By Donella Meadows
–September 22, 1988–
“Every human society is faced with not one population problem but with two,” said Margaret Mead. “How to beget and rear enough children, and how not to beget and rear too many.”
We don’t hear much about either of these problems lately, but they haven’t gone away. The world population will grow by roughly 85 million people this year, an annual increment higher than ever before in human history. At the same time in the richer one-fifth of the world, population growth is slowing or even reversing itself. In Japan, Canada, the United States, and Europe average fertility is below replacement level. In seven European nations population growth is already zero or slightly negative.
Too many babies, too few babies. Within this one world are two different demographic worlds. And though the stories of population growth and decline seldom make the news (nothing that happens inexorably, day after day, is news), they are heavily mixed up in the news we do hear. Rising and falling populations impact such issues as greenhouse warming and Social Security costs, African famine and oil availability, world trade and stock market stability. Population changes that have already happened and that are about to happen have enormous implications for future foreign relations, future resources, even the future of life on the planet.
Let’s start with the 80 percent of the world where populations are still growing rapidly. With few exceptions, rapid population growth is correlated with poverty. Of the 85 million people added to the world population this year, 16.3 million will be Africans, 9.6 million will be Latin Americans, 51.7 million will be Asians.
The Reagan administration has declared Third World population growth a nonproblem and has slashed federal funds for international population programs. The only way to justify that policy is to assume that nobody in the State Department has been looking at the numbers. Nothing happening in the developing countries is more important or more overwhelming than population growth.
The Third World has ADDED since 1960 more people than the WHOLE current populations of North America, Europe, the USSR, Japan, and Oceania combined.
About 665 million additional jobs will have to be created in the developing countries over the next 20 years, just to accommodate children who are already born and who will enter the labor force. That is greater than the TOTAL number now employed in all of North America, Europe, the USSR, Japan, and Oceania.
Since 1950 Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has grown from 43 million to 105 million people — more than doubling in just 35 years. In the next 35 years Nigeria is expected to add another 206 million people — a number nearly as great as the entire population of the United States. Barring disaster, Nigeria will grow from 43 million to 311 million people in just 70 years, one human lifetime. The implications for the land, the cities, the economy, the politics of Nigeria and of Western Africa are staggering.
Africa as a whole grew over the past 35 years from 252 million to 583 million people — which explains much about the deforestation, soil erosion, drought, and famine now endemic there. And we haven’t seen anything yet. The U.N. projects that most of Africa’s population growth is still ahead. In the next 35 years Africa is expected to add another 913 million people, for a total of 1496 million.
India, with one of the longest-established family planning programs in the world, has a relatively slow population growth rate, for Asia. If, as the U.N.’s optimistic forecast assumes, its birth rate continues to come down, India will grow from 785 million to 1200 million over the next 35 years. Meanwhile China, despite its one-child-family policy, will add 368 million people, for a total of 1400 million (a population five times that of the United States, on a roughly equal land area).
These are sobering numbers. They would be even more sobering if the world had not made tremendous progress over the past 20 years in economic development and family planning. Average fertility in the Third World has dropped from six children per woman to four. Contraceptive use has increased from nine percent of married women of reproductive age to 43 percent. The world population growth rate has dropped from a peak of 2.1 percent per year to 1.7 percent. That apparently small decrease makes a big difference — if the growth rate were still 2.1 percent, the number of people added this year would be not 85 million but 105 million.
Rapid growth is the problem for four-fifths of the world. The other one-fifth is a living testimony to the fact that something about the combination of education, industrialization, urbanization, health care, and family planning does bring population growth rates down — down too far, some people think.
More on that next week.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988