In the nineteenth century, there were still just pockets of people in a vast landscape throughout much of the world. In 1850 there were only a billion people worldwide. Today there are more than six, and the pressures on scarce resources are intense, especially in developing nations. Little did Paul Gauguin realize that the Europe he abandoned in favor of Tahiti would be a population utopia itself in a hundred years!

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Landscape at Le Pouldu (1890)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Global Population Growth

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 1.6 billion people living on the earth. During the next hundred years the population soared to 6.1 billion. According to United Nations projections, by the year 2050 world population will stand at 9.2 billion. This increase of 3.1 billion in 50 years is equivalent to the total number of people in the world in 1960.1

Ten thousand years ago, the total world population was only about 8 million people -- less than the population of the Chicago metropolitan area today! Before then, the population had grown only slowly and with frequent setbacks. But when people began settling into permanent communities, around 8,000 B.C., populations began an upward ascent which continues today (Figure 4.1).

Around 1970 population growth peaked at about 2 percent annually and began to slow for the first time in recorded history as a result of declining fertility and the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Between 2000 and 2005 world population grew at about 1.2 percent per year. The expectation that world population will reach 9.2 billion in 2050 is based on the assumption that the fertility rate will continue to decline. If it does not, there will be many more people in 2050 than this projection indicates.  

Slight overall changes in individual behavior make a huge difference. Today, the world's "average" woman has 2.55 children,2 and that figure is expected to drop to slightly over 2 children per woman in 2050. If the average woman should have half-a-child more than is currently projected, however, in 2050 the world's population could be 10.8 billion rather than 9.2. If fertility were half a child below the medium variant, it would lead to a population of 7.8 billion by mid-century -- a difference of 3 billion people. (See Table 4.1)

While the population of economically advanced countries as a whole is expected to remain virtually unchanged at 1.2 billion, nearly all of the growth will be in the less developed regions, whose population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion and reach 7.9 billion in 2050. However, lower fertility will mean that the increase will be smaller than would otherwise be the case. Among the 50 least developed countries, where the average woman currently has 4.63 children, by 2050 the fertility rate is expected to drop by about half, to 2.5 children per woman.3

These projections are uncertain, of course, because we do not know how many children people will have or how successful efforts will be to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to the UN's 2006 projections, "the toll of the disease continues to be high and is expected to remain so". Among the 62 most affected countries, 40 are in sub-Saharan Africa. In eight of these countries, the current rate of HIV infection is greater than 15 percent.4Due to AIDS-related mortality, for example, total population in South Africa in 2015 is projected to be 14 percent lower than it would be with no AIDS.5 Educational programs, new treatment approaches and other factors still unknown could have major implications for current trends, however.

Chapter Sections:

Population Growth
Life Expectancies
Declining Death Rates
Population & Urbanization
Malthus Revised
Growth Equation
Social Structure & Growth
Implications of the Growth
Population Control
Zero growth
International Migration
Hot Links
Web Readings
Study Questions
Recommended Books


Table 4.1: Fertility Level and Projected World Population: 2050
Fertility Level


 Current fertility
 High fertility
 Med. fertility
 Low fertility
Source: U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, Highlights, p. 1, tab. I.1.

Figure 4.1: Two Thousand Years of Population Growth
Source: U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision.

Population clocks:
United Nations
U.S. Census Bureau




doubling time: The time it takes for a quantity to double at a given rate of growth.

In general, the countries currently growing the fastest are the ones least able to absorb more people. Their economies are weak, and in many cases their environmental quality is deteriorating because of already-intense pressure on land, water and energy resources. The world's less developed regions accounted for 80 percent of world population in 2000, and by the middle of the 21st century, when the world's population reaches 9.2 billion, about 86 percent of the total will live in less developed countries. Further, in many developing countries there are a notably higher proportion of youths than in richer nations, which spells employment problems for the future and possibly a politically unstable environment as a result. Overall, more than 41 percent of the population of the least developed countries is under 15, whereas in high-income countries those under 15 comprise less than 17 percent of the population total.6



Life Expectancies, Food Supplies
and Disease through Time

In earlier times, when food was scarce and disease poorly understood, adults had to have several children to maintain even a low population growth rate. About a quarter of all infants died before their first birthday, and in many places only about half lived long enough to have children of their own. Life expectancies, even until fairly recently, have averaged less than 40 years (see Figure 4.2 and Table 4.2).

These short life spans were partially due to the high infant mortality rate. Among those people survived infancy and childhood, a few attained old age -- but not many.

Not only was daily life hard and short before the industrial era, but famines, epidemics and wars sometimes reduced populations sharply. Disastrous food shortages were common in Europe well into the nineteenth century. Historian Fernand Braudel describes the scene vividly: "Any national calculation shows a sad story." Crop yields were meager and, as Braudel points out, "two consecutive bad harvests spelt disaster."7 For the victims of nature's unpredictability, the result was dislocation, misery, and often abuse at the hands of those who were better fed and who feared losing their hard-won gains, feared looting at the hands of desperate people, and feared the inevitable disease that accompanies hunger. This close correspondence between births and deaths meant that human populations did not grow at a very rapid pace relative to the trend in the nineteenth, and especially the twentieth, centuries.

