Understanding the demographic transition

July 26, 2007

My most recent post on Population, Talking Population with the Old Men was mostly about the way the personal has informed my own political take on the subject. This one is about something far more concrete or abstract – the shift in world population that is occurring right now, how it works, what causes it, and what we can do to encourage it.

The term “Demographic Transition” describes the movement of human populations into a roughly steady state. Initially birth rates are high, but so are infant mortality and other death rates, and population may rise, but it does so quite gradually. In Europe and North America, the Demographic Transition occurred over two centuries – gradually, as hygenic practices changed, medicine improved and other factors lowered death rates, women grew up noticing “hey,five kids aren’t necessary – I can have three and be assured of getting them to adulthood.” Thus, the average TFR (that’s the total fertility rate) dropped steadily from 6 to 2.8 and then down further. Now the developed world has an average TFR of 1.8, below replacement rate.

This began in the 19th century in the rich world, but didn’t happen in much of the poor world until the mid-20th century or later. Generally speaking, however, the third world has undergone a much faster demographic transition than the rich world did – in many cases, radical change has come in less than 50 years. And because in many places in the third world, there has been considerable instability, the factors that lead to a transition haven’t been consistently available in many places.

And, in fact, this is happening right now all over the world. We all know that rich world nations like Japan and Italy have a TFR well below replacement, but more than half of all poor nations are below replacement rate, and the rest are following. The highest reproductive rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and those too are following the pattern of other poor nations, but are 20 years behind them. Subsaharan Africa now has a TFR of 5.0, down from 6.3 in 1990. Latin America is now at 2.6 as a whole, and has nearly halved in merely 20 years. All over the world, population rates are generally falling much faster than even the most radical demographers expected.

What’s most interesting about the demographic transition is that birth control had comparatively little impact on it – that is, in America, for example, we dropped our birthrate to 2.8, before disseminating birth control information was even legal. Despite a widespread increase in birth control availability after World War II, American birth rates rose well above what they were in the era of the Comstock laws when birth control was illegal. Birth control is estimated to affect about 15% of demographic decline – but that’s a comparatively small percentage. In their book Understanding Reproductive Change: Kenya, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Costa Rica, editors Bertil Egero and Mikail Hammerskjold observe that fertility change seems largely unlinked to contraception access. That is, people tend to have about the number of children they want, regardless of access to birth control. The question is how do people come to want a particular family size.

And the answer to that question is that generally speaking, people make fairly rational choices, based on their personal economics, their personal situation, their need to have a child of a particular sex, their need for workers, their need for someone to help them in old age. Time and time again, studies like Pritchett’s on “Desired Fertility” demonstrate that women worldwide, in every situation, mostly make fairly rational choices for themselves about their family size. And when circumstances change, and give them positive incentives to want fewer children, they hae them.

The current, ongoing demographic transition is not, as it is commonly thought, primarily a feature of the rich world. Poor nations as diverse as Albania, Costa Rica, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines have rapidly declining birth rates. And what factors do most of these nations have in common? Generally speaking, basic commodities are widely available – that is, people get to eat. For example, a 1996 USAID report documents a direct link between subsidizing rice in Sri Lanka and a drop in TFR from 3.1 to 2.0 in less than a decade. Basic access to medical care is widely available. Women have high literacy rates and political power. Women are comparatively well protected from rape, and can choose their husbands. A 1994 study by Yale Economist Paul Schultz fournd that female literacy was perhaps the most defining factor in TFR in poor nations. In India, Kerala, with a 100% female literacy rate has a 1.7 TFR, compared to a 4.1 TFR in regions with a 30% literacy rate

But, all the individual factors together add up to what Jeremy Seabrook rightly observes is “security.” If kin are the only safety net you have access to, then you will have children as a form of security and wealth. If there are other options, you will turn to those. Education represents the possibility of work if a husband dies, knowledge of laws, access to information – it is not in itself a reproductive constraint, but an aid to security. What most people want when they have children is security, pleasure and comfort. If 2 children can do that as well or better than 5, they will have two.

