Till Death Do Us Part – Wedded to Population Growth

Published on January 27th, 2014

Last year the U.N. Population Division revised upward its global demographic projections for 2050 and 2100. These revisions – to higher expected populations – reflected demographers’ realization that fertility declines in a number of developing countries were not happening as uniformly or as swiftly as they had earlier assumed.

Indeed, in some countries fertility declines had stalled altogether, or even turned around.

And for the global population to grow by only another 2.5 billion by 2050 and only another 3 – 3.5 billion by 2100 requires substantial, sustained declines in the current global total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.5.

Were the TFR to remain at 2.5 for the rest of the century – or were the global population to continue growing by 1.2 percent annually – more than 20 billion people would be trampling the planet to death by century’s end. It is doubtful, however, that the Earth’s resources and environment could sustain that many humans for very long, if at all, at any acceptable standard of living or quality of life.

Yet more and more, U.N. projections – which assume that growth continues but tapers off en route to population stabilization – appear to be unduly optimistic.

For some years a backlash against fertility declines and population stabilization has been building among influential economists, politicians and business elites. These are the guys who believe that perpetual population growth is needed for economic prosperity and political and military might.

Whether or not perpetual population growth is possible or desirable on a finite planet with diminishing resources is not something that troubles these purported masters of the universe. They are now adding their powerful voices and political clout to that of certain religious fundamentalists, who have always opposed female empowerment, family planning and population stabilization.

The Population Media Center (PMC) reports that two developing countries that made great strides in reducing their birthrates – Iran and Vietnam – are now among those questioning their very success:

Both Iran and Vietnam have, in the past, displayed world-class expertise in engineering rapid fertility declines through public-education, advocacy and national policies.

Indeed, Iran’s TFR fell by two-thirds between 1986 and 2000. In 2013 its TFR was 1.9, below replacement level.

Technical experts and religious leaders worked together to navigate sensitive moral and ethical considerations in implementing government policy. Involvement of local health workers, women health volunteers and rural midwives led to great community participation, and by the year 2000 Iran showed 74 percent contraceptive use among married women.

Seyed Ali Khamenei

Unfortunately, the country’s leaders are now singing a different tune. According to Iran Pulse, last year Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged couples to stop using contraception, encouraging them instead to procreate early and often. Khamenei wants the Iranian population to double from 76.5 million at present to 150 million.

Billboards have proliferated, proclaiming: “More Children, A Happier Life.”

Iranian billboards promoting larger families – a throwback to the past of “the more, the merrier.”

In 2013, Vietnam’s population was 90 million; its TFR, once above six, now stands at 2.1, right at replacement level. However, its numbers continue to grow from population momentum.

For years, Vietnamese officials urged the public to have one or two children. Now, however, fear of population aging has made them come out against one-child families, and modify their message to “having two children is the best.”

China has also begun relaxing its infamous one-child policy.

The upshot is that “optimistic” official global population projections that assume continuing aggregate fertility decline and eventual population stabilization may need to be revised upward yet again.

All too many of our fellow humans appear unwilling to acknowledge limits, reminding one of the late, great Prof. Al Bartlett’s assertion that: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

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