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World: Global Overcrowding -- Earth To Face Challenge Of Aging, More Urbanized Population (Part 2)

  • Don Hill

The UN Population Division says that people on this earth are becoming increasingly more urbanized. They also are becoming more numerous, more mobile, older on average, and -- like sardines in a can -- more crammed together.

Prague, 1 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Joseph Chamie, the head of the UN's Population Division, says that his science -- demography -- examines issues that ultimately are more important to civilization than any war, natural catastrophe, or technical development.

As director of the UN Population Division, Chamie tracks such matters as where people reside, how many people live on earth, how many more people the earth can sustain, and what happens when too few workers remain in a country to support those too old or too young to support themselves.

But, he says, because these events do not explode like bombs, topple buildings like earthquakes, or roar like rockets into outer space, news media, political leaders, and the public often overlook them.

"For example, the aging of the societies right now has a long-term, enormous, seismic -- that is, figuratively, 'earth-shaking' -- impact that we're having on our culture and society. And often political leaders and commentators and media neglect these things because they are so pervasive, and so important, yet not newsworthy because people can't really see them on a daily basis," Chamie said.

The Population Division reports that in the countries of Western Europe, women on average are having fewer than the two-plus children needed to maintain populations at current levels. This means that fewer and fewer producers are in the work force to pay the taxes and provide the pensions for more and more retirees.

There are multiple causes, Chamie says. In prosperous countries, higher education levels both create aspirations for more comfortable lives uncomplicated by children and provide better information on family-planning techniques.

"You have sort of a double effect. In many of the countries, education of course is tied to lower fertility -- the more educated the people, the lower the fertility rates, generally," he says. "And as these countries have high levels of education throughout Europe compared to the rest of the world, you will see lower fertility rates."

The phenomenon, he says, is even more advanced in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, where populations are shrinking dramatically. Functioning here are higher literacy levels combined with the poverty that results from these country's still-unfinished transitions from communism to market economies. People believe they can't afford to form families or, when they do, to have children.

Chamie says that few remedies have emerged so far in countries suffering from youth deficits. Many, he says, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hoping for a self-correction. Japan has begun promoting increased birth rates. The Czech Republic and some others are inviting immigration of skilled workers to replenish their own stock of young producers.

Migration, however, is not a promising remedy, Chamie says: "Migration will not really have a significant effect upon aging. To stop aging [that is, the rise in the average age of a population}, you would have to have an enormous number of migrants, which is politically and demographically really not feasible."

Another demographic phenomenon that is both causing and resulting from population changes, Chamie says, is alteration -- virtually worldwide -- in the status of women.

"I think one thing that is very important is the revolution in the role and status of women that is coming about," he says. "It is particularly important and has enormous impacts upon demographics. With women becoming much more integrated into the formal labor force -- moving out of the home and participating -- and with couples, both husband and wife, working, I think this is a major transformation in households and families."

Chamie says the urbanization of people is a dramatic demographic phenomenon that also is both a cause and effect. The Population Division predicts that in 2007, for the first time in human history, more people will live in urban centers than in the countryside.

He says causes and effects of the shift to urban living include the industrialization of food production in which fewer people work with great efficiency at feeding vastly more people. The shift packs people into smaller residences and denser environments, creates demand for efficient mass transit, and teaches lessons in cultural diversity as people of different backgrounds crowded together.

Chamie says it also creates new opportunities for political organization -- which can increase the effectiveness of governments or expose them to disruption, depending on the circumstances.