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Is Population a Problem?

Think Tank Transcripts: Is Population a Problem?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. The population argumentis on the front burner again. In September, a massive U.N. conferencewill take place in Cairo. World population is way up. Some peoplefear that the so called population bomb is exploding. Others say it'sno big deal.

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus areJessica Matthews, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relationsand former deputy to the undersecretary of state for global affairsin the Clinton administration; Samuel Preston of the University ofPennsylvania and former president of the Population Association ofAmerica; John Bongaarts, director of research at the PopulationCouncil; and Professor Julian Simon of the University of Maryland andauthor of the soon-to-be-reissued best seller, 'The UltimateResource.'

The question before this house is: Is population a problem? Thisweek on 'Think Tank.'

In the 1960s, some experts warned that a population bomb wasticking, and predicted that worldwide famine was inevitable. Nowfears of global famine are receding, but some worry that the falloutfrom the population bomb may devastate the earth's naturalenvironment.

Okay, let's look first at those population trends. Now, this is afamiliar chart. For most of recorded history, the number of peopleremained below one billion. But since 1800, the population hasincreased to 5.6 billion, and more people are on the way. In the nextdecade alone, a billion more will be added.

According to the United Nations medium growth scenario, worldpopulation will likely double by the year 2150, and then level off.But remember, that's a projection, not a prediction. Will it prove tobe correct? Well, it assumes that global total fertility rates willfall to the point where on average women will bear 2.1 children. Thatis the so-called replacement rate at which a modern population isstabilized over time.

But look at this. In the developed world, in the modernizedcountries -- that's us -- fertility rates have already fallen wellbelow that replacement level. In just 30 years, the number ofchildren per woman dropped from 2.8 to 1.8, and in fact rates aredown to 1.5 in Japan and down to 1.3 in Spain and in Italy. At theserates, excluding any massive immigration, modern countries will losepopulation and keep on losing it. Ah, but the argument is made, isn'tthe real problem in the non-modernized, less developed countries?Well, those fertility rates indeed are well above replacement. Butthey, too, are declining steeply.

In 1960, there were 6.1 births per woman in the third world. Todayit is 3.6 and falling dramatically. For example, fertility in Mexicoand Brazil dropped by 50 percent, in Egypt 42 percent, and Thailand'sis down by 64 percent.

So what's going to happen? For the year 2050 -- that's not so faraway; many of our viewers should still be around, the U.N.'s mediumprojection, based on that rate of 2.1 children per woman, yields apopulation of 10 billion people. But when the U.N. changes theassumption by increasing fertility just slightly, from 2.1 to 2.7children, then that tiny shift would add 2-1/2 billion more people,for a total of 12-1/2 billion.

But suppose global fertility drops a little bit to 1.96 children,which happens to be higher than the 1.8 of the modern countriestoday, then world population will only reach 7.8 billion. And lookwhat happens in that case.

Remember this chart? It's based on that medium projection. But ifworld population follows the U.N.'s medium low projection, populationwill grow, but top out at only about 7.8 billion in 2050 and thenstart declining, and by 2150, we're pretty much back where we aretoday, at 5.6 billion people, and the population continues to shrink.

Jessica Matthews, is the moral of these data that small changesnow can yield massive changes later on?

MS. MATTHEWS: I think that's part of it. Clearly, populationmomentum is an enormous driving force. Put it in individual terms. Ifa woman today has three children, she'll have 27 great grandchildren.If she has six, she'll have 216. And so that gives you a sense of howprecious time is if you want to end up closer to 8 billion than 12billion. So I think that's the other lesson of these numbers thatyou've shown, which is that action now translates -- we have in ourhands now the potential to make a huge difference in the quality oflife down the road.

MR. WATTENBERG: Sam Preston, do you go along with that?

MR. PRESTON: Yeah, I think that's correct. One thing that is notbrought out very clearly in those data is that the death rate iscontinuing to decline, so that although there has been a sizablereduction in the rate of fertility among women in developingcountries, the growth rate is actually not very much lower than itwas in 1965.

MR. WATTENBERG: This whole population explosion thing that peopleare so concerned about, after all, does come out of something good,doesn't it?

MR. PRESTON: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which is that fewer babies are dying, people areliving longer. Are we all agreed on that?

