Our problem is not too many babies, but too few babies

Our problem is not too many babies, but too few babies

Amidst all the gloom and doom about overpopulation, occasionally someone actually takes a hard look at the numbers and accurately reports what they see. This is what a team of researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and evaluation did. Their findings, newly published in The Lancet, are eye-popping. 

First, the UW researchers noted that family sizes have been dropping for decades. Whereas in 1950 women worldwide had an average of 4.7 children over their reproductive lifetimes, by 2017 that number had been cut in half, to 2.4 children. They predicted that the number of children per woman will continue to decline, falling to well below 2.1 children by the year 2100.

A fertility rate of 2.1 children constitutes “replacement rate fertility.” It’s called this because at that level of fertility the father and the mother have merely “replaced” themselves, neither adding to, nor subtracting from, the population. 

Any fertility rate above 2.1 means the population will keep growing. Any fertility rate below that level means that the population will be shrinking over time.  

This is already the case in dozens of countries around the world, where for a generation or more couples have been averaging fewer than two children. Italian women, for instance, are averaging only 1.33 children. This means that – barring a huge uptick in Italian fertility – the Italians won’t be around for much longer, at least in any numbers.

But when will the entire world fall below replacement rate fertility? How far below replacement will it fall? And what does this mean in terms of total numbers?

For decades the doomsayers at the U.N. Population Division (UNPD), UNFPA, WHO and elsewhere have insisted that the population of the world will continue growing throughout the present century. The U.N. Population Division’s latest forecast predicts that the population will reach almost 11 billion by 2100 (10,880,000,000) and will still be growing. 

Nonsense, say the UW researchers. (They didn’t put it exactly like that, of course.) They predict that global population will peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling to only 8.8 billion by the end of the century. This is 2 billion fewer than the U.N. projects.

How does the U.N. massage the numbers to manufacture 2 billion additional people?

It’s actually not very complicated.

The UNPD has long assumed that fertility rates in every country in the world will, within a generation or so, reach a “fertility floor” of 1.85 children per woman. Countries where fertility rates are above 1.85 will gradually fall to that level, while countries like Italy which are below 1.85 will gradually rise to that level.

In a belated recognition of plummeting birth rates worldwide, the UNDP has recently lowered its “fertility floor” to 1.75. But it continues to insist that this is where birthrates will stabilize for all of humanity, pointing to a couple of countries which have seen mild fertility rebounds from very low fertility.

The UW researchers beg to differ. 

The evidence shows, they say, that once the fertility of a country falls to extremely low levels of 1.35 or so, it stays at low levels. They criticize the U.N. for ignoring data from the many countries with very low fertility that not only show no signs of recovering to 1.75, but show no signs of fertility recovery at all. (“Several countries with sustained low fertility were excluded from their modelling exercise,” they say of the UNDP.) They criticize the UNDP’s claim of “fertility rebounds” as well, saying that these were simply women delaying childbirth.

The UW researchers are too polite to say so, but they are basically accusing the U.N. demographers of rigging the data set to produce an inflated number.

So where did the 2 billion people come from?  

The UW researchers explained: “Our analysis also showed that slight differences (0.1 difference in global total fertility rate) in this equilibrium total fertility rate translate into a difference of approximately 500 million individuals on the planet in 2100.”

In other words, for every 0.1 difference in your projected global total fertility rate (TFR), you gain or lose 500 million people.

The UW researchers realistically predicted a future TFR of 1.35. The UNDP, on the other hand, artificially inflated the future population by “installing” an “imaginary floor” of 1.75. This 0.4 increase in TFR produced 2 billion “imaginary people” in the future population.

The UW study still exaggerates future fertility, primarily by assuming widespread lack of access to “modern methods of contraception.” In fact African, Asian, and Latin American countries are flooded with contraceptives, available free to virtually anyone who wants them.  The claim that there are vast numbers of Third World women with an unmet need for contraception, like the UNDP’s “fertility floor”, is not grounded in reality.

The UW’s lowest projection, which assumes that contraceptives are available to everyone who wants them on an accelerated schedule, forecasts that global population will peak in 2046 at 8.5 billion, declining by 2100 to 6.289 billion.

Whichever scenario turns out to be correct, the closing words of the study are sobering:  “Global population is likely to peak well before the end of the century. Given that we forecasted that societies tend towards a TFR lower than 1.5, once global population decline begins, it will probably continue inexorably.”