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Save the world! Stop having children! and other silly ideas

2008 July 7
by Paul Vallely

Save the world! Stop having children! Such was the rather drastic solution to the problem of climate change proposed in an editorial in the prestigious British Medical Journal, no less, the other day. And since one of its authors was a distinguished academic – Dr John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London – we should consider the notion seriously.

His argument was straightforward. The mushrooming population of the world is putting extreme pressure on the planet’s resources and increasing the output of greenhouse gases. Every single month there are nearly 7 million extra mouths to feed. And because a child born today in the UK will be responsible for over 150 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a child born in Ethiopia the obvious place to start cutting back is here rather than there.

Dr Malthus thou shoud’st be living at this hour. But, actually, this goes one better. When Thomas Malthus first published his gloomy Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 he had others than himself in his sights. His argument sounded academically neutral. Human populations grow exponentially whereas food reproduction expands in a linear fashion (it’s the difference in maths between multiplication and addition) so disaster always looms, in the shape of disease, war or famine, to balance the population out. But he wasn’t looking to himself for the solution; those he had in his moral srutiny were the lumpen poor, breeding mindlessly, careless quite of the demographic implications of their lusty loins.

Since then Malthusian disciples have continued to point the figure at a Them rather than Us. Zealots for population control have always had the poor in their sights. Until it fell out of fashion a decade or more ago Population Control always targeted the hapless peoples of the Third World as the ones who we needed to stop breeding. Holland is the most densely populated major country in the world but there was rarely any talk of too many Dutchmen. It was always too many Indians and Africans. Dr John Guillebaud has at least had the good grace to point the finger of blame at himself.

But hold on. All this anxiety is premised upon the idea that the population of the world is mushrooming. It certainly was throughout most of the 20th century. But, quietly, something has changed in recent years. The global population is continuing to grow. But, fairly suddenly, birthrates are falling all across the globe. In the 1970s women around the world had 6 children each; today they have just 2.7 children on average, and in some places that figure is as low as 1.

The implications of this will take a generation to work through, because the children born in the boom years have yet to have their own children, so there is a great deal of increase built in. Demographers call that population momentum. But the United Nations has had to revise downwards its prediction that the world population would reach 11.5 billion by 2050. The human race is now expected to peak, according to one of the world’s top experts, Dr David Coleman, Professor of Demography at Oxford University, at 9.5 billion people. Then, around 2070, it will begin to decline. We have reached a demographic crossroads which will have dramatic consequences for large sections of the world – including us.

The magic figure for demographers is 2.1 births per couple. That, allowing for the fact that some girls die before they reach child-bearing age, is the figure at which a population replaces itself. In Europe the last time that fertility was above replacement level was in the mid 1960s. But now, for the first time on record, birthrates in southern and eastern Europe have dropped below 1.3 – well below the 1.5 which the United Nations has marked as the crisis point. If things continue the population there will be cut in half in just 45 years. In Italy one recent survey put it at 1.2. Cities like Milan and Bologna recorded less than 1, the lowest birthrates anywhere.

Things are as bleak in Japan. There the total fertility rate declined by nearly a third between 1975 and 2001, from 1.91 to 1.33. The average family size has remained the same, but there are fewer families. Half of Japanese women have not married by the age of 30, and 20 per cent of them are not marrying ever.

But it is not just the developed world. The birthrate is plummeting in east Asia, too, in countries which were, until three decades ago, considered poor. Overall in Asia the fertility rate fell from 2.4 in 1970 to 1.5 today. China’s rate down from 6.06 to 1.8 and declining. Thailand is now 1.5. Singapore, Taiwan and Burma are similar. The lowest is South Korea with only 1.1 children per couple.

“SE Asia has plummeted to levels it took Europe 150 years to reach in just 30 years,” says Dr Jane Falkingham, Professor of Demography and International Social Policy at the University of Southampton. Alarmed by this extremely low fertility, South Korea has slashed government spending on birth control. Singapore is now offering tax rebates to couples with more than two children. Japan is piling money into nurseries and childcare.

But the New Demography does not mean that the population explosion may be about to become a population implosion. It is more subtle – and gives more interesting pointers about how we are to live – than that.

There is still rapid population growth in many parts of the world. Birthrates are still very high in Africa. At their peak in the 1970s Kenya had a rate of 4.1 per cent which was doubling its population every 17 years. The rate is down but 11 African countries still have a whopping growth rate of 2.6 a year. Populations in Uganda, Burkina Faso and Congo will treble or more by 2050. And India is set to leapfrog China as the world’s biggest nation by 2050 when its population is expected to top 1,750,000,000 people. (China will be 1,400 million, and the third biggest, the United States, around 420 million.)