MR. PRESTON: The increase in life expectancy during the 20thcentury I think has to be credited as our greatest singleachievement. At the turn of the century, India, China, most of thethird world had a life expectancy of 25.

MR. WATTENBERG: Twenty-five years per person.

MR. PRESTON: Twenty-five years per person. It's now over 60 fordeveloping countries as a whole. At the turn of the century, the U.S.had a life expectancy of 49. It's now 76. That's what's driving thepopulation explosion, and it really is a credit to the success of thehuman race in lowering death rates.

MR. WATTENBERG: But now, John Bongaarts of the Population Council,that blessing of longer life, you and your colleagues sense is amajor problem as well?

MR. BONGAARTS: Well, one thing I would like to add to theintroduction. You are quite right in pointing out that smalldifferences in fertility make a large difference in the long run, andthat means that we should take now the actions we know will make adifference, and we should take them urgently.

The one thing we will have difficulty doing is changing populationtrends over the next few decades. We are now adding every year morepeople than in any year in history. During the 1990s, population willgrow about a billion, and the same thing again in the first twodecades of the next century.

So the climax of this unprecedented period of population growthstill lies ahead of us in the next few decades.

MR. WATTENBERG: Julian, what do you think of all this?

MR. SIMON: Well, I want to underline what Sam said, which is thatthe main driving force for the growth in population has been ourvictory over early death. And that victory over early death -- orpremature death -- has been largely achieved by our increasedcapacity to be able to produce more food and our conquest of thegreat environmental killers -- the typhus, the cholera.

So I would expect all lovers of humanity to be cheering at thismiracle that we finally achieved.

MR. WATTENBERG: But suppose, if we let people have as manychildren as they want, global population went not to 10 billion, butto 15 billion or 20 billion or 30 billion. Is there a point at whichyou have a problem with the number of people in the world? MR. SIMON:There's no known physical limit in the long run, and the physicalconstraints to population get less and less and less year after year.But I don't see that we need to look into the long-term future andtry to make any policies about it now. In fact, when we've done thatin the past, they have usually been policies which were exactly theopposite of what we would have wanted thereafter.

MS. MATTHEWS: What do you mean?

MR. BONGAARTS: Well, I don't agree with that. I think a lot ofmankind has certainly improved in most places around the world, andthat's a good thing, as we just discussed. But we're now at a pointin history where we can look into the future. We have projectionsthat we either might end up with about 8 billion people 50 years fromnow

MR. WATTENBERG: Eight billion and then decline.

MR. BONGAARTS: And then declining -- or we could go to 15, 20billion. Now, any reasonably informed group of citizens from anywherein the world would vote for the 8 billion world rather than the 20billion world. So if that's the case, then we should now take actionsthat will get us on the trajectory to 8 billion rather than on the 20billion.

MR. WATTENBERG: While we've had this population explosion in the20th century, is there any argument that on balance the averageearthling, the average person living in this world is doing betterthan before? And so how can you say, how can one say, well, the causeof this misery is too much population growth?

MS. MATTHEWS: This is a classic, you know, glass half empty, halffull kind of debate, right? It depends

MR. WATTENBERG: It's two-thirds full. I mean, you know, theabsolute level of affluence around the world, certainly in thedeveloped world, but also in the less developed world, has been goingup

MS. MATTHEWS: Oh, no question.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- while there has been a population explosion.

MS. MATTHEWS: I think your question maybe gets it -- is there anoptimum population level on the planet? And that's almost animpossible one to answer; I can't.

What we do know is that the effects of population growth aremediated through capital, through technology and throughinstitutions. Okay. We are not a perfect species. There is noquestion, I would agree, that the planet can hold a lot more peoplethan we have if we have enough capital, enough technology and enoughfunctioning institutions. But, you know, as Sam said, it's populationgrowth rates that overwhelm institutional development. And countriesthat are trying to provide housing, food and shelter, and educationfor a rapidly growing population do not also have the capital toproduce the jobs to employ them. And so it becomes a terribletradeoff.

MR. BONGAARTS: But can I come back to your question?


MR. BONGAARTS: And that is, is -- the world is better off, noquestion about it. Most statistics you look at, except for someenvironmental ones, we are now better off than decades ago. And atthe same time, population has been growing rapidly.

