- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The United Nations’ population experts recently rocked the world by projecting the planet will be home to a larger-than-expected 10.1 billion people by 2100.

To some, the august body used statistical “magic” to arrive at this number. To others, the 10.1 billion figure is too low - a calamitous 15 billion people, they argue, is closer to the truth.

Welcome to the delicately calibrated and yet fractious world of long-term demography - where people draw fears of environmental and immigration catastrophes caused by too many babies or economic and cultural collapses caused by too few.

When the U.N. Population Department (UNPD) released its 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects early in May, media headlines screamed about the 10.1 billion-people-in-90-years projection. They then dropped the subject.

But the UNPD analysts arrived at the startling number by building a controversial assumption into their numbers - projecting that, sooner or later, all the women in the world would average 2.0 children.

Population watchers such as Steven W. Mosher say that a 10.1 billion population and global 2.0 fertility rate are ludicrous.

Childbearing trends “point downward,” said Mr. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute.

Moreover, he said, several countries have proved that fertility rates can fall extremely low “and stay there for a long time,” which would make it amazing that someday, somehow, everyone will “magically self-regulate their reproduction” to precisely the level needed to maintain a global population.

The world’s population is expected to top 7 billion later this year.

On the other side of the population divide are people who are alarmed that the UNPD’s population projections are higher than ever.

Ten billion people is a “radical shift” from previous UNPD projections, which had world population peaking around 9 billion and then leveling off, husband-and-wife academics Martha Campbell and Malcolm Potts wrote recently in “The Myth of 9 Billion” in Foreign Policy magazine.

Steady population growth for 90 years would have “an unimaginably profound effect on virtually everything else that happens in the 21st century,” Ms. Campbell and Mr. Potts wrote.

Even 10 billion people “could do irreversible damage to the planet. Its just too many people,” they said, adding that family planning and other incentives to reduce childbearing are needed more than ever.

So what are policymakers to think of these completely opposite scenarios? Is humanity destined to overrun itself? Or is it heading toward a world where children are rare but old people are everywhere?

Two babies per woman?

At the heart of the UNPDs 2010 report is an assumption that, sooner or later, “fertility in all countries converges to replacement level,” with all the women in the world averaging around two children.

That means that in 58 high-fertility countries, including those in Africa, Asia and Oceania, women would start having fewer children, while in 74 low-fertility countries, heavily clustered in Europe, women would start having more children.

High-fertility countries are already seeing steady, slow declines in childbearing, and upticks in fertility have been reported in some European countries, demonstrating that low fertility rates can recover, said UNPD Director Hania Zlotnik.

In many low-fertility countries, she explained, “part of the fertility decline” was because many young women were postponing their childbearing.

“Now those women cannot postpone any longer, and theyre going to have their children, and we will see fertility go up,” she said.

Of course, “we do not know what the future is,” Ms. Zlotnik added. But “what we are saying is, if things work out more or less fine, and every country goes back to something like replacement level, then this [10 billion population in 2100] is what may happen, and this is a relatively good outcome … the population of the world grows, but not enormously.”

Where did the two-children-per-woman fertility assumption originate?

Ms. Zlotnik and Joseph Chamie, former UNPD director, said it is based on trends in fertility, migration and mortality.

“You have to pick an exact number” for computer modeling, and thats why, for awhile, the UNPD used a “fertility floor” of 1.85 children per woman, said Mr. Chamie, who began working with centuries-long population projections in 2003.

While some people feel its “not well grounded” to assume that fertility will find its way to replacement levels, he said, such an assumption allows high, low and medium projections to be made at all.

Without mathematical parameters, computer models can come up with all kinds of impossible scenarios, such as “fertility that goes to zero [children per woman] or 20.0 children per woman,” said Ms. Zlotnik. Even with parameters, the population numbers “look like spaghetti … the ends, the paths, are going all over the place.”

So UNPD demographers work hard to find “the central path, the median path,” and then identify the low and high variants, she said.

Imploding vs. exploding

Population watchers who worry about implosion know about the demographic maxim that says it is harder to raise fertility than reduce it.