A reader in my Talking Population with the Old Men discussion took me to task for not making the link between population and poverty more clear. He argued that large populations cause poverty, and that the only hope of increasing wealth is populations stabilization. But I must say, I disagree. For example, it is manifestly the case that population *density* simply doesn’t cause poverty – otherwise, Hong Kong, Japan and England would be vastly poorer than Georgia and Peru. The evidence for whether high TFR causes poverty is, at best, mixed. For example, prosperity in India has grown dramatically despite a fairly high TFR. Even Paul Ehrlich, famed Zero Population Growth advocate and author of _The Population Bomb_ and _One with Nineveh_ admits in the latter volume that the answer is extremely difficult to sort out, and that there’s limited evidence on that subject. Generally speaking, the demographic transition occurs as a result of a certain degree of wealth – that is, there’s now money for infrastructure improvements such as water systems and sewers. But very poor nations can and sometimes do prioritize these solutions, for example, desperately poor Tanzania uner Nyerere did so, and saw its level of wealth rise while its population was still increasing.

What is true is that population instability does create poverty – for example, the death of 20 million people in Africa to AIDS has left economies stripped, societies filled with children and elderly people caring for them, while the central working generation is ill and dying. Into this situation comes greater poverty, lower educational levels for women, despair, greater need for young women to become prostitutes, and a rising birth rate in some places, massive economic gaps in others. A slow stabilization of population is probably better than wild fluctuations brought about by short term conditions.

The factors that work to limit population growth deserve some greater attention than my quick summary above, because they way they seem to work is as important as the fact that they do. They give us a sense of what kind of society we’d need to create in order to achieve population stabilization well below 10 billion. So let’s consider them a bit more carefully.

The first factor, education, works in several ways. Literacy for women benefits families in a number of ways. It increases her health (a literate woman can read material about health and hygeine practices), it increases her family’s security (if her husband dies, she can get a better job), it increases her desire to see her children receive education and it increases her political power – she can read and understand national issues. Mandatory education for all children serves to remove children from the labor pool, and makes children not producers, but consumers, and thus parents are forced to view their children in that light.

Food security, including price supports, and many other possible programs improves the likelihood of having healthy and non-disabled infants, it makes it less necessary to set children to work finding food, and it makes it possible for women to reserve time for public participation.

The security of elderly people and the disabled can be assured in a number of ways – public support a la social security is one. Traditions of family obligation are another – were we to treat our obligations to aunts and cousins as strongly as we treat those to sisters and parents, as some societies do, the requirement that individuals have more children is greatly reduced.

Basic health care and hygeine matter because they reduce infant and child mortality, reduce harm in childbirth, and enable women to take advantage of contraception when they want it. They also make childbearing less dangerous, which paradoxically reduces birthrates, because it increases family stability and reduces rates of disability and death within families that drive children out to work at early ages.

Another powerful factor is sexual practices in regards to rape, marriage, prostitution and birth control. Birth control, is, surprisingly, the least important of these factors. Discouraging men from seeing prostitutes, in the Gambia reduced fertility rates significantly, as prostitution is generally a result of extreme poverty and often precludes the use of expensive birth control. In Libya, enforcement of existing rape laws was found, to reduce TFR signficantly. All of these factors are associated with the status of women, and the more cultural and political power women have in a society, the fewer unwanted pregnancies she has. These are factors that generally speaking are mended by cultural pressures – for example, in the US, where rape and prostitution are huge problems, how many of us sit down with our sons and not only discuss rape in detail, but talk about prostitution?

Freedom from war is perhaps the most underestimated factor. People who fear that their children will be taken from them by the state have every reason to have extras to ensure their survival. And because war disrupts security, it is hard for families to make rational choices in the face of war. Genocide and racial conflict encourage the harmed parties to increase fertility rates to compensate. And similarly, the state (or other instigators) have every incentive to encourage women to have as many children as possible in the interest of the state. Despite Albert Bartlett’s claim to the contrary, rising death rates due to war actually tend, over the long term, to increase birth rates. And the environmental impact, so critical to the I=PAT formula (explained in my previous post on the subject, “Talking Population to the Old Men”) of military action raises the impact of any individual child. Militaries worldwide are responsible for up to 10% of global emissions and 11% of global resource use. We would have considerably more earth to work with without the massive military industrial complex.

Like war, nationalism itself represents a serious incentive to have more children. Low TFR nations like Japan and Italy that also have strong anti-immigrant sentiments have experienced periodic public calls for a pro-fertility campaign. The notion that national interests should have higher priority than the well being of the world as a whole has led us to short term thinking on population, as so many issues.

