At Large

Bursting the Economist’s Population Bubble

How the population problem is not solving itself.

By 11.10.09

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The Economist magazine's cover story for October 31, 2009 "Falling fertility: How the population problem is solving itself," is notable both for its eminently sane rebuke of population control extremists, and for its nearly unqualified optimism with regard to plummeting fertility rates in the developing world.

The unsigned article posits that since economic prosperity tends to correlate with lower birth rates, the move toward replacement and below-replacement level fertility in the developing world actually bodes well both for them and for us. What the author calls a demographic/economic "Goldilocks moment" is a boon because with fewer children women are empowered to advance in education and work outside the home, there are fewer net dependents on society's tab, and the rapid population growth and the commensurate environmental damage that so concerns neo-Malthusians is curtailed.

Oddly, the article makes only a passing mention of the fact that "eventually developing countries will face the same problems of ageing as Europe and Japan." Eventually may be coming very quickly indeed, especially since in the Economist's own words, "what took place in Britain over 130 years (1800-1930) [a near-halving of fertility rates] took place in South Korea over just 20 (1965-85)."

What The Economist calls a "boon" for the developing world is more akin to a bubble, as in the recent housing bubble in the United States. Below replacement fertility which appears to come with economic prosperity will likely have even more devastating consequences for the developing world in a few short years than it will have in the rich nations. The economies of poorer countries will not be cushioned by foreign workers willing to come and work for low wages as currently happens in aging industrialized nations. Pensions (in the rare cases that they exist), health care and other forms of social security are even more likely to be woefully underfunded in countries with no tradition of government-supplied support for the elderly.

It will be no picnic in the rich countries either. In Japan, the "pop" of their supposedly optimal economic/demographic ratio now rings in the country's ears like a bomb blast: its leaders are in a panic over what to do with a population that has not stabilized at replacement level, but is falling precipitously.

The article correctly refers to the fact that the United States is the only developed nation that has raised its fertility rate above the replacement level after falling below it. Some European nations have seen slight increases in their childbearing by dint of enormous social spending, but not nearly enough to stave off rapid ageing and a population crash in coming years. And more fiscally conservative leaders are now looking for ways to roll back the massive social entitlements that they rightly see cannot be sustained as fewer workers are born into the economy to pay for them.

Russia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine of below replacement fertility demography. This nation's mounting losses numbered 6,622,000 inhabitants just in the period 1992-2006 despite increasingly frantic efforts by their government. Population losses as high as 20% or more are already "programmed in" for the next few decades in Japan, Germany, Italy and many others thanks to longstanding below replacement fertility. The fact that the remaining inhabitants in these countries will be disproportionately elderly shall only serve to perpetuate the crisis until long after fertility rises above replacement levels again.

The subtitle of the Economist's article is exactly wrong. The population problem is not solving itself. Neo-Malthusian overpopulation ideologues have dominated the public discourse and the policy arena for decades, and they achieved their objectives. In half of the world the next generation will not replace their parents. Human suffering on a massive scale in graying societies is sure to follow as many of these countries have generous social programs; programs which are unsustainable without a growing population and commensurate increasing tax base.

It is past time to embrace more responsible approaches to the current demographic situation of the world, including a complete reversal of the wrongheaded anti-fertility mindset of the last four decades. The Economist rightly chastises Green radicals who increasingly call for draconian population control measures like those which have wreaked havoc on China. But the magazine errs in only considering what they see as the economic boom which tends to follow plummeting fertility rates. It is wise to consider readily available evidence that there is no reason to believe that declining fertility is a boon for Africa any more than it is now considered one in Russia and Japan.

Children are not the source of our problems. More than ever before, they are the irreplaceable resource to heal our world.

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About the Author

Joseph Meaney is director of international coordination for Virginia-based Human Life International, which has affiliates and partners in over 100 countries around the world.