Were the Population Alarmists Right or Wrong?

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, Population Reference Bureau

Articles proposing that past alarm over world population growth is now completely wrong have appeared quite frequently over the past 10 years or so and seem to be gathering momentum. Such writings express the view that low birth rates, not high ones, are the world’s problem, voiding the long-held fears of overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, author of the (in)famous 1968 book  The Population Bomb, is a common target of this criticism, although concern about rapid growth predated his book by many years. The concern over rapid population growth decades ago had a very sound basis. Birth rates in developing countries—where the concern was by far the greatest—were quite high and the use of family planning unknown. There really did seem to be no end in sight.

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How to Write About the Birth Rate

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, Population Reference Bureau

No demographic subject captures writers’ imaginations like a country’s birth rate, be it baby “booms” or “busts,” or record highs or lows. But what measure should you use when you’re writing about the birth rate? Yes, there’s more than one—there are three: the crude birth rate, the general fertility rate, and the total fertility rate. In this blog post, I want to clear up the confusion.

First, we’ll take the crude birth rate (CBR), which is simply the number of births in a year per 1,000 population. Rates have a numerator (in this case, births) and a denominator (the country’s total population). The fact that the denominator is the total population of all ages is the reason why the CBR is labeled “crude.” In 2011, the CBR in the United States was 12.7 births per 1,000 population. But the CBR can be significantly affected by age structure, so that a population with a high proportion of elderly will tend to have a lower rate than one with a younger population. Why bother to report it? Because the CBR is one of three essential parts of the national population growth rate, since populations grow or decline based on the number of births, deaths, and net immigration—the balance of people moving in and out.

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