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The population problem

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 10, 2005

The battle to feed humanity is over. In the1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.
-- Dr. Paul Erlich, The Population Bomb, 1968.

…it is probable that by the year 2000 each of the major world regions will have a population growth rate that either is zero or is easily within the capacity of its expanding economy to support.
-- Donald J. Bogue, The End of the Population Explosion, from The Public Interest, 1967.

We all know who got all the attention and adoration: the wrong prognosticator. Since we know this, one would think that the debate would be over, yet alarms are still sounding loud and clear.

Dr. Neal G. Lineback is currently Professor Emeritus of Geography at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He writes a column (Geography in the News) on geography which is read in the classrooms of over 6,000 schools worldwide. His columns also appear in newspapers, including our local Transylvania Times, where I read him. Recently he wrote a column titled: "6.5 Billion and Counting."

A summary of his article might be that the world's population has grown in the past and continues to grow and we need to think about some of the problems this entails. Nothing wrong with that except that one of the assumptions one makes from the article is that the population will continue to grow at the alarming rates in the future as it has in the past.

For example, in his first paragraph he wrote: "…the population has continued to spiral upward at an exponential rate." Later he shows how each new billion milestone has come at an ever shorter time period. And again, citing Thomas Malthus (the 19th century political economist), he wrote: "Of course, Malthus was correct in his prediction of an exponential increase in population." One more: "…the earth's population is now growing at nearly 81,000,000 people per year." Even though Lineback doesn't predict the future rate, what is a person, especially a child, going to infer but that the population is going to continue to rise at the same rate as in the past.

Let's go back to 1968 when Dr. Erlich wrote the infamous The Population Bomb. If we were to gather a bunch of experts at the time and ask them what could happen to prevent Erlich's population explosion prediction, there might be several answers: a world war that killed billions of people, or perhaps a new disease that would kill off billions before we could invent a cure. Or, better yet, somehow bring down the fertility rate. (The total fertility rate, TFR is the average number of babies born to women during their reproductive years.)

According to the United Nations Population Division, the TFR of the world in 1965-1970 was 6.1. Since the rate at which the population will neither rise nor fall is considered 2.1, this rate was indeed alarming. But golly, by 1985-90, this rate had fallen to 3.9. And, gosh, by 2000 it had fallen to an astonishing 2.8. And according to the United States Census Bureau, the world's TFR will fall to 2.3 by 2025. Now the United Nations "World Population Prospects" estimates that by 2050 the population growth will level off and by next century begin actually falling. So whatever the world had to do to solve this "population explosion," it did it, and continues to do it as each year the TFR falls further than projections. We've had 35 years of falling TFRs, but not one word about fertility rates in Mr. Lineback's article.

What's wrong with this omission? From the same article written by Donald Bogue as quoted above, he wrote: "It is quite possible that nothing has sapped the morale of family planning workers in the developing countries more than the Malthusian pessimism that has been radiated by many demographic reports." Another wrong is just the plain false sense of reality it gives to Lineback's readers.

Finally, why this omission? I can only speculate that people who are "concerned" about issues, this one being the problems of a growing worldwide population, and are "compassionate" about trying to do something about it, see any good news as distracting from the focus. But the focus is wrong. Instead of focusing on the short term problems of what can we do in terms of food, health, and economic development in developing countries still experiencing a growing population, the focus becomes one of what can we do about finding a solution to the rate of population growth? The answer to the second question is "nothing." We're doing it. It's the first question that Dr. Lineback should have focused on, and there's the problem.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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