It may sound as though achieving a worldwide population stabilization is impossible -as though we must fix all human problems first. But that’s not the case. In fact, it turns out that the total investment in reducing world fertility levels voluntarily is comparatively low. Because most of the changes are human powered, low input, and comparatively cheap. That is, most of what would be required would simply be to prioritize these things. Fossil fuels, for example are not required to have small local schools, small amounts of fossil and renewable energy are required for some basic medications, but as we can see from the timing of the European and North American example, the demographic transition in the rich world was mostly not a product of fossil fuel based medicine, but a result of improvements in nutrition, hygeine and access to food and water. Political power for women is not a product of fossil fuels either. States can far better afford price supports for local farmers and public cafeterias where prices are kept low than they can afford war, famine relief, etc…

Can we do this in the face of peak oil and climate change? Absolutely. We are going to need to make massive changes in our infrastructure. Thus far, much of the discussion of what to do about peak oil has been about trains and renewable energy, new economies and new extraction technologies. And as long as the conversation stays there, we’ll be missing the point. Because ultimately, people care most about being fed, having their kids live to grow up, having safe water, basic housing, etc… As long as we continue the “growth and replacement” model of discussion, we’ll miss the basic point – that what we need most to concentrate on is health, education and social well being.

But what would be required is that we make it a priority – that we reallocate wealth from rich nations to poor ones, something that would require, among other things, a real reduction in worldwide emphasis on short term, national interests. That is, unlike the person who wrote the amazingly stupid ASPO article (which I can’t presently find) some while back that called to close the borders of Britain, enforce a one-child policy by any means necessary and beef up the military (presumably with senior citizens, since there won’t be many young people to expand it with – but hey, 70 year old geezers can defend the shores of Britain from…I can’t remember, was it the French?)

[EB: I think Sharon is referring to the essay by William Stanton in ASPO newsletter #55 (July ’05), item 573 “Reducing Population in Step with Oil Depletion.” This issue of the ASPO newsletter no longer seems to be online, but a copy of the essay is available here.]

Now the gentleman who complained that I didn’t conceed to his claim that poverty is a consequence of high birth rates also complained that I brought up China, because, as he said, it the only example of compulsory fertility control. But, of course, that isn’t true – states have a long history of manipulating fertility, sometimes through compulsion, sometimes through effective compulsion – in the interest of the state. China’s policy is merely the most recent – for example, the American Eugenics policy was a direct result of the demographic transition. The Intelligentsia argued that we needed to reduce the number of “unfit” children, and increase the birthrate of the fit. Not quite coincidentally, the unfit were the poor, the disabled, the nonwhite, and the disenfranchised. Anyone want to take bets on who the “fit” were? US Courts regularly ordered poor people sterilized against their will, and sterilized non-white women after birth without bothering to get their consent.

And, of course, the state often feels free to encourage birth rates. And if we believe that the state has the right to manipulate fertility rates in its own interest, then we have opened the door to changes in population policy when racial and military conflict arise, or when economic conflict is in play. The minute we say that the state should be in the business of telling people how many children to have, we’ve opened the door to a kind of policy making that we don’t much want to mess with. What the state can and should do is reduce or remove existing incentives to have more children (for example, eliminate the child tax credit or cap it at two children), and then focus its efforts on meeting basic human needs.

I think it is really important to assert that population reduction works best when it is wholly voluntary – really voluntary, with the state focusing its interests on improving the lives of the people who actually make the real, everyday decisions about what to do. It is worth noting that China’s present TFR is just below 2.0, while many poor nations have successfully reduce their TFRs well below China’s without such measures. Our focus, in that case, ought to be on reallocation of wealth, creating infrastructure to enable and preserve basic things like basic medical care and adequate food for all, both in the rich world and the poor, and most of all, ceasing to think of our own interests as primarily tied to those of our nation state, and recognizing that our interests are the interests of the world as a whole.

The UN estimates that World Population will stabilize between 8.5 and 9 billion people by 2050, and then gradually begin to decline. There’s fairly compelling evidence that we can feed that many people, if we chose to do so, and if we choose to act justly. That would mean giving up ethanol, reducing our meat consumption, and radically reducing our consumption of goods. It would mean living a much simpler lifestyle, and devoting more of the resources of the rich world, while we have them, to education, health and welfare and sharing our good fortune. The benefits we reap would be enormous. Worldwide, nations that have prioritized food security, basic health care and stability for its populace have seen an average fall of their TFR to below 2 – in many cases, well below it. At that rate, by 2150, the world’s whole population would be below 3 billion, without a massive die off.

I think it is worth it, no?


Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at the Independent Publishers Awards. A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil co-authored with Aaron Newton, which considers what will be necessary for viable food system on a national and world scale in the coming decades, and argues that at its root, any such system needs a greater degree of participation from all of us; Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage which makes the case for food storage and preservation as integral parts

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Health, Overshoot