Are the world’s falling fertility rates a boon or a disaster?

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Between 1950 and 2017 the global population rose from 2.6 to 7.6 billion while total fertility rates (average live births per woman of childbearing age) fell from 4.7 to 2.4.

These dramatic figures, which recently hit the headlines,were reported in the medical journal The Lancet*. The report collates information from 195 countries over the 67-year timespan.

Its 57 pages are packed with statistics vital for governments to plan future strategies for everything from housing and education to public health, care of the elderly and food supplies. But clearly the results of this massive study have wider global implications.

The overall rise in population despite falling fertility rates highlighted in the report is accounted for by large differences in the figures within and between countries. This contrast is particularly noticeable between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In Europe fertility rates are low (for example 1.5 for Scotland and 1.7 for the UK) and populations show a decline from 2010 onwards, although in western Europe this was mitigated by increased longevity and an influx of migrants. Meanwhile in sub-Saharan Africa the opposite is true; the highest fertility rates reached 7.1 (for Niger in 2017) and population growth rates exceeded 2 per cent (3.8 per cent for Niger).

The negative effect of a declining population, with its inevitable imbalance between those of working age and the elderly, is of great concern to economists. Nevertheless, there are others who see declining populations and global fertility rates as extremely good news.

Most environmentalists regard the unprecedented global success of the human race as the main cause of many modern ills – the energy crisis; food shortages; lack of clean water; air, sea and land pollution; plant and animal extinctions (currently 200 species become extinct every day), and, of course, anthropogenic global warming.

So, from a long-term perspective, the message from this report – declining global fertility rates – is a rare encouraging sign; it may just save life on this planet.

*Lancet 392, p1995. 2018.