Despite falling fertility rates, trouble ahead

Guess which country has the lowest fertility rate, Iran or the United States. Wrong. It’s Iran.
The United States is one of the few rich nations in the world in which women have more children during their child-bearing years (15 to 49) than it takes to replace them and the fathers. Iran has a fertility rate of 1.9 for the whole country, 1.5 for the capital city, Tehran. The magic number is 2.1. Two to replace the parents, point one to compensate for early female deaths. The U.S. rate is at 2.1 or a bit higher.
Demographers report that there is a direct connection between wealth and fertility. As a nation grows richer, its women have fewer children — and as families shrink in number, they become richer. The trends reinforce each other.
The wealth effect has resulted in remarkably rapid changes. It took 130 years — from 1800 to 1930 — for England to move from a fertility rate of 5 to the break-even rate of 2. South Korea made the same shift in just 20 years, from 1965 to 1985, according to an article in this week’s Economist.
Having fewer children bolsters a nation’s prosperity by allowing more women to work outside the home, increasing the work force dramatically.
With these facts in mind, it is not surprising to learn that the fertility rates throughout rich Europe and new-rich southeast Asia are low. Areas in India now have fertility rates below 2, even though the nation’s population continues to grow and will soon reach a billion. The pattern in Europe has been for fertility rates to drop to 1.3, stay there for a while, then rise again toward 2.
When given their choice, women around the world say they would like to have two children. Because many women in many nations do not have easy, affordable access to birth control, their fertility rates rise, but still stay below 3 in most countries. A recent study estimated that 25 percent of the pregnancies in underdeveloped countries were unintentional.
If current trends continue, world population will stabilize by 2050 at about 9.2 billion — a huge increase over today’s 7 billion.
Falling fertility rates are good news; the fact that world population will rise nearly 50 percent before stabilizing presents an enormous challenge.
It is unrealistic to seek to reduce fertility rates far enough to slow population growth substantially. Instead, ways must be found through technology and wise governance to deal with readily predictable growth in human numbers without making the world uninhabitable by our species. To get a feel for the dimensions of that task consider that, the Economist reported, the poorest Africans and Asians produce one-tenth of a ton of carbon dioxide a year for each of them compared to 20 tons for each American.
As Africans and Asians grow richer, as they do year by year, their contributions to climate change will grow along with their wealth.
Today would be a very good time for the world to get serious about non-carbon-based energy. And, as the song says, the work should begin with us.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.