- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

Despite long-held fears of overpopulation, some experts now say the biggest challenge to future generations may be the opposite — depopulation.

“Never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly,” said Ben Wattenberg, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and author of a new book “Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future.”

At a recent book forum, Mr. Wattenberg said that for the first time since the Black Plague of the 14th century, the world’s population over the next century is expected to drop. The latest figures from the United Nations Population Division show world population peaking at an estimated 9 billion people in 2070 and then gradually sliding downward.

“This is the single most important trend and development going on in the world today,” he said. “It affects everything.”

But critics of Mr. Wattenberg and other “birth dearthers” say they are ignoring the fact that the world’s population is still growing at a historic pace, adding an estimated 75 million people per year.

“It is a fool’s errand to try and predict the fertility decisions of people who are not born yet. The only thing we can be absolutely sure of with our projections is that they will be wrong,” said John Seager, executive director of Populations Connection, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates educational programs aimed at decreasing birth rates.

Mr. Wattenberg’s population theory hinges on projections that indicate the world total fertility rate will sink below 2.1 children per woman — the amount needed to sustain the existing population. For the first time, U.N. demographers are predicting the total fertility rate will drop to 1.85 by 2050, said Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N.’s Population Division.

Experts attribute declining fertility rates to a host of factors including education of women, urbanization, rising age of marriage and legalized abortion.

One major consequence of depopulation could be a shifting in geopolitical power because of population loss, Mr. Wattenberg said. For instance, Europe is expected to lose an estimated 100 million people over the next 50 years. Meanwhile, India is expected to become the world’s most populous country.

Fewer births could spell trouble for governments struggling with an aging population. Life expectancies are on the rise worldwide, with more people reaching age 100 and over, Mr. Chamie said.

As a result, he said, funding old-age pensions and finding enough workers to pay taxes and support a strong economy could become a problem. Given those challenges, immigrants will become critical — particularly for developing nations and the United States, Mr. Wattenberg said.

“Immigration can play a huge role in trying to fix some of these problems,” he said.

While most developed nations are expected to have significant population declines, the United States is an exception. The country’s population is expected to grow by 43 percent by 2050 despite a drop in birth rates, the result primarily of immigration.

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