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World: Global Overcrowding -- Race To The City (Part 1)

  • Don Hill

People on earth are growing more numerous, more mobile, older on average, and -- like sardines in a can -- more crammed together. Now, says the UN Population Division, they are becoming dramatically more urbanized.

Prague, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sometime in this decade, humankind will saunter past a historic turning point: for the first time in human history, more of us will live in cities than in the countryside.

As head of the United Nations Population Division, Joseph Chamie is the world's highest-ranking official in charge of tracking such things. From one perspective, he says, this development, projected for the year 2007, is nothing new.

From another, he told RFE/RL in a telephone interview, it is having an earth-shaking impact on human life. "I think it's mainly symbolic. It has been going on for thousands of years -- people moving from hunting and gathering and farming, and moving to cities, especially along waterways, seacoasts and so on," Chamie said.

The human population shift goes back to the days of prehistory. Gradually, human beings began to abandon life as nomadic hunter-gatherers and joined a trend of settling in small communities as farmers. In some cases, these small communities became larger ones, allowing people to specialize as craftsmen, soldiers, rulers, and merchants.

Then, most often at places where one form of transportation yielded to another -- at seaports and road crossings or where rivers became navigable -- cities developed and, along with cities, industrialization.

There are in the world still nomads and hunter-gatherers. There are farmers and townspeople. What will happen in 2007, Chamie said, is merely that for the first time, the number of people living in cities will outnumber all the rest.

But in Chamie's field of demographics, such seemingly unimportant events have strong significance. The inexorable growth of urban populations is both the cause and the effect of what he calls "seismic" and "revolutionary" changes in the way people live.

In the developed nations of Western Europe, populations are declining and, on average, aging. The Population Division's numbers show that this trend is even more pronounced in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. Elsewhere, however, population growth continues to be, in the word most often used, "explosive."

"We have to be very clear about this: We're still growing. The world's population is still growing at [an annual rate of] 77 million. I don't want you to make the mistake that population growth is over now. We will continue growing for a number of decades, probably throughout the 21st century," Chamie said.

The Population Division chief said that for every two people on our already crowded earth, there are likely to be three by the end of this century. "We estimate that we are probably going to add another nearly 3 billion people by mid-century. And this is an enormous amount. And it is occurring -- nearly all of it, over 95 percent of it -- is occurring in the developing countries. India alone accounts for about one-fifth -- 20 percent -- of the annual growth in the world's population today," Chamie said.

Population prediction is, of course, a tricky art. Seers have, over the centuries, forecast world famines at population levels lower than those that already exist. Localized famines do occur in today's world, but, as Chamie notes, obesity and overconsumption have emerged as one of the world's leading public-health issues.

The Population Division's data show that the trend toward shrinking populations and aging ones began in postwar Europe and is moving westward, to the Americas. The United States is the last remaining fully industrialized nation whose birthrate exceeds the two-plus children per woman needed to maintain population levels. The trend, Chamie said, has not, however, touched much of Asia at all.

"And there are six countries in the world that account for about half of the yearly growth in the world. That is India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia," Chamie said.

Chamie said that his organization's projections suggest that population growth on the earth has ultimate limits. Soon after the end of this century, he said, we can look for the world population annual growth rate to hit its ceiling.

"But in the longer term, 75 to 100 years, we project and understand that the world's population [growth] will be slowing down and probably peaking at below 10 billion and that would be near the beginning of 2100," Chamie said.

As people increase in numbers in some places, reduce the number of children they produce in others, accommodate to metropolitan life and grow older, Chamie said they also are responding to society's problems. The second part of this two-part series will examine some of the changes.

(RFE/RL will issue Part 2 of this population feature tomorrow)