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'Nova' examines population growth

World in the Balance

On: Channel 2, as part of ‘‘Nova’’

Time: tonight, 8-10

Rated: TVPG

JOHANNESBURG -- Documentaries tied to Earth Day often are so gloomy that they put you into a deep depression.

"Nova" 's two-hour special tonight at 8, "World in the Balance," refreshingly avoids the guilt trips and offers insights into some of the most important issues of our time: population trends and environmental impacts of a huge rising middle class.

The first hour includes stories from India, Japan, and Kenya and focuses on reproductive health; the second hour examines China's need to create jobs, and the ensuing pressures on the environment.

Of the two parts -- both are produced out of Boston -- the first hour addresses the more important question. It examines three broad trends in global demographics: the rapidly declining population in many rich countries, evidenced by Japan's shrinking citizenry; the rapid growth in countries such as India; and the impact of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, which is creating an "hourglass" demographic, with large populations of the young and old, and a dwindling number of middle-aged adults.

Demographers and economists state on the show that if adults in the coming generation begin to simply replace themselves -- each woman of child-bearing age has roughly two children -- the world's population will jump from 6 billion today to 9 billion in 50 years and then stabilize. But if the birth rate is 2.5 children per woman, the number jumps alarmingly to 11 billion.

Interestingly, countries such as Japan, and to a lesser extent the United States, strongly reacted to books published in the '70s that forecast disaster if population trends continued at high rates. Japan, in fact, may have overreacted in terms of supporting its elderly as too few young are left to fund its pension system. Most developing countries also sharply reduced reproduction rates (now at three children per woman in India, and four in Kenya), but still must record further drops to slow growth.

The United States, the third most populous nation with nearly 300 million people, has for 35 years had fewer than two children per woman of child-bearing age, but its population has grown because of the influx of immigrants, roughly 1 million annually. Because of immigrants, the US population is expected to rise to 400 million in the next 50 years.

The benefits for reduced populations are obvious. Economist David Bloom says that the so-called East Asia economic miracle wasn't about economics, but demographics: If countries reduce fertility rates and invest in their young, he says, economic booms will follow.

Such birth rate reductions, say several experts, didn't happen on their own. They argue that programs educating societies about reproductive health led to the downturn. They also said the Bush administration policy not to fund clinics offering abortion services, even if US money isn't used for abortions, would backfire and lead to more births, and greater harm to the planet.

The show is not without problems. It accepts too easily population forecasts for Africa, which historically has had poor census surveys and now is entering a wildly unpredictable phase with the onset of AIDS. In Africa, it's impossible to say with any accuracy the population of Nigeria, for instance, much less the numbers continent-wide of those infected with HIV.

But that doesn't hurt the documentary's greater point about the fundamental importance of birth rates. It is the show's great honor that a viewer is left wondering why so little attention -- and so comparatively few dollars -- is paid to simple interventions that would give great benefit to families, nations, and the earth itself.

John Donnelly can be reached at

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