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Sorting out population projections
By Linda Seebach
Scripps Howard News Service


March 27, 2005

"Population Puzzle: Boom or Bust?"

That's the question asked (but not answered) by a sourcebook on demographics _ a spirited collection that goes back all the way to Malthus but surveys the most recent trends as well.

The editors are Laura Huggins and Hanna Skandera, present and former research fellows at the Hoover Institution, which published the book.

Hoover's free-market philosophy and generally optimistic outlook are certainly much in evidence, but the editors have taken pains to include diverse views. The sky-is-falling school of environmentalists won't care for the mix, but pretty nearly everybody else will find something useful here.

You'd think, with demographics, it would be fairly easy to make projections about future populations. As Nicholas Eberstadt observes in an essay reprinted from the journal Foreign Policy, "the great majority of the people who will inhabit the world in 2025 are already alive. Only an apocalyptic disaster can change that."

But, in fact, population projections have often proved unreliable.

Demographers in the Depression didn't foresee the baby boom, or in fact anything like it. People who worried about a shortage of natural resources hoped that fertility rates would fall, especially in places where they were extremely high, but no one was expecting that where they were already low they would fall so much further below replacement rate (about 2.1 children on average born to each woman) that a significant number of countries will see their populations collapse within two or three generations, unless fertility rates rise again.

Changes in life expectancy also affect population estimates. Eberstadt notes that, according to the United Nations, no place on Earth had a lower life expectancy in the early 1970s than in the early 1950s. And by the end of the '70s, only two did _ Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge, and East Timor.

But now, the list of countries expected to have lower life expectancy at birth in 2010 than they did in 1990 is "long and growing" _ 39 countries, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They include Brazil, the Bahamas, 10 of the former states of the Soviet Union and 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The reasons are obviously different. In Russia, it's a lethal combination of heavy smoking and heavy drinking, with a deteriorating public health system thrown in. In Africa, it is primarily the spread of AIDS coupled with extreme poverty.

Specific predictions, even those made not all that long ago, can seem rather quaint. In an article he published in The Humanist magazine in 1989, Garrett Hardin argued that government action was necessary to curb population growth. He cited the Hutterites _ a group highly atypical of American and Canadian society _ as evidence "that a voluntary system of population control, when it is (ital)not(end ital) backed by legal sanctions, can work only with small groups of people who are intimately involved with one another daily."

He went on to ask, "So what are the chances that American society as a whole can achieve population control by voluntary means? Essentially zero, at present." The reason, he added, is that Americans are too comfortable to search for methods "grounded in human nature, as China's method is."

(Why, yes, forced abortions and sterilizations are fundamental to human nature.)

Anyway, Hardin goes on to argue for a complete end to immigration, which he regards as merely a means of exporting one country's population problem to another. "In the absence of immigration, present trends in fertility, if continued unchanged, would bring America to zero population growth in about fifty years." Then the government could pay people to have children, in order to stabilize the population, "but all that is so far in the future that there is no profit in trying to spell out the details."

No profit, indeed. Immigration aside, America's fertility rate is already at or below replacement, and we've got about 34 years to go. Of course, immigration is by no means "aside," but that's a different question.

I remember reading that Hardin article (or possibly a similar one he published elsewhere, since that magazine is not on my usual reading list), and thinking that he was wrong about a lot of things, but right on one important point. If there is a population problem, then there is no solution, because any solution is either unworkable or unacceptable.

But it seems less and less likely that there is a population problem, at least in the sense that human beings will become more numerous than Earth can support. Projections for total world population in 2050 have been declining. The U.N. estimate in 1994 was 9.8 billion, in 1996 it was 9.4 billion and in 1998 it was 8.9 billion.

"Almost a billion people disappeared in just four years," Huggins and Skandera write.

It pays to be cautious about projections.


Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at

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