National Geographic: Lost in Demographics?

TAMPA, Fla.—Alarmists said planes would fall from the sky, cities would go dark and water wouldn't run when the new millennium dawned. Clearly, they were wrong.

Likewise, National Geographic magazine may have erred in warning about an over-population crisis that looms over the 21st century.

In its millennium series leading up to the year 2000, the magazine devoted most of its October 1998 issue to population, promoting a view that the world is too crowded and can't sustain much more life. A 1999 issue focused on biodiversity, raising doubts about the ability of plants and animals to survive the human population explosion.

Everyone knows the world didn't shut down on Jan. 1, and it's becoming increasingly apparent, even in the mainstream media, that we may face no population explosion at all.

“Of all the issues we face as the new millennium nears, none is more important than population growth,” wrote demographer Wolfgang Lutz, in an opening to the October 1998 issue on population.

The Tampa, Fla.-based magazine's editor, Bill Allen, introduced the population subject with an editorial that said the world's population increases by 27 people every 10 seconds. Only “with luck,” he wrote, will those 27 people have food, shelter and clothing.

It was a message readily embraced by some Americans. “Los Angeles is getting dangerously near to me, and I started out 150 miles away,” said Aaron Seggerman, a longtime reader of National Geographic. Seggerman has been discussing the National Geographic stories in online chat rooms, quoting the articles to promote his argument that the world is too crowded.

“I didn't need a magazine to tell me what I already knew, but it has certainly confirmed my fears,” Seggerman told the Register. “I can climb a hill and look at all the new housing, easily identified by the lack of vegetation and the sea of tile roofs, and see a population explosion.”

Suburban and exurban sprawl aside, statistics suggest that the real population problem is too little growth on the horizon.

In the United States, major newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and New York Times regularly publish stories warning of looming inflation — a phenomenon that economists blame on a shortage of births that has left industry with too few workers.

The labor shortage is inflating wages, which ultimately will raise the price of goods and services. Many economists say the near-collapse of Japan's economy can be directly attributed to the country's aging population, and decades of reduced fertility.

“Americans are just now starting to feel the effects that decades of so-called family planning are having on our culture and the economy,” said Scott Weinberg, spokesman for the Population Research Institute, in Virginia. “Finally, the overpopulation myth is so full of holes that even much of the secular media are calling it into question.”

National Geographic, however, seems to be bucking that trend. Why is another question. The 7.8-million circulation monthly, long famous for its stunning photography, refused repeated requests for comment for this article.

Underpopulation Problem

The looming problem of depopulation was confirmed by the U.N. Population Division's 1998 World Population Prospects report.

The report said the global population growth rate peaked around 1970 and has fallen steadily ever since. It predicts that the population of the world will begin to plummet in about four decades. Between 2040 and 2050 the population will decrease by some 85 million people. Thereafter, it will decrease by roughly 25% each successive generation.

Due mostly to the widespread use of birth control, Weinberg said, the average age of the world's population will only grow older. Today, the median age is 26.8 years. By 2025, the median age is projected to be 35.1 years.

In Europe, where the birthrate has fallen dramatically below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per couple, the age equation is dramatic. By 2050, retirees age 65 and older are expected to outnumber children age 15 and younger 3-to-1.

The global fertility decline is reflected in the dramatic increase in the number of countries that have experienced below-replacement level fertility since the 1990s. In 1990, between 50 and 60 nations had below-replacement fertility rates. Today, 64 nations are below replacement, the United States among them.

“A lot of countries are going to start shrinking soon — Japan, Europe, China in 30 years or so,” said demographer Nicholas Eberstadt in The New York Times. “And that means that sooner than we think, we could be headed into the end of surplus manpower.”

The Technological Society

Physicist Jeff Lindsay of Iowa has also studied the effects of population extensively. He takes issue with the assumptions of the National Geographic stories. Lindsay believes the plight of humans has only improved with increases in population and will suffer as populations decline.

“Our technological society, fueled by the precious resource of abundant working, thinking human beings, has enabled croplands to skyrocket in productivity and has enabled humans to live vastly longer than ever before,” Lindsay said. “The resulting large population, living at a higher standard than ever before, breathing cleaner air and drinking purer water, is a cause for celebration, not for doomsaying.”

Another, longtime observer of demographics is Benedictine Father Paul Marx, founder and former board member of Human Life International. Father Marx said sin and greed have made it easy for many people to believe that the world is overpopulated and that birth control is essential to sustaining life on earth.

“It plays right into a fear and selfishness that's rooted in evil,” Father Marx said. “In most of us, there's the fear that there won't be enough for me. And if there are fewer people in the world, then I can have more for myself.”

He added, “We could produce enough food in Minnesota alone each year to feed the entire United States. … The reason some people starve is not because of too few resources, but because of the unjust social order and the sin of man. We simply have an inability to share.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.