular societies on Earth, and is highly unlikely to agree to such a massive influx of foreigners. Indeed, given the sharp social controversies engendered by current levels of immigration, it seems unrealistic to expect that massive immigration would be an appropriate solution. Chamie himself agrees that immigration is not the answer.

Old theories rebutted

The Population Division has advanced its thinking very far in this debate — far enough, in fact, so that it has challenged some of the basic premises of the population-control movement.

Last summer the Population Division released its “World Population Monitoring, 2001,” which announced that many of the most dire predictions about the consequences of population growth have proven unfounded. Even if world population did reach the previous predicted level of 8.9 billion by 2050, the report said, the dire consequences that some analysts had predicted were not likely to occur.

One by one, Chamie’s report shot down the major claims of population-control advocates:

• Population controllers assert that the world will run out of food, and famine will result. Chamie’s report disagreed. “Over the period of 1961-1998, world per capita food available for direct human consumption increased by 24 percent, and there is enough being produced for everyone on the planet to be adequately nourished.”

• Population controllers say rising populations cause poverty. Again the Population Division disagrees. “From 1900 to 2000, world population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion persons. However, while world population increased close to 4 times, world real gross domestic product increased 20 to 40 times, allowing the world to not only sustain a four-fold population increase but also to do so at vastly higher standards of living.”

• Population controllers complain that natural resources will inevitably become depleted because of population growth. The Chamie report disagreed again. “During recent decades new reserves have been discovered, producing the seeming paradox that even though consumption of many minerals has risen, so has the estimated amounts of the resource as yet untapped.”

• Finally, on the environment, the Chamie report concedes that population growth may be a contributing factor in the depletion of fisheries and contamination of water, but “in general, population growth appears to be much less important as a driving force of such problems than is economic growth and technology.”

Future uncertainties

One of the dinosaurs of the population-control movement is the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA is in charge of population-control programs for the UN (as opposed to population statistics) and has frequently been accused of complicity with the coercive programs in Peru and China — programs that have resulted in forced abortions and sterilizations. In its most recent report, State of the World Population, UNFPA claims that population growth has resulted in human misery and environmental ruin throughout the world. UNFPA maintains that population growth causes intractable poverty and that as a consequence many nations stand on the edge of massive famine. Of course these are the same old arguments that have been discredited by many experts, including now some within the UN itself.

In a surprising swipe at a colleague organization, Chamie observed to the Washington Times last summer that UNFPA “is a fund” and therefore has “an agenda.” Indeed, UNFPA’s agenda involves not only the promotion of population control but also the spread of abortion. Frequently the UNFPA’s concentration on that “reproductive health” agenda works to the detriment of the real issues facing the world’s poor. In its annual report a year ago, for instance, UNFPA mentioned “reproductive health” 186 times while mentioning malaria, clean water, and safe sanitation only once, as if these very real problems do not compare in importance with a woman’s right to abortion.

Even Chamie seems to have a mixed mind on the issue of “reproductive health” — or at least a mixed department. His own report spoke critically of the “stalled” decline in fertility rates in some countries like Bangaladesh and India, where fertility rates plummeted to 3.3 and then stayed there rather than dropping to the promised land of 2.0. And Chamie’s fellow experts very clearly support continued fertility decline. More than one report spoke of the “risk of pregnancy;” it is telling the reports did not use another formulation, say, for instance, the “possibility of pregnancy.” Population experts clearly still lean reflexively toward the belief that all pregnancy is a risk that threatens to slow the decline of overall fertility.

But predictions about world fertility patterns always involve a guessing game in any case. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt characterizes the entire effort to predict population levels as “science fiction.” He argues that it is nearly impossible to predict future behavior, especially in the area of fertility.

Even the reports delivered to the expert group meeting repeatedly used words and phrases that betray the fact that these experts do not really know what will happen. In his paper, for example, John Caldwell of the Australian National University said that a world population figure of “3 or 4 billion people may be critical” in the stability of ecosystems and food production. [emphasis added] Caldwell writes, “My guess” is that favoring small families may change in the future. He says the effect of low fertility on “the national economy is probably not as great as most of the debate has suggested.” [emphasis added] Caldwell is certain, however, that fertility reduction must continue, and that it is a good thing. And he is fearful that the current talk of a population implosion may slow national and international commitments to fertility reduction and population control.

How low will it go?

The discussion of world population trends has occurred in the context of an aggressive — sometimes coercive — push for population control, led by the wealthy nations of the West. But much of the actual decline in fertility would have happened naturally, without any public advocacy. Nicholas Eberstadt contends that fertility reduction actually began in the 19th century, and came as a consequence of industrialization, education, and affluence. The general decline in fertility began well before the population-control programs that spread abortion, sterilization, and contraception around the world. One of the most crucial numbers that population experts cite is the date at which the “fertility transition” of a country officially begins. This is the point at which a country’s “crude birth rate” falls to 30 live births per thousand. Argentina reached that point in 1930. For France, it was 1830.

Today, after several decades of population control advocacy, what has become of the promises on which these policies were based? Proponents of population control said that fertility reduction would result in economic prosperity — not just for families but for whole nations. The nations of Latin America were among the best pupils in the world for fertility reduction. Argentina dropped from seven children per woman to three in the space of just 20 years, yet Argentina is experiencing a severe economic depression. In fact most of Latin America is suffering economically. Many countries, especially in Central America, still rank among the poorest nations in the world.

And what of Africa? Certainly the African countries have lagged behind their Latin American brothers in fertility reduction, but still they have advanced well along the road toward what the population controllers call the “fertility transition.” Yet almost all of Africa is an economic basket case. Where is the promised economic miracle?

One of the truly haunting questions that occupied the meeting of population experts at UN headquarters in New York was the question of how long, and how far, fertility rates will continue to fall. Many of the experts confessed that they do not know. One paper was entitled “On the Prospects of Endless Fertility Decline in South Asia.” Another was “Kenya’s Fertility Transition: How Low Can it Go?” Both reports suggested that there is a point beyond which a society’s fertility will not drop; but in both cases, the authors were uncertain.

Until literally a matter of weeks ago, the equilibrium fertility level was thought by experts to be 2.1 children per woman. The UN planners believed that nations would eventually reach this number, and then the fertility decline would stop. They have now lowered that projection to 1.85 children per woman. But the experts have no rationale for that prediction, nor any rationale for why the level will not drop even further. Could the fertility rate go down to 1.0, or to .75? Why could it not reach zero? One of the papers delivered at the New York meeting actually discussed the rising incidence of childlessness.

Some experts now believe that world population will peak in 30 years and then begin to decline. Joseph Chamie says the population implosion is upon us right now. The world has never faced a situation like this before. No one knows how far the fertility level will fall, or what will happen when we reach the bottom.


Austin Ruse. "The Population Dud." Catholic World Report (May, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly. Catholic World Report also publishes Catholic World News.


Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), follows the UN closely. He welcomes comments at

Copyright © 2002 Catholic World Report

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