I”ve heard that human population is actually shrinking

I”ve heard that human population is actually shrinking because of a global “birth dearth.” Is this true?

—Lindsay Ellis, via e-mail

There is indeed a population shortfall trend developing in Western Europe, Russia and Japan. In Ireland, for instance, families have an average of 1.8 children today, slightly below the “replacement level” of two children per couple. Couples in Italy, Germany and Spain have just 1.2 to 1.3 children each. The average fertility rate in Europe is 1.45. Both Russia and Japan are at 1.3.

But it”s simply not true that world population is shrinking, because these trends are overcompensated for by the very rapid population increases taking place in the world”s poor and least-developed countries. According to the United Nations, population growth in less-developed countries is growing at an annual rate of 1.46 percent, nearly six times faster than the .25 percent growth taking place in the most heavily industrialized regions of the world.

We are currently adding 77 million people to the globe annually, with 21 percent of that increase coming from India, 12 percent from China and five percent from Pakistan. Three countries, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the United States each contribute four percent of the world”s annual growth. In the U.S., where the average fertility rate was 2.05 in 2002, population growth is due largely to immigration.

From 6.3 billion people on the planet today, the United Nations projects we will grow to 8.9 billion by the year 2050. Half of that projected increase will occur in just eight countries, seven of them in Africa and Asia. It is interesting to consider that it took all of human history until 1800 for world population to reach its first billion; from there the second billion took only until 1930. Now, just 75 years later, we’ve passed the six billion mark.

Many environmentalists feel that human population growth is the most important environmental issue of all. The sheer number of people added to the planet each year easily erodes the “per capita” gains made by conservation measures. Globally, the population growth-induced accelerated loss of forestland results in a reduced ability for ecosystems to absorb the also-increasing carbon dioxide emissions that exacerbate global warming. Further, the expansion of human activity and associated loss of habitat are the leading causes of the unprecedented extinctions of plant and animal species worldwide.

In the United States, we lose two acres of farmland every minute, according to the American Farmland Trust, and a serious water shortage is developing nationwide, with aquifers once considered inexhaustible now drying up. In poor countries, population growth exacts its toll in the form of abject poverty and chronic food and water scarcity.

CONTACTS: United Nations Population Fund, www.unfpa.org; Population Action International, (202) 557-3400, www.populationaction.org; American Farmland Trust, (202) 331-7300, www.farmland.org; National Audubon Society Population and Habitat Program, (800) 659-2622, www.audubonpopulation.org.