Population: Commentary Urges U.N. To Correct "Misconception"

Ben J. Wattenberg
Foreign Affairs

Arguing that the world is facing a population decline rather than the "population explosion" the media have warned about for years, Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says "only the U.N. has the standing to correct the central misconception of our time."

"The overwhelming demographic story of our time has somehow failed to make it into the headlines," Wattenberg writes in Foreign Affairs. "Never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all over the world. That story continues to be buried by the noise of 'the population explosion,' a powerful trend that peaked decades ago, but which is still promoted by environmental alarmists and their allies."

Citing a U.N. Population Division report entitled Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations?, Wattenberg contends that its central finding -- that a declining population will force Europe to either take in large numbers of immigrants or suffer severe economic damage -- was buried in the recent release of the new U.N. biennial reference book World Population Prospects -- The 2000 Revisions.

Wattenberg writes that the recently released highlights of that report skew the facts by focusing on the figures for world population at large, which it reported as growing by 77 million a year to reach 9.3 billion by 2050 according to "medium variant" projections, or 413 million more people than previously reported. But emphasizing the term "more people" is misleading, he claims, because "saying that developed nations won't lose population in the next 50 years is simply not accurate. Europe, Japan and almost every other developed country will suffer severe population losses, while the United States is projected to grow."

"Thus, the 2000 population of Europe is 727 million and the U.N.'s 'medium' projection for 2050 is 603 million -- a loss of 124 million people, or 17 percent, an unprecedented drop," he writes.

Nor do projections for America hold up, Wattenberg maintains, because they wrongly assume increasing fertility and immigration, whereas American fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels for 30 consecutive years already.

"The problem is not that the U.N. has made poor projections," he writes, "but that it labels fairly high projections as 'medium.' That word is immediately misinterpreted as 'most likely,' and in the media it is then further transmuted into 'fact.' And so we read that the U.N. is predicting that the world population will rise from about 6 billion to about 9 billion and keep growing -- instead of a more likely course of going from 6 billion to about 8 billion and declining."

That can adversely affect policy decisions because getting the numbers wrong thwarts the most efficient allocation of resources, he writes. "Reporting growth when the likelihood is decline postpones consideration of these serious issues"