Alarmist assessments of the portending impact of the tremendous surge in humanity’s numbers have been issued from all sorts of authoritative quarters: the United Nations, the World Bank, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even the Central Intelligence Agency. Differing mainly in their presentation of details, the members of this grim chorus commonly asserted that the burgeoning number of mouths on the planet meant that more scarcity, poverty, and hunger were just around the corner—with the most severe suffering predicted for the rapidly reproducing Third World. In these predictions, in tandem with the ascending schedule of total human numbers, the human condition (at least in material terms) was always envisioned to decline. Food and everything else would become more dear, malnutrition more acute, desperate poverty more difficult to escape.[snip]
Yet these data-brandishing studies not only got their own numerical projections wrong, they even missed the basic direction of change. Troubled as the world may be today, it is incontestably less poor, less unhealthy, and less hungry than it was 30 years ago. And this positive association between world population growth and material advance goes back at least as far as the beginning of the 20th century.
Despite the tremendous expansion of the international grain trade over the past century, for example, the inflation-adjusted, dollar-denominated international price of each of the major cereals—corn, wheat, and rice—fell by more than 70 percent between 1900 and 1998. By the same token, The Economist magazine’s industrials price index—a weighted composite for 14 internationally traded metals and non-food agricultural commodities—registered a decline, in inflation-adjusted dollars, of almost 80 percent between 1900 and 1999.[snip]
This 20th-century paradox—exploding demand for resources paralleled by pronounced declines in real resource prices—must not only be recognized as a basic phenomenon defining life in that era, but understood for what it tells us about how our modern world system actually works. After all, price data are meant to convey information about scarcity. These data would seem to indicate that the resources that humanity makes economic use of grew less scarce over the course of the 20th century.
The degree to which sub-replacement fertility has become the norm today in low-income areas may still surprise the unprepared reader. According to national or international estimates, virtually all of East Asia is sub-replacement now, and most of South America. So, too, are impoverished Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma). In India, incredible as it may seem, Calcutta, Mumbai (Bombay), and New Delhi (a visit to which city initially prompted a shocked Paul Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb) are all areas where child-bearing rates are below replacement levels. And in the Islamic expanse, sub-replacement fertility already prevails in such places as Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Iran.
How low can fertility rates go? We simply don’t know. Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore all have birth patterns today that, if sustained, would imply barely one child per woman per lifetime. In northern Italy and other parts of Europe, fertility levels consonant with less than one child per woman are now evident. Some sociobiological theorists confidently assert that there is a lower limit to human fertility—that a majority of women will want to nurture and raise at least one offspring. But even if correct, that formulation would leave open the possibility of a world with an average of just over one half of one birth per woman per lifetime. On that schedule—barring the manufacture of human beings—the global population would decline by nearly 75 percent each successive generation.