In Praise of Falling Birth Rates

March 26, 2012

A recent column by Froma Harrop makes a point I've repeatedly alluded to in FREE INQUIRY -- the demographic contraction that comes from years of falling birthrates is not only survivable, but could portend a more pleasant and sustainable future.

In "Birthrates Did Not Doom Japan," Harrop notes that the last thing Japan needs is more humans, and that both government and the private sector are working to meet (rather than avoid) the challenges of a future with fewer workers and more elders. Foolishly, American politicians look to immigration to keep an already unsustainable population growing; meanwhile, Japan looks to robotics both to make a small number of workers more efficient and also to automate the care of the increasingly numerous elderly and infirm. Finally she observes that a sharp demographic crash would only reduce Japan's population to what it was in the 1950s. Which approach sounds more constructive to you?

As I've argued in FREE INQUIRY (see also the cover feature "Is the Population Bomb Finally Exploding?", April/May 2009, most of which is only available in print), experts have been warning of overpopulation since the fifties, so an eventual return to the global population of that time (roughly 2.5 billion) would seem a reasonable goal in order to make humanity long-term sustainable on the only planet we've got. Of course getting there would require several consecutive generations of demographic contraction. Far from seeing the state of having fewer workers than elders as a crisis, we need to learn to view it as a challenge to be met -- as the price of avoiding a future in which we doom ourselves by our own fecundity. That's a huge challenge for economists, as today's economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme that depends on a few percent population growth year after year. I only wish more economists were working on it.

Harrop's column suggests that the Japanese may wind up leading the way.


#1 Kyle Rutland (Guest) on Monday March 26, 2012 at 2:18pm

Organizations, like the Catholic Church, that teach against birth control are not going to be any help.

#2 John Sullivan (Guest) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 at 8:57am

There is a population bomb that is going off in West and Central Africa that is getting remarkably little attention, although U.N. Population Division revised upward their estimates last year.  This is the fastest growing region in the world and one of the poorest-equipped to deal with the consequences. Unless it is taken seriously you can kiss the elephants, chimps and gorillas goodbye in a couple decades.  It’s often not mentioned that the Rwandan genocide in 1994 was precipitated in part by the intense competition for resources that followed a period of out-of-control population growth in that country. This could be the future for a much larger swath of the continent. Of course it doesn’t help that this region is heavily Catholic and one of the last places on Earth where what the Pope and Bishops say with regard to birth control is still taken seriously.

#3 Shane (Guest) on Thursday March 29, 2012 at 9:33pm

I see the problem as: those who can afford to have kids don’t (or only have one or two) and the people that can’t afford to have kids start young and keep having them, not to bleed money from the government but purely lack of sex education, unstable homes and - let’s face it - sex is fun.

#4 asanta on Sunday April 01, 2012 at 1:33am

Shane, you can add the asinine laws being promoted all over the country to restrict access to contraceptive care for women. Because sex is fun, we know any woman in active pursuit of her sexuality is just a ‘whore’, whereas the man is a ‘stud’.

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