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The Population Bomb That Fizzled


If the predictions in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, had been near the mark, Americans would be eating their dogs and children by now and yearning for a condominium - a little elbow room - on the moon.


For decades, experts have warned about the pending population "explosion" and consequent "mass starvation" and social chaos. But Baby Six Billion arrived last October to a world with unprecedented agricultural production, improved quality of life and increasing prosperity.

Not only did the bomb fail to blow, but demographers now forecast a different sort of crisis: Developed nations whose birthrates have plummeted to unprecedented lows face social and economic upheaval because of declining numbers and a rapidly increasing elderly population that has no parallel in history.

Demographers at the U.N. Population Division released a report in March "Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations?" which questions if immigration can cancel the pending effects of low fertility plus a graying society of baby boomers. The short answer, from Joseph Grinblat, chief of mortality and migration section of the U.N. group: "Impossible."

The scale of immigration required to maintain 1995 levels of support for the retired in the West "would in all cases entail volumes of immigration entirely out of line with both past experience and reasonable expectations," according to the report. In fact, required immigration to offset aging in selected countries would result in populations comprised of an astounding 59%-99% foreigners.

The United Nations focused on France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. It also looked at Europe and the European Union as a group. All are experiencing record-low fertility rates.

According to U.N. projections, for example, Italy will lose 28% of its population by 2050 a prospect that has prompted Pope John Paul to exhort Italians to "rediscover what it means to be a parent."

Germany is expected to decline from 57 million to 41 million in the next half-century. The Russian Academy of Science has coined a term for the social crisis it expects to accompany a population decline from 147 million to 121 million by 2050: catastroika, and the academy compares it to famine and war.

In 1999, according to the European Union's statistical office, there were just 266,000 more births than deaths on the European continent, marking the lowest birthrate since World War II. Apart from a few small countries like Ireland where the birthrate remains above replacement level of 2.1 per woman of childbearing age, the rest of the continent is shrinking rapidly.

The United States is the only country in the U.N. study whose population is predicted to grow because of immigration. If current immigration levels of 760,000 migrants per year are maintained, the U.S. population will rise to 349 million in 2050.

Retiree boom

But the sheer numbers of people don't tell the whole story.

The population of U.S. senior citizens is expected to more than double in the same time span to 76 million from 33 million.

Currently, there are 5.2 working-age Americans for every retiree; by 2050 the ratio will be just 2-to-1. Senior citizens will outnumber children under 15 years old by 2.5-to-1. If the trends hold, Americans can expect to see empty schools, declining business, and overflowing, understaffed hospitals and retirement homes.

In Japan, where the population is predicted to plummet from 127 million to 105 million by 2050, the proportion of senior citizens will likely grow to 32% from 17%.

In March, Japan's Lower House of Parliament cut pensions to new retirees because of growing concern that there will be no money to support future pensioners. It also passed measures to gradually raise retirement age from 60 to 65. And the National Institute of Population and Social Security in Tokyo reported this year that up to 75% of young parents surveyed prefer female offspring - daughters are considered more likely than sons to take care of their aging parents. Japanese sex-selection clinics are reportedly offering pink suppository jellies to help couples conceive girls.

Postponed retirement, however, is the chief recommendation of the U.N. report, which offers age 75 as a reasonable age to quit. Grinblat says other alternatives to offset aging that cannot be met by increased immigration include increasing workers' contributions to pension plans, "reassessing health care benefits for the elderly" and "ensuring more labor force participation - not everyone who can be working is."

Slap in the face?

Scott Weinberg of the Population Research Institute in Front Royal, Va., calls the U.N. report a "cold slap in the face" to population-control advocates who have exaggerated overpopulation for decades to encourage people to have fewer children. He says it's time to reverse the "anti-child" trend.

The United Nations' Grinblat scoffs at the idea that people limited their family size because of overpopulation fears.

"That's ridiculous," he said. "I've never even heard the notion that people would have fewer children because they're worried about the number of people in Africa." Yet, Grinblat acknowledged it is "too late" to reverse the low fertility trend by encouraging people to have children.

As for the gloomy predictions about world overpopulation compared to the new U.N. forecasts of depopulation, Grinblat said there "really is no contradiction" because "some developing countries" in Africa and Latin American and Asia continue to grow.

Weinberg of the Population Research Institute called Grinblat's analysis "disingenuous." Increased fertility could change the dire course set by overpopulation hype, he said.

Weinberg sees a more hopeful future than the United Nations, however. Christians are already aware of the "overpopulation lie" he said, and they have begun leading a "revolution," having large families despite the cultural trends. On a hopeful note, he added, "Christians will be filling our country."



Celeste McGovern. "The Population Bomb That Fizzled." National Catholic Register. (May, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

The Author

Celeste McGovern is based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register
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