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New Population Explosion

03/10/08 7:55AM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) The Post-World War II Baby Boom is still with us, as the first wave of boomers approach retirement and social security. But commentator Olin Robison - a past president of both Middlebury College and the Salzburg Seminar - says there's another Baby Boom on it's way.

(ROBISON) A couple of hundred years ago there lived in England a man named Thomas Robert Malthus. He was, without doubt, one of the most influential people of his day. It is from him and after him that we get the word "Malthusian". It was his prediction that world population growth would soon outstrip the ability of the planet to produce enough food to feed everyone.

The predictions of Malthus have not proven true - at least not yet. He clearly did not foresee the dramatic rise in agricultural productivity brought on by modern agricultural methods. His theories are still debated among academics and policy wonks some of whom believe that his prediction was correct but his timing was wrong. It is nonetheless the fact that over the last 200 years food production technology has outpaced population growth; at least so far.

Well, dear friends, we are about to see whether he was right in the long term or not. We now stand on the brink of the biggest global baby boom in history and far and away most of that growth is going to come in the world's poorest countries.

I am of course well aware of the fact that one should not quote a lot of numbers over the radio. They are too hard to follow. On the other hand, this is an issue where the numbers tell the whole story. So here goes: I will simply quote a sentence from a recent edition of London's Financial Times: That authoritative newspaper noted that, "There are 1.5 billion people between the ages of 12 and 24 in the world, and 87 percent of them are growing up in developing countries." The birthrates in Uganda and in neighboring Kenya alone are almost 4% per year - a number that is absolutely extraordinary. Most women of childbearing age in those two countries have an average of seven children.


The mirror image of all this is that most of the economically advanced countries in the world have the lowest birthrates - for this, think, all of Europe, Japan, South Korea. It would appear that the more prosperous a country becomes, the fewer babies there are. The reverse is also true: the poorer a country is, the higher the birthrate.

Consider for a moment the previously mentioned Uganda which is
technically the youngest country in the world; in other words, it is the country with the youngest population. Uganda is a moderately sized country in East Africa. The median age for males in Uganda is 14 years 9 months and well over half the population if under 18 years of age. In due course - not so long from now - most of these young people will begin having babies and, if the past is any guide, a lot of babies. It is already happening over much of the globe and especially in Africa, Latin America and south Asia. That IS the previously mentioned coming baby boom.

I do not raise these difficult issues because I think that there is much anyone I know can do about it. Not at all. But those who want to worry about the really big issues would do well to focus on these statistics. One might become educated in the debate over Aid versus Trade; over whether the United States should or should not make foreign aid dependent on whether that country does or does not have family planning services (we do now; we are against it). In an age of globalization, is cheap labor to be seen as a commodity?

There are now countries in the world which deliberately try to export labor - partly because most of those people then send money home and that props up many a sagging economy.

As the Global Baby Boom happens there are going to be millions of
unemployed young people. Who is going to take on that problem?

These are issues that are not going to go away - no matter who wins the White House this autumn.
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