76 The Study of People and Their Numbers

The Study of People and Their Numbers

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Robert Malthus suggested the Earth was heading for disaster- population would grow at an exponential rate, but food supply could not keep pace. We would have a future filled with natural and man-made crises; famine, war, birth control, etc. The population of the planet at the time of Malthus’s essay was less than 1 billion, today it is approaching 7 billion, on the way to 10 billion by the end of this century. He got it right about the rate of population growth, fortunately, because of technology, food supply has generally kept pace with population increases, so Malthus’s gloomy projections have not been fully realized- yet. In the time it will take you to read this sentence, 30 babies will be born around the world: 300,000 per day! Since only about 50,000 people die each day, the Earth’s population grows a quarter million per day, 100 million every year!

Demography is about fertility and mortality, births and deaths. In studying the population picture for a country or a region, the demographer must consider many variables:

1. The economic structure of the country.

2. The age distribution of the current population (population pyramid).

3. The status and role of women in the country.

4. The influence of custom, tradition, religion in the country.

5. The attitude of the government about population growth.

6. The level and availability of education.

7. The ability of the country to utilize advances in disease control.

8. The family structure patterns in the country.

Let me briefly explain the importance to the demographer of these 8 variables I listed:

1. Industrial countries have low birth rates, agricultural countries have high birth rates, The logic of this is quite apparent: children are seen as an economic asset to agricultural families.

2. Over half the people of Mexico are under 20 years of age, even if the women only have two children, the population of Mexico will grow enormously for years.

3. In rich countries women have generally achieved equality with men and can choose education, career, family, or any combination. In poor countries, the adage “barefoot and pregnant” is not too far from the truth.

4. The people of most poor countries are burdened by the weight of tradition, custom, myth, superstition, and the pervasive nature of fundamentalist religion.

5. Governments can encourage a high birth rate (pro-natalism) through economic incentives and social pressures. Some governments see rapid population growth as desirable for economic and security reasons. Other governments can effectively discourage births (read about China’s one-child policy).

6. Family planning and birth control are effective only if the people are capable of accessing it; a function of education.

7. The death rate can be reduced when a country is able to take advantage of the advances of the modern world. Smallpox, for example, which used to kill millions each year in the poor world, has now been eradicated (imported death control).

8. Families in the poor world are extended, with many generations and branches sharing a homestead. Children are seen as a built-in labor force for these subsistence agriculturalists.

Original document by Peter Turner licensed CC BY”


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