World Watch Magazine - September/ October 2004

Population Beyond the Numbers

World Watch MagazineWashington, D.C.―The world’s population of 6.4 billion continues to grow by more than 70 million people per year—nearly two million every five days—yet today’s population story is not only about rising numbers. According to the latest issue of World Watch magazine, it’s also a tale of too many restless young people in some parts of the world, a larger share of elderly in others, and the economic instabilities of a globalized world.

“Ten years ago, in September 1994, participants at the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, developed a plan to balance the world’s population with Earth’s resources,” notes Danielle Nierenberg, co-author of the issue’s lead article. “Not only has funding for this plan fallen short, but there are now a range of emerging related concerns that must also be addressed to build a sustainable future.”

Many of these issues are described in the magazine’s 12 population-focused articles, including:

  • Youth bulges: There are more young people on Earth than ever before. The United Nations reports that in 2000, young adults aged 15 to 29 comprised more than 40 percent of all adults in over 100 nations, all of which are developing countries. These youth-laden places were roughly two-and-a-half times as likely to experience outbreaks of civil conflict in the 1990s as other nations. To avoid violence and unrest, writes Lisa Mastny in “The Hazards of Youth,” governments need to address poverty and the lack of economic opportunity in the short term and high fertility rates in the long term.
  • Declining and aging populations: Population is falling—not growing—in countries like Germany, Italy, and Japan, leading these nations to worry about the economic and cultural implications of their aging demographics. In “Low Fertility and Sustainability,” Martha Farnsworth Riche challenges these concerns. “People worried about low fertility rates are overwhelmingly male—and in the West, overwhelmingly white.” She and other contributors call for innovative policies to address the issue of aging populations—without boosting fertility.
  • Fertility and fossil fuels: Many studies report that women have smaller families when they receive more education. In “Not Tonight, Sweetie: No Energy,” Virginia Deane Abernethy hypothesizes that family size is more a matter of economics and people's perceptions of opportunity or scarcity. She writes that people usually have as many children as they think they can afford, and that the motivation to have fewer comes from anticipating hard times ahead. In the near future, expensive fossil fuels could trigger an acute sense of scarcity and thus a drop in fertility rates.
  • Globalization and migration: In “Population, Migration, and Globalization,” former World Bank economist Herman Daly observes that if globalization means free mobility of goods and capital (“free trade”), the effects are equivalent to free mobility of labor. And, he argues, if globalization then leads to uncontrolled migration of cheap labor all over the world, the strains—on local communities and national economies, both sending and receiving—could be catastrophic. Immigration, Daly writes, is “a policy, not a person,” and one can favor strong limits on immigration without in the least being anti-immigrant.
  • Involving local communities in family planning and coastline protection: Half of the human population lives on or near the world’s coasts. Fourteen of the world’s 17 megacities—those with a population of 10 million or more—are located on coasts. In “Harmonizing Population and Coastal Resources in the Philippines,” Roger-Mark De Souza describes how a new generation of projects built on partnerships that involve local people are bringing ecologists, heath specialists, and community development experts together to meet the unique challenges posed along heavily populated coastlines.

Overall population growth has declined from 2 percent to 1.3 percent since 1970, and the United Nations predicts that by 2050, population will level off at around 9 billion people. But the sheer number of people on Earth is now much larger than ever before in history. Some experts question whether Earth can even carry today’s population at a “moderately comfortable” standard for the long term, let alone 3 billion more.

While fertility rates remain high in developing nations, where millions of women still lack access to basic health care or contraceptives, Nierenberg cautions that population isn’t just a problem of numbers in poor nations. “How much each person consumes today will also determine what our future looks like,” she says. “A single newborn in the U.S. or Europe will put greater pressure on the Earth’s carrying capacity than a whole family of newborns in India.”

Article Synopses from “Population and Its Discontents”

The Population Story…So Far

Consequences of still-rising population colliding with fast-rising resource consumption have in some respects worsened over the past generation, and are issuing a whole new set of concerns. –Danielle Nierenberg, Worldwatch Research Associate, and Mia MacDonald, Worldwatch Senior Fellow, Policy Analyst, and Freelance Writer

The Hazards of Youth

In more than 100 countries, the population is getting not only more numerous, but younger. “Youth bulges,” combined with economic stagnation and unemployment, can burden these nations with disproportionately high levels of violence and unrest. –Lisa Mastny, Worldwatch Research Associate

