Has the Population Bomb Been Defused?

Paul Ehrlich still believes that overpopulation imperils the Earth’s
future. But the good news is we are approaching a demographic turning
point: Birth rates have been falling dramatically, and population is expected to peak later this century — after that, for the first time in modern history, the world’s population
should actually start to decline.

The “population bomb” is creeping back onto the environmental agenda. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Paul Ehrlich wrote his book of that name and the Club of Rome produced computer simulations of a resources crisis in Limits to Growth, population was the number one environmental issue. Only strict birth control could prevent doomsday.

After the scandals of India’s forced vasectomies and China’s draconian one-child policy, such views became too hot to express in progressive circles. But they didn’t altogether go away, and now more and more people are blaming the “p-word” for climate change and rising oil and food prices.

“New Limits to Growth Revive Malthusian Fears,” warned the Wall Street Journal back in March. “Philippines Population Climbs; Food Problems Loom,” Reuters offered the following month. The online magazine Slate summed it up neatly with a recent headline: Global Swarming. And in an accompanying piece on this page Paul and Anne Ehrlich return to the barricades citing the twin perils of overconsumption and overpopulation.

The Ehrlichs are sometimes ridiculed because Paul’s original book predicted hundreds of millions of deaths from famine in the 1980s, when we were bailed out by the Green Revolution. But they are right to question the new orthodoxy that technological fixes will always save the day. For myself, I fear that when the Wall Street Journal talks about a revival of Malthusian fears, it reflects a tendency to excuse those guilty of overconsumption, while instead blaming the poor for their poverty and our planetary predicament.

At the heart of this debate is some recent — and very good — news: The population bomb is being defused at a quite remarkable rate. Women across the poor world have confounded the doomsters and are choosing to have dramatically fewer babies. They are doing it for their own good, the good of their families, and, well, if it helps the planet too, then so much the better.

Women across the poor world have confounded the doomsters and are choosing to have dramatically fewer babies.

You may not have noticed, but for some time now the average number of babies being born to each woman has been in decline in most of the world. A generation ago, the world fertility rate was around six kids per woman. Today it is 2.6, which is getting close to the level needed just to maintain the current population long-term. Allowing for girls who don’t make it to adulthood, that is around 2.3.

We hear a lot about how Europe is giving up on babies. Young women from Spain to Sweden to St. Petersburg want to work and, if neither the state nor their partners is keen on helping them with childcare, they go on what is close to childbirth strike. Most of southern and eastern Europe now register fewer than 1.4 babies per woman. Northern Europe is a little higher but still below replacement levels.

But it is not just Europe. The tiger economies of eastern Asia are going the same way. Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and even Vietnam all have fertility rates well below par.

In China the coercive state has played a big role, effectively deciding how many children couples can have. But its heavy hand may not have made much difference. Consider the case of Hong Kong, which was ruled by the British until they handed it back to Beijing in 1997. Yet when British governor Chris Patten took the slow boat home, he left behind a colony with the lowest fertility rate in the world — below one child per woman.

The truth is that in most places out east, the fertility revolution is happening without state intrusion. Young women are voting with their wombs.

Demographers used to say that fertility rates only fell when women got educated and the economy got rich. Tell that to the women of Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, where girls are among the least educated in the world, and mostly marry while in their mid-teens. Yet they have just over three children now, less than half the number their mothers had. Provision of contraception is free, but there is no hint of compulsion.

Some say the TV, more than schooling or rising incomes, is liberating the women of Asia and Latin America.

In Brazil, hotbed of Catholicism, fertility is below 1.9. Nothing the priests say can stop the fall. More than a third of married women there have opted to be sterilized. The fact is, these women are seeing “Sex and the City” on TV and choosing a life beyond endless child-rearing. Some say the TV, more than schooling or rising incomes, is liberating the women of Asia and Latin America.

Quite soon the U.S. — where thanks in part to Hispanic migrants, the fertility rate is around 2.1 — will be among the fast-breeding outliers on the global fertility map.

The trend to low fertility is not quite universal yet, however. The two toughest cases are sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. In much of Africa, the women still have six or more children. But they are being rational. They need the kids to mind the animals, work in the fields, and look after their parents if, AIDS willing, they reach old age.

Then there is the Middle East, where traditional patriarchy still holds sway. In Yemen, where girls as young as 11 are forced into marriage in remote villages, they still have six babies. And about the only thing that the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel and the aggrieved Palestinians in the Gaza Strip share is a fertility rate of six or more.

But even in the heart of Islam, change is coming fast.

I knew Iran was different when I attended a World Population Conference in Cairo in 1994. The mullahs turned up and offered plenty of pro-natalist rhetoric. But as I sat amid the press corps listening, I noticed the Iranian TV crews who were reporting their leaders’ words. All the camera operators were women — manhandling their tripods in full black chadors.

In the past 15 years, behind the veil, Iranian fertility rates have crashed from 5.5 per woman to less than 2. In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for women to return to their “main mission” of having babies. But nobody was listening. His own administration runs a condom factory.

Rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with tough government birth control policies or none, most countries tell the same story of a coital revolution. The club of countries with below replacement rates of fertility now includes all of Europe, much of the Caribbean and Far East, Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Algeria, Kazakhstan, and Tunisia.

In Japan the condom is tops; in China the IUD is king; in Latin America they prefer sterilization and in Europe the pill. Turkish men are reputed masters of coitus interruptus, while more trigger-happy British males opt for vasectomies in record numbers. However we do it, Ehrlich’s “population bomb” is being defused.

Why then is the world’s population still rising? Currently at around 6.7 billion, it is 70 million higher every year. The problem is that the delivery wards are being visited by the huge numbers of young women born during the earlier baby boom. They may only have one or two children each. But that is still a lot of babies. Probably nothing will stop humanity reaching 8 billion by about 2040 and many demographers predict that world population will peak at around 9 billion by the end of the 21st century. But once those baby boomers have had their babies, the falling fertility rate will be translated into a real decline in the world’s population — the first since the Black Death of the 14th century.

We are approaching a demographic turning point. Right now, the fears in Europe and East Asia are of greying societies, with too few working adults to maintain a soaring population of oldies. Some say demography will burst the Asian economic bubble. Is it any coincidence that Japan ran out of economic puff just as it became the world’s oldest society?

But environmentalists will cheer that, at last, there may be some respite for the world’s dwindling resources and hard-pressed ecosystems. A reduction in numbers will play its part, I am sure. But perhaps more important will be the emergence of an older, more mature, less frenetic, less consumerist, and more frugal society. The 20th century was almost literally taken over by teenagers. Maybe it is time for the tribal elders to resume control.