Gazing deep into the population crystal ball



Faced with soaring birth rates, Ghada Wali, the Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity, recently announced a program called “Itnein Kifaya,” or “Two is Enough,” that focuses on the poorest regions with the highest fertility.

Egypt’s total fertility rate, or the average number of children born to a woman in her childbearing years, is four, compared with a global rate of 2.5. Wali said that unless trends change, the total population could reach 128 million by 2030.

Most population scenarios project to only about 2030 and, barring large-scale catastrophe, see population continuing to climb. Few look far beyond mid-century, but a 2013 study sought to do just that.

For the authors, the key question is how low can fertility fall in modern societies where “social norms” set expectation about ideal family size. For example, even after China phased out its “one child per family policy” in 2015, the next generation are still likely to have fewer children, the authors write.

Indeed, urban women in China have a fertility rate of about 0.75 — well below population-replacement levels.

Following this logic, the study projects that global population would peak before 2050 then fall to 2.6 billion in 2100, then plunge to a mind-boggling 150 million by 2200. How could this happen? “Demographic transition,” led by developed countries, has resulted in global fertility rates falling from 4.9 in the 1960s. Some experts anticipate that the decline won’t halt at a replacement level of 2.1 in many countries.

Still, the researchers admit that this outcome is unlikely. For one thing, Africa has the highest fertility rate in the world, at 5.0. If it remains stalled there, population could reach a Malthusian 355 billion by 2200 in sub-Saharan Africa alone (though no doubt checked in some way by increasing mortality).

The key to reining in such a population explosion lies in understanding the current challenges facing women and empowering them, with equal pay, education and access to birth control.

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