Florence, Italy, is situated in a thriving agricultural region, but records show that it had only sixteen "very good" harvests between 1371 and 1791.8 In France, one of Europe's most affluent nations at the time, famines recurred repeatedly. Historian Eugen Weber describes the conditions in Ariege during the "great hunger" of 1846-47: "...families ate grass, hungry peasants were `eager to get into prison,' mendicancy was chronic, armies of beggars descended into the plains, and to the end of the century, travelers were beset by legions of children seeking alms." Weber records some of the folk wisdom which grew from these impoverished times: "Bare arse goes along, empty belly goes no more." "Never mind about rags so long as there is food." "Full of cabbage, full of turnips, as long as one is full."9

Food shortages were a much greater threat in Asia than they ever were in Europe. "Famines there," Braudel says, "seemed like the end of the world." In China, between 108 B.C. and 1911, 1,828 famines have been recorded -- some regional, and some blanketing the entire nation. Throughout China, before the twentieth century, every region suffered famine several times during a normal lifetime. Braudel presents an eyewitness account by a Dutch merchant of what he saw in India during one of the many grievous famines that visited that country:

Men abandoned towns and villages and wandered helplessly. It was easy to recognize their condition: eyes sunk deep in the head, lips pale and covered with slime, the skin hard, with the bones showing through, the belly nothing but a pouch hanging down empty... One would cry and howl for hunger, while another lay stretched on the ground dying in misery... the whole country was covered with corpses lying unburied, which caused such a stench that the whole air was filled and infected with the village of Susuntra...human flesh was sold in open markets.10

Famine predictably ushered in epidemics. They were numerous, widespread, and caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses. A medical book in 1775 stated that smallpox infected 95 of every 100 people and killed one in seven. There were many other illnesses -- the sweating sickness, which ravaged England between 1486 and 1551, plagues spread by rodents and fleas -- sometimes killing a huge percentage of the population --, diphtheria, typhoid fever, purple fever, the bosse, dendo and more.11 As recently as 1854, cholera killed more than 11,000 residents of Ariege, where the "great hunger" in France had been especially severe.12

Figure 4.2: Life Expectancies over Time (Average in years)
Source: Stockwell, 1984, p. 61.

Table 4.2: Life Expectancy in Several Countries: 1880
Life Expectancy
Source; Livi-Bacci, 1992, p.109.



Fishing on a Snowy Day
(miniature, Japan)



Plagues were harshest to the poor, because of their general malnutrition, and because they were unable to flee from plague-stricken cities to country estates, as the rich did. Samuel Pepys wrote in 1665 that the plague makes "us cruel, as dogs, one to another." In the next year, Father Maurice do Tolon wrote down precautions which would help reduce the danger of infection: "Do not talk to any suspect person from the town when the wind is blowing from him towards you; burn aromatics for disinfection; wash or better still burn clothes and linen belonging to suspected cases; above all pray."13


Declining Death Rates

Among prehistoric peoples, perhaps the most frequent causes of death were the drownings, burns, fractures, and wounds from battle associated with the hazardous life of the times. More recently, too, human conflicts have wrecked enormous havoc. In the Thirty Years' War of the seventeenth century, for example, nearly five of every six peasant villages in Germany was destroyed and an estimated 8 million Germans were killed. More recent wars, also, have decimated the populations of several regions. About one-fourth of the people in Ukraine are believed to have died in World War Two, and the Soviet Union overall lost about 10 percent of its population to the conflict.

Beginning in the eighteenth century in the Western world, rates of death began a persistent, if intermittent, decline relative to births. There were still reverses, but they became more infrequent. The last widespread famine in Europe was in Ireland in the 1840s, and it claimed several hundred thousand lives. For the advanced nations, by the twentieth century, war was the clearest remaining threat to a continuing low death rate.

In the less developed nations, however, many features of the ancient struggle against poverty and disease are still prominent. What has changed is that more infants survive, but often barely. So populations mushroom -- often in places which cannot begin to support the press of people who manage to live on the edge of disaster. Calcutta, India, provides an apt illustration. Calcutta's population at the beginning of the twenty-first century numbered more than 12 million -- most of whom live in conditions hardly imaginable in the West. Seventy percent of the city's residents have incomes of less than $8 per month, and half of Calcutta's houses lack indoor toilets. Nor are conditions of life there improving. No new main sewers have been constructed in Calcutta, for example, since 1896.

Population and Urbanization

Urban traffic congestion should be no surprise when you consider that about one of every 20 people who has ever lived, in past two-plus million years of human history, is alive today! If you think U.S. cities are too crowded, do not go south. In 1930, when we were at about two billion people, the northern hemisphere's population slightly outnumbered that in the south. No more -- and in about 100 years three-fourths of the world's population will live in the southern half of the globe. Then, we will number about 12 billion. Most advanced industrial nations of the north will hardly be growing at all. Rather, some will be experiencing population declines. In places such as India, however, the burgeoning population will have strained an already shaky social system in ways we cannot now predict.

"Sometime on Sunday, August 15, [1999] India's population will pass the one billion mark, making it the second member of the exclusive one billion club, along with China. But reaching one billion is not a cause for celebration in a country where one half of the adults are illiterate, more than half of all children are undernourished, and one third of the people live below the poverty line..."

Read a paper by Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil from the Worldwatch Institute: India Reaching 1 Billion on August 15: No Celebration Planned.


An American Family (four generations)

For the most economically advanced countries, world population growth has another set of implications. We, and all of the industrialized Western world, are on a very different population curve from India and Kenya. But on this interdependent planet, our fortunes are all connected. In this chapter, we will see why some countries are growing so fast while others have populations that are becoming stable. We will also ask what the rapid population expansion in many Third World countries means for the rest of us. Our search in this chapter will be to ask better questions rather than to answer oversimplified ones. It is easy to say that people in India and Kenya should have fewer children. Unfortunately, that answers an inappropriate question. In the discussion below, I hope to show why.

A Nigerian Family
(two generations)

Third World: The world's less developed regions and countries.

Malthus Revisited and Revised

Thomas Malthus was an English clergyman with an unwelcome message. We numbered only about 1.5 billion when he began worrying about population, but he anticipated some of the effects of unchecked growth. In 1798 Malthus proposed that the population would eventually outstrip food supplies, leading to massive starvation, disease, and wars fought to gain control over the land and other resources necessary for survival. Malthus was one of the first to notice how quickly exponential growth can get out of hand. All of you with credit card debts at high interest have probably noticed, too. Eighteen percent interest may not sound like a great deal -- until you see how little effect it has on your principal to make monthly payments on a large debt. A house with a $100,000 mortgage may cost the owners $500,000 or more by the time it is paid off in 30 years. The reason is exponential growth in debt. You pay interest on interest, which increases the total amount of interest. In the same way, a savings account pays interest next year on the interest you accumulate this year -- increasing your initial savings at an exponential rate.



exponential growth: Growth whose rate accelerates over time, because previous increases are added to the "base" according to which new increases are determined.

