Boom or bust?

November 19,2018

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Written between the two world wars, German philosopher Oswald Spengler’s ‘The Decline of the West’ remains one of the most influential, as well as controversial, works on the rise and fall of civilisations. The immense controversy generated by the book has been put down to its basic thesis that, contrary to the predominant view among historiographers, civilisations are a symbol of decline, decadence and death.

As Spengler sees it, the more strides a civilisation makes in science and technology, the nearer it gets to its ultimate and unavoidable destiny: obliteration. Western civilisation, he claimed, had entered its final phase and it was only a matter of time that it would extinguish. Not surprisingly, that doyen of doom and pessimism was denied a Nobel Prize.

Among the various features that Spengler identified of a civilisation in decline was depopulation. The ‘civilised’ man becomes increasingly sterile and a ‘civilised’ woman infertile, not necessarily in physiological sense but because bearing or having children is considered to be irrational. In the words of Spengler, “when having children becomes a matter of pros and cons, something vital has gone out of life”. Depopulation, he asserts, happened in the Roman, the ancient Indian and Chinese, and the Arab civilisations, while Western society also exhibited this ‘cataclysmic’ symptom.

Spengler’s essential thesis and his symptoms of decline have been strongly contested to date. However, a recent study on demographics published in the prestigious medical journal ‘The Lancet’, while certainly not confirming Spengler’s overall thesis, seems to lend credence to his views on the relationship between depopulation and ‘advancement’. Based on time series data, the study, titled ‘Population and fertility by age and sex for 195 countries and territories, 1950–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017’, reports that whereas a woman bore on average 4.7 children globally in 1950, the fertility rate (live births per 1000 women annually) had scaled down to 2.4 children by 2017.

When a country’s average fertility rate falls below 2.1, it is believed to be a sign that depopulation will set in. While no country registered that minimum rate in 1950, nearly a half of the reported countries had fertility rates below 2.1 in 2017, which means that those nations are likely to encounter depopulation in the decades to come. Evidently, fertility or birth rate isn’t the only factor that determines population growth. Death rate and immigration are the other variables. Immigration, however, is a phenomenon between countries. It doesn’t apply to the world as a whole – unless, of course, our planet starts receiving aliens. With death rates having fallen all over the world, a long-run decline in fertility rate will cause the number of people to come down.

The study also finds a relationship between the level of economic development and per capita income on the one hand and low fertility rates on the other. The US, most of the European countries, Australia and South Korea are among the nations with fertility rates lower than 2.1. For Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Western Europe, and South Asia, the average fertility rate (AFR) is 1.8 percent, 1.6 percent, and 2.3 percent, respectively. High-income countries have 1.7 percent AFR

As the countries with relatively high fertility rates make progress, they will also face declining populations. The fall in fertility rates in developed countries has been attributed to both sociological and biological factors, such as a decline in child mortality rate – which doesn’t make it necessary for couples to have a large number of babies – the growing availability and use of contraceptives, and the increasing participation of women in the workforce.

The fall in fertility rates will cause an enormous demographic shift, a process that has already been set in motion in several advanced nations, such as Japan, ushering in a rise in the number of old people and a fall in that of the young population. The demographic shift will necessitate massive socioeconomic changes. The share of dependent people in the total population will ratchet-up while that of the working population will be reduced.

This means fewer people will produce for too many people. Pensions will soak up a large slice of national budgets. Production and consumption patterns will also undergo a massive shift as goods and services catering to the needs of an ageing population will be in high demand. The only way out of this situation is immigration – the advanced nations, such as the US, that are receiving a large number of immigrants are relatively less vulnerable to the ageing problem. However, immigration brings in its train cultural, economic, and political problems. This is why Western societies and governments are no longer receiving immigrants with open arms.

The situation and possible scenarios sketched in preceding paragraphs will certainly please the opponents of family planning in our society. “Didn’t we,” they will point out, “warn that the very notion of population control is part of a grand conspiracy against the world of Islam, particularly Pakistan?”

Be that as it may, such an argument commits the fallacy of arguing from one particular instance to another. From the fact that some societies are facing depopulation, it doesn’t logically follow that family planning or population control is inherently bad for all societies.

The notion of high or low population is relative. A nation is overpopulated or under-populated in relation to its resources. By the same token, a baby boom or baby bust is good or bad depending on the resource base of a country. This accounts for the notion of an optimal population size, which commensurates with the national resources available to sustain it.

Developing countries like Pakistan, with an abundance of unskilled labour and scarce capital and land, are subject to the law of diminishing returns, which translates into decreasing marginal labour productivity as the workforce expands. In such societies, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, manifesting in a youth bulge. According to a 2018 UNDP report, 64 percent of Pakistan’s population is below the age of 30 while 29 percent is aged between the ages of 15 and 29. Such demographic credentials can only prove to be an asset if substantial investment is made in human-resource development and employment generation.

On account of the skewed distribution of land, labour and capital resources in developing countries, a significant segment of the labour force remains unemployed and needs to be ‘exported’ to economies that are better off. Not only that, public wants well exceed public resources. No matter how many schools and hospitals the government sets up, such facilities will remain in short supply in the face of a spiralling population. Such societies are overpopulated and, therefore, need to cut down on the birth rate to make for an optimal population size.

As the ‘The Lancet’ study reports, Pakistan’s present fertility rate is 3.4 percent, as compared with India (2.1 percent), Bangladesh and Bhutan (two percent each), Nepal (2.2 percent), Sri Lanka (1.8 percent), and the Maldives (1.9 percent). This shows that Pakistan has the highest fertility rate in South Asia. Afghanistan, which is classified as a Middle Eastern country, has a fertility rate of six percent, which is among the highest in the world. Because of wars and internal conflicts, countries tend to register higher birth rates.

According to the provisional results of the Sixth National Population and Housing Census, Pakistan’s total population is 207.77 million as compared with 132.35 million recorded in 1998 when the fifth census was carried out. This shows that the population registered an average annual growth of 2.4 percent over the last two decades. Between 1981, when the fourth census was done, and 1998, the population grew 2.6 percent. While the population growth rate has marginally come down, it is still quite high in relation to national resources. A baby bust, and not a baby boom, is what Pakistan really needs.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.


Twitter: hussainhzaidi


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