Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.
A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:
That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.
I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?
Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:
This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.
Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.
If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.
You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.
(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)
So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.
The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.
Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.
No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.
And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.
But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.