But the answer, it seems to me, to your question is simple. Wewould have been better off still if population growth had been lessrapid.

MR. WATTENBERG: Julian Simon, is population growth harmful?

MR. SIMON: Of course more people are harmful, and more people area problem. Every parent knows that. But it's not just harmful. Morepeople are also beneficial. People not only cut down trees. They alsoplant trees. People not only degrade the soil on some farms, but theyin fact replenish the soil in other places and leave continentsbetter than they ever were before.

Europe, as you know so well, John, has more trees growing now thanit did 50 years ago, and the farms are better tended than everbefore. So that yes, there's harm, but yes, there is benefit, and onbalance there's a little bit more benefit each generation, which isthe reason that each of our generations is a little richer than thegeneration that came before.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you say we are better off because there is morepopulation?

MR. SIMON: That's a little more complicated. I believe it, butcertainly there is a correlation. We've had more people over timeliving longer and more healthily with more resources.

MR. WATTENBERG: But you also just said -- I just want to pin yourposition down before going to some others -- I mean you also say it'sneutral, I mean that population growth is MR. SIMON: That's what thedata show, that it's neutral, that there's no correlation, basically.

MR. WATTENBERG: The data show it's neutral, and your intuitionsays it's positive?

MR. SIMON: Yes, in the long run.

MS. MATTHEWS: I can't believe, though, that you didn't leap allover John a minute ago when he said that we would have done bettereconomically if population growth had been slower.

MR. SIMON: I would have if I had time.

MS. MATTHEWS: All right.

MR. WATTENBERG: You don't agree with Julian?

MS. MATTHEWS: Oh, I mean, you know, it goes back to the point youmade earlier. Is there a limit -- 10, 20 billion, 30 billion? Or arewe the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building and passed the20th floor and said, gee, it's been fine so far?

MR. WATTENBERG: As a market economist, do you buy that equation,that more people means a worse economy?

MR. PRESTON: I think in general, yes, I do, that wages will beslightly lower if Bangladesh grows faster than if it grows slower. Itis not a major factor in differentiating between poor countries andrich countries.

In my view, the evidence on the relationship between populationgrowth and economic development is not of a kind that would supportthe use of compulsory programs in population control. It is, on theother hand, strongly supportive, I think, of family planningprograms. And in fact, I think even Julian has expressed himself asbeing supportive of subsidized family planning programs.

MR. SIMON: Why do you say even me? I'm as strong a supporter asyou can possibly imagine, Sam.

MR. WATTENBERG: Even I have come out -- I am not against -- andI've sort of been, as you know, a hawk on this argument -- I'm notagainst the U.N. or anybody else spending money on voluntary familyplanning.

MR. PRESTON: It's part of our efforts to help people get one ofthe most important things that we get in this world, and that's thefamily size they want. And any lover of liberty has got to be infavor of that. And that's the whole story in that one sentence.

MS. MATTHEWS: It seems to me you're wiggling around. I mean you'renot -- you're sometimes seeming to suggest that unfettered populationgrowth to any level is a good thing, and other times you back awayfrom that. Where do you really stand?

MR. SIMON: I stand first as a believer in liberty, Jessica.

MS. MATTHEWS: We're all agreed on that.

MR. SIMON: But we're not all agreed on it.

MS. MATTHEWS: Oh, yes, we are.

MR. SIMON: Those people who are in favor of the Chinese system arenot lovers of liberty.

MS. MATTHEWS: Who is in favor of that?

MR. SIMON: Oh, my goodness. That's a whole long story.

MR. WATTENBERG: There were people -- were people and are peopletoday in the population movement who do a lot of apologizing forChina, let's put it that way, and a lot of ignoring of what's goingon there.

MS. MATTHEWS: If there are, I think it's a tiny, tiny minority.

MR. PRESTON: China won an award from the U.N. Fund for PopulationActivities two or three years ago for its family planning --so-called family planning program. It has gotten the endorsement ofthe United Nations.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that is a coercive policy?

MR. PRESTON: I think it's coercive.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think it's coercive, Jessica?


MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think it's coercive, John?

MR. BONGAARTS: Yes, but I think I would like to point out, thething that most people are unhappy about is the one-child family, andthat's when the coercive element came in.

