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World population trends

Charles Rice | Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The United States population reached 100 million in 1915, 200 million in 1967 and, according to the Census Bureau, 300 million Oct. 17, 2005 at about 7:45 a.m. The Bureau sees a net increase of one person every 11 seconds, reaching 400 million around 2043.

We have no idea whether the 300 millionth was a newborn or an immigrant. But it led some to revive the warning of Paul Ehrlich, in “The Population Bomb,” in 1960, that we will “breed ourselves into oblivion.” The reality is more complicated.

The economic and social problems of the world are not due to an absolute excess of people. If you took all 6.6 billion people in the world and gave each one six square feet to stand on, you could fit them all (I am not suggesting this) into 35 percent of the land area of Los Angeles County and you would have 2641 square miles of that county left over. Advocates of “zero population growth” regard each new life as a threat. As Julian Simon, Colin Clark and other demographers have shown, each new human being is not only a consumer but also a potential producer with an intellect and will as well as an appetite. Overcrowding, poverty and disease are attributable more to political and other causes than to overpopulation.

The emerging problem is the “demographic winter” in Europe, Japan, Russia and some other nations. A fertility rate of 2.1 is needed for a population to replenish itself. The rate for the 25 nations of the European Union is 1.5. Only France is increasing, with a rate of 1.94, second only to Ireland’s falling rate of 1.99. Islamic and other immigrants to the E.U. exceed 2 million a year.

The decline in fertility is widespread. The rate in India is down to 2.85, China 1.69, and 1.38 in Japan which in 2005 experienced its first recorded decline in population. Russia is projected to decline from 140 million people today to about 104 million in 2050. The United Nations Population Division estimates that the population of affluent nations will remain stable at 1.2 billion through 2050 while the population of comparatively poor nations will triple to about 7.8 billion.

“The problem with low fertility,” warned Peter McDonald, of Australian National University, in 2001, “is that it reduces population size … only among the young [and] … creates a momentum for future population decline…. The longer low fertility is maintained, the harder it becomes to reverse population decline …. [Governments] will need to deal with … impacts of low fertility, namely shrinking labor forces.”

The United States fertility rate is 2.07, with 1.8 for non-Hispanic whites, 2.2 for blacks and 2.9 for Hispanics. The U.S. population over age 65 will rise from 12.3 percent today to 20.6 percent by 2050. Those who are age 80 or over will rise from 3.6 percent to 7.3 percent. “Our worker-to-retiree ratio is already at a dangerous three to one,” notes Joseph D’Agostino of the Population Research Institute. “By 2050 it will be two to one. And those retirees will be living much longer than they do today.” As Stephen Mosher, president of PRI, put it: “America’s baby boomers didn’t have many children on average, and as a result, our country faces a gray dawn. Even … high immigration levels haven’t made up the difference.”

The aging will not be limited to affluent nations. Elderly dependents per 100 working-age people worldwide will go from 17 today to 37 in 2050. In less developed countries, the figures are 13 today and 34 in 2050. One result of this aging will be the legalization or toleration of euthanasia of elderly dependents.

Pope Benedict XVI put all this in context: “[We] are witnessing on a planetary level, and in the developed countries in particular, two … interconnected trends: … an increase in life expectancy and … a decrease in birthrates… [M]any nations … lack a sufficient number of young people to renew their population. The situation is the result of … complex causes … But its ultimate roots can be seen as moral and spiritual; they are linked to a … deficit of faith, hope, and, indeed, love. To bring children into the world calls for … a creative [love] marked by trust and hope in the future. By its nature, love looks to the eternal. Perhaps the lack of such creative and forward-looking love is the reason why many couples today choose not to marry, why so many marriages fail, and why birthrates have significantly diminished.”

There may be some who agree with Benedict. “It’s barely a blip on the nation’s demographic radar,” said the Washington Times, “But there seems to be a growing openness to having more than two children, in some cases more than four. The reasons are diverse – from religious to … ‘Why not?'”

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at 574-633-4415 or at rice.1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.