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» October 12
The Day of 6 Billion
» The Myth of Shrinking Population
» Three Faces of Reality
» Population & the Environment
» Poverty, Population &- Development
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Empowerment of Women
» Youth & Population
» Consumption & Resources
» Family Planning & Reproductive Health
» Urbanization & Migration
» AIDS/HIV:
The New Trends
» Money Matters:
Financial Commitments

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The Myth o f
Shrinking Population

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 rates.
  • 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 years. (3)
  • Opportunities for women, key to lowering fertility rates, are being circumscribed rather than expanded in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
  • 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 recent years.
  • 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).

September 1999