But there has been an unexpected upturn in birthrates in parts of Europe too. Populations may be expected to shrink in Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany (which is losing 100,000 people a year) and decline even more rapidly further east in Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, which is set to plunge by almost half . But in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia birthrates, which declined steadily between 1900 and 1960, are creeping up again. In the UK, despite a rapidly declining population in Scotland, the overall rate is 1.8 and rising. In Holland it is 1.73. Sweden’s has risen to 1.9, with the rest of Scandinavia at 1.8. Because the figures are logarithmic, not arithmetic, these are significant differences.

“The span of fertility across countries has never been wider,” says Dr John Cleland, Professor of Medical Demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Both extremes cause their own problems. If Europe continues at 1.5 the population will halve every 65 years. If Africa continues with half its population under 15 it will continue to consume more than it produces making it harder to escape from poverty and illiteracy.”

How seriously should we take all this? Prognosticators in this field are notoriously wild. After all Paul Erlich, in his 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb, predicted: “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” No wonder that in Dante’s Inferno, a special punishment was reserved for diviners: their heads were permanently rotated to the rear, so those who in life sought to peer too far ahead into the future are condemned to study the past for all eternity. “All population projections are wrong,” concedes Professor Coleman, “the question is by how much?”


A country’s population is determined by three things: how many people are born, how soon they die and how many leave or enter the country. Fertility, as we have seen, is rising in Africa and parts of the developing world but falling in Europe and the Far East. Mortality, by contrast, thanks to medical advance, is falling almost everywhere: global life expectancy has risen from 46 in 1950 to 65 in 200 and is expected to reach 75 by 2050; in Europe it will be 82 by mid-century. Migration, despite the heat it generates as a political issue, is a marginal factor in population issues. It would take massive numbers of immigrants – some 700 million throughout Europe – with unthinkable cultural and identity tensions, to counter the low-birthrates. Fertility is the key engine to population rise and fall.

The convention wisdom – academics call it the demographic transition – is that when people are poor they have lots of children. When half your kids die before they reach adulthood you need to have lots to ensure there is someone to look after you in old age. If it takes one person all day to plough or weed the fields, or fetch the firewood, or find grazing for the goats, or carry the water and pound the grain, then you need a big family. And if there is no contraception available you don’t have much choice anyway.

But when you get richer family sizes start dropping. The health of your children improves. You have savings for your old age. Girls go to school, get jobs outside the home, marry and have babies much later. Contraception becomes available. You move to the city where you don’t need so many kids to do the household chores. Make people prosperous and the population falls.

“That’s the biggest lie that’s ever been perpetrated,” says Prof Cleland, who is something of a hawk on population control. “People are very bad at calculating survival probabilities. Twenty years ago fertility started to decline in Nepal and Bangladesh when they were still poor. Korea wasn’t rich when fertility declined. Bycontrast the Gulf oil states continued with high birthrates long after they got

huge wealth.” It’s even true in Western Europe, adds Prof Falkingham, where the upper classes have more children than the middle class.

But the relationship between poverty and population is there, it is just more subtle, says David Hulme, Professor in Development Studies at Manchester University and Director of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. He has specialised in studying Bangladesh where average family size has fallen from seven in 1981 to two or three today.

“There’s been an extraordinary change in 20 years and it comes from a combination of factors,” he says. “They have had 5-6 per cent economic growth over last 15 years, and in areas like the textile industry that provides work for lots of ordinary people. A woman can earn $25-30 a month in a garment factory, that’s big money, and if you have two daughters working. . . It is delaying the age at which women marry. It used to be 14 or 15 now it’s 21 or 22. Another factor is the success of NGOs; 20 million households in Bangladesh have access to micro-finance, and in half of them the money goes to the women. Then there has been education for girls encouraged by programmes that gave cereals to families whose girls went to secondary school and ‘cash for education’ female stipends.” Bangladesh has now surpassed the Millennium Development Goal on education and now has more girls in secondary education than boys.

When girls go to school and women work they have fewer babies. “In Africa most women work in agriculture around the home,” Prof Hulme says, “but in Bangladesh women get out and meet other women at work who may be using contraception. Getting outside the home fixes a new social norm. Prosperity and fertility are interlinked in a chicken and egg way.”

But it is in Europe and Japan that the interaction between female emancipation and fertility has taken its most dramatic twist.


The world’s highest fertility rates are to be found in the most religious countries. People there seem to adhere to traditional views of how the world works. “Food, sex and procreation are core elements of humanity and changes to them are often met with fierce hostility,” says John Cleland.