World Population, Agriculture, and Malnutrition

Increases in food production per hectare have not kept pace with increases in population, and the planet has virtually no more arable land or fresh water to spare. As a result, per-capita cropland has shrunk by more than half since 1960, and per-capita production of grains, the basic food, has been falling worldwide for 20 years. –David Pimentel, Professor, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University, and Anne Wilson, Research Assistant, Cornell

Not Tonight, Sweetie: No Energy

The “fertility opportunity hypothesis” holds that parents want more children when they perceive forthcoming opportunities for a better life, but have fewer children if they anticipate hard times ahead. Perceptions of a coming global oil scarcity could result in population growing slower than the UN expects. –Virginia Deane Abernethy, Professor of Psychiatry Emerita, Vanderbilt University

Definitely Probably One: A Generation Comes of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy

Had China not imposed its controversial but effective one-child policy a quarter-century ago, its population today would be larger than it presently is by 300 million—roughly the population of the entire world around the time of Genghis Khan. –Claudia Meulenberg, Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution, The Hague

Population, Family Planning, and the Future of Agriculture

In most African countries, over half the population is under the age of 15. Even if all of those countries were to shift to having just two children, beginning tonight, their total populations would continue to grow for another two decades. Nevertheless, there is hopeful evidence of progress. –Frederick T. Sai Physician, Public Health Activist, Advisor to President of Ghana on HIV/AIDS

Harmonizing Population and Coastal Resources in the Philippines

With half of the human population now living on or near the world’s coasts, maintaining a healthy interdependence between coastal ecosystems and human communities is critical to the stability of both. –Roger-Mark De Souza, Technical Director, Population, Heath, and Environment Program at the Population Reference Bureau

Population, Migration, and Globalization

Globalization is not Internationalization, but the effective erasure of national boundaries. This opens the way not only to free mobility of capital and goods but also to free movement (or uncontrolled migration) of vast labor pools from regions of rapid population growth. The impacts on national economies could be tragic. –Herman E. Daly, Professor, School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and Former World Bank Economist

The Economic Conundrum of an Aging Population

The shift to a stable population will increase the “dependency ratio” of old to young. While that may stem environmental decline, it could bring economic hardship to the countries that first achieve it. The only real chance of escaping this dilemma is to eliminate the huge economic inequities that now prevail in the world. –Robert Ayres, Professor Emeritus of Management and Environment at the INSEAD European Business School

Low Fertility and Sustainability

Motivation to stabilize population can be undermined by excessive worry that smaller numbers of young people will be supporting larger numbers of the elderly. But prevailing patterns of behavior and resource allocation can be changed in ways that reduce pensioner/worker ratios and make population stabilization more politically viable. –Martha Farnsworth Riche, Demographic Consultant, Founding Editor of American Demographics Magazine

The Positive Side of the Older Populations to Come

The huge change in age structure that would come with a slowing or halting of population growth need not result in older people becoming an economically crippling burden. In fact, the kinds of policies that could stimulate this change are the same ones that would produce a more ecologically viable and vital society as a whole. –Lincoln H. Day, Retired Senior Fellow, Department of Demography, Australian National University

Global Population Reduction: Confronting the Inevitable

Looking past the near-term concerns that have plagued population policy at the political level, it is increasingly apparent that the long-term sustainability of civilization will require not just a leveling-off of human numbers as projected over the coming half-century, but a colossal reduction in both population and consumption. –J. Kenneth Smail, Professor, Department of Anthropology at Kenyon College 

Also featured in this edition:

  • Lifecycle Studies: Running Shoes
  • Green Guidance: When Tofu Just Doesn’t Do It For You
  • Environmental Intelligence: Erosion, Global Warming, Chimpanzees, and More
  • Matters of Scale: Death in Baghdad


Selected Trends and Statistics from "Population and its Discontents"

State of World Population

Current world population: 6.4 billion

Number of children born each day: Roughly 225,000

Population growth per year: 76 million or 9 New York Cities

Present global population growth rate: 1.3%

Present population growth rate in Africa: 2.5 %

UN’s mid-range estimate for population on Earth in 2050: 8.9 billion

Number of people between ages of 10 and 19: 1.2 billion

Then and Now

Average number of children born per woman in 1960s: 6

Average number of children born per woman today: Just under 3

Percent of married couples using modern contraception in developing world in 1960: 10-15

Percent of married couples using modern contraception in developing world today: 60

Percent of married couples using contraception in Sub-Saharan Africa today: 17


Number of women living with HIV/AIDS: 18 million

Number of girls who will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade: 100 million

Number of women still lacking access to a full range of contraceptive methods: 350 million

Number of women who will have an unsafe abortion today in Africa: 10,000