(July 10, 2014) The more the global population increases, the better off the people of the planet will be.
Up, up, up! The world’s population, a mere 2.5 billion in 1950, almost doubled by 1980 and today, at 7.3 billion, has almost tripled.
The good news doesn’t end there, though. Until recently, the population experts at the United Nations projected that the world’s population could peak at 8 billion as soon as 2040 or 2050, and then begin a long decline. Those projections, it now believes, were erroneous, based on the assumption that having babies was fast going out of style. Instead we are still making babies at a good clip, so much so that the global population looks like it might reach 10 billion by 2050, a quadrupling in a mere century, and then keep right on climbing. By 2100, Planet Earth could approach 17 billion.
Lower fertility decreases per capita income in the long run.
Even that 17 billion could prove low. If we humans maintain today’s rate of baby-making over the balance of the century, we’d get to 29 billion. Maybe more if the culture in the western world changed and having babies once again became fashionable here.
The conventional wisdom holds that, as societies become affluent, their fertility rate — the number of babies per woman — drops. Children are no longer needed to support their parents in old age, some conventionals say. Some also say that women, once affluent, liberated and armed with contraceptives, eschew pregnancies.
Such reasoning is ahistorical, thinly rationalized by statistics spanning decades rather than centuries. In fact, populations have waxed and waned throughout time, with periods of low population growth often spelling hardship, and those marked by high population growth often signifying good times.
Even the post-World War II baby boom, often explained as an anomaly caused by soldiers returning home from war, is more accurately seen as part of a post-Great Depression boom. U.S. fertility rates began rising in 1938, as the U.S. economy brightened and couples began to believe they would be able to support families. The fertility rates kept rising until the late 1950s, when the average number of children peaked at 3.7, up from 2.3 in 1933.
Affluence and babymaking are go-togethers, as recent studies are beginning to understand. A 2009 study in Nature by researchers at University of Pennsylvania and Università Bocconi in Milan found that fertility rises in the West when countries become highly advanced, as measured by the Human Development Index of social and economic factors. And just this month, the National Bureau of Economic Research released “The Cost of Low Fertility in Europe,” which found that “lower fertility will increase income per capita in the short run, but decrease it in the long run.” Other studies propose that Japan bring back baby making to end its decades-long economic slump.
But bad culture can trump the good of affluence. In the West, a one-two punch delivered in the 1960s combined to knock us off our game, preventing us from doing what comes naturally — making lots of babies — and furthering our social and economic well being.
The first punch came from the environmental movement through books such as the Sierra Club’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth that warned of mass starvation, resource shortages and political upheavals in the face of a population explosion. The second came from the feminist movement, which portrayed stay-at-home mothers as retrograde. Together, this duo led to the Zero Population Growth movement and the widespread conviction that it was shameful, if not immoral, for a household to have more than two children, and virtuous to have one or none.
Today, two generations later, all the environmental warnings that then were seen as credible — “Hundreds of millions of people will soon perish in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles … the oceans will die of DDT poisoning by 1979 … the U.S. life expectancy will drop to 42 years by 1980 due to cancer epidemics” — seem ludicrous. The term “feminism” has itself fallen into disrepute by women who don’t need ideological crutches to exercise their liberty.
The bad cultural overhangs persist, but they are fading. With vast discoveries of shale gas and shale oil creating energy gluts in every continent on Earth, and with the Third World’s food crisis becoming one of obesity rather than starvation, the world is waking to the realization that Earth’s bounty is limitless.
Since 2000, fertility rates have risen in Canada, Australia, the U.K., France and the Netherlands, while others in the developed world, like Germany and Japan, seem set to join the party. If they do, all bets are off on the UN’s population projections, which assume that women in the developing world will trend to the western world’s baby-making habits, and that women of the developed world have forever lost their penchant for babies.
This upward population trend would be all to the good. There is no credible reason to believe that population growth necessarily slows as societies become affluent, or that slowing population growth helps societies thrive.
For the second column in this series, click here.