NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Five Myths about the World's Population

November 8, 2011

Nicholas Eberstadt, the Henry Wendt scholar in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, debunks five myths about the world's population.

Myth one: The world is overpopulated.  But most serious demographers, economists and population specialists rarely use the term "overpopulation" because there is no clear demographic definition.

Myth two: Rapid population growth keeps poor countries poor.

  • In 1960, South Korea and Taiwan were poor countries with fast-growing populations.
  • Over the two decades that followed, South Korea's population surged by about 50 percent and Taiwan's by about 65 percent.
  • Yet, income increased in both places, too: Between 1960 and 1980, per capita economic growth averaged 6.2 percent in South Korea and 7 percent in Taiwan.

Myth three: For all its ethical problems, China's one-child policy boosts its economy.

  • Just before the one-child policy was enacted, China's total fertility rate (births per woman per lifetime) was about 2.7; today it is believed to be around 1.6, or roughly 40 percent lower.
  • But between the late 1960s and the late 1970s, China's total fertility rate fell from about 5.9 to 2.9 births per woman per lifetime. Yet China's per capita economic growth was much slower in this time period.

Myth four: If your population declines, your economy does, too.

  • Between the 1840s and 1960s, Ireland's population collapsed, spiraling downward from 8.3 million to 2.9 million.
  • Over roughly that same period, however, Ireland's per capita gross domestic product tripled.
  • More recently, Bulgaria and Estonia have both suffered sharp population contractions of close to 20 percent since the end of the Cold War, yet both have enjoyed sustained surges in wealth.

Myth five: The world will have 10 billion people by 2100.  No one can know how many people will be alive in 2100 because demographers have no techniques for accurately projecting our long-term population.

Source: Nicholas Eberstadt, "Five Myths about the World's Population," Washington Post, November 6, 2011.

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