Once and for All: ‘Overpopulation’ Is a Myth

Overpopulation has been used as an excuse for everything from birth control to abortion to China’s ‘one-child’ policy.

Worldwide, the fertility rate fell by almost 50% in less than 70 years. Worldwide population decline is expected to begin by 2064.
Worldwide, the fertility rate fell by almost 50% in less than 70 years. Worldwide population decline is expected to begin by 2064. (photo: Shutterstock)

For decades we have been treated to nonstop propaganda from the “international community” that “there are too many people.” “Overpopulation,” they say, is responsible for everything from poverty to climate change to the loss of the rain forests. 

Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation in the 1970s in his book The Population Bomb. Overpopulation has been used as an excuse for everything from birth control to abortion to China’s “one-child” policy. Very few people have considered the problems caused by population decline. Declining population very likely leads to international instability, as countries try to acquire more people to fill the jobs, operate the infrastructure and support the elderly in their countries. We may just be witnessing one instance of this problem: The Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia needs people. Its present population is only 146 million, compared to 332 million in the United States. But with a population somewhat smaller than that of Bangladesh, Russia holds the largest land mass of any nation on Earth (6.3 million square miles). 

And it’s losing people. Its total fertility rate (the number of children the average woman will have in her lifetime) is 1.58, versus 2.1 for replacement-level fertility. Its population is declining by about 100,000 a year. But that will accelerate in time. According to U.N. data, as of 2010, Russia had the highest number of abortions per woman of childbearing age in the world.

By absorbing Ukraine’s 43 million people (before the flood of refugees began), Russia would increase its population by almost 30%. What makes it even more enticing, from Putin’s perspective, is that the Ukrainians are ethnically indistinguishable from Great Russians.

With demographic winter comes foreign adventurism. Nations, particularly those ruled by authoritarian regimes, will be tempted to grab neighboring populations that are ethnically or racially similar to their own. In addition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China provides another case in point. Its one-child policy (which ended in 2016) ruined the nation’s fertility rate — now an anemic 1.3. In a nation of 1.4 billion, only 10.6 million babies were born last year, a record low and down from 12.2 million in 2019. Demographers say the working-age share of the population might fall to half by 2050.

The percentage of Chinese above the retirement age is expected to reach 39% of the population by 2050. At that time, China’s dependency ratio (the number of people below the age of 15 and above 65 divided by the total working population) is projected to increase to 69.7%, up from 36.6% in 2015. This means that China will have a proportionally smaller working-age population with the responsibility of providing for both the young and the elderly. There’s already a labor shortage in the People’s Republic. Imagine what China will be like with fewer and fewer workers to support more and more elderly.

With depopulation will come a shrinking supply of men of military age. The window of opportunity for conquest is closing fast, making Beijing more dangerous than ever. China’s old imperialism was about territorial expansion; the new imperialism will be about population absorption.

Worldwide, the fertility rate fell by almost 50% in less than 70 years — from 4.7 in 1950 to 2.4 last year. Worldwide population decline is expected to begin by 2064. 

Every industrialized nation has been at below-replacement fertility for some time. The United States went from 3.5 births for the average woman in 1950 to 1.78 today

How did we get here?

For the first time in history, just under half of the world’s population of childbearing age uses some form of artificial contraception. Worldwide, there are 73 million abortions a year. That’s more than three times the number of military deaths in World War II. 

Fewer and fewer people are getting married, and more and more who are don’t want children. In the United States, among those 18 to 29 years old (in their prime childbearing years), 59% were married in 1978, versus 20% last year. 

In a Pew Research Poll released last November, 44% of Americans ages 18 to 49 who don’t have children said they don’t want them.

The obvious answer to demographic winter is to have more children, by making large families fashionable once again. Those having large families are generally people of faith, including traditional Catholics, evangelical Christians, Mormons and Orthodox Jews (especially Hasidim). These faithful people take seriously the very first command from God in the Book of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Pope Francis observed late last year, “We see a form of selfishness. People don’t want to have children. Maybe they’ll have one child and not more than that. And many couples don’t have any children because they don’t want any. … But they have two dogs and two cats.” 

Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox rabbi and the father of nine, writes, “A world that has lost its innocence has trouble appreciating beings that are innocent. A world that has become selfish has soured on the idea of a life of selflessness. A world that has become grossly materialistic is turned off to the idea of more dependents who consume resources. And a world that mistakenly believes that freedom means lack of responsibility is opposed to the idea of needy creatures who ‘tie you down.’”

The “Population Bomb” never exploded. Now, we are going to have to deal with the problems of aging populations and international instability caused by the demographic winter. Sooner or later, these problems will become obvious to everyone, even the most militant secularists. And when the history of our time is written, people will realize that it was only the people of faith who had the good sense to recognize the problem — and the courage to deal with it. 

Jennifer Roback Morse is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute. 

Don Feder is the communications director for the Ruth Institute.