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Population Growth and Poverty: The Contemporary Situation

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SITUATION by Kingsley Davis The increase of mankind has been so rapid, so overwhelming and utterly unprecedented in recent years that it is commonly referred to by scientists as a population explosion. We now number 2,750,000,000, about twice as many as seventy years ago; and there is every sign that that number will double within another forty years. Moreover, the rate of increase is growing faster all the time. The world's population rose by 6 per cent per decade between 1850 and 1900; by 7 per cent between 1900 and 1930; by 10 per cent between 1930 and 1950, and by 17 per cent, on a decade basis, in the seven years since then. At present the number added to our globe each year is 47,000,000 (greater than the population of France) and before long it may be 75,000,000 annually.

This explosive human multiplication, unanticipated and unexampled in history, clearly cannot continue indefinitely. It would give us nearly 6,000,000,000 by the end of this century and nearly 13,000,000,000 by the year 2050. How this growth is eventually stopped, and when, will play a tremendous role in human destiny.

Although a climax in population growth is approaching, nothing indicates that the peak has yet been reached. The total may climb faster in the next twenty years than it did in the last twenty. Even if the rate of increase begins to decline, centuries may pass before it falls to simple replacement level; and new billions will have been added to the human horde in the meantime. Unless a catastrophe intervenes we and our children will share the earth with a lot more people than we do today.

A strange fact is that in general it is the poorer and less developed regions, the regions least able to support additional millions, that are exhibiting the biggest demographic inflation. Briefly, according to the United Nations, the explosion is greatest in Latin America; next in Oceania, Africa, and most of Asia; less in the United States and Canada, and least in Europe, especially Western and Central Europe. The Latin Americans, for example, are multiplying more than four times faster than the people of Northwestern Europe; the people of East Asia more than three times faster.

In the past the greatest numerical increase occurred in the more successful nations—those that were expanding economically and raising their level of living. Now, however, it is primarily the peasant-agrarian countries, where poverty is most intense, that are ahead in the population marathon. Ceylon, Taiwan and Malaya; Paraguay, Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico; Turkey and Syria—these are among the countries that have attained or are approaching a rate of increase that will double their numbers every twenty-three years. Our neighbor, Mexico, which now has 31,500,000 inhabitants, will have about 63,000,000 in 1980. The only industrial countries that have better than half of this rate are the new ones— such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand and the Soviet Union. The older industrial countries are far behind, despite their post-war baby boom.

The recent acceleration in world population growth is not due, as is often assumed, to rising birth rates. In advanced nations birth rates did rise after the depression, but for the most part they have slipped back to comparatively low levels.

The main factor is the revolutionary reduction in death rates in the underdeveloped countries, where most of the world's people live. And this spectacular drop has been gathering speed since 1935. Most notable is the case of Ceylon, where the death rate fell 34 per cent in a single year and 70 per cent in ten years. Other cases are similar: Since the Nineteen Forties the average death rate in Puerto Rico dropped by 82 per cent in a single decade; in Cyprus by 64 per cent; in Trinidad by 45 per cent; in Mexico by 43 per cent, and in Jamaica by 30 per cent. As the United Nations shows in its latest Demographic Yearbook, the countries with the highest mortality have generally shown the most remarkable declines. This new achievement in death control is revolutionary not only because its speed has never before been matched but also because it is occurring at a more primitive economic stage than did the fastest death control in the now advanced nations.

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