Paying a visit to my phlegmatic Punjabi physician in New Delhi in the early 1960s, I found him uncharacteristically upset. Amniocentesis had come to India and some of his patients were asking him to abort fetuses if they were female. Out of moral scruple, he was refusing, losing patients — and deeply concerned. It was a revelation of the growing complexity of medical progress, but also a warning of things to come as science posed more and more difficult moral decisions.
A half-century later, my physician friend's warnings about "playing God" have had their repercussions. In China, where the communist regime imposed a one-child mandate to limit its huge and seemingly intractable population growth, traditional female infanticide has multiplied — or so the always unreliable government statistics indicate. The average number of children a woman has during her childbearing years is estimated at 1.6 and declining rapidly. A replacement rate to keep the population stable is 2.1 children. One effect is to further skew a sex ratio with millions of young men unable to find partners. Ten-cent psychology tell us that a society with a large "excess" of males -- China has between 45 million and 60 million -- would be prone to aggressive policies, including those favoring foreign adventure.
India's decades of widespread voluntary family planning propaganda (except for a brief period when Indira Gandhi's "emergency" of 1975-1977 threatened mandatory sterilization) have clearly affected the fertility rate. But because of continuing population growth, India will shortly surpass China's 1.35 billion people to become the world's most populous nation. Some speculate that this may produce a tortoise-and-hare relationship between the two large economies. China is already graying, with estimates that almost 14 percent of its population is older than 60. It could suffer labor shortages for the low-wage industries that pace its export-led economy. India, on the other hand, has a fertility rate of 2.5 births per couple — although the numbers are very skewed among its dozens of racial, ethnic and language groups.
With all the noise about the Arab Spring's promised reforms in the huge swath of 22 countries across North Africa and the Middle East, perhaps the most important determinant behind the political explosion is the region's population bulge. U.N. estimates indicate that the total population of the Arab countries since 1970 has climbed from 128 million to 359 million, with 598 million expected by 2050 -- two-thirds more people than in 2010. Furthermore, children younger than 15 account for a third of the population and people ages 15 to 24 account for another fifth, which means the 54 percent now younger than 25 will be needing jobs in the coming years.
But, again, the densities and growth are skewed within the area -- with fertility rates dropping for the most part but with the huge backlogs pushing overall population figures. There is growing -- if still contested -- evidence, for example, that fertility rates and therefore population growth have dropped dramatically among Israeli Arabs and in the West Bank and Gaza. If that is the case, the whole Israeli-Arab feud takes a new turn as Arab population growth against lower Israeli birthrates has been one of the major calculations in the continuing struggle.
Fundamental is the juxtaposition across the Mediterranean of the growing Arab, mostly Muslim population of North Africa and the Middle East against a southern Europe, geared until recently as a main source of immigration for the Western Hemisphere and northern Europe. Thus an Italy, now with the lowest birthrate in Europe, and its neighbors in the European Union face the dilemma of importing workers from the Arab-Muslim world to supplement a declining population, and the difficulties of those migrants' absorption into societies historically unaccustomed to it.
And nothing less than a demographic catastrophe has hit Japan, a country notoriously inhospitable to immigrants. In 2011, Japan's population dropped for a fifth consecutive year, by 204,000 people to 126.24 million, and could drop to 95 million by 2050. With the longest life expectancy of any major country, Japan is now a nation where almost a quarter of the population is older than 65. It's estimated that almost 40 percent of the population will be 65 and older by 2050. With a large number of young Japanese refusing marriage and children, there is a growing crisis over maintaining the country's expanding social security system and staffing its export-led industrial plant. Traditional efforts at government incentives to turn this tide have proved inadequate.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.