The "rule of 70" provides a simple way to estimate the doubling time for any exponentially increasing quantity, if you know the annual growth rate. The doubling time is approximately equal to the number 70 divided by the annual growth rate, expressed as a percentage. Thus, if a country's population were increasing at 2 percent per year, dividing 70 by 2 would tell you that the population would double in about 35 years. If you have $1,000 in a savings account which earns 5 percent interest, in 14 years (70 divided by 5) you will have $2,000.*

The world's current population growth rate is 1.17 percent per year. This sounds modest until you see that the world's 6.7 billion people in 2007 would double to 13.4 billion in about 60 years at the current rate of increase (70 divided by 1.17). If that does not happen, it will be because couples have fewer and fewer children over time. The United Nations is thus understandably cautious in its population projections, stating that "it is essential that access to family planning expands in the poorest countries of the world."14

In many countries, of course, the growth rate is much higher then the world average. The United Nations projects annual growth between 2005 and 2010 to be more than twice the world average in 37 countries.15 With such rates it will take less than 30 years for these countries' populations to double. Ethiopia's population is currently growing at 2.51 percent yearly, which means a doubling time of 28 years. Democratic Republic of the Congo, with 3.22 percent growth will double its population in less than 22 years. Nigeria (population 148 million), which is the largest country in the chart to the right (Figure 4.3), with an annual growth rate of 2.27 percent will see its population double in 31 years. At that time, Nigeria will have a slightly smaller population than the United States today. In the U.S., the current population doubling time is 68 years.

*The reason for using "70" to estimate doubling times is straightforward. Mathematically, the kind of exponential growth I am describing is expressed by natural logarithms. To determine how long it would take for a quantity to double in size, then, the natural logarithm (ln or loge) of 2 must be used. This number is 0.70. If we multiply both 0.70 and the proportion -- not the percentage -- of annual increase in a quantity, we can then divide 70 (0.70 x 100) by the growth rate expressed as a percentage (rather than as a proportion).



Figure 4.3: Population Doubling Times for Some Rapidly Growing Countries (at current growth rates)

Source: U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, tab. A.8.

The Population Growth Equation:
Births and Deaths

The Key Variables

In any country, changes in population size are a result of three factors: births, deaths, and migration. If births and immigration exceed deaths and emigration, a country's population grows. We usually calculate crude birth rates as the number of births per 1,000 people in a country. Crude death rates are calculated the same way. We can subtract a country's crude death rate from its crude birth rate, then, to find out its rate of population growth, if there is no in- or out- migration. Migration can easily be taken into account, of course, to obtain the rate of net population change.


Crowd at Sight of Fire (miniature, Japan)

If there are more births than deaths in a country, the difference is termed natural increase. In the United States, the rate of natural increase is about 5 people per 1,000 population. At that rate, the country's population will double in nearly 100 years, not taking migration into account. Sweden, with a natural increase rate of one-hundredth of one percent per year, will double in population size only after 7,000 years. Germany's population is actually declining.

The Demographic Transition

A hundred years ago, high birth rates characterized the advanced countries, too. Typically, a woman who married in her early twenties and lived through her childbearing years would have between six and eight children. We call the change from then until now -- in the most developed countries -- the demographic transition. It has three phases. In phase one, the birth rates in a country are high; but death rates are also high. Therefore, the population grows only slowly if at all. All of the world's nations have passed phase one and are now in either phase two or three.

Phase two of the demographic transition led, in the nineteenth century, to the fastest population growth rates in the advanced countries that the world had ever known. Populations increased rapidly because death rates dropped sharply while birth rates hardly changed. Then, in these nations, birth rates also began to fall. With the exception of the "baby boom" after World War II, birth rates in the industrialized world have been falling ever since.

immigration: The movement of people into a country from elsewhere.

emigration: The movement of people out of a country.

natural increase: The excess of births over deaths.

demographic transition: A three-phase process through which high birth rates and high death rates give way to low birth rates accompanied by low death rates.



The advanced industrial nations are now in phase three of the demographic transition. The death rate in these nations is low, and the birth rate is also low. Thus, the net annual growth rate in these countries is about five per thousand, for a doubling time of 140 years. People in the most affluent of the world's nations did not simply change their minds about how many children they wanted, uninfluenced by larger societal processes. Rather, as biologist Barry Commoner describes it, "a powerful social force" led people to voluntarily reduce the size of their families. "That force, simply stated, is the quality of life: a high standard of living, a sense of well-being; security in the future."16

The pattern in the less developed nations has been different, and today's population crisis in the Third World is the result. Around the time of World War I, population growth rates began climbing sharply in Asia, Africa and Latin America as death rates fell.

Tzutuil Mayan Children, Guatemala

These regions had entered phase two of the demographic transition. Most of them have still not approached phase three. We believe that they will, if they achieve a high level of industrialization before their populations grow so large that high death rates again return. For the countries now in the second phase of the demographic transition, it is a race against time. You can see how much of a disadvantage the less developed nations face by comparing countries with one another that are vastly different in economic well-being. Table 4.3 and Figure 4.4, below, will provide an introduction to these comparisons.


Figure 4.4: Per Capita GNI and Population Characteristics in 16 Countries
Sources: The World Bank, 2007, GNI2006; U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, Panel 2.
Table 4.3: Demographic indicators 2005-2010
Regions /

Annual growth rate (%)
Total fertility rate (per woman)
Life expectancy
at birth
Popula-tion under 15
 World total
 More developed
 Less developed
 Least developed
Source: U.N., World Population Prospects:
The 2006 Revision
, Panel 2.

Figure 4.4 to the left is the first of several illustrations throughout the textbook in which comparisons are presented among sixteen countries that span the range from those with the world's lowest incomes to those with the highest incomes. These comparisons show how differently people typically live, depending on the affluence of their country. (Click on "ALSO VIEW")


As you can see from Table 4.3, that people in wealthier countries ("more developed") tend to live longer than those in poorer ("least developed") countries, and they tend to have notably fewer children. Not surprisingly, then, the wealthier countries are growing much more slowly than the poorer countries -- if their populations are increasing at all. (In some affluent countries, populations have actually started to decline.)

