July 1, 2008
The New Population Bomb
The problem may not be too many people, but too few.
In the four decades since Paul Ehrlich published his demographic jeremiad, The Population Bomb, demographers have largely worried that the earth is getting too crowded. Contemporary proponents point to supposed signs of climate change, food shortages, and commodities inflation as evidence that Ehrlich was right. However, now comes word that in some parts of the world the key problem is not too many people, but too few. Russell Shorto's absorbing June 29 article in The New York Times Magazine informs us:
In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. Non-number-crunchers largely ignored the information until a 2002 study by Italian, German and Spanish social scientists focused the data and gave policy makers across the European Union something to ponder. The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the "replacement rate" - the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country's current population level. At various times in modern history - during war or famine - birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate, to "low" or "very low" levels. But Hans-Peter Kohler, Jos? Antonio Ortega and Francesco Billari - the authors of the 2002 report - saw something new in the data. For the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country's population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-a-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: "lowest-low fertility."
The hypothesis Shorto presents is that nations that have only half-heartedly embraced modern society's welcoming of women into the paid workforce by failing to provide state financial incentives or career flexibility inadvertently end up providing strong disincentives for couples to have children. Shorto notes that as modern culture continues marching around the world, population shrinkage is far from solely a European problem. He reports that countries as diverse as Iran, South Korea, and Thailand are also facing alarming drop-offs in fecundity.
One thing left largely unexplored in this lengthy piece, however, are those traditionalists - of whatever faith - who reject the modern project to push both parents into the paid workforce and who opt instead to raise their children without recourse to state surrogates. While a second income is an economic necessity for many parents today (even given the existence of financial incentives to work), the article fails to consider that many - if finances were not an issue - would prefer to be home with their children during their formative years. How better to pass on religiously based knowledge, traditions, and character traits to the next generation and avoid the corrosive, occasionally life-denying, tenets of modernity?
Hat tip: Yehiel Poupko.