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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 1999 /10 Tishrei, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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A billion people have VANISHED! -- IN EARLY OCTOBER, courtesy of the United Nations, two items about the future of humanity will be made official. One will be trumpeted and echoed. One will be ignored and forgotten. As usual, the ignored data will be more important than the trumpeted data. But this time, thanks to the coincidence of timing, we may be able to follow the game.

On October 12, somewhere on this planet, a statistical baby will be born that pushes the global population from 5,999,999,999 to 6 BILLION! It will be said, by an operational agency of the United Nations and by a community of international alarmists, that this 6 BILLION proves that the population has EXPLODED! And that it is very DANGEROUS. So many people cause GLOBAL WARMING! And not only that, THERE WON'T BE ENOUGH FOOD! (The alarmist side of the demographic argument is often conducted in screechy all-caps.)

But at about the same time, an analytical agency of the United Nations will release data indicating something else. Were it played in upper case (it won't be) we would hear that A BILLION PEOPLE HAVE VANISHED.

The numbers appear contradictory. They are not. To best see that, we can follow the likely life of the of the Y6B statistical baby. Let's give him/her a name: Joe/Jane.

First off, be it noted that the infant Joe/Jane had an extended gestation.

The baby was originally expected to arrive more than a year ago. But the statistics were scrambled as global birth rates and fertility rates fell faster than expected, in both the Less Developed Countries (LDCs) and the modern industrialized nations. Thus, from 1965 to 1970, women in the LDCs bore an average of 6 children each. Today the comparable number is about 2.9, and the downward trend is powerful. Among the modern nations, in 1965 to 1970 the rate was 2.6 children per woman. Today it is 1.6. Rather incredibly, that figure is about 25 percent below the 2.1 "replacement rate" that is required to merely keep a population stable over time.

Joe/Jane is expected to live for 65 years. What will the world look like then? Less populated than we have been led to believe.

Because of the plunging fertility rates, the United Nations has adjusted downward the assumptions that make up their projections for the future.

Thus, the coming October release of the "medium scenario" of the longest-term projections, way out to the year 2150, will drop from 10.8 billion persons to under 10 billion, probably about 9.8 billion.

More important for Joe/Jane are the numbers for 2050 when he/she will be age 51. The official "medium variant" projection now calls for 8.9 billion people. But it will end up much lower than that. The downward adjustment of U.N. data is an ongoing process, always behind the curve, trying to reflect changing demographic reality. For example, U.N. projections still assume that no LDC will fall below the 2.1 replacement rate. But 22 LDCs already have, and more will soon. (The Brazilian rate has dropped from 6.2 children per woman in 1960 to 1965, to about 2.2 today.)

A full correction to current rates seems to yield a 2050 population of about 8.0 billion. Given what we know now, GLOBAL POPULATION WILL DECLINE at about mid-century, and perhaps sharply. (If the European rate of 1.4 children per woman would miraculously increase overnight to 2.1, Europe will still lose 25 percent of its population.)

So, both sides have a point. Yes indeed, the Y6B baby will arrive any day now. He/she will be followed by a 7 billionth baby in a couple of decades or so. Perhaps there will be an 8 billionth baby. Those 2 billion more people are not inconsequential: a ONE-THIRD increase in about half a century. But global population has TRIPLED since 1927, so we should be able to cope, easily.

And that should be about it on the up-side, as new data keep revealing. The next likely demographic marker after 8 billion will be 7 billion. And then possibly 6 billion, perhaps sinking still lower.

How will Joe/Jane fare? No one knows. There should be more space per person than currently envisioned. But falling fertility could also yield an economic convulsion, as the proportion of aged persons climbs sharply while markets shrink.

What is becoming clear is that alarmists are conjuring up self-fulfilling disasters. Alarmists say too many people create global warming by producing unacceptable levels of greenhouse gases. But the same alarmists reject the use of safe nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gases. Alarmists now say we shouldn't produce genetically engineered foods that produce high yields, and then moan that agricultural yields won't be sufficient to meet future food needs.

Joe/Jane can look forward to one blessing: Within a few decades the screechy argument about whether humanity is growing out of its breeches will be OVER!

. Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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