What people don't realize is that most of the fertility decline inChina, from about six children in the 1960s to close to two in thelate '70s, occurred before the one-child policy was implemented.

So in my view, the Chinese government would have been better offforgetting about the one-child policy and keeping with the policythey had in the '70s, which was closer to a voluntary family planningprogram that we have in other countries.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, now, let me turn to another problem,which is among those that are always brought up in this argument ofwhether population is harmful, which is, are we running out ofresources? Are we running out of resources?

MS. MATTHEWS: We're running out of some. We have certainly --there are certainly clear signs of stress, as I said, in theagricultural sector -- soil, groundwater and the productivity ofsoil. Since World War II, 11 percent of the world's vegetativesurface has lost either a large amount or all of its productivity.That's a loss we can very ill afford.

We are in many key places running out of groundwater. That is,there are lots of parts of the world where surface water that'sreplenished every year is used completely and groundwater is beingmined. That's like a fossil fuel. You use it once.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, you brought up fossil fuel. I mean 20 yearsago, everyone was saying we're running out of oil, we're running outof oil, it's a non-renewable resource. Now we are --you can takebaths in oil. The price of oil has come way down. There is a plethoraof oil.

Wasn't somebody wrong? I mean that whole Club of Rome study thatsaid, oh, my God, we're running out of everything. And we haven't --we keep not running out of everything.

MS. MATTHEWS: That's true. Technology -- and that's a good sign.That's what policy studies that say we're heading to trouble are for.I mean that's what I think people always forget when they engage inthis kind of debate. The idea is to say, hey, we're heading towardstrouble, let's change policy. And we did, so

MR. WATTENBERG: John, you've written on this from an agriculturalpoint of view. Are we running out of food?

MR. BONGAARTS: No. The world can produce ample food for theaverage citizen of the world, and in fact we probably can accommodatea larger population. But again, there are large numbers of people whohave not enough to eat. The cause of hunger in the world is poverty.But population growth is a major contributing factor to poverty, soindirectly population growth contributes to hunger.


MR. PRESTON: I don't disagree with that. And I don't think marketsare the panacea for all human problems by any stretch of

MR. WATTENBERG: But market economies

MR. PRESTON: Market economies grow better than non-marketeconomies.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do we all agree on that? Okay, because I was adelegate to that 1984 population conference, and we got into thisgreat argument, and somebody pinned the label on the Americandelegation, which I don't think we ever said, that capitalism is thebest contraceptive.

And people said, oh, my God, isn't that a terrible thing, when inpoint of fact, if you say that market economies do grow faster andthat more affluence does lower fertility, one can certainly make thecase, if not of capitalism being the best contraceptive, thatcapitalism or market economies are a fine contraceptive.

MS. MATTHEWS: Not alone they're not. I'm a very affluent person.If I didn't have a contraceptive, I'd probably have six childreninstead of two. So you've got to -- there's plenty of other -- sothey're not a contraceptive at all, right?

Economic growth accelerates fertility decline, there's no debateabout that. I think that whole debate is gone. And the old -- youknow, that old bumper sticker -- Development is the bestcontraceptive; Capitalism is the best contraceptive -- it's allmisleading. It doesn't help us understand

MR. WATTENBERG: But every country -- every modern market economyhas had a plunging fertility rate.

MS. MATTHEWS: But, you know, John raised the point earlier that anawful lot depends on the rate at which this happens so thatinstitutions can keep up; and the base that you're starting from,because we're talking about exponential growth, so the bigger yourbase, the bigger your annual increment; and how much capital you haveto deal with the problems that the growth yields. So I don't thinkthere's really any debate on that.

MR. WATTENBERG: That in other words, diminishing fertility willhappen, that it's a meaningless argument whether it's capitalism orcontraceptives. They're sort of all linked together, and both thingshave to happen and both things are happening. Are you prepared toaccept that?

MR. BONGAARTS: I think that both are important. In other words,the reason why fertility declined is because people started adoptingcontraception. Okay, so contraception explains almost the entirefertility decline.

The next question is, why do people adopt contraception? And thatis because of development; they want fewer children and thus they areusing contraception. So you cannot say it's contraception ordevelopment. It is contraception and contraceptive increases to equalto development, plus development, plus the efforts made by manygovernments to help women through family planning programs.

