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Jewish World Review /Oct. 28, 1998 /8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Two billion never-borns!

TWO CHEERS FOR THE UNITED NATIONS! Slowly, they are getting more realistic about population growth on planet earth. Sadly, you may not hear much about it.

Four years ago in "World Population Prospects: The 1994 Revisions," the United Nations projected that by the year 2050 there would be 9.8 billion people in the world, according to their "medium variant" assumption. In 1996 that projection was dropped to 9.4 billion. Now, in the just published 1998 edition, the projection is down to 8.9 billion people. Almost one billion people have disappeared in just four years! What happened? They will never be born.

Current world population is about 6 billion people. If total population in 2050 goes to 9 billion instead of 10 billion, that means that 25 percent of expected global growth will never materialize. Moreover, it is now clear that as the United Nations continues to get even more realistic, another billion people will vanish by 2050, leaving about 8 billion, cutting expected growth by 50 percent. Then, around 2050, when most young people today will still be alive, it is quite likely that world population will begin to decline.

What's going on is part demographic, part statistical and part political. On the demographic side consider first the Less Developed Countries (LDC). Just three decades ago (1965-1970), the Total Fertility Rate (average number of children born per woman per lifetime) was 6.2. Today (1995-2000), the rate is estimated at 3.0 children per woman, and that rate is falling at historically record-breaking speed. Fertility in Brazil, for example, has fallen from 6.2 children to 2.3, close to the 2.1 "replacement rate" needed to keep a society from losing people over time. In all, the LDCs have already traversed 78 percent of the way to replacement level.

More astonishing is the situation in modern countries, all of which are already below replacement, most of them far below. Fertility rates in Europe are unbelievable. The 1985-1990 rate was a startling 1.83 children per woman. The 1995-2000 rate is 1.42, down 17 percent over 10 years and 2 percent since 1996. In Japan, the rate is 1.43. Such levels are about a third less than needed to prevent an ongoing and geometric decline in population, and yield ever-older societies with ever-fewer worker bees to pay retirement costs.

For many years, Italy had the lowest fertility rate in the world, an astonishing 1.2 children per woman. Italy hasn't changed, but three countries have gone lower: The Czech Republic (1.19), Romania (1.17) and the new world champion, Spain (1.15).

America, with an average of 1.9 children per woman over the last quarter of a century and 2.0 now, has withstood a good part of the Birth Dearth.

Because of immigration, the U.S. will continue to gain population in the decades to come while Europe will shrink by at least 100 million people by mid-century.

In short, never have fertility rates fallen so far, so low, so fast, for so long, all over the world.

For many years, the United Nations diligently reported the dropping rates but did not fully reflect those new rates in their long-term projections.

Through 1996, U.N. medium variant population projections carried a bizarre assumption that all nations with below 2.1 fertility would rise back to that level by 2050 (an absurd 75 percent increase in the case of Italy).

Properly, that assumption has now been changed, reflecting the reality in obstetric wards. Countries below 1.5 rise to 1.7, still a stretch. Countries in the 1.5 to 2.1 range settle in at 1.9. Furthermore, catastrophic rates of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa have been factored into the projections.

But, the statistical reformation at the United Nations has not been completed. Any country with a fertility rate above 2.1 in the year 2000 is kept at 2.1 by the U.N. projectors. This is silly. Consider Indonesia, a country of over 200 million people. The TFR fell from 5.6 to 2.6 children per woman over the last 30 years. The United Nations says the rate will reach 2.1 10 years from now. And then stay there. Which ignores the fact that by the early 1990s there were already 12 LDCs below replacement and that in the later 1990s that number has grown to 20. It is the accommodation of such trends that will likely knock the other billion off the population projections for 2050.

Do not expect the headlines to reflect the new numbers. A single line of statistics can change the perception of the nature of the world. Data showing lower population growth than expected are often regarded as subversive for agenda-driven interests. For example, the root of the "global warming" case is hinged in some large measure to ever-higher population numbers.

But the numbers are real. Sooner or later they will have to be acknowledged.


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Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."