Thursday, November 21, 2019

Population: The Current State and Future Prospects

This is one of fourteen essays in Biological Extinction and was written by John Bongaarts. The essay is so comprehensive and succinct that I thought I would at least summarize it, because it presents in clear terms the current status and future trends in global population, and because this perspective is a good one for discussing major policy issues, though it does not extend into related areas such as climate change or geopolitics. Bongaarts is a demographer, and I found it interesting to see how regional population levels are framed by fertility rates related to relative degrees of participation in the Industrial Revolution.

Until modern times, women typically had six or seven children, and, because of diseases, famines, wars and infant mortality, the average life expectancy was thirty. When the Industrial Revolution occurred, life expectancies increased due to improved health and resources, and, with the introduction of women to the workforce, less time became available for childrearing. Eventually, with improved contraception methods, women chose to have fewer children, which allowed them to work and have greater control over their lives. What is interesting is that all regions are following a similar curve in which less-developed regions gradually reduce their fertility rates as their economies come to resemble more-developed regions. In the most-developed regions, the number of children per woman approaches two, and in some countries it has even fallen below that, meaning that, without immigration, their populations will decline.

While the world population increased only from about one billion in 1800 to about 2.3 billion in 1950, most of the world was still undeveloped in 1950, which helps explain why the population has since increased to about 7.7 billion – in just 69 years. Currently, the number of births per woman is slightly below two in Europe, about two in North America, slightly higher in Latin America and Asia and about five in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Thus, although population growth is approaching stability in most of the world, in Sub-Saharan Africa the number of children per woman will still be about three in 2050, which constitutes a continuing population explosion. Current estimates indicate that in 2100, the world population will be 11.21 billion, with 9.94 billion people in less-developed regions and 1.28 billion people in more-developed regions. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa will jump from .96 billion to 4.39 billion.

Bongaarts also mentions changes such as increased urbanization and problems associated with ageing populations. The former will put greater pressures on cities, while rural areas will stabilize. The latter will result in reduced workforces and insufficient resources to support the elderly. Healthcare and retirement systems will increasingly come under pressure, and this is already occurring in countries such as Japan and Italy, which have the lowest fertility rates.

Finally, Bongaarts discusses the importance of family planning from a policy standpoint. Family planning is an effective tool for reducing population increases in less-developed regions, where many women are not aware of their options. He concludes by saying:

Assisting couples to achieve their reproductive preferences is a compassionate act that promotes responsible parenthood and improves the lives of women, their children and their communities, especially among the poor and most vulnerable sections of society. The resulting decline in unplanned births also enhances prospects for poverty reduction and moderates the increasingly harmful impact of human activities on the natural environment.

I appreciated this essay because it concisely states the pertinent facts of population growth and touches on some of the policy measures that can be taken to alleviate increasing pressures. Often, population growth is discussed in far more nebulous terms, and it is less apparent that actions can be taken that affect future outcomes. Perhaps I like the essay because the framework falls within my preferred worldview, which emphasizes the biological aspects of mankind and rejects most ideology. I think there are several equally informative essays in this book, and I intend to discuss them separately.

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