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Op-Ed: 7 Billion Now, But Population Will Drop

NEAL CONAN, host: And now, the Opinion Page. The planet's human population hit seven billion today, according to a United Nations estimate. The growth of the world's population has been the subject of doomsday scenarios, at least as far back as Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century. But as Colum Lynch argues in Foreign Policy, predicting population growth or contraction is pretty much a loser's game. You can go with the high-end projection of 27 billion, or an estimate of a smaller-world population some time next century. Lynch says that thinking about the implications of a world with fewer people is just as important as worrying about how many more the planet can handle.

So tell us: What does seven billion mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Colum Lynch is United Nations reporter for the Washington Post and the author of the Turtle Bay blog at foreignpolicy.com, where his piece "It's a Small World" ran recently. Colum Lynch joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

COLUM LYNCH: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And what don't we know about that seven-billion figure?

LYNCH: Well, we don't know that it's happening today. We don't know whether it's happened yesterday, or a couple of days ago. I mean, it's generally an estimate. I mean, it's better than the projections that thinking about whether there will be eight billion in 2025. But a lot of this stuff is projections on the basis of assumptions, and, you know, like most assumptions, nobody really knows whether they'll turn out to be true or not. I gather they probably - as your earlier guest said - probably picked today, Halloween...


LYNCH: ...to decide on this, to scare the pants off of everybody about the fear of massive population growth.

CONAN: Well, they're talking about 10 billion by the end of this century. Seven billion, scary already.

LYNCH: Seven billion, that's scary already. Ten billion is even tougher to deal with. I thought I would - I mean, what I find the most extraordinary is that if the current rate of population growth, which is about 79 million people a day added into the human population continued occurrence rate, you'd get up to the 27 billion number, which is pretty spooky. Most of the experts on this don't think that there's much likelihood that that's happening. You've already seen a pretty steady and - even more recently - a pretty dramatic decline in fertility rates that suggest that those numbers will come down.

The U.N. sort of thinks that we'll reach a kind of an area of perfect what they call sort of a replacement level where, you know, each sort of woman would produce exactly 2.1 children over the next 100 years. There isn't a lot of evidence to suggest that countries that are having very, very few children or countries that are having lots of children, you know, any reason to think that they will get to the 2.1 sort of perfect model fertility rate. But that's kind of the way that the U.N. has been looking at it.

They picked that as a sort of the probability that at some point in the next 100 years, that we will all sort of enter into this period where everyone sort of reproduces at the rate that they sort of occupy the Earth.

CONAN: Well, the theory is that as countries' prosperity improves, the number of children born to each family declines, and China would seem to embody that. India, maybe not so much.

LYNCH: Yeah. And China - I mean, China is almost the sort of odd, you know, selection out, because, you know, they didn't sort of naturally reach this sort of - I mean, their replacement rate is 1.5, and 2.1 is considered, you know, kind of reproducing the same number of people and keeping a kind of stable planet, the same population. And so they didn't do it through sort of - because of some economic incentives. They did it through state coercive measures dating back to the 1970s, which required families not to have more than one child. And so...

CONAN: Or at least families in cities.

LYNCH: Right. The families in cities. And so that's a different model. I mean, the - you know, India has also used some coercive measures at certain periods in their history, but - whereas China is now going to be kind of leveling out, I think India's growth rate over the last 10 years or so has been sort of 17 percent, and they're expected to sort of pass the Chinese within the next 25 years or so to become the most populous country on the planet.

CONAN: And what is our record? We keep, you know, doing these projections. You know, we're at seven billion now, eight billion by x number of years; 10.1 by the end of the century. What's our record on these projections? How good are we at it?

LYNCH: Well, I've been talking to - I mean, I have - personally, I have no idea, but I'm talking to a lot of demographers and sort of historians and experts on this. And they say that, traditionally, we've been very bad at guessing, that there was a sort of the first major decline in U.S. fertility rates during the Great Depression. Nobody predicted it. There was, you know, the baby boom that followed the Second World War. Nobody predicted that. No one predicted the following baby bust. I would presume people are predicting a decline now because of the economy hardship. But I'm not sure whether they're able to really assess the impact yet on population.

