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by Ben J. Wattenberg
The New York Times Magazine, November 23, 1997

The prediction that spawned a generation of alarmists has now been turned on its head. But the prospect of an emptier planet is creating its own set of problems.

For 30 years, one notion has shaped much of modern social thought: that the human species is reproducing itself uncontrollably, and ominously. In his best-selling book of 1968, "The Population Bomb," Paul Ehrlich warned that "the cancer of population growth must be cut out" or "we will breed ourselves into oblivion." He appeared on the Johnny Carson show 25 times to sell this idea. Lester Brown's "29th Day" compared people to geometrically multiplying waterlilies; on the 30th day, the world would end. A study by the Club of Rome (which it later renounced) described how rapacious humans would soon "run out of resources."

Several generations of schoolchildren have been taught these lessons; the State Department endorses them. A 1992 documentary on Ted Turner's CNN described the impending global chaos "as the planet's population grows exponentially," and just a few days ago, Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, were honored at a gala for Zero Population Growth, which preaches the mantra of out-of-control overpopulation. The issue of global warming, linked to soaring population growth deep into the next century, is front-page news.

Thirty years of persistent alarm. But now, mounting evidence, from rich nations and poor, strongly suggests that the population explosion is fizzling. Earlier this month, for the first time ever, the United Nations Population Division convened expert demographers to consider aspects of low and tumbling fertility rates. That discussion is a step toward a near-Copernican shift in the way our species looks at itself. Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long all around the world. The potential implications —environmental economic, geopolitical and personal—are both unclear and clearly monumental, for good and for ill.

The Plot Thins

The free fall in fertility can best be seen in "World Population Prospects: The 1996 Revision," an eye-opening reference book published by the United Nations, from which most data used here are drawn. From 1950 to 1955, the global "total fertility rate" (roughly speaking, the average number of children born per woman per lifetime) was five. That was explosively above the so-called replacement rate of 2.1 children, the level needed to keep a population from falling over time, absent immigration. This scary growth continued for about 15 years until, by 1975 to 1980, fertility had fallen to four children per woman. Fifteen years after that, the rate had fallen to just below three. Today the total fertility rate is estimated at 2.8, and sinking.

Five children per woman. Then four. Then three. Then less than three. In estimating the population for the year 2050, demographers were caught with their projections up. Suddenly, worldwide, 650 million people were "missing." Many more will be missing soon. They will never be born.

But what about women in those teeming less-developed countries (L.D.C.'s)—those swarming places where the population bomb was allegedly ticking most loudly? Even there, the fuse is sputtering. The L.D.C. fertility rate in 1965 to 1970 was six children per woman. Now it's three, and falling more quickly than ever before in demographic history.

Those are broad numbers. Consider some specific nations. Italy, a Catholic country, has a fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman, the world's lowest rate—and the lowest national rate ever recorded (absent famines, plagues, wars or economic catastrophes). India's fertility rate is lower than American rates in the 1950's. The rate in Bangladesh has fallen from 6.2 to 3.4—in just 10 years.

European birthrates of the 1980's, already at record-breaking lows, fell another 20 percent in the 90's, to about 1.4 children per woman. The demographer Antonio Golini says such rates are "unsustainable." Samuel Preston, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Population Studies Center, recently calculated what will happen if European fertility changes and moves back toward a rate of 2.1. Even then, by the year 2060, when its population levels off, Europe will have lost 24 percent of its people. Japanese and Russian rates are also at about 1.4 children.

In Muslim Tunisia, over three decades the rate has fallen from 7.2 to 2.9. Rates are higher, but way down, in Iran and Syria. Fertility rates are plunging in many (though not all) sub-Saharan African nations, including Kenya, once regarded as the premier demographic horror show. Mexico has moved 80 percent of the way toward replacement level.

In the United States, birthrates have been below replacement for 25 straight years. There was an uptick in the late 1980's, but rates have fallen for five of the last six years. The National Center for Health Statistics reports solidly lower levels for early 1997, which will "continue the generally downward trend observed since early 1991" and will soon be reflected in U.S. Census Bureau projections.

This sounds strange. After all, we have gone through a half-century of the greatest population growth in history, and such growth has not quite ended. What's happening is that two powerful trends—the population explosion and the baby bust—are now at war. They can coexist, but only for a while. The recent evidence makes it clear which of these trends will prevail: the baby bust.

