The Myth o f
Women worldwide are having half the number
of children that their mothers did in the 1950s. Lifetimes are lengthening and child
survival rates are improving in most of the world, while opportunities and education for
women and men are generally on the rise.
In 61 nations, women's fertility rates have fallen below the "replacement level"
of 2.1 children per woman. (1) However, world population continues to rise by 78 million
people per year.
The reasons for falling fertility are many:
broadened horizons for girls and women, who respond by delaying childbearing; health care
advances that keep babies alive, reducing the demand for more; broad availability of
reliable and inexpensive family planning services; and urbanization.
In short, the planet seems to have averted -
at least for now - the threat of a population bomb. However, environmental security and
sustainability require continued effort. We have come perhaps half the distance to
population stability. The danger now is that we will declare victory and go home.
Some vocal contrarians are recommending just
that. They argue that the trends leading to our current progress are irreversible and
could lead to depopulated nations of a few lonely young people struggling to support vast
numbers of dependent senior citizens. They oppose further work to curb population growth.
They are wrong. The trends are not
irreversible. The need instead is for renewed commitment to the steps outlined at the 1994
International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).
- Of the world's 6 billion people, more than 1
billion are young people aged 15-24, the largest "youthquake" ever. (2) Now just
entering their reproductive years, their sheer numbers guarantee an enormous
"momentum" of population growth through 2050 and an urgent global need for
reproductive health information and services, even with a continued decline in fertility
- Most of those youth live in less-developed
nations where many governments are already struggling to meet current needs for social and
infrastructure services, education, jobs, family planning information, and reproductive
and other health care. (3)
- While 44% of the world's people (2.6 billion)
live in the 61 nations where women have fewer than 2.1 children each, these "total
fertility rates" don't give the full picture. A country's population growth rate
includes migration and longevity. Among those 61 nations, for example, 30 will experience
population declines by 2050, but population will rise in the other half, because of their
young population structures and migration patterns. (1)
- Just to stay even with current living
conditions, the world must somehow provide for 78 million more people every year - another
Great Britain plus New York City - for another generation.
- More than 840 million people, one in 7, do
not have enough to eat. (3) Mostly, they are too poor to pay for food, even with
historically low prices. Clearly, the "Green Revolution" has not reached many
poor farmers, and in 65 nations, per capita food production has declined over the last 15
- Opportunities for women, key to lowering
fertility rates, are being circumscribed rather than expanded in Afghanistan and
- Health care advances have not reached
millions of people where resurgent disease is challenging impoverished medical systems,
especially in the developing world.
- Rising urbanization has led to declining
fertility, chiefly because of urban prosperity. But nothing guarantees that prosperity
will continue to rise as population does. And, most people in poor nations still live in
rural areas where birth rates remain high.
- Developing nations pay 80% of the costs of
family planning services themselves, relying on industrialized nations for help with the
rest. But that help has not always been forthcoming. U.S. aid has been cut severely in
- Any projection of depopulation in some
countries ignores the likely migration from crowded places. The world may change its
appearance but it is in no danger of being depopulated.
The keys to further progress are obvious:
the roles of women, whose options and opportunities in every sphere of life must continue
to expand; and the education and participation of young people, women and men alike, in
the changes necessary to construct a workable future. Their demand for reliable and
inexpensive family planning services, currently unmet in many crucial places, must be
satisfied on a continuing basis well into the next century.
Sources: (1) United Nations
Population Division, "1998 Revision, World Population Estimates and Projections"
(New York: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Nov. 28, 1998); (2) UNFPA, The State
of World Population 1998 (New York, 1998); (3) Martha Farnsworth Riche, Ph.D., "From
Pyramids to Pillars: The New Demographic Reality" (Washington, DC, 1998); (4) UN
Development Programme, Human Development Report 1998 (New York: 1998).