Total Fertility Rate

This rate, often abbreviated TFR, is the most informative indicator of a country's future population change. The total fertility rate is an estimate of how many children the average woman will have. The averages for different countries vary widely, as you can see from Table 4.4. In general, the more affluent countries have the lowest TFRs, although there are some exceptions. For example, China's TFR, at 1.73, is lower than that of the U.S. (2.05). But every European country except Albania and Iceland (both 2.05, not shown) has a low TFR in comparison with most countries in Africa and Asia.

Population Pyramids and Age Structure

Birth and death rates do not tell the whole story of population growth. A country's TFR can be below replacement level while the population continues to grow, if there are a disproportionately large number of couples in these younger age groups. That is the situation in the United States today and throughout most of western Europe. The age structure of the population, then, is also an important factor in population change. A visual way to get a sense of a country's age structure is to examine its population pyramid.
raenab8.gif (1697 bytes) If you will click on the audio icon, and then click here for the U.S. Census Bureau's web, I will give you a guided tour -- and show you how to create population pyramids for any country as well as highlighting several other kinds of demographic data that are available from the Census Bureau.

Table 4.4: Total Fertility Rates in Selected Countries (2005-2010)
TFR per Woman
 U. Kingdom
 N. America  
 Lat. America  
Source: U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, tab. A.15.

Figure 4.5: Three Population Pyramids
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, IDB Population Pyramids, 2007.

When a substantial proportion of a country's population is young, high population growth rates in a country are to be expected, even if the average TFR is modest. The reason is that so many females are of childbearing age, that even a modest average TFR results in a large number of births. In Africa, more than 40 percent of the people are younger than 15 years of age. Further, in most of these countries, the TFRs are not low. The average woman here has 5 children.17

More than half a century after the end of World War Two, the population structure of the Unites States is still being influenced by the "baby boom" that followed the war (Figure 4.6). There are more women and men age 30 to 44 than there would be if there had not been so many births soon after the war ended in 1945. Those 30+ adults are the children of the original baby boomers! Because there were more of them than there would be in more usual times, they had more children, overall, than their age group would have otherwise have had.

A hundred years from now, the population structure of the U.S. will look more like that of Sweden today, as you can see if you activate Figure 4.6 with your cursor.

To see how the U.S. population is expected to change during this century, put your cursor over the population pyramid below.

Figure 4.6: National Population Projections (Middle Series).

 Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007.
 National Population Projections.

Infant Mortality

The infant mortality rate is one of the starkest measures of the adequacy of a society's social provision for its citizens. It is calculated as the number of infants, of each thousand born alive, who die before their first birthday. In the world's poorest countries, more than 100 of every thousand babies live less than a year (more than 10 percent). In the affluent nations, infant mortality is 8 per thousand (less than 1 percent).

Several researchers have shown a direct link between a mother's education and her children's chances of living through infancy. Unfortunately, about 60 percent of all the illiterate people in the world are women, and the absolute number of illiterate women seems to be on the increase. It has been suggested that ignorance may be a more deadly opponent of infants than is poverty.18 As William Chandler points out, "More children die because their parents do not know how to manage diarrhea than because of epidemics."19 Of course, illiteracy and poverty tend to go hand-in-hand. The prevalence of poverty in Third World nations is one reason that fewer than 10 percent of the children born each year in most developing nations are vaccinated against the most common infectious diseases, although vaccinations would cost only about $5.

The good news is that impressive improvements have been made, overall, in reducing infant mortality. In 1960, the average infant mortality rate in the less developed nations was 159 per thousand births. By 1990 it went down to 72. Today it is 54. In the least developed countries, however, the average infant mortality rate is still above 9020 - well beyond the goal of the World Health Organization to reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five no later than 2013.  According to the World Bank, only 35 countries are “on track” to meet that goal.21

Yet, the change in most countries is in the right direction. What is needed, in countries such as Angola or Liberia where the infant mortality rate remains well above 150 per thousand,22 is better health care, cleaner water, more educational opportunities, better agriculture, expanded economic development, family planning -- in short, an integrated and comprehensive approach to development.

When we talk about the Third World, there is no clearer indicator of where it is than in infant mortality statistics. Among the 152 countries included in the World Bank’s 2007 World Development Indicators, only two European nations, Albania and Romania, have infant mortality rate as high as 16 per thousand live births. Every country in Africa exceeds that rate, as do most countries in Asia and South America. Here is a breakdown in infant mortality rate averages in 2005, by national economic status:

Low income economies (Third World): 75 per 1,000 live births
Lower middle income economies: 31 per 1,000 live births
Upper middle income economies: 22 per 1,000 live births
High income economies: 6 per 1,000 live births.23

Woman and Child at Uttar Pradesh (Agra, India)









High rates of infant mortality can have the effect of keeping birth rates high if parents believe that they need to have several children to help insure that a few will live to adulthood. Historically, that was true for families throughout the world. Braudel writes of a mortality rate among newborn children of 25 to 33 percent in seventeenth-century Beauvais (France), where only 50 percent of the population lived to age 20.24 Records from many other places tell a similar story. To reach adulthood was a stroke of good luck in the past, and people in the Third World are not as removed from that view of life and death as we are in the advanced countries.

Population Growth and Social Structure

People have fewer children when the social structure facilitates it. With advanced industrialization, children are in school rather than in the field; and their clothing, food, computer games, and college expenses must be paid for. Also, parents in advanced societies have a wide variety of demands on their time, and large families are an impediment to the kind of lifestyles modern adults often want to have.

One of the most important social structural reasons for high rates of population growth in poor countries is technological underdevelopment.

Census 2000: First Results.

In most countries with high population growth, a large percentage of the work force is employed in agriculture, and farming is still done more with human labor than machines -- either because there is not enough money to buy tractors, fertilizers and pesticides or because the land is not fertile enough to support the kind of high-technology agriculture which predominates in more industrialized nations.

