The latest population figures are now in. On October 28, the United Nations Population Division (not to be confused with the UN Population Fund) issued its “1998 Revision of the World Population Estimates and Projections.” In a now-familiar exercise, it has sharply revised its population projections downward.
Just two years ago, in the “1996 Revisions,” the UN Population Division (UNPD) projected that world population would peak at 9.7 billion in 2050. This was the “‘medium-fertility projection,” the one which its demographers considered “most likely” to occur. Plummeting birth rates worldwide, combined with the rising tide of AIDS in Africa, rendered these projections obsolete within months. The 1998 Revisions now estimate that population at the mid-century mark will reach only 8.9 billion, a net loss of nearly a billion souls from the earlier number.
Even this figure is probably an overestimate. The UN’s “low-fertility projection,” historically more accurate than its “‘medium-fertility one,” sees only 7.3 billion people inhabiting the world in 2050. Given that world population now stands at 5.9 billion, this means we will only add about a quarter of this number to the human family before beginning what could be a wrenching descent.
How can this be? Nearly half the world’s population — 44 percent to be exact — has now decided, for various reasons, not to replace themselves, or are dying of AIDS before they can. The remainder is having far fewer children than their grandparents. The UNPD reports that the global average fertility level now stands at 2.7 births per woman, a mere 0.6 above the replacement level. By way of contrast, in the early 1950s women averaged 5 births. Fertility is now declining in all parts of the world. Over the past 25 years the number of children per couple has fallen from 5.1 to 2.6 in Asia, from 5.0 to 2.7 in Latin America and from 6.6 to 5.1 in Africa.
While birthrates are still relatively high in Africa, this is partly offset by the devastation of AIDS, which is taking the lives of millions of Africans in the middle of their reproductive years. In the 29 hardest-hit African countries, the average life expectancy at birth is currently 2 years less than it would have been in the absence of AIDS. The UNPD reports that “The highest prevalence of HIV in the world is currently in Botswana, where one of every 4 adults is infected. Life expectancy at birth in Botswana is anticipated to fall from 61 years in 1990–1995 to 41 years by 2000–2005.”
The population controllers, increasingly desperate to justify their programs in the face of an increasingly skeptical Congress (See Tiarht Amendment story on p. 1), have recoiled from these new numbers. John Bongaarts, writing in Science (October 16), warns us that the “world population explosion” is not over. Bongaarts, an employee of the Population Council, rather claims that “we are just past … mid-point (of the explosion). After a record-breaking increase of’2 billion people over the past 25 years, the same increase is projected over the next 25 years, and a further expansion to 10.4 billion is expected by 2100.” He goes on to bemoan the “addition of several billion more people” while warning against “overblown” concern over the “potential adverse effects” of an aging or declining population.
Exaggerating humanity’s future numbers is a scare tactic as old as the population control movement itself, and does not need comment here. But in minimizing the devastating social and economic impact that depopulation will have on the developed world in the immediate future, and in the less-developed world in the years to come, the population controllers are doing mankind a new disservice. Fertility rates in many countries have dropped so low that only a radical shift in the direction of a pro-family, pro-natal world-view will be sufficient to save them from decimation. But Bongaarts is determined to minimize the problem, “Fertility rates are not as low as they appear to be,” he claims. Couples around the world are only delaying childbirth, and will eventually have two children. He offers the example of France, where annual total fertility rate has been reported to be well below the replacement level since the mid-1970s. He points out that French women who have reached the end of their childbearing years report having 2.1 births on average, close to the preferred number.
But you can only set back the biological clock so many years. After twenty years time — and fertility — has run out tor many French couples.