Sunday, January 27, 2019

Population Bust, not Population Boom

Changing fertility rates  have challenge those predictions of a dystopian future of an over-populated world and now question UN projections on  global population growth. Pessimists predicted a future of overcrowding, scarcity, conflict and possible collapse. But the premise is probably false. We need to prepare, not for the consequences of a population boom, but a population bust.

Already, almost two dozen countries are getting smaller every year, from Poland to Cuba to Japan, which lost almost 450,000 people in 2018. In these countries, women have fewer than the 2.1 babies that they must produce, on average, for a population to remain stable. The population decline would be even steeper were it not for steadily increasing life expectancy. More old people and fewer young people place an increased strain on society’s ability to generate the wealth needed to fund, among other things, healthcare for the old.

The United Nations Population Division projects that numbers will swell to more than 11 billion by the end of this century, almost 4 billion more than are alive today. Where will they live? How will we feed them? How many more of us can our fragile planet withstand? But a growing body of opinion believes the UN is wrong. We will not reach 11 billion by 2100. Instead, the human population will top out at somewhere between 8 and 9 billion around the middle of the century, and then begin to decline.
Jørgen Randers, a Norwegian academic who decades ago warned of a potential global catastrophe caused by overpopulation, has changed his mind. “The world population will never reach nine billion people,” he now believes. “It will peak at 8 billion in 2040, and then decline.”
Prof Wolfgang Lutz and his fellow demographers at Vienna’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis predict the human population will stabilise by mid-century and then start to go down.
A Deutsche Bank report has the planetary population peaking at 8.7 billion in 2055 and then declining to 8 billion by century’s end.
The UN refute the claims of these experts, relying on the authority of experience. “We imagine that countries that currently have higher levels of fertility and lower levels of life expectancy will make progress in the future in a similar manner, at a similar speed, to what was experienced by countries in the past,” John Wilmoth, director of the UN Population Division, says. “It’s all grounded in past experience.”
But some demographers think this is wrong, primarily because the UN is failing to account for an accelerating decline in fertility as a result of urbanisation. In 2007, for the first time in human history, the majority of people in the world lived in cities. Today, it’s 55%. In three decades, it will be two-thirds.  A lot happens when people move from the countryside into the city. First, a child changes from being an asset – another pair of shoulders to work in the fields – to a burden – another mouth to feed. Even more important, a woman who moves to a city has greater access to media, to schools, to other women. She demands greater autonomy. And many women who are able to exercise control over their own bodies decide to have fewer children. Religious and family pressures to marry and make babies also recede in the city; friends and co-workers, who are largely indifferent to one another’s reproductive choices, become more important.
“The brain is the most important reproductive organ,” Prof Lutz explains. “Once a woman is socialised to have an education and a career, she is socialised to have a smaller family. There’s no going back.” 
In the large countries of the developing world, where the great majority of people live the decline in birth rates have been astonishing. China, the world’s largest country, has a fertility rate of 1.5, lower than Britain’s. India, soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, is at the replacement rate of 2.1 and falling. Brazil, the fifth most populous country, has a fertility rate of 1.8.
Africa retains fertility rates far above replacement. If the human population truly is heading towards 11 billion people, as the UN predicts, then the future of Africa will be grim; the continent will remain largely poor and rural. Women will be forced to have child after child, swelling the numbers of humanity in the one place on Earth that can least easily sustain them. But this is also a too pessimistic a prognosis. Parts of Africa are making great strides in empowering women and reducing the number of children they have. Kenya is one example, though not the only one. Only about a quarter of its people earn a salary from either a private - or public-sector employer, which is the very definition of a modern workforce. Half the population doesn’t believe it gets enough to eat and about a third reports sometimes going to bed hungry. On the other hand, over 75% of the population have mobile device subscriptions. In the past three decades, the country’s urban population has more than doubled to 32%. And as it urbanises, Kenya’s fertility rate plummets: from 8 in 1960 to 3.4 today. Almost as many girls as boys sat last year for the exams that permit students to graduate from primary school.
Women make up 61% of the members of Rwanda’s parliament, the highest proportion of any government. The fertility rate in that country has plummeted from 8 to 4 in the past 30 years. 
Elsewhere the fertility rate figures are less encouraging: Niger, 7; Mali, 6; Nigeria, 5. But even there, changes are happening: Nigeria’s fertility rate was almost seven in 1980. Africa in this century will feature urbanisation, better-educated girls and women, and falling fertility. Not everywhere, and not all at once, but in more places than not, and sooner rather than later.
The fertility rate in the UK is 1.7. Most population growth in the UK today is the result of immigration, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without immigrants, Great Britain would eventually enter an era of population decline.
A child born this decade will probably reach middle age in a world where population growth has stalled, and may already have begun to shrink. 

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