By Donella Meadows
–September 29, 1988–
“If we don’t change our direction,” says a Chinese proverb, “we’ll end up where we are headed.” If population trends continue to unfold the way they’ve been going, the world population will grow from five billion to eight billion over the next 35 years. Ninety percent of that growth will occur in the Third World.
Over the same period West Germany’s population is expected to decline by ten percent, from 60 million to 54 million. Sweden’s population will go down by six percent. Switzerland’s is predicted to drop by eight percent.
People of European descent (including those migrating to America, Australia, and other parts of the world) made up 18 percent of the world population in 1750. Their proportion increased to 29 percent by 1950, then declined to 23 percent by 1985. The number of European-descended people grew after 1950 from 722 million to 1091 million, but non-European populations grew much faster. According to U.N. forecasts, by 2025 European-descended populations will have increased by another 32 percent, but their proportion of the total will have dropped to 18 percent, back where it was in 1750.
For a population to maintain its numbers, each women must bear over her lifetime slightly more than two children, on average. In the United States the average number of children born to each woman is now 1.8. In Canada it is 1.7. Fertility is below replacement level in every country in Europe except Ireland, Poland, and Albania. Denmark is averaging only 1.4 children per woman, West Germany 1.3.
Most of these populations are not yet declining, because they have had higher fertility in the recent past. Their younger cohorts are swollen with baby-boomers. As these cohorts move into childbearing age, the number of births is going up, even though each couple is having fewer children.
That phenomenon is temporary. It has already run its course in both Germanies, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Hungary, all of whose populations are now stable or declining. Norway, Great Britain, and Italy will be the next to run out of population momentum. The United States, which added 85 million people over past 35 years, is expected to add 66 million in the next 35, about one-third of which will come from immigration. Population decline is still decades off for the U.S., but eventually, if we keep on in the low-fertility direction we’re going, we, too, will end up where we are headed.
The prospect of creeping depopulation has triggered some alarm. West Germany is talking about tax incentives for larger families. Pat Robertson ran for the U.S. presidency saying that we should have more kids to pay for Social Security. But rapid population growth in the poor countries is a much more worrisome trend than depopulation in the rich countries.
There is no reason except national or racial zealotry to worry about the low fertility of Caucasian peoples. It’s a sign not of genetic weakness but of economic success. Low birth rates are correlated everywhere with good health care, widespread education, employment, and general prosperity. When non-European people like the Japanese, Singaporeans, and Taiwanese achieve these things, their fertility goes down too (to 1.8, 1.7, and 2.1 children per woman, respectively). The relatively high fertility of the Soviet Union (2.4 children per woman) is not a sign of national virility but of remaining social inadequacies.
Especially for crowded, polluted Europe, it’s hard to argue that more people are needed. Many problems, from unemployment to energy supply to acid rain, will become easier to solve as populations slowly go down. Peter von Ehr, a German sociologist, says, “if we want to keep our present standard of living, the last thing we need is more children.” As for maintaining European civilization and power in global affairs, demographer Lincoln Day is not worried. “A billion or so Europeans cannot help but figure prominently on the world stage.”
Some people are concerned because a slowly declining population will contain fewer young people and more old people. In the United States 22 percent of the population is under the age of 15 and 12 percent over the age of 65. In Sweden the numbers are 18 percent and 17 percent respectively. (In Kenya, the most rapidly-growing population in the world, 53 percent of the people are under 15; only 2 percent are over 65).
Shifting age ratios should pose no economic burden — society will have to spend more on older people, but less on young people. There could be problems of institutional adaptation. Fewer first grade classrooms will be needed and more senior centers, fewer pediatricians and more gerontologists. Above all, declining populations will require a revaluing of human beings of all ages. Lincoln Day says, “More will need to be done to ensure that older people are permitted a life of dignity and reasonable comfort, that society is enabled to take advantage of what older people have to offer, and that the relatively scarce resource of children and young adults is not wasted.”
The challenge posed by low birth rates in rich countries comes very slowly and can be met. The real population challenge, the one that can shake the worlds of both the rich and the poor, comes from high birth rates. Kenya, with an average of eight children per woman, is facing over the next 35 years not a 10 percent decrease but a 200 percent increase in numbers. That increase is a result of impoverishment, and it is likely to be a cause of further impoverishment, if world population trends keep on going where they’re headed.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988