Geographical distribution of the world population

Geographical distribution of the world population.

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Source: Carr-Saunders [1936, Fig. 8] and Demographic Yearbook (United Nations [1995]).

The table is constructed to emphasize the earlier centuries. Neglect the last column for the moment. What we have then is an array of population percentages running all the way from 1650 to 1933. Note the decline of Africa, in significant part due to outmigration, and the rise of North America, in large part due to immigration. At the same time, despite outmigration from Europe, her share of the world’s population rose steadily over this period. Focus on the first column and the second to last column (both in boldface type) to see how the situation altered over the period 1650–1933. What we see here is the period when Europe began its demographic transition, while large parts of the present developing world still lay dormant in the first phase of demographic history.1 In 1650, the population of Europe was about 100 million. In 1933, even allowing for emigration (which was large), it had swelled to over 500 million.

Now look at the last column of Table 9.3, which pertains to 1995. It is clear that we are in the throes of a reverse swing. Asia, which lost around six percentage points over the period 1650–1933, has returned to almost exactly the 1650 share. Africa has come back as well, but is still significantly below the 1650 share. The two gainers have been North America and Latin America. It is also instructive to add up what approximately accounts for the developing world. The population share of Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined was 81.1 in 1650. In 1933 it had dropped to 67.6. The share was 81.7 in 1995. We have come full circle.

Without this historical perspective it is easy enough to be alarmist about population expansion in developing countries. No one doubts that such expansions may be harmful, but it is certainly not the case that these countries have grown more than their “fair share.” What alarms many governments in the developed world is not population growth, but relative population growth. A large population means greater poverty and smaller per capita access to resources, but on the international scene, it stands for greater political and economic power. The very same governments that stand for population control in the developing world are perfectly capable of pursuing pronatalist policies at home.2

Attitudes to Population3

Most individuals and governments, if polled, would agree that world population trends pose a problem. When it comes to judging trends in one’s own country, however, matters are often quite different. We may deplore an action as being harmful to the interests of society, yet be tied into taking that very same action, simply because others are. Recent changes in attitudes to population, however, show a welcome transition.

At the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in September 1994, many governments clarified their stand on the population question. It was clear that many governments were actively pursuing demographic policies to limit population trends, and indeed, population growth in many developing countries has significantly declined. These outcomes are correlated with some changes in government perceptions of population growth. Although the percentage of countries that consider their rates of population growth to be too low has steadily declined, the number of governments that view population growth as too high has declined somewhat as well. Developing countries take the lead in this change of attitude. Among the developed countries, there has been little change. Indeed, an increasing number of such countries consider their rate of population growth to be too low and are concerned about declining fertility and population aging.

In Africa, we see an increasing number of countries joining the war against population: Namibia, the Sudan, and Tanzania officially inaugurated policies to reduce population growth. The Tunisian government now declares itself satisfied with the declining trend of its rate of population growth. Likewise, in Asia, more governments have declared themselves satisfied with demographic trends, although many still consider their population growth rates to be too high. China and Korea both view their current situations as satisfactory.

In contrast, in Europe, more countries are concerned with aging and population decline. Portugal and Romania now consider their population growth rates to be too low, and Croatia inaugurated a policy to promote fertility rates.

In Latin America, as in Asia, an increasing number of countries consider their population growth rates to be satisfactory The

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exceptions lie in the densely populated areas of the Caribbean, and in Central America. Little change occurred elsewhere. In North America, the United States and Canada remain satisfied with their population growth rates,

as do Australia and New Zealand in Oceania. The majority of developing countries in Oceania consider their rates of population growth to be too high (Tonga is an exception because of high rates of emigration). In Eastern Europe, four countries (Belarus, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine) consider their population growth rates to be too low. In the former Soviet Union, a majority of the governments appear to be satisfied with their current demographic regime.

At the same time, we cannot help being concerned about future trends. Look again at Table 9.3. It took Europe and North America a good 300 years to realize their population gains; it took around 50 years to lose them. If we extrapolate these trends, are we not in danger of an enormous population explosion, with a rising majority in the developing countries?

In examining this important question, we take note of a radical difference between the demographic transitions of the developed and developing worlds. The latter is being played out at a pace that is many times faster than that of the former. The second phase of demographic history in developing countries displays an intensity that is unmatched by the experiences of the now-developed world.

In developed countries, the fall in the death rate was relatively gradual, limited by the trial and error of innovation. The improved production of food, the institution of sanitation methods, and the greater understanding and control over disease yielded by medical advances all had to be discovered or invented, rather than transplanted from a pre-existing stock of knowledge.

For several reasons, including norms of late marriage in many European societies, birth rates never attained the same heights that we see in developing countries today. At the same time, birth rates fell slowly, in part due to a greater carrying capacity made possible by technical progress. Thus the second phase of demographic history was protracted, and the time span (centuries) more than compensated for the (relatively) low net growth rate. Population growth in these countries was more of a slow burn than a violent explosion, and its enormous impact was felt over centuries.

Contrast this picture with what has happened to developing countries. The decline of mortality was widespread and sudden. Antibiotics were available for a variety of illnesses; they did not have to be reinvented. The use of insecticides such as DDT provided a cheap way to bring down malaria to manageable proportions. Public health organizations began to pop up all over the developing landscape, some of them funded by international institutions such as the World Health Organization. Last, but not the least, there was widespread application of elementary methods of sanitation and hygiene. These are all blessings, because they brought to people a longer, healthier life.

The fact remains, however, that the easy and universal application of these new techniques led to a precipitous decline in death rates. The speed of decline surpassed anything experienced by Northern and Western Europeans. Everything, then, hangs on the birth rate. How quickly does it follow the death rate on its downward course? On this question hangs the future of the world’s population, and certainly the economic future of many developing countries.


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