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WETZSTEIN: Overpopulation or “demographic winter”?

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

Children are our future. They apparently are our biggest problem, too. Do we really want more of them?

The answer from the United Nations is less is more. The answer from producers of the documentary, "Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family," is that if we don't continue to have children, and lots of them, we are headed for "catastrophic" changes in world economies and social structures.

Let's review.

On July 11, World Population Day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 1 billion people, aged 15 to 24, are entering their reproductive years. This means the world needs more family planning, he said.

At the 1994 Cairo conference on population, Mr. Ban explained, nations agreed that all people "have the basic human right to not only decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children, but also to have the information, education and means to do so."

Mr. Ban's remarks were a perfect match for the World Population Day theme, "Family Planning: It's a Right; Let's Make It Real."

To some leaders, overpopulation is such an obvious problem — it exacerbates poverty, disease, resource consumption and global warming — that it is mind-boggling that it's not at the top of political agendas.

The U.N. has predicted a world population of 9.2 billion people by 2050 "and I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity," London Mayor Boris Johnson said in an October column in the London Telegraph.

"It is time we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country and on this planet," he said, listing birth control, "female emancipation" and literacy-promotion as ways to reach that "optimum quantity."

I agree; it's time to have a grown-up discussion about world population.

Let's start with Mr. Johnson's question of why aren't we united in combating population growth. If the respected U.N. Population Division estimates the world population growing from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion, can't we all just agree there is an overpopulation problem and get on with it?

The denial is in the details.

Look closer at the U.N. projections by age.

Between 1950 and 2050, the number of people 60 years of age and older skyrockets. Between 2020 and 2050 alone, the number of elderly practically doubles, reaching 2 billion.

The number of babies and toddlers, meanwhile, is projected to peak in 2015, with 653 million. For the next 35 years, the 0-4 age category steadily shrinks.

Maybe this is easier to grasp by percentages. In 1950, senior citizens (age 60-plus) were 8 percent of the world population and newbies (age 0-4) were 13 percent. By 2050, seniors will be almost 22 percent and newbies less than 7 percent.

This means fewer people of reproductive age, and if young adults only have one or two children like their parents and grandparents, the result will be a shrinking global population.

What's wrong with that, maybe you ask. Fewer people mean fewer carbon footprints. Fewer cars on the Beltway. More towel space at the beach.

It also means fewer schools and more nursing homes. It means jobs and offices filled with old and elderly workers. No Leisure World for you, 60-somethings. Retirement will start at 75.

Young people are the engines of economies. They produce and consume. They hustle. They are the "human capital" of expanding economies, especially when they are trained in new technologies and modern skills, says Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate in economics.

Young people also are innovators, which makes them most likely to come up with solutions to poverty, disease and pollution.

It's time to revive the idea that "having children is part of contributing to society," says Barry McLerran, producer of "Demographic Winter." If too many people don't have children or only have one child, "we've got a huge, huge problem on the horizon," he says.

So which is it? Are children the problem or the solution? This grown-up conversation needs to be continued.

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family appears Tuesdays and Sundays. Send e-mail to cwetzstein@washington times.com.