The population explosion is a long-distance runner. From 1750 to 1950, global population increased from 1 billion to 2.5 billion. From 1950 to 2000, it will increase to 6 billion. Remarkable. But the baby bust is also a marathon player. In America in 1790, women bore an average of 7.7 children. Benjamin Franklin saw children "swarming across the countryside like locusts." But for two centuries, except for a bump during the baby boom, American fertility has fallen steadily. Since 1972, the fertility rate has averaged 1.9. (Among the lowest rates are those experienced by Jewish women and black women with college degrees.)

An explosion and a bust? It sounds contradictory. But the number of potential mothers today was set two and three decades ago, when they were born, and when birthrates were much higher. And the rates in most less developed countries, though falling rapidly, are still above replacement. Life expectancy has been climbing. These factors create "population momentum," which automatically yields more people—for a while.

Soon, however, reflecting the recent sharp reduction in fertility, the number of potential mothers will be much lower than previously anticipated. Fertility will most likely drop below replacement level in many less developed countries. It already has in 19 of them, including Cuba, China, Thailand and, probably soon, Brazil. The momentum then turns the other way. (A bust, like an explosion, moves in geometric progression.)

What next? There are arguments, as well there should be, when dealing with the future. The U.N.'s "medium variant" projection shows a global population of 9.4 billion people in 2050. Because of its "medium" designation, this Mama Bear projection is cited most often. But its central assumption is questionable: that all nations will move to a fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman by 2050. Based on current data, this scenario seems implausible. Indeed, the experts met at the U.N. to change some assumptions in the medium-variant projections—downward.

The U.N.'s "low variant" projection estimates that there will be fewer people: 7.7 billion in 2050, and shrinking. The central assumption behind this projection is that the global fertility rate will drop to 1.6 children per woman. Unlike the 2.1 figure, that is not an abstract construct. It is the current rate in the developed nations. The assumption is that as nations modernize, they will behave like modern nations.

When the U.N. demographers revise their medium variant downward next year, they will not go that far. For now, they are concentrating on the 51 nations with 44 percent of the world's people that are already at or below replacement. At the same time, they project that by 2010 to 2015, there will be 88 such nations, with 67 percent of the population. The U.N. Population Division is cautious—some say too cautious, even while acknowledging the tricky nature of their task. All four revisions in the 1990's will be downward. What is going on is a process, not an event.

If one splits the difference between the low- and medium-variant projections, that would yield a global fertility rate of about 1.85 children per woman in 2050. Global population would then top out at about 8.5 billion people and start declining. Samuel Preston and many other leading demographers think that is near the range of what is most likely to happen.

How valid are such demographic calculations? Far from perfect, and sometimes controversial, but quite a bit better than simplistic straight-line-to-the-future projections. After all, medium range demographic forecasts deal with girls who have already been born. A girl born today will be 20 in 2017. Knowing what the potential pool of mothers will be—far smaller than previously expected— forms a solid basis for projections.

What about the unpredicted baby boom? Birthrates soared in America from 1945 to 1965. Could this happen again? Yes. But that boom followed two unusual circumstances that had artificially depressed fertility: a harsh economic depression and a blistering world war. In part, the boomer kids made up for kids not born earlier.

In the past, demographers drew neat charts with rates falling to the 2.1 replacement level and staying there. But young adults conceiving children, or not, aren't thinking about an invisible line called "replacement." They're thinking about a good life for themselves and the children they elect to have, in new and modern circumstances. Their recent individual actions have collectively sliced through the invisible line like a laser.

Where Did Everybody Go?

What is causing this birth dearth? Paul Demeny, the editor of Population and Development Review, points to the famous "demographic transition" theory, which he describes as the move "from high fertility and high mortality to low fertility and low mortality, with lots of complicated and contradictory things going on in the middle."

One of the main factors pushing this transition is urbanization —reflecting the shift from wanting more children to help on the farm to wanting fewer mouths to feed in the city. Among the many other factors are more education for women, legal abortion, higher incomes, unemployment yielding lower incomes, greater acceptance of homosexuality, new aspirations for women, better contraception (including "morning-after pills," endorsed by new Food and Drug Administration guidelines), later marriage, difficulty conceiving at older ages, more divorce and vastly lower infant-mortality rates. When parents know their children will survive, fertility rates plummet.

These trends toward modernization are continuing, along with some new ones. For example, the black American fertility rate is down to about the national average; black teen-age birthrates have declined by 20 percent since 1991. (On the other hand, advances in infertility treatment and a small increase in births among women in their later 30's slightly mitigate the trend toward lower fertility.)

Demographic transition theory explains, or at least describes, the downward arc of high fertility rates. But there is no theory (yet) that explains why, when or how long-term below-replacement fertility rates would ever go back up.