But you have other sort of situations where, you know, there had been massive movements of people, migration during the 1970s and 1980s that have sort of reconfigured, sort of, you know, the population centers around the world, and that wasn't really foreseen. So there's a lot of stuff that has happened along this front that no one guess - I mean, there's a great example that one academic pointed out to me, which is Iran. Iran in 1960 had something like, you know, each woman was conceiving 6.72 children, and they're now below replacement level, about 1.6 percent, I think. I might be slightly off, but about 1.6 percent. And most of this decline occurred after the Islamic revolution. So, you know, you wouldn't really expect that to happen, but it did.

So - and there's also the added sort of complication, that it's, you know, it's one thing to sort of predict how people might behave, people who are kind of producing children right now. And, you know, what can you say about how the whole new generation of people who aren't born yet? How they're going to make, you know, what sort of decision they will be making about how many children they have.

CONAN: And as you pointed out in your piece, this skips over the, well, probably remote possibility of an asteroid striking the Earth or the, perhaps, less remote possibility of some new plague or something like that.

LYNCH: Yeah. I mean, apparently, the HIV that - Africa was due to surpass, I mean, Europe and the United States much more rapidly in terms of overall population. And essentially, the HIV epidemic has slowed that down. I mean, they will reach it at some point in the not too-distant future, but those kinds of incidence have a kind of unforeseen impact on, you know, on fertility rates, or less than it is - this would be less on fertility rates, but on mortality rates. And so that has a big impact on population growth. I mean, one of the things that's kind of driven the sort of explosive growth over the last 100 years has been the extraordinary changes in mortality rates. I mean, the fact that, you know, people are living much longer and, you know, while - during periods when there's been sufficiently high fertility rates.

CONAN: We're talking with Colum Lynch, a U.N. reporter for The Washington Post, author of the Turtle Bay blog at Foreign Policy magazine. And he wrote the piece "It's a Small World" for foreignpolicy.com. It's on the Opinion Page today. What does 7 billion mean to you? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. John(ph) is on the line from Crestview in Florida.

JOHN: Yes. I have a question about the island nations like the Philippines, and their landmass is finite, and the amount of food they can grow there is not very large. And their Pacquiao, the boxer, is fighting the president there over state-sponsored population control because of the Catholic religion is the dominant religion in the area. They ever looked at that and, I mean...

CONAN: Manny Pacquiao is, of course, the great boxing champion, also a member of Congress in the Philippines, but Colum Lynch.

LYNCH: Well, it's a great question, but I'm afraid I don't have an answer on the Philippines. I mean, you know, one of the things that - one of the issues sort of related to this is, let's say, on issues of population control.

You know, there is - one of the academics I talked to by the name of Matthew Connelly at Columbia University, one of his concerns is that, you know, we set up these kind of expectations of population reaching a certain point like, say, you know, 2.1 fertility rate at 2100. And what happens if you - if countries don't reach those rates? Let's say there's, you know, there are efforts in Russia, in Macedonia, in France to try and provide economic incentives to mothers to bear more children. But generally, those are not seen as sufficient to really bring a country like Russia back to a replacement rate.

And so there are concerns that the countries will, in the future - that he cited - that they will use coercive measures. They'll look more to the Chinese model to try and enforce either through, you know, hopefully as draconian as you see it in China, but even through, you know, tax disincentives to individuals who don't bear children and other mechanisms to try and control population growth. So there's concerns about that, that kind of raise in the process of reporting this.

CONAN: This email from Robert in Lakewood, Ohio. We certainly have to hope the projections for accelerating population growth are wrong. Not too many years ago, we thought there were abundant fish populations in the ocean that would feed a growing population. We now know many once common species of fish are in decline, if not threatened. With so many dying from starvation and many more going to bed hungry already, where do we think the resources are to feed another billion or two? And I didn't even get to the needs for water and energy. I'm not very hopeful because we are ignoring the obvious.

We're talking about population growth and the number 7 billion today on the Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get John on, John with us from Columbia, South Carolina. John?

JOHN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: I was just wondering, is there a natural function for this or do they just - is it an educated guess or is it all based on just polls?