They also have likely heard of Viennese demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his “low-fertility trap” hypothesis.

Mr. Lutz argues that once low-fertility trends “get set in motion, its hard to reverse them,” said sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, president of a new population research company, Demographic Intelligence.

The “trap” means that countries with very low fertility rates, such as Russia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Italy, Spain and Greece, might see “slight recovery,” but “without some dramatic cultural shift,” they will not recover fully, said Mr. Wilcox.

“Many of today’s young adults in Europe and elsewhere are too enamored of sex, the city and the single life to think about marriage, much less about replacing themselves,” said Mr. Mosher, who also is known for his opposition to China;s coercive one-child policy.

Moreover, almost all of the factors affecting fertility - such as rising education levels among women, delaying marriage and delaying childbearing - “have the effect of reducing birthrates,” said Mr. Mosher.

In a December article for the Globalist, Mr. Chamie listed several ways countries can try to increase childbearing. These included restricting contraception and abortion; paying “bonuses” for children; and launching baby-friendly media campaigns. South Korea used the slogan “Let’s have one more kid,” while Australia urged its people to “Have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country.”

Other pro-natalist avenues were assisting mothers in juggling infant care and work (such as long maternity leaves, part-time work and worksite nurseries); encouraging paternity leave and male domesticity; and giving couples with children preferential treatment on matters such as mortgages, loans, housing, welfare and other government services.

Still, such efforts “will have to overcome powerful forces” that discourage childbearing, he wrote. The average cost of raising a child to age 18 in America is $222,000. Also, young women around the world are inculcated to seek a college degree and a well-paying job, and then worry about marriage and childbearing.

Another demographic maxim says that fertility delayed is fertility denied.

A world-level meeting on falling fertility and the future of the family is being held in Russia June 29-30.

The choice of Russia is not accidental, said organizers of the World Congress of Families (WCF). Russia’s fertility rate is 1.4 children per woman. Its population dropped from 148.5 million people in 1995 to 143 million today, and unofficial estimates suggest the federation has nearly 4 million abortions a year, compared with 1.7 million births.

In April, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that “demography” was Russias most acute problem, and called for the birthrate to grow by at least 25 percent by 2015. He proposed cash grants, longer paid-maternity leave and day-care subsidies to encourage childbearing.

“It’s not Russia alone that’s experiencing demographic winter,” said WCF managing director Larry Jacobs. “This birth dearth will be one of the greatest challenges confronting humanity in the 21st century.”

Although pro-natalist groups argue that robust, young populations are essential for economic growth, innovation and national well-being, others worry about population growths inescapable ties to poverty, poor health, gender inequality and environmental degradation.

‘Staggering increase’

The UNPDs 10.1 billion population projection is “a staggering jump,” said Randy Serraglio, a leader at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.

“There is simply no way the Earth can support that many people and sustain all of the other species that rely on its resources for survival,” said Mr. Serraglio.

The UNPDs earlier 9 billion projection “was based on optimistic scenarios of increased family planning awareness, education and access to birth control,” he said. “We must redouble our efforts to make those scenarios a reality.”

Family planning is underfunded and underutilized, and the growing populations are proof of that, Population Council demographer John Bongaarts told Science magazine. Africa, for instance, was supposed to see fertility declines, but it “is not following the script as precisely as expected,” he said.

The Obama administration is increasing funding for international family planning, which is “badly needed” after years of neglect, said Ms. Campbell, who runs Venture Strategies and lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, where her husband and co-author Mr. Potts teaches.

“Republicans want to cut” this vital family-planning funding, she said, but “we would like to see the media and major opinion leaders grasp the importance of access to family planning.”

As for worries about low fertility rates, “all the countries that say they want to raise their average [family] size to increase their work force already have significant unemployment,” Ms. Campbell noted. “So producing more children isnt going to help much.”

In the end, the UNPD will update its projections every two years, using real-time data about population and fertility, said Ms. Zlotnok.

The 2010 revision “is the first time we have extended the horizon out to 2100,” she said. “What we are projecting is very moderate. But it might not happen. We don’t know.”

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