Remember the population bomb, the fertility explosion set to devour the world’s food and pollute all its air and water? Over the last 30-40 years, the Malthusian bomb has fizzled. Birthrates in developed countries from Italy to Korea sank below the levels needed for their populations to replace themselves; the typical age of marriage and pregnancy has risen, and the use of birth control has soared beyond the dreams of Margaret Sanger…Ever since 1968, when the United Nations Population Division predicted that the world population, now 6.3 billion, would grow to at least 12 billion (up to 20 billion) by 2050, the agency has regularly revised its estimates downward. Now it expects world population to plateau at 9 billion. Where did those billions go? Millions of babies have died, a fraction of them from AIDS, far more from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, even measles. More millions have been aborted, either to prevent birth or, as in China and India, to avoid giving birth to a girl. (Cheap ultrasound technology has in the last decade made it easy to determine a child’s sex..) [So much for eliminating sex discrimination ] Many are the babies who were simply never conceived.
As late as 1970, the world’s median fertility level was 5.4 births per woman; in 2000, it was 2.9. Barring war, famine, epidemic or disaster, a country needs a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman to hold steady. The best-known example of shrinkage is Italy, whose women were once symbols of fecundity. By 2000, Italy’s fertility rate was Western Europe’s lowest, at 1.2 births per woman. Its population is expected to drop 20 percent by mid-century. Italy plummeted past wealthy, liberal, Denmark, where women got birth control early; Denmark was below population replacement level in 1970, at 2.0 births per woman, and slid to 1.7 by 2001. In Europe’s poorest country, Albania, where rural people still live in armed clan compounds, the 1970 rate of 5.1 births per woman fell to 2.1 in 1999. Even in North Africa, birthrates are dropping. Egypt went from 5.4 births per woman in 1970 to 3.6 in 1999. Jordanians had 8 children per woman in the 1960’s; now the rate is 3.5. Israel went from 4 children in the 1950’s to 2.7 today. In Tunisia and Iran, the number may be close to 2 children. So much for the myth of Muslim fertility. [Chamie, UN] Old notions of Asian fertility are similarly false. China has pushed its fertility rate below that of France; Japan’s population is withering with age; and after 50 years of industrialization, South Korea, a mostly rural country with 6 births per woman during its civil war in the 1950’s, now has 1.17 births per woman.
Alarmed by the trends, many countries are paying citizens to get pregnant. Estonia pays for a year’s maternity leave. The treasurer of Australia, Peter Costello, introduced $2,000-per-baby subsidies in that country’s 2004 budget. He told his fellow citizens to “go home and do your patriotic duty tonight.” Unique among developed countries, the United States birthrate has held steady at 2.13 per woman. U.S. growth, about 3,000,000 people a year, is mostly fueled by immigration, as it has been since the Mayflower. Half the world’s population growth is in 6 countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China (despite its slowed birthrate). That makes doom-saying trickier than it was in 1968, when Paul R. Ehrlich, father of the population bomb, frightened everyone with his book “The Population Bomb” Global changes have undermined the book’s gloomiest projections. [Even the NYT now recognizes that the population bomb is false and even admits that abortion is at least partially responsible for birthrates below replacement levels in developed countries, N. Valko, R.N.; http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/weekinreview/29mcne.html, 29Aug04, By D. G. McNEIL Jr.]