Depopulation doomsaying is trending. You may have noticed some of the headlines and book titles as they’ve cropped up: “With global births expected to decline, experts warn ‘crisis’ looms”—CBS News; “The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out.”—The Washington Post; “The US needs more babies, more immigrants, and more integration”—Vox; Empty Planet—The Shock of Global Population Decline—Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson. Though global population will grow for decades and maybe generations to come, a demographic shift is happening.
In the 20th century, population skyrocketed, but birthrates dropped from an average of over five children per woman in 1900 to just over two by the end. If you think about this in terms of individual empowerment or health, that’s an extraordinary accomplishment: Fewer women dying in childbirth, healthier babies, parents who are more able to form the families of their choosing and then invest deeply in their children, and more women able to pursue other interests and roles. (In a parallel trend, lifespans have doubled, partly due to lower childhood mortality and partly due to better health later on.)
This should be cause for celebration, but that is not how everyone thinks about it. Instead, recent reporting feeds anxieties about scarcity and competition, sometimes making the untrue claim that population growth is needed for economic growth or social security programs. These false claims have grave implications for the rights of women and wellbeing of children, taking us back toward the roles dictated in the Bible.
New Times, Old Roles
Historically and traditionally women tend to think about reproduction in terms of caretaking, family well-being, healthy children and the trajectory of their own lives. Men—especially men in positions of power—have often thought about reproduction in economic and competitive terms: More children means more workers for the field, more adherents for the church, more serfs or slaves, and more soldiers to help one clan or tribe or kingdom or nation beat others.
We glimpse this historical view in the iron age texts of the Bible and Quran, where women and children are economic assets belonging to a patriarch, the head of family. The Ten Commandments forbid a man to covet his neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, livestock or anything that belongs to his neighbor. A girl can be given by her father in marriage; virginity is guarded to ensure progeny of known lineage; a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged goods; and a father can sell his offspring into slavery or even sacrifice his son. In one story God gives Satan the right to destroy Job’s wealth—including his children—and then later replaces them.
In recent centuries societies have gradually evolved toward a different view of women and children, one in which each is fully a person, valued not as a means to an end but as an individual whose thoughts, feelings, preferences, intentions, and life experience matter in their own right. Women and children are seen to merit life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the reasons that men merit the same. In his book The Prophet, poet Kahlil Gibran beautifully expressed this view:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.
This is a radical shift from the culture that gave a man the right to sacrifice his son or daughter (like Abraham and Jeptheh in the Bible), but this transition is far from complete. Mixed feelings abound even at the liberal edge of the shift, and old scripts still dominate life in traditional and conservative subcultures. The World Health Organization estimates that each day 39,000 families “give” underage girls in marriage, often as soon as they are capable of pregnancy. Many of these child brides drop out of school, joining 129 million unschooled girls and 12 million teens who give birth annually. Among women, 190 million would like to prevent or delay the next pregnancy but lack modern means to do so. These girls and women have the highest rates of unsought pregnancy today, and they will stay vulnerable if depopulation narratives begin to drive philanthropic and government priorities.
Ironically, the second most vulnerable group may be those women in countries with the greatest degree of female education and contraception, the women whose below-replacement birthrates lie at the heart of the angst about declining fertility. These women lead very different lives than their sisters in the Global South, but depopulation alarmism poses the same threat for both groups. Psychologically, it creates a powerful subconscious shift in which the thought of female empowerment elicits anxiety, ambivalence, uncertainty, frustration or overt hostility.
This emotional shift has the potential to stall progress on female empowerment. Mixed feelings often lead to bureaucratic resistance, sluggish public investment, and philanthropic skittishness. That is because when people feel unsure about the fundamental goodness of a course of action, they cease to act.
The family planning sector already faces obstruction from the ongoing influence of religion in society. Conservative religious leaders laud motherhood as the pinnacle of female virtue. The Pope recently called Italy’s shift in family size a cold, dark “demographic winter.” Bureaucrats, aid agencies and charitable foundations often seek non-controversial strategies, leading them to avoid family planning investments even when these might be central to attaining their goals—as, for example, in PEPFAR (AIDS relief) or the Green Climate Fund. But till now, education of girls has been seen, at least by those in power, as an unmitigated good.
What Should We Do?
In recent decades, advocates have fought to protect women (especially poor brown women) from being pressured not to have babies. Now humanity may be returning to a phase when many women will face pressure in the opposite direction, as has been the case through much of history. Safeguards against coercion need to be broad enough to protect against both.
To avert problems, we need to start with the facts. Human population skyrocketed during the 20th century, and the curve is bending. Global population will grow for at least another generation, exacerbating climate change and resource depletion and some countries now face new challenges associated with shrinking populations. With women having fewer babies and people living longer, a few countries now have more retirees than kids—Japan, for example, and Spain. Others will soon follow.
Advocates for women and girls need to take seriously some of the concerns raised by alarmists, for example questions about geopolitical power dynamics, changing dependency ratios—meaning fewer working age people relative to everyone else—, and potential loss of creativity or productivity as populations become older. We need to press relevant experts (e.g., economists, social scientists, policy makers) to engage on these topics, and we need to be prepared with answers when hyperbole and legitimate questions come up. Unless there are credible paths forward, depopulation alarmists will continue to center on their current old “solutions” to new challenges—that women produce more babies or, temporarily, that wealthy countries recruit immigrants from places where women have less means to manage their fertility.
We need to ensure that women who do want more babies are supported in having them. Some portion of declining birthrates is due to factors that discourage women from having babies they might want—financial constraints, lack of childcare options, fertility problems, health issues, and in the most extreme, anti-conceptive policies or practices that are coercive. As depopulation alarmists raise these concerns we must validate and address them.
We must speak up against the doom and gloom. Depopulation alarmism often extrapolates unlikely trendlines. It relies on economic indicators that ignore individual prosperity. It brushes past dimensions of wellbeing that don’t have a dollar price tag. It ignores climate change and the wellbeing of other species. It underestimates technology shifts such as artificial intelligence and robotics that will make legions of low-paid economic foot soldiers obsolete. Lastly, it overlooks the many ways that a smaller, older population might be awesome. If we are well informed, we can round out the conversation.
The alternative to depopulation alarmism is creative innovation. Old school Malthusians made the mistake of underestimating human ingenuity, specifically our ability to feed people and grow prosperity as world population swelled from under two billion at the start of the 20th Century to almost eight billion at the close. Now reverse Malthusians make the same mistake and derive similarly wrong conclusions.
If we can reach Mars, we can create a future that merges declining population, broad prosperity and individual reproductive freedom. Rocket science takes will, work, smarts, imagination and teamwork; that’s how we as a species cross uncharted distances. So, let’s get on it. We can’t roll up our sleeves if we’re busy wringing our hands.