A World Divided on Population

<i> Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental and policy studies at Dartmouth College</i>

For the first time in history the Census Bureau has projected a slow decline for the United States population. It will not happen until well into the next century, after the momentum of the baby boom carries us from our current 248 million people to 300 million. But if our fertility rate stays as low as it is now, even with steady immigration, a decline is inevitable.

We are not the only nation facing a population decline. In seven European nations, population growth rates are already zero or negative. Over the next 35 years West Germany’s population is expected to decrease by 10%, from 60 million to 54 million. Sweden’s population is expected to drop during that period by 6%, Switzerland’s by 8%.

Yet total world population is expected to double over the next 40 years. It will grow by 85 million people this year, equivalent to the total population of Mexico, and the largest one-year increment ever.

“Every human society is faced with not one population problem but two,” said the late Margaret Mead. “How to beget and rear enough children, and how not to beget and rear too many.”


Our world has both problems in different places. We have two demographic worlds, one declining, one soaring. They are directly correlated with two economic worlds, one rich, one poor. As they say, the rich get richer and the poor get children. Of the 85 million new human souls this year, 16.3 million will be African, 9.6 million Latin American and a whopping 51.7 million Asian. More than 90% of the population growth will take place in what we call the Third World.

For a population to maintain its numbers, women must bear on average slightly more than two children each. In the United States the average number of children born to each woman is now 1.8. In Canada it is 1.7. Denmark is averaging only 1.4 children per woman, West Germany 1.3.

In Mexico average fertility is 4.0 children per woman. In Nigeria it is 6.6, in Kenya 8.0.

The Third World since 1960 has added more people than the total populations of North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and Oceania combined. About 665 million additional jobs will be needed in the developing countries over the next 20 years, just for children who are already born. That is greater than the total number now employed in all of North America, Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan and Oceania.


Since 1950 Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has grown from 43 million to 105 million people. In the next 35 years Nigeria is expected to add another 206 million people. Barring disaster, that means the Nigerian population will grow from 43 million to 311 million in just 70 years--one human lifetime. The implications for the land, the cities, the economy, the politics, the people of Nigeria and of West Africa--and of the world--are staggering.

The population numbers would be even more sobering if the world had not made tremendous progress over the past 20 years in economic development and family planning. Average fertility in the Third World has dropped from six children per woman to four. Use of contraceptives has increased from 9% among married women of reproductive age to 43%. The world population growth rate has dropped from 2.1% per year to 1.7%. That apparently small change makes a big difference--if the growth rate were still 2.1%, the number of people added this year would be not 85 million but 105 million.

Why is rapid population growth so devastatingly correlated with poverty?

One theory has it that people are poor because they go on reproducing and dividing their land, their food, their everything over too many children. Population growth makes poverty. Another theory reverses the causation: Poverty makes population growth. Poor people have many children because children are needed to work and to support their elders--and because children don’t cost much if you don’t have to buy them Reeboks and send them to college. Having children is one of the few powers the poor can exert over their own lives, and one of the few hopes of getting ahead.

There is a third theory. World fertility surveys indicate that anywhere from one third to one half of the babies born in the Third World would not be if their mothers had access to cheap, reliable family planning; had enough personal empowerment to stand up to their husbands and relatives, and could choose their own family size. Economic development brings lower birth rates because it brings to women the pill, literacy and self-determination.

All three theories are probably right. Poverty plus unempowerment plus population growth make a consistent set and a formidable trap. The only way out is economic and personal advancement. The rich one-fifth of the world is living testimony to the fact that some mixture of opportunity, health and family planning does bring population growth rates down. When non-European people like the Japanese, Singaporeans and Taiwanese experience economic development, their fertility goes down, too (to 1.8, 1.7, and 2.1 children per woman, respectively).

Social services, not wealth per se, seem to be the key to lower birth rates. The Chinese, although among the poorest peoples of the world, have brought their fertility rate down to 2.4, partly by social coercion, but mostly by broadly available education, health care and family planning. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, two of the world’s richest countries, average 7.1 and 5.9 children per woman, respectively.

Can the trend to lower birth rates become too much of a good thing? Is the population decline of the developed world something to worry about?


Most people in countries with low fertility are taking the prospect calmly. The stabilization or slow decline of European-descended populations is not so much a problem as a sign of success and a key to a better future for both the rich world and the poor.

Smaller populations in the developed countries will be a help in solving many problems, from unemployment to solid waste to acid rain. In crowded, polluted Europe and in the United States it is hard to argue that more people are needed.

The one possible objection (aside from racist ones) to a slowly declining population is that it will mean relatively fewer young people and more old people. In Sweden, 18% of the population is under the age of 15 and 17% is over the age of 65. By contrast, in Kenya 53% is under 15; only 2% over 65.

Shifting age ratios should pose no economic burden--society will have to spend more on older people but less on young people. There are problems of adaptation, however. Fewer first-grade classrooms will be needed and more Meals on Wheels, fewer pediatricians and more gerontologists. Above all, declining populations will require a revaluing of human resources of all ages.

“More will need to be done to ensure that older people are permitted a life of dignity and reasonable comfort, that society is enabled to take advantage of what older people have to offer and that the relatively scarce resource of children and young adults is not wasted,” said demographer Lincoln Day.

Whatever problems are posed by that revaluing, they will be nothing compared with the problems where birth rates are still high. Kenya is facing a tripling of population over the next 35 years. That increase is a result of impoverishment, and it is likely to be a cause of further impoverishment, unless something is done to stop it.

What can be done? Anything that will help provide basic needs, equal opportunity and family planning technology to every person on earth. That can include Third World debt relief, fair trade, a foreign aid program truly aimed at the poorest of the poor, full support of United Nations development and population programs and real support for Third World self-determination. Any action will help if it comes out of true concern for the welfare of poor people, based not on condescension but on partnership with those people.

An old Chinese proverb says, “If we don’t change our direction, we’ll end up where we’re headed.” Where we’re headed is toward another doubling of world population, nearly all of it in poor countries. We’re headed for greenhouse climate change, for desertification and deforestation, for a world ever more desperate and turbulent. The demographic consequences of our current divided, unequal and unjust world are clear. We don’t have to end up there. We do have to change direction.