That is true of Christians in the United States, Hindus in India and Muslims in many states. The more fundamentalist the leadership, the higher the fertility rate, says Kenneth W. Wachter, the Professor of Demography and Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Is this because Muslim countries are by and large poor? “In my view the evidence is that there is something intrinsic to the culture. It’s there in the rich Muslim states in the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia and in the Muslim provinces of the former Soviet Union. It is perhaps bound up with the status of women.”

So you might expect, then, that in Europe fertility rates would be highest in the Catholic south. But intriguingly the opposite is the case. It has a more rapidly falling population than the Protestant north. “Not just in Catholic Spain and Italy but in Orthodox Greece the strong traditions of familism are not boosting fertility rate as many might suppose,” says Prof Coleman.

Why is this? A clue lies in a 2006 survey by the European Commission which asked women how many children they would like to have. The answer averaged out at 2.36 – which is one child more than they are actually having. They get nearer to that in north west Europe for two reasons. One is that – though women here may laugh at the notion – men in France, Britain, Holland and Scandinavia help out more at home than their Latin counterparts. The other is that the state, through child benefit, tax breaks (on which France is keen), maternity leave and nursery provision, makes it much easier for a woman to juggle the twin tasks of work and running a home.

In Italy and Spain and Greece, by contrast, the feminist revolution is not so far advanced. There has been economic change. Women get the education and even the jobs. But social attitudes remain rooted in a model of the woman as mother and the male as breadwinner, what the Australian demographer Peter McDonald, calls “out hunting the mammoth”. But those Italian women who go out hunting the mammoth are still expected to change all the nappies; they do more than 75 per cent of the housework and child care.

As a result only around 50 per cent of Italian women work outside the home, compared with 75 per cent in Scandinavian countries. Women without their own income have very little bargaining power inside the home, but they can go on baby strike. The outcome is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, working mothers are now having more babies than those who stay at home full time. “The tradition which once boosted fertility,” says Jane Falkingham, “now undermines it.”

The same thing is happening in Japan which still has one of the rich world’s most chauvinistic societies. Its first equal-opportunity law was not passed until 1985, and even then, it only “requested” that employers “make efforts” not to discriminate. It didn’t officially outlaw sex discrimination until 1999 and the contraceptive bill wasn’t legalised until 2000. On top of that is a work culture that demands very long hours and offers few child-care facilities. Then at home Japanese men spend just 17 minutes a day caring for their children, compared with 2 hours 39 minutes for women.

The result is what the Japanese demographer Shigemi Kono calls “the revenge of women on men”. Japanese society has been scandalized by a new social class it calls “parasite singles” – women who live alone or with their parents, work, eschew marriage and shop a lot. “Until social attitudes catch up with economic change,” says David Coleman, “ many women in the developed world will become overloaded and respond by cutting down the number of children they have.”

The United States offers an interesting control in all this. Its birthrate at 2.1 – replacement rate – is very high for an industrialised nation. But the figure hides two distinct trends. The birthrate is high among conservatives (the influence of religion again) and among immigrant Hispanic women who are averaging slightly more than three kids each. But there is steadily declining fertility among the white secular middle-class.

In the US, like Japan, 20 per cent of women born between 1956 and 1972 are childless and likely to remain so. The figure could rise to 25 per cent. Revealingly the incidence rises with education and income. A third of women graduates in their late 30s have no children. And only 20 per cent of women with MBAs have kids, compared with 70 per cent of MBA men.

By contrast 40 per cent of college-educated American women are not in the workforce, but they are still not having many kids; the number of women with only one child has doubled since 1976. And in that same year 36 per cent of women had four or more children but less than 10 per cent do today. Childlessness is now a fashionable lifestyle choice, as it is in Germany where 27.8 per cent of women born in 1960 are childless, far more than any other European country. (In France the figure is just 10.7 per cent.)

The implications of all this are enormous. Low-birth Europe is faced with an ageing population, a pensions crisis, later retirement, changes in work patterns, shrinking cities and a massive looming healthcare cost. Nations of children with no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles – only parents, grandparents, and perhaps great-grandparents – will face the burden of paying for the care of a massive older generation. The same prospect of an older, more conservative, less vigorous or inventive culture looms in China, Japan and much of the Far East.

Meanwhile high-birth Africa will remain stuck in a vicious circle unless it gets economic growth, agricultural reform, improved world trade terms, infrastructure investment, better health and education systems, more girls into school and a wider availability of family planning. A tall order, though the example of Bangladesh shows change can come.

But whether Brits limiting themselves to two children, as the BMJ is recommending, will do the trick is debateable, at the very least.

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