Therefore What?

Speculation is in season. When people have fewer babies and live longer, the median age of society climbs. In 1990, about 6 percent of the world's population was over age 65. By 2050, that figure will be in the 15-to-19 percent range—prompting a "grayby boom." By having relatively few children, people today are eroding the population base that should pay for their pensions in their old age. In 1955 there were nine American workers to support each Social Security recipient. Today there are three. By 2030, the number is expected to be two.

Where will the money come from? No one knows. Perhaps from funds not spent to support children who are never born. Perhaps from tax increases or benefit cuts—both tough to sell politically. Perhaps from immigration or higher fertility. Perhaps from the partial privatization of Social Security or from long-term economic growth more robust than expected.

For the environment, the prospect of fewer people than expected should be good news. The specter of a population explosion has been the Archimedean lever of environmental thinking: more people cause more pollution, more people use more resources and more affluent people do more of both. Environmentalists and population activists, long at the forefront of providing family-planning services, can appropriately claim much credit for the brighter outlook. (Not unrebutted, though: others argue that modernism, urbanization, education and wealth driven by market economics have done much of the job.)

But the good news may make it more difficult to sell bad news. For example, the demographic models used in global-warming calculations are based on projections keyed to a population of 11.5 billion people. Inevitably, these numbers will have to be revised sharply downward, and the threat will be reduced. But even if there are not as many billions as were expected, there will be enough billions to make a big mess. The case for exaggeration has been diminished; the case for environmental realism remains powerful.

Consider geopolitics. In 1950, roughly 32 percent of the world's population lived in "the West"—the modern nations of Europe, North America and Japan. Today 20 percent do, and in 2050 it will be more like 12 percent. So what? Arguably, a large population is a necessary but not sufficient condition for global power and influence. India is not now a global power of the first magnitude. Belgium never will be.

The West has been the driving force of modern civilization, inexorably pushing toward democratic values. Will that continue when its share of the total population is only 11 percent? Perhaps as less developed countries modernize, they will assimilate Western views. Perhaps the 21st will still be another "American century." Perhaps not.

Changing demographic patterns offer a split vision of the economic future. Existing businesses tend to do better when their potential customer base grows. For a while there will be plenty of extra customers coming on stream no matter what projection is used (two billion more, even under the low scenario). Moreover, much of the population in developing nations is now moving upscale, providing additional fuel for the global consumer economy.

Still, a robust domestic market is important. (Try building new houses in a depopulating country.) In the past 50 years in America, the population has doubled. That escalator of consumer demand won't continue. American population in the next half-century will probably grow much more slowly, perhaps by less than 30 percent, with most of the increase in the next 20 years.

Europe may become an ever smaller picture postcard continent of pretty old castles and old churches tended by old people with old ideas. Or it may become a much more pluralist place with ever greater proportions of Africans and Muslims - a prospect regarded with horror by a large majority of European voters.

Eventually demography blends into psychology. There is likely to be a lot more personal sadness ahead. There will be missing children and missing grandchildren. In an article in The Public Interest titled "World Population Implosion," demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, of Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute, looks ahead and writes that "for many people, 'family' would be understood as a unit that does not include any biological contemporaries or peers" and that we may live in "a world in which the only biological relatives for many people—perhaps most people—will be their ancestors." Lots of people without brothers or sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins, children or grandchildren—lonelier people.

A lonelier world? It's not lonely enough now? Some observers say that friends and colleagues will become "like family." Do not count on that if you end up in a nursing home. Young DINK'a (double income, no kids) may be cute. Old LINK's (low income, no kids) may be tragic. Clergymen say that the saddest funerals are those in which the deceased has no offspring.

"Pronatalist" policies, like the newly enacted $500-per-child tax credit, are important, but the results are uncertain. And even now, we seem to be moving toward a more atomized life. During the most affluent moment in history, so many young people say they can't afford to have two children. People well into their 60's look vainly for grandchildren. Adoption, already excruciatingly difficult, may well become more so. Will the rest of the country look like Manhattan, which as this magazine has reported has the country's largest concentration of people living alone (48 percent) except for a former leper colony in Hawaii?

First the population was growing too fast. Now in many places it has sunk too low too quickly, with more to come. Is there cause for concern? Certainly, but not for despair. The demographers at the U.N. conference were not talking about a world where people can't control their destiny. Quite the opposite. We are in control, and are changing how we see ourselves and our world.

Ben J. Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the moderator of the PBS program "Think Tank" and the author of "The Birth Dearth."

Copyright ©1997 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission