SALT LAKE CITY — In Europe, town squares are shown emptying of people. In China, children vanish from playground swings. In America, acres of new homes go unsold.
These are some of the compelling images from the 2008 documentary Demographic Winter and its sequel of this spring, Demographic Bomb, signaling the decline in the world’s population.
It’s a decline already begun in parts of Europe and Japan.
Director Rick Stout and producer Barry McLerran argue that contrary to conventional wisdom, the world is running out of people, especially young ones.
And while the world’s population will rise until 2050 — to 9.2 billion people (mainly due to people living longer) — after that it will begin an ever-steepening decline that includes Africa, the Americas and Asia, according to the United Nations.
“Who will operate the factories and farms in the Europe of the future?” Demographic Bomb asks. “Who will develop the natural resources? ... Who will care for a graying population? A burgeoning elderly population combined with a shrinking workforce will lead to a train wreck for state pension systems.”
It’s a different kind of train wreck than has been predicted since the days of Thomas Malthus. And warnings of overpopulation continue: Just a couple of weeks ago, the Royal Society of Great Britain issued a report saying unchecked population growth is speeding climate change and dooming many countries to poverty.
Unless birth rates are lowered sharply through voluntary family-planning programs the population could reach an unsustainable 11 billion people by 2050, says the report, prepared by 42 specialists in environmental science, economics and demography.
But, says McLerran, “Global warming is only a theory. Declining fertility rates are fact that has already happened.” He cites the U.N. prediction on 2050 and adds, “Some demographers predict [population] will decline overall as soon as 2040.”
Demographic Bomb looks at Russia, for example, where the country could lose a third of its population within 40 years. And Moscow is concerned enough now to offer $9,000 to mothers for each child after her first.
Likewise, Portugal’s government is considering charging higher pension payments to those who have fewer than two children. Japan, which has the world’s lowest birth rate outside of Europe, 1.25, has a whole ministry devoted to reversing its decline.
In China, the government publicly defends its one-child-per-family rule, but the municipal administration of Shanghai is encouraging families to have two or more as it prepares to care for its aging population.
Germany is closing hundreds of schools a year, the film reports, and next door, one expert says in Demographic Bomb, it’s conceivable that some day in the near future there will not be a single person left in France of pure French descent.
As for the United States, its population continues to grow only because of immigration or the higher fertility of recent immigrants from Mexico. Native American fertility rates have been falling for decades and according to the film, the impact has already been felt economically.
One of the most telling interviews is with investment analyst Harry Dent, who predicted in Demographic Winter the recession that followed by calculating when the Baby Boom generation would pass its peak spending period.
Falling populations mean less consumption, a shrinking economy and a shrinking tax base. To support services for the aged, governments will have to tax working people much more, the film warns, as has already happened in Europe.
Not everybody is worried. The second film features an interview with Paul Ehrlich, the insect expert whose best-selling book The Population Bomb started the overpopulation scare in the late 1960s.
Ehrlich is sure “some very smart people” are working on the economic consequences but makes clear he welcomes a reduction in consumption. He cheerily points out the advantages of the decline, first in the number of young people and then in everyone. Fewer men of working age will also mean fewer men of criminal age. As for seniors, they will no longer feel the pressure to retire but can contribute to society economically “on into their 80s.”
Ehrlich is portrayed as a Cassandra in reverse whose warnings are always wrong but who is doomed always to be believed. His predictions of worldwide economic collapse triggered by the starvation of hundreds of millions of Indians, Chinese and Africans have long ago been proven false by the Green Revolution in farming technology and genetics.
Said American demographer Nicholas Eberstadt in an interview: “Ehrlich did not take into account the capabilities of the human race.”
There was a second mistake that Ehrlich, the population controllers at the United Nations, the World Bank and U.S. foundations all made, says Eberstadt. Their efforts at controlling the population by reducing fertility were wrongheaded. “The world’s population wasn’t skyrocketing because people were breeding like rabbits, but because they weren’t dying like flies.”
Faithful to the Rescue?
Instead, factors such as later marriages, women working, contraception, abortion and the overriding and misplaced fear of overpopulation were all helping to bring birth rates down.
So far, government subsidy programs designed to reverse the trend have proved disappointing. As producer McLerran told the Register: “People need other reasons than economic ones to have children.”
Providing hope rather than dollars might work, says demographer Philip Longman. He suggests that the post-Second World War GI Bill triggered the Baby Boom by providing college education — and prospects of economic advancement — to millions of returning servicemen.
In Demographic Winter, Longman also notes a strong correlation between religious faith and higher fertility. Will devout Christians, Jews and Muslims repopulate Europe and America? Longman doesn’t complete the thought, on camera at least.
In the same vein, the films suggest that indirect measures encouraging traditional families would help.
This is enough for Kathryn Joyce, writing in The Nation, to label the film a “pro-natalist” attempt by the Christian right to promote a repressive sexual morality and encourage more of the “right” babies — white ones.
McLerran responds that the problem clearly cuts across all populations. And Longman, tarred by the same article, says he’s not a member of the Christian right, but is just reporting the facts.
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Vancouver, British Columbia.
Immodest Proposal: Cut Warming by Cutting Family Size
A British group that wants the United Kingdom’s population cut by two-thirds is recommending family planning as the best way to reduce global warming.
The proposal from the Optimum Population Trust, which calls for Britain’s population to drop from 61 million to 17 million, is called “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost.”
It recommends efforts to reduce global warming be concentrated on the distribution and promotion of contraceptives and increased access to abortion because these are more cost-effective than money spent on reducing CO2 emissions from motor vehicles and industry.
“Considered purely as a method of reducing future CO2 emissions,” the report calculates that “each $7 spent on basic family planning over the next four decades would reduce global CO2 emissions by more than a ton. To achieve the same result with low-carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32.” Such a program would prevent 34 billion tons of CO2 by 2050 (the year, the report didn’t mention, the United Nations predicts the world population will begin to decline anyway).
The trust’s chairman, Richard Martin, said that any talk of reducing CO2 levels that ignored population growth was “unreal.”
“The carbon tonnage can’t shoot down, as we want, while the population keeps shooting up,” Martin said.
The proposal was immediately mocked by London Telegraph columnist Gerald Warner, who asked, “Why not save 80 billion tons by ending pregnancy altogether? There is one sure way to prevent man-made global warming and that is to abolish man. It must be a very tempting option for those at the U.N. and its parasite agencies who would prefer to see the planet reserved exclusively for the natterjack toad, the smallpox virus and other engaging creatures.”
Warner also attacked the report’s premise, contending “the total human contribution to atmospheric CO2 is miniscule” and, anyway, many scientists argue that the globe is not warming.
But the Optimum Population Trust, in its Sept. 9 news release, cites U.N. claims that 40% of all pregnancies are unintended and that family planning would eliminate 72% of these, reducing the world’s population by half a billion in 2050 from its projected peak of 9.2 billion — still a long way to drop before reaching the trust’s target for the world of 2.7 billion.
Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt finds the idea that people are having 40% more babies than they want absurd. “The world’s current birth rate is 2.5 babies per mother; 40% less would make it 1.5%. Do they seriously believe the desired family size in the world is one and a half children?”
Eberstadt, a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, says that the strongest predictor of family size isn’t income, religion or culture. “It’s how many children the parents want.”
John Smeaton, director of the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told the Register the “Fewer Emitters” report “represents the worst sort of social engineering.”
The kind of government intervention in family decisions, he went on to say, “was predicted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth).”
Smeaton also questioned the idea that 40% of the world’s children were unintended. “That’s just crazy.” The bottom line, Smeaton said, is that “this is a matter for individual couples to decide and not for governments and agencies to impose on whole populations.”
Meanwhile, the seriousness of global warming was undermined by the latest data indicating the process had stopped. So reported one of the world’s leading climate modelers, Mojib Latif of the Germany’s Leibniz Institute, at the U.N.’s World Climate Conference in Geneva last month.
According to Latif, there has been no warming for a decade and the world is facing one or two decades of cooling.
— Steve Weatherbe