Technologically, the poor countries are worlds apart from the more advanced nations. Most people in those countries are farmers because the social structures cannot accommodate as many radiologists, computer programmers, chemists and mathematicians as we have in the U.S. They are also farmers because, without sophisticated agricultural technology, a great deal of labor power is needed to grow crops.

The Myth of Population Control, a book by a researcher named Mahmood Mamdani, illustrates vividly some of the social structural reasons why people need children in developing nations -- and not just one or two children, in many cases, but more. The book describes Mamdani's investigation into why a birth control program in India had failed. He interviewed residents of a village named Manupur, which was one of the places where contraceptives and educational programs had been provided to attempt a reduction of the birth rate.

Again and again, villagers gave him the same reason for discarding their birth control devices. They had practical reasons for wanting children. And it is not just farmers who need large families, Mamdani learned. When a government is too indebted to provide social services we have come to take for granted in the west, or to develop its industrial base so that the standard of living can rise, several children are needed to help aspiring parents achieve the dream of college-educated children. As Mamdani describes it, most families have virtually no savings, an they thus are unable to finance their children's education, even through high school. The solution, one tailor told Mamdani, is

. . . to have enough children so that there are at least three or four sons in the family. Then each son can finish high school by spending part of the afternoon working. ...After high school, one son is sent on to college while the others work to save and pay the necessary fees.
. . . Once his education is completed, he will use his increased earnings to put his brother through college. He will not marry until the second brother has finished his college education and can carry the burden of educating the third brother."25


This is not a description of thoughtless family planning. These people are providing for the future with the only resource they have available: children. To understand why population growth is so rapid in many poor countries, it is important to realize that birth rates are not increasing in rapidly growing countries. The change has been in death rates, particularly among infants. In such countries as India and Mexico, populations are expanding because, although more children than ever before live to adulthood, many people still adhere to the age-old custom of having large families. It was once necessary, and it helped bring us past the edge of extinction. Large families were so vital to survival that practices to insure large families were encouraged by religious doctrine in many parts of the world. Now, the world has changed but fertility patterns have not fully adapted to these new conditions.**

Another way to describe this development is to say that advances in sanitation and medicine have been more rapid than corresponding changes in behavior. People's attitudes about such things as birth control change when they see that traditional ways of thinking and acting are no longer viable. Where intensive human labor is still needed to work the land, it is hard to see that fewer hands would be better than more. There are other important considerations, too -- such as social security. India has no national social security program. Old people depend on the generosity of their children for support when they are no longer able to work hard. Fewer children increase the risk of hardship late in life, and that fact is more important to most people than issues of global population expansion.

**"...nearly all of the growth is occurring in the less developed countries. Currently, 80 million people are being added every year in less developed countries, compared with about 1.6 million in more developed countries. ... Fertility rates have fallen in every major world region, but in some regions, the rate remains quite high. ... regional variations provide stark contrasts. In Africa, 28 percent of married women use contraception; in Latin America, the share is 71 percent; North America, 73 percent; Europe, 67 percent; and Asia, 66 percent."
Read: World Population Highlights 2007, at the Population Reference Bureau web site.

Implications of Third World Population
Growth for the Advanced Nations

Sheer population size is a source of power. Although the level of a country's technological development and its economic strength are more critical than population size, superpower status requires a large population. That is the chief reason the U.S. is a superpower and Denmark is not. The leaders of developing countries have ambitions, and to achieve their political goals population growth is sometimes a clear objective.

Whatever the power of individual governments, the modern Western political ideal is that all human beings around the world should have equal rights. Most democratic governments support this vision, as do documents of the United Nations such as the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." At this level, then, the number of people who live in different countries says something important about political decision making as well. The more people there are in a country the more votes there would be, in a democratic world. Already, Third World leaders are calling on Western democracies to acknowledge the implications for international relations of the world's population distribution. It is clear that in a democratic vote on any subject, Asia and Africa would carry the day.


Figure 4.7: Percentage of World Population in Major Areas, 1750-2050
Adapted from: U. N., World Population Prospects, 1995, p. 101; U.N., World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, Highlights, p. 1, tab. A.1.


Population Control as a Political Issue

Two Paths toward Population Control

Population specialists and politicians in the Western world often want people in Third World countries to achieve replacement-level fertility now. Yet Third World spokespeople frequently respond that the third stage of the demographic transition, where both death rates and birth rates are low, has typically been an outcome of technological and economic development -- not a precondition. They argue that in the West, the decline in fertility came not before but after a high degree of development was attained; and they are right. They therefore insist that Westerners are wrong to argue that poor nations should lower their birth rates while they still lack the technological and economic sophistication of the more advanced countries.

A rapidly growing population has advantages for such nations as Brazil and Kenya -- as it had for England and the United States a century ago. People not only consume resources; they produce them. A large population can thus create more wealth than a smaller one. A rapidly growing population is also youthful -- with all the vitality and innovativeness that comes with youth. These arguments make sense, too. Further, some analysts do not see continuing population growth as being environmentally unsustainable. This is not the dominant perspective among specialists, but it does have supporters.

The sociological approach to this issue, which takes into account not only raw numbers but also their social and historical context, can help us see that "wishing does not make it so" in the case of population control. Population growth in most developing countries is not likely to be stemmed until one of two things happen -- either a government forces people to limit family size, or the conditions of life in the society make it beneficial for individual couples to change from high-fertility to low-fertility behavior.

The Chinese Example

China has chosen the first option. The leaders of China have concluded, perhaps correctly, that in the world of the twentieth century, high fertility works against economic development. While acknowledging that modernization would produce a decline in fertility, China's government officials also reason that continuing high fertility would inhibit development. Thus they have chosen a "single-child family" policy, and they have the centralized governmental structure necessary to enforce this decision among the population. The official regulations governing family size advocate the birth of one child and tax people for having additional children.

Poster at Chengdu, Sichuan (China). Caption:
"Family Planning: A Basic National Policy of China."

Contraception, sterilization and abortions are encouraged in this system. Careful records are kept on the number of children each couple has, and one-child families receive benefits of several kinds -- from money rewards to preferential treatment in jobs and housing. Couples with more than two children are sometimes stigmatized.

