A post at First Thoughts this week links to some recent rumblings over much of the world’s fretting about the global population reaching 7 billion, despite the fact that nobody seems to be worried that most nations now have a falling birth rate.
So which is it? Does the world have too many people, or too few? The most honest answer is probably that the threat of “overpopulation” is alarmist and emotion-based, whereas worries about declining birthrates are underappreciated, even though they are more grounded in hard facts. Indeed, if predictions like Kotkin’s play out, and emerging nations follow the demographic trends of advanced ones, the strange phenomenon of societies breeding themselves out of existence may no longer simply be a first world problem but a global one. It’s entirely conceivable that, 100 years from now, should the ‘birth dearth’ continue to spread, our progeny will look back nostalgically on earlier times when people fretted about “overpopulation.” Indeed, in a growing number of contexts, professional demographers already are.
Quite right. As a teacher, I often hear people pay lip service to the trope that “children are our future,” but few seem to appreciate just how crucial that human capital is. In the long run, fewer children must mean less of a future.
This reminded me of an exchange about demography on NPR about a month ago. Even they’ve had a few stories in recent years about the dangers of falling birth rates, but a comment by the snob interviewer in this one irked me a little. Philip Longman, the expert researcher being interviewed, noted that:
The first order effect of a decline in the birthrate tends to be positive for the economy. A society finds it has fewer children to raise and educate. That tends to free up a lot of female labor to join the formal economy. But with the next turn of the screw, things change. As fertility rates remain below replacement levels, you still have fewer children but now your workforce is beginning to decline and you’ve got more and more seniors as a percentage of your population. And so around the world today we see many countries struggling with their fiscal situation largely because of the exploding cost of pensions and the relatively slow growth of their labor forces.
Which is the kind of thing that gets called fear-mongering when a conservative like Mark Steyn says it. (Steyn, I hasten to add, has been beating the drum about this for years, a veritable voice crying in the wilderness; search for “demography” at www.SteynOnline.com and you’ll get pages of results.)
Shortly after that sensible acceptance of reality from a knowledgable scientist, however, the NPR interviewer asked:
So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?
Well, heavens to betsy, perish the thought. I mean, what are we, stone age savages? (/sarcasm) How did she not see that it’s elitist attitudes like that that are fueling this voluntary extinction, if not of the species itself, then at least of its lifestyle and success? In yet another burst of political irony, while some on the left crow about sustainability in environmental issues, they have failed to track it in the most important arena of all: human life. The social-democratic tax-and-spend welfare state erected by the left over the last century, without a large base of young people to prop it up, will, as Longman noted, collapse. The political architects of FDR’s era or even as recently as those of the LBJ days simply couldn’t conceive that the Western world would shortly stop having babies en masse, rendering the economic assumptions behind their plans useless.
But the economic effect of declining birth rates is only a secondary problem. Far worse is the spiritual dimension: the fact that we are consciously choosing to halt the progress of civilization as we know it. A world that can’t be bothered to foster a next generation upon which to bestow its legacy is a world that just doesn’t think that much of its legacy, its potential, or itself, period. As British historian Arnold Toynbee said, civilizations don’t die from murder, they die from suicide.