CONAN: How do they project that population growth, Colum Lynch?

LYNCH: Yeah. Generally, they're based on national census figures. So the United Nations has a population division. There's a wonderful guy, he used to run that named Joseph Chamie, who, you know, spends all his time looking at these numbers and coming up with wonderful trends about explaining why, you know, you see instability in Northern Africa, in the Middle East and, you know, kind of how those things tend to fall - follow huge spurts of population growth. But essentially, these are all compiled by national census figures. Some countries are better taking censuses than they are in other countries. So it's not a perfect measure. But I don't think that it's seen as kind of widely unrepresentative of the reality of where the population is now.

I mean, as we've been saying, not as useful in predicting futures patterns. But, you know, as I was saying earlier, there's no reason to think that the 7th billion baby was born on Halloween day in 2011. Ten year, the - I mean, when the 6th billion baby was born, the U.N. made a big sort of event out of it, and they identified the supposed 6th billion baby in Bosnia and spent a lot of time, you know, kind of focus and attention on that to sort of draw attention to the whole issue. But, of course, they had no idea back then that it was a Bosnian, and they have no idea now whether this is happening today or yesterday or a month ago or six months ago or six months into the future.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Adam. At some point, population will correct itself. The ways this could happen: plague, disease, starvation, fresh water depletion are pretty horrifying. And those are - well, other than the asteroid, I think he's got them.

LYNCH: Yeah. They are pretty horrifying. I spent a little less time focusing on the kind of resources challenges because I was looking a bit more at the countries that were in decline. But clearly - I mean, you have - some of my colleagues did a piece for The Washington Post, which talked about issues involving depletions of anchovy stocks off the coast of South America. And, you know, essentially, what you're finding is, you know, that the sort of globalization of, you know, sort of these various fishing industries that, you know, countries with huge appetites for these basic resources, China, India, others that, you know, that their sort of appetite in order to feed and, you know, China's population will equalize.

But the issues is, in some ways, more about consumption and their - even though, you know, their population may stabilize, their consumption levels are increasing. And so, you know, this has to come from somewhere. And there has been some hope during the recent sort of food crisis over the last couple of years that, you know, you could begin to develop sort of industrialized farming in Africa, that there's lots of places for that, that they could go through the kind of green revolution that you saw in Asia over the, you know, over subsequent - over previous decades, that, you know, that the world needs to innovate. It needs to be creative. It needs to think very hard and long about sort of the long-term possibilities that they will have to feed an extra billion people in the next 14 years.

CONAN: And everybody looked at those numbers and said, it's going to mean, on average, we will be poorer. However, if you also look even farther out and believe those numbers that the world population might actually decline, people say, wait a minute. How could we have economic growth in a declining population? We'll all be poorer that way too.

LYNCH: Export economies. I guess, the only - the best example of someone being able to - countries being able to sort of hold their own are countries like Germany and Japan, which are on sort of the far range of countries that are really seeing huge declines in fertility rates, that they have done well economically through, you know, depended on the sort of export economy because people aren't consuming domestically in the way that they did previously. But it's not clear that that's the sort of sustainable model for everyone.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Joshua in South Bend, and I'm not sure you know the answer to this. Is there an ideal level for the population of the Earth to be at? If so, what's your opinion on the, quote, "Georgia Guidestones," unquote, mandate to maintain the population level below 500 million? That's - well, I'm just looking. I think that's the right numbers of zeroes, 500 million. In which case, we're way past that.

Yeah. I have no idea. But I think that - I think that there's almost this kind of sense of not so much of a perfect number but a perfect rate that, you know, that there's a lot of focus on, a sustainable rate, and a lot of it. At the U.N., that tends to be a rate that's, you know, replacement rate, which is about 2.1.

Colum Lynch, United Nations correspondent for the Washington Post, writes the Turtle Bay blog at Foreign Policy magazine. He joined us today from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

LYNCH: Thanks very much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you can find a link to his recent Foreign Policy piece at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. We posted links to several of the other op-eds that caught our eye. You can find some of those at facebook.com/nprtalk.

Tomorrow, what should schools teach about sex? It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.