This family policy flies in the face of Chinese tradition dating at least from the days of Confucius. But the post-Mao government saw unchecked population expansion as a threat to its modernization goals. Without drastic measures, rapid growth was inevitable. In the late 1970s, as the country's population neared a billion people, demographers in China emphasized that the age structure of the population was out of balance. Fifty percent of the Chinese people were under 20 years of age; 65 percent were under 30. With this bottom-heavy age distribution, rapid population growth was inevitable without government intervention. And other government research indicated that agricultural productivity and economic development would not be adequate to meet the needs of such a growing population.

For Chinese government's family planning policy, see:
Family Planning in China.

The National Family Planning Program of China 1995-2000 at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific web site.


Voluntary Fertility Reduction

Most Third World people by far (91 percent) live in countries that have family planning programs, but the effectiveness of these organizations varies widely from country to country. Most do not try to persuade couples to have fewer children, but rather to help women achieve the family size they want. It is widely held among specialists that this should be the chief objective of family planning organizations, and it also results in fertility reduction when people learn how to avoid having more children than they would prefer.

Short of governmental pressure, however, lower birth rates will come only when people are motivated on their own to have fewer children. The principal factor that can serve to encourage smaller rather than larger families is a recognition of economic benefit. As an Englishman put it in 1938, " our existing economic system, apart from luck, there are two ways of rising in the economic system; one is by ability, and the other by infertility. It is clear that of two equally able men -- the one with a single child, and the other with eight children -- the one with a single child will be more likely to rise in the social scale".26 When the structure of society in India makes small families advantageous for the average person, history suggests that birth rates will drop. That may not happen, however, until India has a social security system to help support the elderly, so that their children will not need to, and until the agricultural system is less dependent on manual labor than it is today.










The point can be stated more broadly. In both advanced and developing societies, people in the middle class generally have fewer children than their lower-class counterparts. An important question, then, is how opportunities for middle-class membership can be expanded -- in Kenya, Ghana and countries throughout the world whose populations are growing rapidly. China's policy assumes that this level of economic growth could not come quickly enough to bring about voluntary fertility reduction in time.
Tribal Children (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Zero Population Growth

During our species' first 2 1/2 million or so years, there was so much infant mortality that large families were necessary for the survival of the species. Now, however, large families produce huge families in the long run because most children live to have their own children. If there is very little infant mortality in a country, when two adults have two children they have replaced themselves. If each of those children has two children, and this pattern continues generation after generation, the pattern is zero population growth, or ZPG. Couples which consistently have two children are not increasing a country's population in the long run. They are simply replacing themselves. "It takes two to have two." Three children per couple, however, produces very different effects fairly quickly. If you have three children and those children all have three children -- and if this pattern of having three continues for 10 generations -- there will be 115 people to replace the original two. If you have four, and subsequent generations also have four, in 10 generations there will be not two but 2,048.

Ten generations is not a long time. If you have a living grandparent after your first child is born, there are four living generations in your family. If two can become 2,000 after only 10 generations, with families that would have been considered fairly small 100 years ago, imagine the effect in 200 years -- or 500. By the universal time clock, even that is the mere blink of an eye!

In the most developed nations, the actual average number of children per couple which would produce ZPG in the long run is 2.1. This "extra" one-tenth of one percent takes into account the early deaths and infertility of some children. We call this number replacement-level fertility, and it is higher in countries with high infant mortality rates. In some developing nations, replacement-level fertility is as high as 2.5 per couple.

The good news is that replacement-level fertility has been achieved in as many as 73 countries from around the world. Together these countries account for approximately 2.9 billion people, or 43 percent of the world population.27 All of the most prosperous countries are in this group - together with 28 developing countries. Most countries that have achieved replacement-level fertility rely on voluntary family planning, and these examples of progress in bringing down birth rates show that voluntary fertility reduction can be successful.


International Migration

People move. We always have. Michael Parfit captures the process vividly in a recent National Geographic article:

Migration is big, dangerous, compelling. It's Exodus, Ulysses, the Battle of Agincourt, Viking ships on the high seas bound for Iceland, slave ships and civil war, the secret movement of Jewish refugees through occupied lands during World War II. It is 60 million Europeans leaving home from the 16th to the 20th centuries. . . . Migration is the dynamic undertow of population change; everyone's solution, everyone's conflict. . . . But it is much more than that. It is, as it has always been, the great adventure of human life. Migration helped create humans, drove us to conquer the planet, shaped our societies, and promises to reshape them again.28

Immigrants on an Atlantic Liner, Dec.10, 1906. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photo Division

There is more international migration today than ever before. Between 1995 and 2000, more than 2.5 million people per year moved from less developed to more developed regions. By the year 2005, about 191 million people - 3 percent of the world's population - were living in a different country from the one in which they were born or in which they held citizenship.29 Questions about who should be allowed to immigrate to particular countries, and under what conditions, have become urgent political issues.

It was not always this way. People have migrated from one place to another ever since the first humans migrated from Africa to other continents, perhaps as far back as 1 million years ago,30 and it was not until the time of World War One that many governments began carefully controlling immigration. Until 1880, immigration to the United States was virtually unrestricted, and almost anyone who wanted to settle in the country was allowed to do so. A few restrictions were enacted in the 1880s and 1890s, and with the Quota Law of 1921 the Congress set the country's first numerical limit on immigrants.

The Quota Law was passed because of a belief, after World War I, that a flood of Europeans who had been displaced by war were about to depart for American shores. The fear was that both economic and cultural chaos would be the result. A series of immigration laws was subsequently passed which had the overall purpose of keeping out people who, because of nationality or occupation, were considered undesirable. The quota system favored Europeans, but the Immigration Act of 1965 ended the quota system, and the ethnic composition of immigrants has changed markedly. Mexico now tops the list of countries of origin, and the number of western European immigrants has dropped relative to the proportion of Asians entering the United States.

Migration is an issue in the United States because so many international migrants come to the U.S. -- about as many as all other countries in the world combined.31 (As a percentage of their total populations, a few other countries receive more immigrants, however -- notably Australia, Switzerland, Canada and Luxembourg). Between 1990 and 2000 the number of foreign-born U.S. residents rose from almost 20 million to over 31 million contributing about a third to the overall population increase.32 The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 65 percent of the nation's expected population growth between 2000 and 2100 will be a result of immigration (see Figure 4.8).

