Citing fertility declines over the past three decades, Ben Wattenberg, a senior research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has raised questions about whether a world overpopulation problem exists -- suggesting once again that a little success, like a little knowledge, can be dangerous.

Wattenberg observes [op-ed, May 18] that between the early 1950s and the late 1970s, China's annual birth rate declined from 40 per thousand to 22; India's decreased from 43 to 35; Indonesia's from 46 to 36 and Brazil's from 44 to 30. He further notes that the birth rates in Thialand, Mexico and Turkey have dropped about 10 per thousand and in Egypt and the Phillippines by about five per thousand.

He then mixes apples and oranges by observing that birth rates in six of the seven largest developed nations have fallen so low that, if continued, they would lead to population declines in the future. His conclusion is that "those nightmare scenarios of ever more nonstop billions of starving people packed like sardines will not come to pass."

In his zeal to dispel the population explosion myth, Wattenberg fails to pause and ask himself what it was that brought about these fertility level declines. "Present trends involving people, typically don't continue," he writes, because "people have some control over their own destinies."

He misses, or chooses to ignore, quite a few salient points. People indeed do have some control over their own destinies; but without knowledge of family planning, without access to contraceptives and the availability of contraceptives, this control is severely limited.

Women throughout the world are expected this year to use a billion packets of oral contraceptives, which were introduced only 20 years ago. In India alone, condom sales exceed 160 million a year, compared with 25 million in the late 1960s. Commercial sales of contraceptives have been booming in some developing countries, such as Brazil, Korea and Malaysia; subsidized marketing by non-government agencies has spread rapidly in others, including Columbia, Mexico and Sri Lanka.

In other words, declining birth rates throughout the world did not just happen, as Wattenberg seems to indicate. Birth rates have declined globally mainly because the national leadership in many of the most overpopulated countries began to comprehend the consequences of too many people and started to do something about it. They were assisted in these efforts by technology and funding from bilateral, multilateral and private voluntary organizations.

While 90 million couples in the developing world are practicing family planning -- accounting largely for the fertility declines stressed by Wattenberg -- there are still 400 million women unprotected by contraception and at risk of unwanted pregnancy, according to Carl Wahren, secretary general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Wattenberg too easily dismisses the logic that when a pie is split among more people, each person gets less. Instead, he suggests that "every baby comes equipped not only with a mouth but also with hands." His point is that people produce as well as consume.

It is certainly Wattenberg's preorgative to question demographic projections and trend interpretations, but I am at a loss to understand his willingness to ignore the history of the last two decades. For instance, while it is true that world food production increased by 40 percent during the last 20 years, world population doubled during this same period. It might be well to remember that while the Soviet Union's grain target for 1980 was 250 million tons, the actual usable amount produced was only 170 million tons --- approximately the same as in the mid-1960s, when there were 45 million fewer mouths to feed.

Wattenberg also chooses not to dwell on the fact that half a billion people in the world suffer from malnutrition. Nor does he mention that the developing world has an average per capita gross national product of only $560 (compared with the industrialized world's $7,260). It is these developing countries that, by the end of the century must cope with a 45 percent increase in their population.

President Suharto of Indonesia, the fifth most populous country, told the International Conference on Family Planning in the 1980s that family planning was the "key to the survival of the world." He said, "A big population without the ability and possibility of heightening the people's prosperity, in fact, becomes a burden to society and it may cause disaster to successive generations."

The world population crisis has been described as a "silent explosion," and Wattenberg's misguided appraisal is a testimony to the subtleness of this explosion. Because he is convinced that "billions of starving people packed like sardines will not come to pass," he sees no reason to be concerned. Wattenberg says he is "a political man," who trumpets only "the idea that the projections of doom will not survive." Unfortunately, these projections cannot be wished away. They will survive until short-term political solutions are discarded and replaced by statesmanlike international action for the future of the planet and the quality of life of its inhabitants.