Magazine article Insight on the News

To Birth, or Not to Birth?

Magazine article Insight on the News

To Birth, or Not to Birth?

Article excerpt

The United Nations projects the world's population, soon to top 6 billion, will reach 11 billion by 2100. But is this cause for concern or simply further evolution of the species?

On a hot night in India 30 years ago, Paul Ehrlich, the high priest of antipopulation gurus, had an epiphany. "We entered a crowded slum" the biologist wrote in the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. "The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets were alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people...."

At the time, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet, and although Ehrlich's predictions of mass starvation did not come true, his apocalyptic vision of overpopulation still strikes a nerve. "The ability of the Earth to sustain population growth is limited" says Julia Taft, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. She describes current population growth as "staggering and frightening."

The idea that there are too many people on a planet with limited water, food and shelter drove policy and family-planning discussions during a recent five-day conference at The Hague. The meeting was a preliminary gathering for this summer's U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Cairo-Plus 5, an attempt to to assess how far the world has come since 1994, when 180 nations vowed in Cairo to check population growth.

Certainly the literature distributed during the Hague conference indicates that experts remain convinced a crisis looms: The population is exploding, they warn. There is not enough money to finance the growth of the developed nations. Resources are dwindling to extinction. The environment is being degraded. "Yeah, I have to accentuate the positive or this could be a very depressing job" says Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute, one of many organizations devoted to population studies.

Despite such dour forecasts, the United Nations scaled back its growth estimates in 1996 and again in late 1998, subtracting about 1 billion people from its previous world projections. Western and developed nations are not even reproducing at replacement rate, or two children per couple.

But African and Asian fertility rates, while declining dramatically over the years, are generally two or three times replacement rates. The world's poorest nations continue to experience fierce population pressures that have worldwide consequences. Overpopulation in undeveloped countries fuels immigration to developed nations, creating cultural clashes and social tension. Some prognosticators see an apocalyptic future culminating in a "Mad Max" world. "The consequences of rapid population growth are grave threats to the food and water security of many of the world's poorest countries," writes Werner Fornos in the most recent Population Institute study.

But the world has been frightened before. In 1968, under the so-called "triage" theory, Ehrlich called on the United States to end its aid to India and several other countries because they were "beyond hope." Meanwhile, the population of India has nearly doubled, from 548 million to nearly 1 billion since 1970 and, despite unprecedented pressure on its resources, India has managed to improve dramatically virtually every measure of its people's existence. The country has cut infant mortality from 22 per 1,000 to nine per 1,000 while extending life expectancy from 46 to 63 years and doubling per capita annual income. India also has undergone a green revolution and doubled its production of grains from 108 million tons to nearly 200 million tons -- allowing it to become an exporter of food.

In general, life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy and per-capita income have improved throughout the world -- even in destitute Africa -- according to historian Angus Maddison's 1995 survey. …

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