Most of the foreign-born people in the United States are legal residents. Many others enter the county temporarily as tourists, business people, seasonal workers, students and relatives of residents. Some stay. The number of illegal aliens living in the U.S. is impossible to calculate, but according to Department of Homeland Security estimates, as of January 2006, 11.6 million people were in the country illegally.33

Additionally, several nations, including the United States, admit refugees with whom we have historic ties because of displacement due to war and political conflict of various kinds. Natural disasters, religious conflict and ethnic tensions are further reasons why people in some countries move elsewhere. Refugees who enter the U.S. are initially non-immigrants, but most refugees acquire immigrant status after arrival.

A substantial proportion of international migration is a consequence of population growth in developing countries -- thus illustrating in yet another way that population growth anywhere in the world affects us all. This process is gaining momentum as working-age populations expand in developing countries. Lack of opportunities and high unemployment rates in the "sending" countries (the nations from which people are emigrating) are also related factors.

At the same time, advances in transportation and an overall increase in global interdependence has made it easier for people to migrate from one country to another. While the pressures are increasing among young working-age people to migrate out of developing countries, the attitude of many receiving countries toward immigration is becoming more restrictive. One reason is that jobs are not as plentiful in some receiving countries as they once were, and immigrants often compete with a country's citizens in a restricted employment market. Also, immigration puts a strain on the social services sector of a nation.34 Immigrant workers usually have families; and that means more costs for medical care, education and other services.


"The number of foreign-born persons (the first generation) is projected to rise from 31 million in 2000 to 48 million in 2025, and the foreign-born share of the U.S. population is projected to increase from 11 percent to about 14 percent. ... Immigrants accounted for nearly 50 percent of the total labor force increase between 1996 and 2000, and as much as 60 percent of the increase between 2000 and 2004."
Read: World Population Highlights 2007: Migration at the Population Reference Bureau web site.





Figure 4.8: Estimated U.S. Population with and without Immigration
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2000, p. 8, tab.3.


Contrary to popular stereotypes, people who immigrate to affluent countries from developing nations are not typically the "tired, poor" and "wretched" of their homeland. Rather, the World Health Organization describes the typical migrant as being "among the relatively skilled, educated, and, presumably, enterprising segment of the labor force... Even in the case of illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States," government professor Alan Dowty writes, "it now appears that most come from cities, are engaged in nonagricultural pursuits, and boast above-average levels of income and economic status."35

Thus, while developing nations are often losing many of the very people they need most to increase productivity in their countries, Michael Teitelbaum and Jay Winter point out that the picture is mixed:

Many developing countries accept without argument that the emigration of their citizens promotes their national economic development in at least three ways: by serving as a source of foreign exchange sent home by workers abroad (remittances); by reducing unemployment in their saturated labor markets; and by alleviating overcrowding and other aspects of domestic poverty.36

"In the aggregate", they conclude, "the effects are poorly understood and appear to be at best mixed."37 Many aspects of immigration and emigration policies of nations have similarly uncertain implications.






demographic transition: A three-phase process through which high birth rates and high death rates give way to low birth rates accompanied by low death rates.

doubling time: The number of years it will take for a quantity to double at a given rate of growth (a population of people, for example).

emigration: People moving out of the country.

exponential growth: Growth whose rate accelerates over time, because previous increases are added to the "base" according to which new increases are determined.

immigration: People moving into a country from elsewhere.

natural increase: The excess of births over deaths.

"rule of 70": The doubling time for a quantity (such as a country's total population) is approximately equal to the number 70 divided by the annual growth rate, expressed as a percentage.

Hot Links

Human Numbers Through Time (PBS - NOVA). Examine the startling population growth over the past two millennia, and see what's coming in the next 50 years.

Internet Resources for Demographers (Office of Population Research, Princeton University). There is an extensive collection of valuable links here, including a category for demography centers in different regions of the world.

U.S. Census Bureau, World Population Information. A good source of information about population trends, including a world population clock.

The September 1998 edition of Global Issues "Population at the Millennium - the U.S. Perspective" has several useful articles about both U.S. and global population issues.

Immigration (Public Agenda Online). This web site frames a series of issues and provides information to help users become better informed about them. There is a wealth of valuable material here. The issues surrounding immigration that are central to this Public Agenda Online discussion are phrased as follows: "The Perspectives section offers three public approaches to the issue of immigration: Cutting back in response to new economic realities, to cope with the impact of immigration on U.S. jobs and public services; Cutting back to preserve our common culture, to maintain cohesion and a core of common values in American society; Honoring our commitment to newcomers, in the belief that immigration has always benefited the U.S. economically and strengthened our highest ideals."

Population Reference Bureau. This site has current data about overall population trends and also a large number of specialized articles.

Population page from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has excellent technical information. (The IIASA home page is here:

Supplementary Web Reading

There are many useful articles in World Watch Magazine that are related to population and environmental issues.

    To access this material, first go to the World Watch Institute home page and log in to the site. The login link is at the top-right corner of the home page on the blue bar next to Register and Shopping Cart. You can log in with the user name "socy" and the password "student."

    Second, click on "Online Features" (left side of the screen). When the dropdown menu appears, select "Population." The first thing you see is "World Watch Magazine Special Issue: Population and its Discontents."

    The Worldwatch Institute allows people to access all articles in World Watch Magazine that are at least three years old. To take advantage of this service, select "Publications" in the list on the left side of the screen, and from the dropown menu select "World Watch Magazine." You will see the heading "World Watch Archives." Remember that you have free access to any issue that is three years old or earlier.


Lester R. Brown and Brian Halweil, "India Reaching 1 Billion on August 15: No Celebration Planned," Worldwatch News Brief, August 1999, Worldwatch Institute. From the article: "Sometime on Sunday, August 15, [1999] India's population will pass the one billion mark, making it the second member of the exclusive one billion club, along with China. But reaching one billion is not a cause for celebration in a country where one half of the adults are illiterate, more than half of all children are undernourished, and one third of the people live below the poverty line."

