One woman, one daughter

The magic words are "a net reproduction rate below one point zero." What do they mean? That a decline in global population numbers is within sight

Published November 21, 2007 8:42PM (EST)

How's this for a headline that simply reeks of Malthusian-inspired calls for totalitarian population control: "Top ex-pat scientist urges population curbs"?

But it's a sensationalist bait-and-switch. The text of the article, from an Australian News Corp. affiliate, is rather unprovocative.

Immediate past president of the Royal Society, Professor Lord Robert May said that, given the threat of climate change, a declining global population was "a prerequisite" if humanity was to achieve a sustainable ecological footprint in the future.

Addressing the Lowy Institute in Sydney last night, Lord May said a priority was educating and empowering women, "particularly in those cultures where this is not currently the case."

There's a big difference between urging "population curbs" and advocating the empowerment and education of women. The first conjures up visions of a One-Child-Per-Family policy imposed on the developing world by the already-shrinking-population-West, which is ethically and morally repugnant. The second option happens to be sane and already working, despite the best efforts of religious groups and other ideological bozos who are doing their best to sabotage funding for family planning programs or prevent women from equitably participating in society.

According to News Corp., Lord Professor Robert May made one very interesting comment in passing; "He said it was encouraging that in the past year global fertility rates fell below replacement levels for the first time in recorded history, with the average female now having slightly less than one female child."

The female child replacement rate is technically referred to as the "net reproduction rate." I was unable to find confirmation of the assertion that in 2006, the net reproduction rate dropped below 1.0, but I did discover a very interesting database interface provided by the United Nations Population Division that allowed me to generate all kinds of interesting tables regarding historical and predicted population growth.

When I set the parameters for net reproduction rate, globally, over the last fifty and next fifty years, I generated the following numbers:

1950-1955 1.65
1955-1960 1.71
1960-1965 1.82
1965-1970 1.87
1970-1975 1.75
1975-1980 1.58
1980-1985 1.47
1985-1990 1.41
1990-1995 1.28
1995-2000 1.18
2000-2005 1.13
2005-2010 1.10
2010-2015 1.07
2015-2020 1.05
2020-2025 1.02
2025-2030 0.99
2030-2035 0.97
2035-2040 0.96
2040-2045 0.95
2045-2050 0.94

The message of those figures is that, in the foreseeable future, global population totals will begin to decline.

These numbers shouldn't be taken to mean that I think the world can sustainability support nine billion people, which is the best guess on where the global population totals will peak, particularly if everyone is living the kind of life I personally have become accustomed to in Berkeley, California. I don't know if we can or not. But my children will likely get a chance to figure it out. The challenges we face going forward are undoubtedly immense, but a critical first step is stabilizing population growth and we are already headed in that direction. And we'll get there, provided the world beefs up its focus on providing education, health care, and pathways to economic opportunity for the world's women.

And lots of free condoms for the men.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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