With the birth of the worlds seven billionth person on October 31 (or thereabouts), the ongoing rumble about overpopulation rose an octave higher than usual. A group called the Center for Biological Diversity launched an awareness campaign linking contraceptive use to endangered species preservation, and fretting columnists in local newspapers have written editorials warning their fellow human beings that this time, surely, weve crossed a line. National Geographic poses the question : Can the planet take the strain? under a photograph of a packed shopping street (implied answer: it doesnt look good).
Meanwhile, from other sectors of the commentary class comes a steady stream of worries about declining populations, especially in Europe and Asia. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features an article examining Russias demographic disaster, which it says represents an unprecedented trend for an urbanized, literate society not at war and one which will almost certainly have serious consequences for the world political, cultural, and diplomatic scene.
Joel Kotkin at Forbes takes a wider view of the planet as a whole, busting the myth that only well-heeled, fully industrialized countries face the problem of declining birthrates. The problem, it turns out, has begun spreading beyond the comfortable confines of Western Europe and Japan. Iran, Brazil, and India, he points out, already have birthrates lower than the United States. In fact, the only truly explosive growth now comes from sub-Saharan Africa, but even there the situation may change, as it has already (to the surprise of some planners) in many once-poor nations like China and Taiwan.
So which is it? Does the world have too many people, or too few? The most honest answer is probably that the threat of overpopulation is alarmist and emotion-based, whereas worries about declining birthrates are underappreciated, even though they are more grounded in hard facts. Indeed, if predictions like Kotkins play out, and emerging nations follow the demographic trends of advanced ones, the strange phenomenon of societies breeding themselves out of existence may no longer simply be a first world problem but a global one. Its entirely conceivable that, 100 years from now, should the birth dearth continue to spread, our progeny will look back nostalgically on earlier times when people fretted about overpopulation. Indeed, in a growing number of contexts, professional demographers already are.