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'Birth dearth' worries pale in comparison to overpopulation

Water and food shortages present larger challenges than economic woes linked to a declining population, says author.

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Forty years ago, "The Population Bomb" by biological scientist Paul Ehrlich was published.

At the time, the book caused a considerable stir with its warning that overpopulation could put the future of civilization in grave doubt.

Lately, though, a "baby gap," a "birth dearth," a "population bust" have been popular topics. That's primarily an issue for Western Europe and Japan, prosperous regions where women don't have enough babies to maintain population in the long run. Russia, with widespread health problems and alcoholism, and relatively low life expectancy, finds its population shrinking by 700,000 people each year. Germany's population is falling about 100,000 a year.

In fact, the birth rate in 25 developing countries stands at or below the replacement level. Around the world, birthrates have plunged from 6 per mother in 1972 to about 2.9 today. Mr. Ehrlich pins this downward trend on government-­sponsored education (especially of women), new job opportunities for women, new availability of contraceptive information and material, and the higher economic cost of large families.

Some economists suggest a declining population can lead to labor shortages, a weaker tax base, fewer customers for business, and a shaky pension system.

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