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Come on in, the Earth Is Fine

With its 7 billionth person stunt, the U.N. boosts the overpopulation hysteria.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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The decline in mortality created what is known as demographic momentum, as entire generations remained in the ranks of the living where they once would have quickly passed away. Seen in this light, complaints about overpopulation are really complaints that people now grow old before dying.

But no one wants to send Grandpa to the wolves, and besides, people like Paul Ehrlich and Alexandra Paul seem to enjoy living, even if it means a slow descent into decrepitude. So instead of admitting that the “problem” is people living too long, they claim that we’re all in trouble because people are having too many babies. Only they’re wrong about that, too.

The collapse of the death rate was in fact followed by a collapse of the fertility rate. Around the time of the industrial revolution, women began bearing steadily fewer children. In America, for instance, the average white woman had 7.04 children in 1800. By 1944, that number had eased to 2.22. This gradual decline became an absolute collapse once the Baby Boom ended. Since 1970, the fertility rate has dropped by more than 50 percent in nearly every country in the world. In many countries the decline has been closer to 75 percent. In some countries fertility rates have reached “lowest-low”—which is to say, lower than has ever been seen in human history. Today, no first-world country has a fertility rate above the replacement level of 2.1. Most developing countries are still above that mark, but are falling, fast.

Which means that, while total population keeps increasing, the rate of increase has slowed dramatically. Seven billion people may seem like a lot, but what the U.N. isn’t advertising is that over the last few decades population growth has consistently lagged behind projections. The U.N.’s 1994 model, for instance, had us hitting the 7 billion mark nearly three years ago. The real story of the 7 billionth birth is that fertility rates have fallen so far that population has been growing much more slowly than anyone predicted. And, as a corollary, this sluggish growth is likely to disappear as global population peaks, and then begins contracting.

Indeed, nearly every population model in recent years has suggested that, between 2050 and 2075, world population will top out at 9 billion to 12 billion. And after that it will begin shrinking.

Until a few months ago, the U.N.’s model predicted pretty much the same thing. But when the United Nations Population Division released its 2010 revision, it changed course. It now projects that population decline probably won’t materialize in the next 90 years. Instead, the new model suggests that world population will keep growing all the way through 2100. And once the U.N. Population Fund—that’s the political action arm to the Population Division’s research shop—got hold of these numbers, it rushed to publicize them. Thus the creation of the 7 billionth birth media sensation, which the Population Fund “symbolically” scheduled for October 31. (They are as obvious as they are earnest.)

The symbolic date is worth mentioning because the Population Fund admits it actually has very little idea when the 7 billionth person will be (or was) born. They believe their calculations have a 1 percent margin of error—which means that the birth could have happened six months ago. Or might not happen for another six months. But never mind; to go with their pretend day, they anointed a little girl born in the Philippines as the pretend 7 billionth baby. The Population Fund loves symbolism so much that this little girl was only the first of several “symbolic” 7 billionth babies it recognized across the globe.

All of which is worth keeping in mind when you consider the methodology of the U.N.’s latest population projection. In order to upend decades of data projecting world population contraction, the U.N. had to assume that over the next 70 years, in every part of the world where the fertility rate is now below 2.1, fertility will steadily increase to the replacement level. Starting tomorrow. The model supposes this for countries both big and small, secular and religious, with massive amounts of immigration and with no immigration. It assumes this amazing reversal even for countries such as Poland, which is working on 60 consecutive years of declining fertility.

How did the demographers at Turtle Bay come up with such a counter-intuitive prediction? They looked at a handful of countries—mostly in Scandinavia—which had low fertility rates in the 1930s, but have somewhat recovered today. They then assumed that the rest of the world—Italy, Singapore, China, Iran, Costa Rica, Russia—will follow the same fertility path as Sweden.

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