Philip Longman, "The Global Baby Bust," Foreign Affairs, May-June 2004. From the Summary: "Most people think overpopulation is one of the worst dangers facing the globe. In fact, the opposite is true. As countries get richer, their populations age and their birthrates plummet. And this is not just a problem of rich countries: the developing world is also getting older fast. Falling birthrates might seem beneficial, but the economic and social price is too steep to pay. The right policies could help turn the tide, but only if enacted before it's too late."

Migration: A World on the Move, United Nations Population Fund, 2006. "In 2005, some 191 million people -- 3 per cent of the world’s population -- lived outside their country of origin."

Population Trends: Rapid Growth in Less Developed Regions, United Nations Population Fund, 2007. "We are living in a world of unprecedented demographic change. After growing very slowly for most of human history, the world’s population more than doubled in the last half century to reach 6 billion in late 1999. By 2006 it had reached 6.7 billion."

Michael S. Teitelbaum, Jay Winter, and Phillip Longman, "Demography Is Not Destiny," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004.

World in the Balance, "Population Campaigns," PBS - NOVA, April 2004. "Compare how three developing nations have tried to slow rapid population growth."

World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, Population Ageing. United Nations, 2007.

  • The following Atlantic Monthly articles are available online to subscribers of the magazine. You can also access them through your library if you use InfoTrac OneFile.

Barbara Crossette, "AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division," The Atlantic Monthly, June 23, 2003. From the article: "Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make [The U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."

Max Singer, "The Population Surprise," The Atlantic Monthly, August 1999. From the article: "The old assumptions about world population trends need to be rethought. One thing is clear, in the next century the world is in for some rapid downsizing."

George J. Borjas, "The New Economics of Immigration," The Atlantic Monthly, November 1996. From the article: "Affluent Americans gain; poor Americans lose."

Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, "Must It Be the Rest Against the West?," The Atlantic Monthly, December 1994. Still timely.

David M. Kennedy, "Can We Still Afford to Be a Nation of Immigrants?" The Atlantic Monthly, December 1996.

Summary Study Questions

Core Questions from the Chapter

1. What major and important trends show the population patterns that are especially important in the world? (Be familiar with the  overall long term trends, as is illustrated in Figure 4.1 and also with the distribution of the world's population during the last 300 years in different regions [Figure 4.4 and the accompanying audio file]).

2. What is the "rule of 70," and why is it important?

3. What is ZPG? Given basic demographic facts that characterize the U.S., why is this country's population still growing?

4. Why are populations growing in many Third World countries, that is, what factors account for the growing numbers of people?

5. What is the demographic transition? (Be able to identify its different phases, and know why this process is important to population trends.)

6. What are the different avenues to population control? What is China doing to slow that country's rate of population increase? Why have the Chinese adopted their policy? How well is it working?

7. What needs to happen in a country to bring down high rates of population increase?

8. How important is international migration in population redistribution around the world? What is its significance for U.S. population change? What are major implications of international migration (political, economic and cultural)?

9. What are population patterns and trends across different continents?

10. In what ways is Third World population growth significant for the West?

Broader Question for Further Thought

1. A friend asks, "What’s the problem with population growth? I don’t see any problem here; look at all the empty land out there that no one is occupying." Tell your friend what the problem is, and why population growth must be slowed and soon stopped. (Alternatively, you can speak up for Julian Simon's position, if you'd like.").

2. Why are populations mushrooming in many developing countries, while they are leveling off or even declining in most economically affluent countries of the world?

3. (Be able to get population pyramids from specific countries that your instructor may name, using the Census Bureau web. Know how to interpret the pyramids, and also be able to access other population information, and to discuss it, from the Census Bureau web.)

Recommended Books

Clark, Robert P. The Global Imperative: An Interpretive History of the Spread of Mankind. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Livi-Bacci, Massimo. A Concise History of World Population. Translated by Carl Ipsen. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Peterson, Peter G. Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America -- and the World. New York: Random House, 1999.

Teitelbaum, Michael S. and Jay Winter. A Question of Numbers: High Migration, Low Fertility, and the Politics of National Identity. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.


1U.N. The 2006 Revision, Panel 1.
2U.N. The 2006 Revision, p. ix.
3U.N. The 2006 Revision, p. viii.
4U.N. The 2006 Revision, tab. A.20.
5U.N. The 2006 Revision, p. 17.
6U.N. The 2006 Revision, Panel 2.
7Braudel, 1981, pp. 73-74.
8Braudel, 1981, p. 74.
9Weber, 1976, p. 17.
10Braudel, 1981, pp. 76-77.
11Braudel, 1981, pp. 79-82; See also Livi-Bacci, 1992, pp. 67-73.
12Weber, 1976, p. 151.
13Braudel, 1981, pp. 85, 87.
14U.N. The 2002 Revision, p. viii.
15See U.N. The 2006 Revision, tab. A.8
16Commoner, 1990, p. 157.
17U.N. The 2006 Revision, Panel 2.
18Newland, 1981, p. 26.
19Chandler, 1985, p. 7.
20U.N. The 2006 Revision, Panel 2.
21World Bank, 2007, p. 6.
22World Health Organization, Mortality.

23World Bank, 2007, tab. 1.2.
24Braudel, 1981, p. 90.
25Quoted in Commoner, 1990, pp. 162-63.
26Quoted in Weeks,1989.
27U.N. The 2006 Revision, p. 9.
28Parfit, 1998, p. 11.
29Population Bulletin, 62.3, 2007, p. 8.
30Clark, 1997, p. 24.
31The Economist, 11/1, 1997, pp. 81-82.
32Population Bulletin, 62.3, 2007, p. 8.
33DHS, Population Estimates, 2007, p. 3.
34The Economist, 11/29, 1997, p.81
35Dowty, 1987, p. 157-58.
36Teitelbaum and Winter, 1998, p. 202.
37Teitelbaum and Winter, 1998, p. 202.


NOTE: The references for chapters are listed in Appendix B.