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World Population — Stopping at Seven Billion?

How can countries around the world achieve a more sustainable population level?

March 28, 2005

How can countries around the world achieve a more sustainable population level?

In early 2003, UN demographers announced that the HIV/AIDS epidemic has reduced life expectancy for the 700 million people of sub-Saharan Africa from 62 to 46 years.

For the first time in the modern era, the rise in life expectancy has been reversed for a large segment of humanity, marking a major setback in the march of progress.

Is this an isolated development? Or does this reversal mark the beginning of a new era where the failure of societies to manage other life-threatening trends — such as falling water tables and rising temperatures — will also disrupt progress and reduce life expectancy?

Over the last three decades, some 35 European countries and Japan have reduced fertility and achieved population stability. Indeed, in many of these countries population is projected to decline somewhat over the next half-century.

In all these cases, population growth ceased because rising living standards and expanding opportunities for women were reducing births. But now populations are projected to decline in some countries for the wrong reason.

In countries with the highest HIV infection rates — Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland — rising death rates are projected to shrink populations in the decades ahead.

After peaking at an all-time high of 2% in 1970, world population growth slowed to 1.2% in 2004. This is the good news. The bad news is that part of the slowdown has come from more deaths, mostly from AIDS.

Nearly three billion people are expected to be added to our world during the first half of this century — slightly fewer than the 3.5 billion added during the last half of the 20th century.

There are some important differences in these numbers, however. Whereas the growth in 1950 to 2000 occurred in both industrial and developing countries, the growth in the next 50 years will be almost entirely in the developing ones.

Big additions are projected for the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa, which together will account for nearly two billion of the three billion total increase.

The good news is that countries that want to reduce family size quickly can do so. Two of the best examples of this are Thailand and Iran. These two middle-sized countries have been remarkably successful in slowing population growth, although they have very different cultures and economies.

One nation is predominantly Buddhist, the other Muslim. While Thailand's farm economy is rice-based, Iran's is wheat-based. Thailand is humid and subtropical, while Iran is semi-arid and temperate.

Thailand's success can largely be traced to one individual, Mechai Viravaidya, who eventually became known nationwide simply as Mechai.

During the 1970s, Mechai saw that if Thailand did not rein in its population growth, it would eventually be in serious trouble.
He recognized early on that family planning, reproductive health and contraception were topics that people needed to feel comfortable talking about.

One of his first goals was thus to promote the discussion of population and family planning issues. He gave talks to any group who would listen.

He worked with educators to get population examples in elementary school math books. He wanted even Thailand's children to understand the consequences of prolonged exponential growth.

He popularized the condom, one of the first contraceptives available in Thailand and promoted its manufacture and distribution. He helped people understand the role of condoms in preventing births and disease.

Schoolchildren played games with condoms inflated as balloons. Taxi drivers in Bangkok had condoms in their cabs, offering them to their passengers for free.

At a 1979 conference of Parliamentarians on Population and Development in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Mechai boarded a bus to the meeting site and went down the aisle with a small box filled with condoms.

He was offering them to various members of Parliament — men and women alike — teasing them about the colors they wanted or the size that would be best for them.

He was thoroughly entertaining — and certainly disarming — which is no doubt why "Mechai" is now slang for condom in Thailand.

Mechai's enthusiasm could not be curbed. The bottom line was that he mobilized the resources of the Thai government to introduce family planning programs throughout the country.

In 2000, Mechai was elected to the Senate by the people of Thailand. Today, women in Thailand have access to a full range of family planning services.

Instead of a population growth rate of 3% a year — or twenty-fold per century — Thailand's annual population growth rate is 0.8%.

With the average number of children per woman in Thailand now less than two, it is only a matter of time until Thailand's population stabilizes.

Its current population of 63 million is projected to stop growing at around 77 million by 2050, an increase of 22%. This compares with the projected growth of 38% for the United States by 2050.

Iran Broadcasting played a prominent role, releasing a steady drumbeat of information encouraging smaller families and extolling their benefits. Radio and television broadcasts informed people that family planning services were available.

Indeed, it let them know of the 15,000 new "health houses" available in villages to provide family planning guidance and services.

The national female literacy rate climbed from roughly 25% in 1970 to over 70% today. Religious leaders were mobilized to convince couples to have smaller families.

These and other initiatives combined to reduce the number of children per woman from seven to three in scarcely a decade.

Mullahs who once were on the front lines urging women to have more children were now encouraging them to have fewer.
Average family size has dropped from seven children to fewer than three.

The population growth rate was cut in half from 1987 to 1994, putting Iran in the same category as Japan and China — the only other two countries that have succeeded in halving their population growth rates in such a short period of time.

In 2004, Iran's population was growing only modestly faster than that of the United States. If Iran, with its strong undercurrent of Islamic fundamentalism, can move so quickly toward population stability, then there is hope for countries everywhere.

Over the long term, a sustainable population means two children per couple. The arithmetic is simple. Any population that increases or decreases continuously over the long term is not sustainable.

Adapted from “Outgrowing the Earth” by Lester Brown © 2004 Earth Policy Institute.