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ON POPULATION GROWTH

 

By Chippla Vandu

Friday, August 27, 2010.

Alhough there is a general consensus that global human fertility rates have fallen significantly over the last 60 years, it remains apparently clear that, in general, the global human population is still increasing. And even a country like China, which implemented a national policy on birth planning in 1979 (the so-called 'one-child policy'), is still experiencing an increase in its population albeit at a much slower rate than in the past.

While Japan is aging at a rate that has alarmed its government, the United States still manages to stay above the 2.1 threshold (I wonder who came up with this figure, which I am informed is only valid in industrialized countries, where child mortality is relatively low). The government of Japan recently passed a law to grant families about $145 per month for every child under 15 from April 2010, according to the
Christian Science Monitor.

Eager to stabilize its already shrinking population, Japan is doing all it can to ensure that young Japanese couples choose to have babies, just like their parents and grandparents before them. The BBC's Robin Lustig, has taken the bold and unusual move of describing Japan as a "slowly dying" nation. And, Japan, being a largely phenotypically homogenous nation state, would find it anything but easy to spare a thought for letting in migrants—be they Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese. Think of what happened to the Brazilian-Japanese who were let in some years back only to be encouraged to return back to Brazil at the peak of the global financial crisis, as reported by
Time Magazine.

A general perception is that wealth leads to fewer children. Therefore, in more affluent nation states (such as Sweden, Singapore and Canada) one sees fewer children being born in relation to the number of fertile women than in say less affluent nations (Niger, Afghanistan, Liberia). But there is more to this than simply affluence. Several of the oil-rich nations of the Middle East have fertility rates that are beyond what is required to stabilize their populations in the long-term.

Religion and its cultural underpinnings have long been bastions that encouraged procreation. And even in the absence of religion, some scientists would tell us that one of the primary purposes of existence is to procreate. In other words, to pass on one's genes. In the wildest forms of nature, this may be true. Animal populations in the wild tend to be regulated by natural conditions that tend to favour or disfavor genetic transfer (bumper rains, droughts or diseases) .

But several human populations have overcome such natural limitations. While in the highlands of rural Ethiopia, a drought almost inevitably leads to the death of hundreds or thousands of people, this is no longer the case in China, which now produces more food than it consumes.

The modern lifestyle is largely responsible for decreasing fertility rates globally. This is a lifestyle that is largely independent of culture or ideology. Families who live in high-density cities are likely to have fewer children than those who live in small villages. Add some degree of education, greater individual choice and access to an ever-increasing array of contraceptives and you have the perfect recipe for what is slowly but steadily becoming the global norm amongst the highly educated working class—the one or two kid family.

At the very most, three kids, which I consider as being the practical maximum. The welfare states of Western Europe also help to reinforce smaller families, as the traditional role of children as care givers in later life is taken up by the state. But what drives this practical maximum? Several things of course but few are more visible and as potent as the automobile.

Whoever designed the first modern automobiles either did not view them as equipment that were to be used to ferry large families around or envisioned a future in which family sizes would be small. Though the chassis, engines and interior design of cars have come a long way since Ford introduced the
Model T, one thing has remained practically unchanged—the number of passengers that can fit into a car.

Ford's Model T could sit four or five people in total and so would most sedans, hatchbacks or station wagons on sale today. Consciously or unconsciously, family sizes have been dictated by the number of children that can be crammed into the back seats of family cars. In this way, the car has done a good job in slowly setting the maximum number of children that people who depend on it eventually go on to have.

Of course, there are families who own two, three or more cars. And there are also those who choose to go beyond the three kid threshold and opt for minivans, otherwise known as multi-purpose vehicles. But these would be exceptions rather than the norm in most parts of the world where people own cars.

Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian scientist and researcher based in Holland. He blogs as Chippla.

 

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