(Americas magazine, April 2003) Whatever happened to the Latin American population explosion? In 1968, U.S. biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which predicted overpopulation and famine in the developing world and helped spread realization of an impending population explosion. Is it alive and well — or has it been tamed?

This is a natural question to ask, given the length of time that has passed since the issue was a newsmaker and source of controversy in the Americas during the 1960s and 1970s. A fair answer would be that population growth has modified somewhat but nevertheless remains substantial. Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) doubled its population to 322 million from 1950 to 1975 and will double it again by 2015, the latter a somewhat longer period but with greater numerical growth. And by 2050, the region’s population is projected by the United Nations to be anywhere from 657 million to 975 million, significant growth by any standard.

In terms of world population growth, Latin America and the Caribbean stand in the middle of the demographic picture. LAC growth outstrips its northern neighbors, the United States and Canada, and is expected to have roughly twice North America’s population by 2050. In 1950, the two Western Hemisphere regions had about the same population. For the 2000-2050 period, by way of contrast, the southern European population is projected to decline, with Italy and Spain being the most conspicuous losers.

Africa offers yet another scenario. Even in the face of a rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic, sub-Saharan Africa is expected to expand its population from 651 million in 2000 to 1.8 billion just by 2050.

LAC opinions on population naturally vary. Of the region’s 32 independent governments, 16 officially view their population growth as “too high,” 15 as “satisfactory,” and one as “too low.” The three most populous countries of South America, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina, are satisfied with their birth rates, while other large countries like Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela find their rates too high. Only Uruguay deems its rate too low.

“Latin American governments were initially slow in incorporating family planning into national public health systems,” writes Uruguayan professor Jorge Brea in an upcoming Population Reference Bureau report [Population Bulletin, March 2003]. “A turning point in public policy occurred after the 1967 Caracas Conference on the Politics of Population in Relation to Development in Latin America. Soon after, countries began to change long-held pronatalist positions.”

Will Latin America and the Caribbean ever reach population stability? One of the demographers’ favorite measures is the total fertility rate (TFR), or the average number of children a woman has during her childbearing years (15 to 45). Replacement rate is 2.1 children per couple. Argentina for some years has had a relatively low total fertility rate, now calculated at 2.5, but has never been able to reach replacement rate. As a whole, LAC has a TFR of 2.7, with Central America leading all regions with 3.1. (See chart.)

Extreme high and low birth rates have their dangers. High growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa are producing millions of children to educate, employ, and feed in societies suffering great poverty and disease. In much of Europe, demographers fear that populations will go into a tailspin from which they may never recover. As a result, the highly developed areas would lack homegrown workers and face the mounting cost of taking care of an increasing number of retired people.

Latin America and the Caribbean still have a good chance of finding balanced population growth. Navigating the middle path, however, is fraught with political, economic, and public-policy challenges.

Winthrop Carty is a senior journalist at PRB.