Secularism's Demographic Conundrum

Steven Mosher
PRI Weekly Briefing
8 October 2004 Vol. 6 / No. 31
Reproduced with Permission

One by one, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and now Newsweek are declaiming that our long-term problem is not too many people, but too few people. Long blinded by the myth of overpopulation, they have only lately seen what we at PRI espied from afar, that birth rates were falling so far and so fast that depopulation was inevitable. Now it is upon us, and they cry out in alarm.

Newsweek magazine, in its Sept. 27 issue, carried a major story by Michael Meyer on the "Birth Dearth."(1) Meyer begins by saying "Everyone knows there are too many people in the world." Wrong. Many of us in the pro-life movement have known for years about the demographic disaster of plummeting birthrates and aging populations that loomed before us like an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

He then describes the crowded urban world in which he lives (by choice), as if this somehow excuses his former belief that the planet was teeming with people. All it proves is that there has been a global exodus from the countryside into the cities, which has left many rural areas virtually empty of people. This is a well-known and noncontroversial fact.

What Meyer breathlessly claims as new - that people around the world are having fewer and fewer children - is in fact a decades-long trend. Fertility rates have fallen by half since 1972, dropping from six children per woman to 2.9. The UN has been reducing his population predictions regularly for the past two decades. While it currently projects that the world's population will "continue to grow from today's 6.4 billion to around 9 billion in 2050," this is probably too high. Plummeting birth rates will probably knock another billion or so off of that number in the years to come. And once the peak is reached, we are in for a roller coaster ride of frightening dimensions, as the bottom literally drops out of the world's population.

Europe will be losing 3 to 4 million people a year by mid-century. Asia will be close behind, as the voluntary childlessness of the Japanese is matched by the force-pace population reduction in China's one-child policy. China's population will peak at 1.5 billion in 2020 or so, and then dramatically shrink. By mid-century, Europe and Asia could be losing a quarter of its population each generation. Mexico, as the head of that country's National Population Council recently told me, is having barely enough babies to maintain the current population, and fertility rates continue to drop. While birthrates in Africa remain high, the AIDS epidemic continues to claim new victims, and Africa's long-term demographic destiny is in doubt.

Economic growth and population have always been closely linked. If you take away a significant portion of the population, the economy - retail sales, housing starts, investment, the stock market, you name it's almost certainly going to go into a tailspin. Meyer admits that "The potential consequences of the population implosion are enormous," but he doesn't have a clue as to what to do about it.

Sure, he speaks blithely of how "enlightened governments" like "France and the Netherlands [are] institut[ing] family-friendly policies that help women combine work and motherhood, ranging from tax credits for kids to subsidized day care." But his claim that "Scandinavian countries have kept birthrates up with generous provisions for parental leave, health care and part-time employment" is simply not true. The nations of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway are dying just as surely as their less "enlightened" counterparts to the south.

The hard fact is that such programs, beloved of radical feminists because they discourage marriage and encourage women to work outside of the home, have done nothing to reverse the birth dearth in Scandinaviaor anyplace else, for that matter. You can put all the women to work in the factory or the office, or you can encourage marriage and stay-at-home moms and have a birth rate above replacement. It is highly unlikely that you can have both. Women are unlikely to be trapped into the classic double bind - several children and a full-time job - by such relatively minor inducements.

Meyer also claims that "Environmentally, a smaller world is almost certainly a better world, whether in terms of cleaner air or, say, the return of wolves and rare flora to abandoned stretches of the east German countryside." This is exactly backwards. People don't cause environmental degradation, poverty does. And it is prosperity that provides the financial and human resources to deal with it. A depopulated world is likely to be a poorer world, and a poorer world is likely to be a dirtier world. Does Meyer really believe that the elderly are going to give up their entitlements to pay for expensive environmental clean-up programs?

But the biggest omission of all is Meyer's failure to address the obvious inanity of continuing to promote abortion, sterilization, and contraception in a dying world. As long as the "women's health care" that we provide the developing world consists largely of disabling their reproductive systems, we can hardly expect the birth rate to bounce back.


1. "Birth Dearth"; Newsweek, September 27, 2004