World Population Threatens Future Quality of Life

Walt Schafer, professor of sociology at California State University, Chico and author of Stress Management for Wellness, 4th edition, addresses population growth arguably the greatest challenge to the future environment of the world.

(photo Barbara Alderson)

For millions of years of human history, world population remained stable and well under one billion people. Then came a twenthieth century population explosion that has led to today's world population of 5.9 billion people, with expectations of six billion by October. Although the rate of population increase is slowing, Walt Schafer, Social Work and Sociology, suggests that it is the one factor that will affect all aspects of the quality of life in the future. He presented "The Future of World Population" as part of the International Forum series on February 9.

Over the next half century, the populations of Europe, North America, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia will probably lose population. "The developed world is expected to decrease by 2 percent while the less developed world increases by 64 percent," said Schafer. "The fastest growing region in the first half of the twenty-first century will be Africa."

Lag time, the number of years a country takes to reduce its birth rate after its death rate has begun to decline, heavily impacts population growth, explained Schafer. "Population explosion occurs, not because of an increase of births, but because fewer people are dying while the birth rates stay up."

As a country's population increases, it needs more goods and services to maintain its standard of living, an increase known as a demographic investment. For example, Bolivia's population is growing at 2.6 percent, twice the world average. To maintain the current standard of living, the economy must also grow at 2.6 percent. "That doesn't even mean getting ahead," said Schafer.

Countries with large percentages of their population under age fifteen, such as Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, face a growth momentum that will increase the overall population for years, even if the number of births per woman decreases, because so many women will be giving birth. "It's like a train going down the tracks. When the brakes start to be put on, as in lowering the birth rate, it's not going to stop immediately. It's going to stop way down the tracks," explained Schafer.

What can be done to reduce birth rates? "The one investment that has been shown to be most cost-effective in fertility control is education for young women," said Schafer. Whenever the education and status of women rise, birth rates fall. Other factors reducing birth rates include economic development, incentives for smaller families as well as disincentives for larger ones, and family planning programs.

Schafer remains guardedly optimistic about the world's population stabilizing but believes regional catastrophes will continue, "especially when rapid population growth is combined with severe environmental problems...and especially when combined with political conflict, as in Sudan." In response to a question about America's standard of living, he said, "I don't believe the earth can sustain our standard of living. What I conjecture is that we will end up with haves and have-nots for a long time to come."

Barbara Alderson

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