U.N. Study Ends Overpopulation Fears

U.N. Study Ends Overpopulation Fears
May 1, 2002

James M. Taylor

James M. Taylor is senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, and... (read full bio)

On second thought, the world is not going to suffer from ever-growing, catastrophic overpopulation in the foreseeable future, according to a new report issued by the United Nations Population Division.

Catastrophic overpopulation has been a controversial yet consistent prediction by many environmental activist groups since the middle of the last century. Although advances in human technology, particularly in regard to food cultivation and medicine, led to phenomenal increases in human life expectancy during the twentieth century, alarmists have warned that the day will soon come when technology cannot keep up with exponential human growth. Whether or not technology would actually be able to do so will apparently become a moot question, according to the U.N.

Below-replacement fertility now expected

In its March 11 report, “The Future of Fertility in Intermediate-Fertility Countries,” the U.N. Population Division has dramatically reduced its world fertility projections. Instead of an ever-growing world population, the U.N. now concludes that, “The state of current knowledge, buttressed by the actual experience of a growing number of countries, suggests that lengthy periods of below-replacement fertility are likely to be common in the future.”

Given the advances in medicine and other factors, fertility rates of 2.1 children per woman are necessary to sustain current human population levels. In previous projections, the U.N. noted many portions of the world, including most of East Asia, much of the Caribbean, and most of Europe, were already demonstrating below-replacement fertility rates. In those projections, however, the U.N. predicted fertility levels in such low-fertility countries would eventually rise to 2.1 children per woman. The tendency to gravitate to the fertility replacement number, the U.N. believed, was somehow “hardwired” into the human psyche.

However, decades of below-replacement fertility in those countries have shown that no such rebound in fertility is occurring. Nations that are below replacement level will likely remain there.

As importantly, the U.N. now acknowledges fertility levels in many “intermediate-fertility” countries (those nations with fertility levels of 2.1 to 5.0 children per woman) are dropping more quickly than anticipated. Some of those countries are demonstrating fertility levels a full child lower than had been previously predicted.

Coupled with the empirical reality that nations that fall below the replacement fertility level have not gravitated back to the 2.1 break-even figure, the U.N. now finds it likely “approximately 80 percent of the world population will be projected to have below-replacement fertility before mid-century.”

Finally, the outlook for high-fertility countries is predicted to change dramatically as well. Based on current trends and observations, “fertility in high-fertility countries is generally assumed to decline at an average pace of nearly 1 child per decade starting in 2005 or later.” Although some of those countries may not reach below-replacement fertility levels by 2050, they are predicted to do so soon thereafter.

“It seems likely that below-replacement fertility will be common in the future,” summarizes the study. “The fertility level proposed, 1.85 children per woman, represents only a modest, but significant deviation from the replacement level. If attained and maintained, below replacement fertility will lead first to the slowing of population growth rates and then to slow reductions in the size of world population.”

Alarmists won’t be happy

“The implications of the proposed guidelines for future fertility in the 2002 Revision are momentous,” the study concludes.

Momentous, indeed, according to many observers. Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that “environmentalists, the slow-growth crowd, and population-control enthusiasts” preferred the forecasts of exponential human population growth. “The overpopulation crisis was real, inexorable, and growing, they argued. Something had to be done; and they were the ones to do it.”

“I suspect that alarmists will be displeased by the new reality-based projections,” continued Wattenberg, “seeing it as an attack on their rice bowl.”

And in fact, the response from population control groups ranged from displeased to downright denial.

According to World Population Awareness (WPA), “some experts are concerned that the new population projections may discourage the financing of family planning in developing countries by the world's wealthy nations.”

“Many experts see risks of overcrowding resulting in famine, spreading disease, other catastrophes, and political unrest,” WPA added. “If fertility remained at current levels, the population would reach the absurd figure of 296 billion in just 150 years.”

"The rationale for expanding family-planning access still exists," WPA quoted Sally Ethelston, a spokeswoman for Population Action International in Washington, as saying.

While devoting just a single paragraph of its extensive Web site to the U.N. study, WPA nevertheless continued to devote numerous pages to allegations of continuing population growth; alleged environmental harms caused by overpopulation; alleged evils of wealth disparity between rich and poor nations; and the ongoing need for their own fundraising programs.

Similarly, Overpopulation of Earth (OE) ignored the U.N. study and continued to trumpet itself as “the most important Web site on the Internet.” Stated OE,

“Overpopulation is the root cause of all environmental deterioration. Global warming, the ozone hole(s!), rain forest destruction, desertification, the ‘greenhouse effect,’ and all kinds of pollution, weather breakdown, and natural disasters are only symptoms of this already deadly monster. Water shortages, famine, mental breakdown, energy shortages, unemployment, crime and violence, not to mention the collapse of health care, global epidemics, homelessness, wars, new diseases, etc., are all part of this causal relationship.”

Malthus is dead

“These days almost no sane person gives any credence to the population bomb hysteria that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s,” counters Stephen Moore, director of fiscal studies at the Cato Institute. “Every prediction of massive starvations, eco-catastrophes of biblical proportions and $100 a barrel oil has been discredited by the global economic and environmental progress of the past quarter-century. Intellectually, the Malthusian limits to growth menace is stone dead.”

Adds Moore, “A vote for [population control] is a vote for a fanatical anti-people creed that holds that we should celebrate the planting of a tree, or a litter of three baby seals, but that we should regard the birth of a human couple's third baby in China or India or even the United States as eco-terrorism.

“The cause of world hunger and environmental disasters in the world today is not too many people. It is too much statism. Almost all of the greatest ecological damage of the past 50 years was perpetrated by the socialists behind the iron curtain.”


For more information ...

See Joseph L. Bast’s essay, “Ending the Myth of Overpopulation,” available on Heartland’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org/perspectives/worldpopday.htm.

James M. Taylor

James M. Taylor is senior fellow for environment and energy policy at The Heartland Institute, and... (read full bio)