World population: Boom or bust?

Published July 11, 2021, 12:30 AM

by Manila Bulletin

For centuries, overpopulation had been a dark cloud hovering over our future. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) predicted that there would be more of us by 2050 than the planet could accommodate. Based on the latest UN projections, there will be 8.6 billion of us by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100.

This prediction has inspired visions of the Apocalypse. “Every which way you look at it, a planet of 10 billion looks like a nightmare,” said Stephen Emmott, author of 10 Billion, which detailed the horrors of population explosion, such as food shortage, energy wars, and civil conflict.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus shared that “population would grow at a geometric rate while food production increased at an arithmetic rate,” but had he lived beyond the 1800s, he would have been even more alarmed. From an annual growth rate of 0.6 percent between 1850 and 1900, world population grew at an unprecedented rate of 2.06 percent by 1970.

Climate change, mass extinctions, and dwindling resources might prove Malthus right, but the English economist might have had to rethink his projections had he known that by 2009, “demographic transition” would be widely accepted in modern social science.

First introduced by Warren Thompson in 1929, corroborated by Adolphe Landry in 1934, and further developed by Frank W. Notestein in the 1940s, demographic transition argues that with technology, education, and economic development, societies will naturally shift from high to low birth and death rates. It suggests that fertility and mortality would decline as a result of economic growth, no draconian population control measures required.

In fact, we’ve seen a steady decline over the course of the decades when, from a high of 2.06 percent in 1970, the population growth rate declined to 1.73 percent by 1990.

Recent data found that for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in the US, only 55.8 gave birth in 2020 compared to 69.5 in 2007. China in 2020 experienced the lowest birth rate in six decades, with only 12 million babies born compared to 14.65 in 2019. In Thailand, from 5.8 children per mother in the late 1960s, the fertility rate fell to 1.5 children in 2020.

The Philippine Statistics Authority reports “a decrease of -6.5 percent in registered live births over the past seven years,” from 1.7 million in 2012 to 1.6 in 2019. Despite the specter of overpopulation, especially in Manila bursting at the seams with a population of 13 million, the fertility rate has fallen dramatically from 6.4 in 1969 to 2.75 in 2020.

Still, in the last decade the Philippine total population grew by 8,053,906. On July 7, 2021, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte declared that, as of May 1, 2020 based on the latest census, the country’s population stood at 109,035,343, from 92,337,852 in May 1, 2010.

Ironically, population decline—the reverse of explosion—might be the future, the most alarming aspect of which is population aging, a dominant theme in this year’s observance of World Population Day  today.

This decline is widespread in the developed economies, but in early 2020, even the poorest countries appeared to be shaping up economically. It was only a matter of time before developing nations caught up with the downtrend.

But then the pandemic happened—is happening—setting the world a few years back on the economic front, even if the baby boom expected out of the global lockdowns turned out to be a bust, with up to 500,000 fewer births in 2020 than in 2019 in the US alone.

There’s the rub.