The population debate usually focuses on the impact of overpopulation on food supplies, health and the environment in developing countries. But scores of developed nations face an equally ominous threat: dwindling populations caused by low fertility.
Falling fertility rates have helped slow population growth throughout the world in recent years, but in some 50 countries the average number of children born to each woman has fallen below 2.1, the number required to maintain a stable population. Nearly all of these countries are in the developed world, where couples have been discouraged from having large families by improved education and health care, widespread female employment and rising costs of raising and educating children.
Conservative commentator Ben Wattenberg and others who question the value of family-planning programs have seized on this emerging trend to shift the terms of the population debate. “Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long all around the world,” Wattenberg writes. “The potential implications -- environmental, economic, geopolitical and personal -- are both unclear and clearly monumental, for good and for ill.”
According to Wattenberg, the implications are particularly dire for Europe, where the average fertility rate has fallen to 1.4 children per woman. Even if the trend reversed itself and the fertility rate returned to 2.1, the continent would have lost a quarter of its current population before it stabilized around the middle of the next century. With fewer children being born, the ratio of older people to younger people already is growing. “Europe may become an ever smaller picture-postcard continent of pretty old castles and old churches tended by old people with old ideas,” Wattenberg writes. “Or it may become a much more pluralist place with ever greater proportions of Africans and Muslims -- a prospect regarded with horror by a large majority of European voters.”
Some European governments are clearly concerned about the “birth dearth” in their midst. With fewer children being born, they face the prospect of shrinking work forces and growing retiree populations, along with slower economic growth and domestic consumption. Italy, whose fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman is among the lowest in the world, stands to suffer the most immediate consequences of shrinking birthrates. “Italy's population will fall by half over the next half-century, from 66 million now to 36 million,” says Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute. “The Italian government warns that the current birthrate, if it continues, will amount to collective suicide.”
Like Italy, France and Germany have introduced generous child subsidies, in the form of tax credits for every child born, extended maternal leave with full pay, guaranteed employment upon resumption of work and free child care. Mosher predicts that the European Union will likely extend these and other policies to raise birthrates throughout the 15-nation organization in the next couple of years because all members are below replacement level.
“Humanity's long-term problem is not too many children being born but too few,” Mosher says. “The one-child family is being chosen voluntarily in many European countries like Italy, Greece, Spain and Russia, which are already filling more coffins than cradles each year. Over time, the demographic collapse will extinguish entire cultures.”
Although it is most pronounced in Europe, the birth dearth affects a few countries in other parts of the world as well. Mosher calculates that Japan's population will fall from 126 million today to 55 million over the next century if its 1.4 fertility rate remains unchanged. The trend is already having a social and cultural impact on the country.
“In Japan, which boasts the longest lifespans of any country in the world, it's now common for an elderly person to hire a family for a day or a weekend to experience family life and enjoy interaction with young people,” Mosher says. “It's sad to have to rent a family for a weekend, but this is a way of life that is no longer available to the Japanese because the country is dying.”
The birth dearth has geopolitical implications, as well. “As the population plummets, you can say goodbye to Japan as a world power,” Mosher says. “And this trend is very hard to reverse. Every young couple would have to have three or four kids to stop the momentum, and that's not going to happen.”
Apart from encouraging childbirth, the only way governments can halt population loss is to open the doors to immigrants. In the United States, where the 2.0 fertility rate is just below replacement level, the population is growing by 160,000 people a year, thanks to immigration.
While immigration has always played a prominent, if controversial, role in the United States and Canada, it is a far more contentious issue in the rest of the developed world. Most European countries have more homogeneous societies than those of North America, and deeply entrenched resistance to immigration, especially by people from non-European countries, has fueled support for right-wing politicians like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Anti-immigrant sentiment has occasionally escalated into violence, such as the firebombings of housing for Turkish “guest workers” in Germany during the 1980s.
Still, immigration has become more acceptable throughout much of Europe in the past decade, and many of the “guest workers” who come from North Africa, Turkey and other places in search of jobs have stayed and even gained citizenship. “Immigrants are continuing to move to Europe, bringing their cultures and their religions with them,” Mosher says. “Intermarriage also is increasing.” Japan has been much less hospitable to foreigners. “Immigration is a very sensitive subject in Japan,” Mosher says, “and it is unlikely to be used in the short term to address the growing shortfall of workers there.”
Advocates of population-control programs dismiss the concern over shrinking birthrates. “We are delighted to see falling birthrates in our lifetimes, and will continue to encourage the trend,” says Robert Engelman, director of Population Action International's program on population and the environment. “I don't want to minimize the problems associated with aging populations. But because this is a slow process, societies will have plenty of time to adjust to the economic and political stresses by increasing immigration from parts of the world where population will continue to rise for some time.”
Of course, immigration will be a viable solution to depopulation only as long as humanity continues to grow in number in other parts of the world. Those who worry about falling population point to the United Nations' most conservative projections, which suggest that global population could begin to shrink as early as 2040. But others see little cause for concern.
“If world population starts to fall in 2040, so what?” Engelman asks. “Please identify the danger of population decline that starts at a level much higher than today's and at worst may bring population down to levels seen earlier in the 20th century. There's only so much fresh water, so much atmosphere to absorb the waste greenhouse gases we inject into it every day, so much forest, so much land that can be cultivated. When you consider the enormity of these problems, there's nothing to be afraid of with gradual population decline.”