This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Keeping it Real: Lower Child Mortality Equals Higher Population Growth

I admire the fact that Bill and Melinda Gates are spending part of their fortune as the richest people on earth to help the poor. They began especially by helping to lower child mortality and then two years ago came to the realization that this needed to be accompanied by efforts to also bring down the birth rate. Nonethelss, this year's annual Gates letter seems to back down a bit from that position, arguing that it is a "myth" that reducing child mortality leads to overpopulation. In the letter, Melinda Gates even goes so far as to quote Hans Rosling, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and one of her "favorite data geeks,"who said, “The amount of children in the world today is probably the most there will be! We are entering into the age of the Peak Child!” Now, I like Hans Rosling, too, but as smart as he is, he isn't a demographer and I don't think that he knows more than the United Nations demographers who project that the world's population of people aged 0-14 (children by any definition) is likely to peak in 2055. The crux of Melinda Gates's argument is that somehow fertility magically declines when child mortality declines. Not so fast, my friends.

I like the fact that USAID objected to this comment in the Gates letter and posted a link on their website to a response by James Shelton, a science advisor at USAID. 
Like it or not, we face an inconvenient truth. Reducing child mortality does increase population growth, which will likely substantially impair the quality of life for those very people we wish to help. Does that mean we should curtail our child survival efforts? Not at all. We have an ethical imperative to reduce mortality, and it affirms our humanity. But in my view, it also reinforces the imperative to make a full menu of quality voluntary contraceptive services widely available, and as expeditiously as possible. Unmet need for family planning remains high in developing countries. And recent experience in Ethiopia and elsewhere demonstrates that quality family planning programming can be highly successful in advance of major socioeconomic development.
As Potts [Malcolm Potts of UC Berkeley] points out and as reinforced in the Gates annual letter, the great appeal of family planning is that it has so many benefits. Those include substantial health benefits for women and children, enhanced women's empowerment, economic benefits for the family, the demographic dividend, reduced pressure on the environment, and the right to determine one's own life destiny. Not just convenient, but a compelling opportunity.
Well put--let's keep it real, folks.

1 comment:

  1. your point is well taken. basic math says that if child mortality is lowered, we get higher population growth. that is undeniable, and wishful thinking does not change the outcome. I find it interesting that some people are speculating that the period of "maximum children on Earth" is somewhere around the year 2055. That estimate is in quite good agreement with my own thinking (and modeling) which says that the year 2060 is about the critical time period. At that point we would have roughly 10 billion people on the planet, if birth rates and mortality rates stay roughly as they are today. That time period is a reasonable projection for an "onset of apocalypse" if we continue on our current trends of unsustainability i.e. we will have exceeded the carrying capacity of Planet Earth for human beings, and significant breakdowns in viability to support human life are likely to occur. I tend to be skeptical that human fertility rates will plunge by some huge factor. Hence, the reasonable conclusion is that human mortality rates will take a quantum jump upwards, giving rise to outcomes that are beyond what we would consider "comprehensible" today.

    Peter Pollock, Los Angeles