The New Population Problem

Recently population specialists from around the world met at the United Nations to discuss a new population problem: Has population control gone too far?

Demographers have been watching the decline in population growth rates during the past 20 years. The latest report, World Population Prospects: the 1996 Revision, tells us that during the past decade growth rates fell faster, fertility declines in individual nations were greater and more widespread than expected, and migration was more extensive than previously anticipated.

For practical purposes such evidence has long been known in terms of rates of growth, fertility, and mortality. The new phenomenon has to do with the actual numbers of people. Demographers knew that the peak rate of population growth had declined from 2.1% to 1.48% between the 1960s and 1995. They also knew that actual world population will continue to increase from 5.7 billion today to about 9.4 billion by 2050. The new phenomenon is this: Each year until 2000, world population will increase by 81 million; that figure will steadily decline to about 41 million by 2050.

Population control advocates focus on the overall increase, which seems large. Little attention has been given to the annual decline in births. Yet this decline raises new questions. What happens when the annual number of new births slows down appreciably or even stops entirely? What happens when a highly productive, affluent, powerful, and comfortable nation no longer has enough young people to staff the work force, to produce new goods and continue its economic progress? What happens to a nation's ability to defend itself? Who provides the financial resources for social security, health care, and other necessary services?

To some degree, migration provides a short-range solution for the work force and for commerce. Technology also provides some replacement for workers. But labor unions are concerned about the future for today's workers and sufficient jobs for tomorrow's.

Look at the impact on education. In many U.S. suburban areas there is a present demand for new schools and new teachers. But in 20 to 30 years there will be fewer children. Schools will close, and many of today's young teachers will no longer be necessary.

At the same time that children are declining in number, the number of older people is constantly growing. We are entering an era in which older people will outnumber children 3 to 1. In affluent countries such as the United States this figure could be 8 to 1. The practical effect will be felt most strongly in pension programs, where there will not be enough people putting money away to take care of those taking money out. The result can be bankruptcy of the pension plan.

Until now there has been a well-organized, highly financed crusade to lower fertility and population growth. The United States has been in the forefront of that crusade. Focusing on concern about the global environment, Vice President Al Gore cited the projected increase in world population to 9 billion as reaching “right up to the ceiling.” He claimed that “the developing countries still have very, very large families,” and he recommended fewer children per family, more birth control, and more “empowerment of women” through “reproductive health” services. At the Cairo Population Conference and the Beijing Women's Conference, the United States pushed hard for population control and for inclusion of abortion as a method of family planning.

The vice president has much to learn about population. There is no absolute ceiling for the number of people on earth, and population increase is not the cause of global warming. Demographers now find that population decline is the problem, not population growth—and foreign nations rebel at American efforts to force birth control and abortion on them.

It is a new demographic moment for the world, and a challenge to all of us to create economic, social, public health, and cultural conditions that enable the world to welcome children and ensure longevity and dignity for all people. But basic to this is truth—truth about population growth and decline, truth about environmental problems, and truth about the responsibility of governments to aid one another for the good of all people.

Bishop James McHugh, of Camden, N.J., is a member of the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities.