One of most powerful forces shaping the future of the world - arguably the most powerful - is demography. The world's population is growing more rapidly than at any stage in its history, adding more than 90 million people each year. But virtually all this growth is taking place in the developing countries. The latest UN population growth forecasts, published yesterday with the new edition of the UN's State of the World's Population report, suggest that the number of people in the world will rise from its present 5.7 billion to 8.5 billion in 2025.
We can at present just about manage to feed the 5.7 billion. But the diet of perhaps one-third of the world is unsatisfactory, and all too often insecure. Already there are signs of strain. The world fish catch has been falling since the late Eighties, and while the green revolution has greatly increased crop yields since the early Seventies, this has depended heavily on irrigation. Not only has the salination of irrigated land begun to reduce crop yields in countries like Pakistan, but the total water supply is becoming very tight in much of southern Asia. To feed the extra 3 billion we need another great advance, perhaps from genetic engineering, akin to the green revolution.
This may happen. And the farmers of the developed world could certainly produce much more food. It is odd that in one part of the world we pay farmers 'set- aside' to bring land out of production, while in others we fell trees to bring more land into farm use. But food has to be in the right place. Given that, it is hard not to conclude that, at best, world food supply will be very tight a generation from now. At worst, the prospects for feeding the world are disturbing.
So curbing population growth now is very important: families must become smaller. To some extent this is already happening. The UN forecast of 8.4 billion rests on the assumption that the number of children born to women in the developing world will continue to fall. What makes women have fewer babies is therefore the absolutely central issue in population control.
The UN report was presented in London yesterday by the UN Population Fund executive director, Dr Nafis Sadik. She herself is extremely sensible, but the report is written in that dreadful politically-correct jargon of international communiques. So it speaks of the need for 'women's empowerment', 'gender security', and 'responsible and serious international dialogue'.
If you can ignore the language, however, the report makes good sense, for it sets out benchmarks against which we can judge the usefulness or otherwise of next month's conference on world population in Cairo. It matters less that governments sign up to international protocols than that they tackle gross inequities between the sexes in their own countries, for as Dr Sadik (who is, incidentally, secretary to the conference) pointed out yesterday, 'if you take care of women's health, everything else takes care of itself'.
There is a very clear link between women's education, health, job opportunities, and the number of children they have. If they are well- educated, healthy, and can get jobs - in other words, do not have motherhood as the only way of life - they invariably have fewer children. This is far more effective than draconian efforts by governments at population control. China's one-child policy has received great publicity, but most of the fall in the Chinese birth rate took place before that policy was brought in, and can be attributed to greater job opportunities for women and other changes in their status.
Changing the position of women means changing the attitudes of men. Much of the discussion ahead of the Cairo conference has been over the way in which efforts to curb population growth might lead to a clash with two of the world's great religions, Christianity (in particular its Roman Catholic branch) and Islam (in particular in its more fundamentalist forms). There will be far more of this in the weeks ahead. However, as Dr Sadik noted yesterday, the problem did not come from religion itself, but from the use of religion by governments to put women at a disadvantage vis-a-vis men.
The really interesting issue is: how can one persuade men in societies where women are denied equality in education, employment and health care that it is in their interest for women to be given this equality? Or, to slide into UNese, how might it be in men's interest for women to be 'empowered'. To say that we may all starve in 30 years' time if they are not so empowered is an unconvincing response.
The Cairo conference will be useful if it helps make governments around the world confront the fact that men and women are often not given equal opportunities. But the most effective force for change would come if men could be convinced that their own lives would be more interesting and they would be more prosperous if women in their country were better educated, healthier, and better able to contribute to the family budget.
All this is demonstrably true, yet we in the developed world are in a pretty weak position when we try to get this message across. We can hardly preach when we are struggling to cope ourselves with the social consequences of the greater employment opportunities that have recently become available to women.
In one sense, women in the industrial world have adjusted very successfully - women's unemployment in countries like Britain is much lower than men's. But we have not coped very well with the other consequences: high levels of divorce and single-parenthood and, in some parts of Europe, amazingly low birth rates. The most extreme case is former East Germany, where births are far below the lowest levels of the Second World War, and marriages are the lowest recorded in any country where formal unions exist. Italy and Spain also have very low fertility rates - only 1.3 births per mother in Italy.
So here in the rich world we also have a persuasion job on our hands. We have to teach men that it is in their self-interest to accept the consequences of greater equality between the sexes: to stay in formal unions and contribute to the upbringing of our children while our healthy, well-educated, eminently employable women exploit the opportunities they have so recently won.Reuse content