“The Population Bomb: Defused or Still Ticking?” Seminar Recap

by |March 8, 2012

By: Emily Thibodeaux

World Population Since 1300 (Flickr: mattlemmon)

“Thank you for coming on this gorgeous day, to sit in an airless, lightless room and discuss how to save the world,” said John Mutter, director of Columbia’s PhD in Sustainable Development and a member of the Earth Institute faculty, in welcoming the audience of the Sustainable Development Seminar, “The Population Bomb: Defused or Still Ticking?” The seminar brought together a panel of demography and population experts, who, Mutter calculated, shared a total of 121 years’ experience in the field.

Panelists included John Bongaarts, vice president and distinguished scholar of the Population Council; Joel E. Cohen, director of the Lab of Populations at Rockefeller University and Earth Institute faculty member; Mark R. Montgomery, professor of Economics at SUNY Stony Brook and senior associate with the Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth program; and Hania Zlotnik, recently retired Director of the Population Division in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations.

It became apparent, upon the beginning of the discussion, that the population bomb was not so much ticking, as exploding. “We are going through a period of extraordinary demographic change,” Bongaarts said, as he projected a graph showing a steep rise in the population growth rate from 1900 to 2100. The current world population, which is estimated to be 7 billion, is projected to reach 10.2 billion by 2100. Most of the added population will take place in Africa.

The world population remained under 1 billion and relatively stable until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when the population began a “super exponential ascent,” as Cohen put it.

Cohen also explained that by 2050, the population will be not only bigger, but older. “People 60-plus years old will greatly outnumber children under four years old,” and “virtually all population growth will be in cities of the poor countries.” To address the problem of accommodating rapid urbanization, Montgomery stated, smarter urban planning in “poor cities” will be crucial. “At this rate, we need to plan to accommodate an additional 1 million people every five days,” according to Cohen.

Zlotnik remarked that she was glad to see the other speakers using numbers collected by her former organization, the United Nations, but she cautioned, “Do not trust our numbers. . .You have to look behind them,” and “understand the assumptions that are implied.” For example, the difference in growth rates between developed and developing countries is not apparent when viewing the seemingly low aggregate world population growth rate of 1.1.

Both Cohen and Zlotnik stated that a downturn in fertility does not necessarily result in a lower population or a safer planet. Modern culture emphasizes personal independence, so there might be fewer offspring per household, but because people now live alone more frequently, the number of separate households releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is increasing. Though fertility rates are projected to gradually fall, population growth could almost double before the lower fertility rates can take effect on the growth rate.

Zlotnik stated that countries showing high fertility rates, such as those in Africa, have always had higher birth rates and death rates than countries with historically low fertility rates, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. The rise in birth rate and a decline in death rate, which has occurred in low-fertility countries for centuries, are now happening at a much faster rate for Sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria, a country whose population should exceed that of the United States by 2100.

The panelists examined the reasons behind high population growth in developing countries. Phenomena that have triggered population growth include recent industrial revolutions, an unmet need for women’s education, and the lack of available family planning services and contraceptives. All of the panelists agreed that only approximately 50 percent of women who want contraceptives in countries with the highest fertility rates are able to get them.

In response to a question about the effectiveness of the Chinese “one child” policy, which has limited most families to having one child since 1979, Zlotnik answered that such overt methods of control elicit backlash, and a drop in the wellbeing of women. It is more effective to provide adequate education about healthy birthing intervals and contraceptives than to enforce a top-down government policy. Longer intervals between births can cause a dramatic drop in the projected population increase. Even if women are not initially receptive, Zlotnik argued, “You don’t wait until people change their mind to give them the means.”

Even in developed countries such as the United States and Canada, 48 percent of pregnancies in 2008 were unplanned. In an effort to assume responsibility in dismantling the population bomb, the global community must place a greater focus on providing education and family planning services to men and women, and turn away from adopting ineffective policies, or imposing them on others. “Coercion is unproductive. Let’s not try for the hard problems when we have easier ones to solve,” Bongaarts stated. “For now, let’s address the needs of women and help countries increase their wellbeing.”

Emily Thibodeaux is a Writing student and MFA candidate in the School of the Arts, a Columbia Teaching Fellow and an intern in the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute. She resides in Manhattan, and her writing and humanitarian interests include gender equality, sustainable development, Louisiana and Cajun culture. Emily is at work on her first novel which is set in the unique area of Acadiana, the traditional home of french speaking Cajuns in Southwestern Louisiana, and centers around a spousal murder/suicide that takes place in an abandoned town in Vermilion Parish.

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