MR. WATTENBERG: Sam Preston, I guess Paul Ehrlich and others havemade the case that more affluence yields more pollution. And yet whenyou look at certain comparable societies, for example, Western Europeand the old Eastern Europe, Western Europe was more affluent and muchcleaner, and Eastern Europe, with lower affluence, was an ecologicalslum.

MR. PRESTON: Well, in fact, the 1992 World Development Report ofthe World Bank was devoted to the environment, and it concluded thataffluence was associated with less pollution. That is, in general,the United States and Western Europe used technologies that were infact less polluting than was the case in poorer countries, so that infact there is confirmation that things do in fact tend to get betterwith affluence, as we expect of all the

MR. WATTENBERG: In direct contradiction to what the Paul Ehrlichpeople have said.

MR. PRESTON: It's in direct contradiction to the EIPAT equation,which tries to express

MR. WATTENBERG: Could you explain

MR. PRESTON: The impact, environmental impact as a product ofpopulation size, affluence -- that is, income per head, and thentechnology, which is

MR. WATTENBERG: John Bongaarts, how does the Population Council,or how do you come out on that?

MR. BONGAARTS: Well, on this particular argument, yes, the reasonwhy

MR. WATTENBERG: That affluence helps us clean up the environment,not makes it worse.

MR. BONGAARTS: Yeah. You have simply more resources available toaddress this issue. You can buy a cleaner environment, but it iscostly to do so. And in the poor countries of the world, peoplesimply don't have the resources to deal with all the problems thatare created there. And the vicious cycle -- poverty, populationgrowth and environmental degradation.

MR. WATTENBERG: So what we need to clean up the environment isaffluence.


MR. WATTENBERG: Would you all care, just for the record, to tellus out in the future at what number the world's population will topout, and will it then decline thereafter? Anybody like to take a shotat that? John?

MR. BONGAARTS: We're going to probably be very close to the mediumprojection which you showed earlier, which is around 10 or 11 billionin the year 2100. If, however, we make now efforts and take theactions that we know will make a difference, then we can end up withabout 8 billion. And I think we should do that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Sam, how many people are there going to be?

MR. PRESTON: Well, I think we'll go to 10 billion, probably. Ithink that the U.N.'s medium projection makes a lot of sense. I thinkit's important to recognize that there is a momentum to populationdecline, just as there is a momentum to population growth. And it isin fact the case that if you get to 10 billion throughbelow-replacement fertility level, you then are inevitably going tohave a period of population decline.

MR. WATTENBERG: It's plausible that a hundred years from now, inthis very studio, we're going to have five people sitting aroundsaying, what are we going to do about the population implosion? Weare losing people.

MR. PRESTON: In Japan, it's already -- I think the number onesocial issue is the rapid aging of the Japanese population, producedby very low fertility. So yes, we can turn this debate completelyaround, and I don't think it's going to take a hundred years.

MR. WATTENBERG: Neither Julian nor Jessica gave me an answer yetas to how many people we're going to have. Do you care to make thatprediction?

MS. MATTHEWS: My crystal ball isn't really that good, but I thinkthat modern communications technologies give us -- at least raise thepossibility that we could have far more rapid fertility declines thanthe U.N. population projections assume. If you look at countries likeSouth Korea and Taiwan, which went through the demographic transitionbasically overnight -- in 13 years, you see what communications cando.

And if you think about what modern technology could do witheducation, it seems to me that it is at least possible, if we reach aconsensus on the urgency of this issue, that we might come in closerto the low end of it. This is the optimistic view.

MR. WATTENBERG: To the 8 billion or something like that?

MS. MATTHEWS: Oh, yeah.

MR. WATTENBERG: Julian, are you going to give us a number?

MR. SIMON: My guess is that growth will continue forever. But theimportant thing is

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean human population growth?

MR. SIMON: Human population. It will grow forever, but theimportant thing is, what do we do right now, something or nothing?Besides helping people get the family size they want.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you're not going to give me a number? You'regoing to say it's going to keep growing forever?

MR. SIMON: Indefinite growth.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Professor Julian Simon, Dr. Samuel Preston,Dr. John Bongaarts, Dr. Jessica Matthews, I thank you all for joiningus, and I thank you for joining us. For 'Think Tank,' I'm BenWattenberg. END

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