Population: From explosion to decline

Families are getting smaller, although overall the world population has increased. And despite this increase in world population, several countries – including ours – are now facing a population decline, and are exhorting their people to produce more children!

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Following the publication of the Titmuss-Meade report in 1961, government launched an aggressive birth control programme so as to check population growth and avert what was termed a ‘population explosion’. That is, such a large population that the country’s resources would be overwhelmed, leading to destructive social strife by the early 1980s, when the population was projected to reach about three million. This programme has been so successful that now we are facing the reverse of the coin as it were, a relative decline of the population. This has been evident from the official statistics for some years now, but it is only recently that the issue has started to be flagged and a degree of alarm raised.

Given that professors Titmuss and Meade were from the UK, the bleak scenario they anticipated was more than likely based on by far the most widely known and oft-cited idea about population growth. It is the ‘Malthusian Theory’ propounded by John Malthus, an English cleric and scholar who lived from 1733 to 1834. He predicted that unchecked population growth would outstrip the earth’s resources to produce food and lead to famine and death on a massive scale. He advanced that there are two types of checks that could prevent excessive growth of population: preventive checks which are voluntary actions people can undertake so as not to increase the population, such as delaying having children; and positive checks which reduce human lifespan such as disease, war, famine, and poverty.

Mankind has since experienced all of the above, and yet the population of the world has kept growing to a level that we are now thinking is unsustainable, as we have already crossed the 7 billion mark and are expected to reach over 9 billion by 2050.

The basic factor that drives population growth is human fertility, which is how many children a woman can have during her childbearing years. Fertility primarily depends on biological characteristics present in the female and the male, but it is impacted by a number of external factors which differ significantly according to the state of development of the country, essentially its level of industrialization.

In fact, it is industrialization which has changed the scenario altogether, with its impact on fertility, the birth rate, and the death rate. The development of Public Health as a specialty has given some precision to these terms. For example, in simplified terms, Fertility Rate refers to the average number of children born to a woman; Birth Rate is the term used to define the number of babies born every year per 1000 people in a population; Death Rate is the term used to define the number of deaths every year per 1000 people in a population.

The fertility rate at global level has been declining from the pre-industrial era, when on average a woman had seven children. By 1960 this had fallen to five, and it now stands at about 2.4. In other words, families are getting smaller, although overall the world population has increased.

And herein lies a paradox: despite this increase in world population, several countries – including ours – are now facing a population decline, and are exhorting their people to produce more children! To explain this paradox, an American demographer, Warren Thompson, came up with another theory in 1929. After studying the population patterns in the world for the previous 200 years, he found a correlation between industrialization and the growth of population, which he called Demographic Transition.

It is a better explanation of what has been happening to the world population and refers to the transition from high birth and death rates to lower birth and death rates as a country or region develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. This transition occurs in five stages according to changes in the birth and death rates:

  1. High birth rate – High death rate: Population stable or slow increase
  2. High birth rate – Rapidly falling death rate: Population rapidly increasing
  3. Falling birth rate – More slowly falling death rate: population increase slows
  4. Low birth rate – Low death rate: Population falls, remains stable
  5. Rising birth rate – Low death rate: Population stable or increase slows

Based on this theory, it would appear that we are at Stage 3. There is therefore some serious reflection to be done about the way forward.

The factors linked to industrialization that have impacted the fertility rate, birth rate, death rate and eventually the population structure are multiple and their interactions complex. But essentially, they are reckoned to have started with public health measures such as sanitation and provision of potable water to the people, and later vaccines which allowed prevention of disease. More significantly, it is considered that it is the education of women that has been a real game changer, coupled subsequently with the invention of contraceptives, which became increasingly available and accessible. Further, opportunities and choices in the workplace opened up, and this led to women giving priority to career, postponing having children and preferring for professional, financial and social reasons. But overall, society seems to be preferring smaller families.

As we have industrialized, all these factors have played a role too in Mauritian society, and hence the relative decline in our population, due to a reduction of fertility which in 2018 stood at 1.4 per woman. This trend corresponds to that of developed countries, but they have much more capacity to cope than we do as a small country. Hence the need for serious thinking on the issue, taking a host of factors into consideration, and come up with a pragmatic solution.

* Published in print edition on 15 February 2019

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