NEW YORK — Insect biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, warned that millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s because there were too many human beings for the planet to support.
Consequently, Ehrlich advocated draconian measures — forced sterilizations of Indian men, the addition of “sterilants” to American drinking water and a reduction of human numbers to an “optimum” world population of 1-2 billion. His book instantly became the bible of environmentalists and politicians who have crusaded against overpopulation ever since and the rocket fuel propelling population-control initiatives and the notion that big families and babies are dangerous to human survival.
But the population bomb fizzled. Ehrlich failed to take into account human innovation, mostly in agriculture and public health, and, today, population scientists are almost unanimously worried instead about demographic winter — a term they use to describe the chill of a baby bust and a rapidly graying global population.
For the first time in history, the world — or almost all of it — will be experiencing an inverted demographic pyramid with more old people — a lot more — than young people and a host of economic and social challenges, from shrinking markets to soaring pensions, as a result.
Now, a new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (Encounter Books), adds to a growing list of books on the population implosion and says that demographic winter is coming to America, too.
“In reality, from Africa to Asia, from South America to Eastern Europe, and from Third World jungles to the wealthy desert petro-kingdoms, nearly every country in every region is experiencing declines in fertility,” writes the new book’s author, Weekly Standard editor Jonathan Last.
Every First World country has birth rates below the threshold replacement level of 2.1 children per woman (the 0.1 is to account for deaths from disease, war and famine), he observes, but even developing countries like Brazil and Iran are seeing decline.
The Long Decline
America’s birth rate has been declining gradually for decades, observes Last, and it actually began to sink like a stone in 1968 — ironically, just about exactly when Ehrlich started writing his overpopulation apocalypse.
As well, since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the United States of America has lost more than 54 million citizens to abortion directly, as well as the generations that would have followed them had they not been killed prior to birth.
But while countries like Italy, Japan, Russia and Germany have experienced huge losses in fertility, America has been relatively insulated from the global demographic plunge, maintaining a total fertility rate of 1.93 — not bad for a First World powerhouse.
“But the closer you look, the less reassuring our number is,” writes Last. “Our national average is only boosted because Hispanic women are doing most of the heavy lifting, having an average of 2.35 babies. Take out Hispanics, and America’s fertility picture begins to look quite different.”
In November 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that the overall U.S. birthrate plunged in 2011 to the lowest on record. For U.S.-born women, it followed a long descent, decreasing 6% between 2007 and 2011, a significant drop, but much less than that of immigrant women, which plunged 14% during the same period — more than it had declined over the entire 1990-2007 period. For Mexican women, the birthrate fell 23%.
Following these trends, immigrants will soon be having as few babies as middle-class Americans, about 1.6 per woman and dropping. “America has created its very own one-child policy,” writes Last, alluding to China’s official population-control program. Though it has come by softer means, native-born U.S. fertility nearly matches China’s 1.54 figure, achieved after decades of brutally coercive population control.
“Why should we care?” writes Last. “After all, America seems pretty crowded as it is. Why should it matter if, in a few decades, we don’t have as many people clogging up the freeways and malls? The short answer is that sub-replacement fertility rates eventually lead to a shrinking of population — and throughout recorded human history, declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things. Disease. War. Economic stagnation or collapse.”
“This below-replacement birthrate brings with it certain economic consequences of its own,” concurs Steven Mosher, president of the Virginia-based Population Research Council. “It exacerbates the looming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. It places roadblocks in front of an already sputtering economic recovery.”
“As the worst recession in decades has dried up jobs across the country and darkened economic prospects, especially for young couples in their prime childbearing years, they are postponing marriage and childbearing, and the maternity wards are emptying out,” said Mosher.
Japan, at the leading edge of the depopulation curve, is now beginning to feel the effects of having experienced demographers’ “lowest-low” fertility rate of about 1.4 over an extended period. Because of this long-term baby dearth, even if its birthrate rebounds suddenly to 2.0 — which it shows no sign of doing — it will still lose 30% of its population by the end of the century. If it stays where it is, the country will suffer an irrevocable demographic death spiral in which its population will be halved, by 56.5 million, by 2100.
Aging is the other half of demographic winter. In 2011, sales for adult diapers exceeded those of baby diapers for the first time in Japan. The increasing economic pressure on the state to pay for care of the elderly prompted the country’s finance minister, Taro Aso, to remark in January that the elderly and “tube people” should “hurry up and die” before they consume precious government resources.
“One thing you can certainly say is that, despite their many winning characteristics, children are not convenient,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Neither are old people. If we have a convenient society which is ethically unmoored, these demographics can lead in very dangerous directions.”
But overpopulation mythology is entrenched in modern culture. For example, British naturist David Attenborough in January called human beings “a plague on the earth” and predicted the situation would only get “worse and worse.”
“We keep putting on programs about famine in Ethiopia,” he told the Radio Times. “Too many people there. They can’t support themselves — and that’s not an inhuman thing to say.”
That kind of scientifically unsubstantiated rhetoric is highly dangerous, according to critics of the population-bomb alarmism.
“Overpopulation, it turns out, is a myth, but it is a myth that kills, because, in its name, the government of the U.S. continues to export abortion, sterilization and contraception to relatively innocent, untouched corners of the world,” said Mosher, whose group produced a series of short animations on overpopulation myths that have gone viral on YouTube.
“It is a secular faith,” said Eberstadt of the overpopulation theory. “It is a belief that has, without God, all the trappings of religiosity, including utter immunity to empirical testing.”
“I believe in the Virgin birth; you believe in overpopulation,” commented Last. “Everybody believes in something. Call it faith. Call it a theological argument. Just don’t call it objective science.”
The Fertility Debate
Fertility lies at the heart of the difference between the secular and the sacred approaches to life, Last told the Register. “Modernity has shifted our cultural perspective so that we're much less focused on the past, as a source of reverence and wisdom, and on the future, as a place of deeper importance. Instead, we seem to focus intensely on the ‘now.’”
That may explain why people who take religion seriously have more children. Americans with the highest fertility were those who went to church — of any denomination — at least once a week.
“For Christians concerned not just about the here and now, but about the hereafter,” echoed Mosher, America and the globe’s plummeting birthrate “necessarily means that fewer souls are coming into existence to enjoy the blessings of this life and eternity in the next.”
Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.