Magazine article USA TODAY

Will World Population Implode?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Will World Population Implode?

Article excerpt

THE GLOBE will have 7,000,000,000 inhabitants early in 2012, up from the current 6,800,000,000, and surpass 9,000,000,000 by 2050, according to the United Nations World Population Prospect. That last number is subject to considerable uncertainty because the UN's most likely scenario blithely assumes that, by 2050, most (but not all) nations will have rejected positive population growth in favor of below-replacement fertility rates. In historical terms, such an "implosion" or contraction of world population is unheard of--except when those passing catastrophes caused by the ancient enemies of humanity (war, famine, and pestilence) spread their venom.

The United Nations further predicts that the world population will reach 6,800,000,000 people sometime this July, with 82% living in developing countries (12% residing in the 50 least-developed nations). The more-developed countries of Europe, North America, Oceania, and Japan will have 1,200,000,000 inhabitants, or about 18% of global total.

According to the medium variant of the UN projections, world population will grow by some 2,300,000,000 between now and 2050--an increase that roughly is equal to the combined current populations of China and India. Virtually all of this increase should occur in developing countries. By 2050, 86% of the world's population will reside in developing regions, while the total population of the more-developed nations will remain relatively unchanged at about 1,300,000,000 (14% of the population).

In his 1968 environmentalist best-selling The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich provides some detailed findings that put the UN's projections into greater perspective. Ehrlich estimates that the total human population in 8000 B.C. was about 5,000,000 people. The Earth's population did not reach 500,000,000 until 1650 A.D.; by 1850, the world total was about 1,000,000,000; by 1930, roughly 2,000,000,000; by 1968, it was less than 4,000,000,000 but, by then, rapid population growth already had become a widely perceived threat to human progress. The emergence of the environmentalist movement in the 1970s resulted in the swift dissemination of its core principles throughout the world. The most pressing objective for the environmentalists--then as now--is to achieve a sizable reduction in high population growth rates, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

"The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now," states Ehrlich in the opening sentences. Was Ehrlich simply mistaken or just premature, like the gloomy English parson and political economist Thomas Malthus about the never-ending race between population growth and human survival? Malthus famously had predicted future famines in his "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798.

Population growth is highly dependent upon the as yet unknown paths that future fertility rates might take, which, in turn, rely upon the outcomes that individuals choose. The UN study projects that, in its medium growth scenario, world fertility rates will decline from the current 2.56 children per woman to 2.02 by 2045-50, resulting in a world population of 9,100,000,000. Yet, if fertility only was a half-child above the medium level estimate, the world population would surge to 10,500.000,000 by 2050; if fertility was a half-child less, then the world population would be about 8,000,000,000 by mid century.

For reference sake, in a society where the average woman bears 2.1 children in her lifetime, the population would remain stable; above, the population would grow; below, decline. It would seem the UN has made a heroic assumption by forecasting that the world's population will begin to decline after 2050. Even if fertility rates actually do fall below the replacement level by 2050, it still might take many years afterwards before the world population actually would begin to go down. …

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