8488falling birthrates: good news
- Nov 2, 2003We were tangentially talking about falling birthrates. Here Martin
Woollacott contests the dominant ideology du jour -- i.e. that falling
birthrates are scary and bad. Not at all, he contends -- we should
be happy to see a downward trend. Needless to say, I agree with
We should welcome signs of a shrinking population
Martin Woollacott: Lower birthrates could mean a better,
more sustainable world
Friday August 15, 2003
What is regarded as good news and bad news is a changeable
thing. Thirty years ago, when anxiety about rising
population and diminished resources was fresher than it is
today, figures showing a flattening out of population
growth in many countries, including our own, would have
been seen as a boon.
Today, on the left-hand page of a newspaper you can read
about John Prescott's plans to rim Dickens's moody
estuarial lands with houses, about proposals for yet
another London airport, about Britain's vanishing oil and
gas, about threatened birds and sick seals, about nuclear
power stations in France bubbling away like so many
dangerous cafetieres - all demonstrating the stress rising
human numbers place on the environment and society.
Yet, on the right-hand page of the same paper, news about
the slowing down of population growth in Europe, North
America and Japan, presaging an easing of the very
pressures just fearfully related, is also gloomily
presented. The demographic transition, in this latest
manifestation, is seen as a threat rather than a relief.
The questions glowering over such accounts are how to pay
pensions, how to avoid recession, and how, if possible, to
slow the slowdown. The morally and practically complex
issues of migration and asylum tend to be bundled into the
argument on the grounds that more people coming in will
help retard the downward curve.
It is of course arguable that there are dangers in both
sorts of curves. But rarely is a moment given to voice
thanks for a profoundly welcome shift in reproductive
behaviour, one even more welcome as it has taken hold
across the world in countries such as India and China.
A small organisation, the Optimum Population Trust, had
some publicity recently with its suggestion that Britain
might be best served if it had a population of 30 million
or so. If such a thing were ever to come about, would it be
such a disaster? Yet many act as if it would.
In western countries, at least, the natalism of the past
has been replaced by an unrealistic dependence on migration
as the means of maintaining supposedly desirable numbers.
The figures suggest, however, that while immigration can
help a society get over the hump represented by a
temporarily high proportion of older people, it cannot be a
substitute for falling rates of natural increase for long.
Anxieties such as these were also in the air when new towns
were being planned and new airports projected. The Royal
Commission on Population warned in 1945 of "the ultimate
threat of a fading out of the British people". Eva Hubback,
author of a Penguin book on the subject published two years
later, argued that Britain simply could not meet its
responsibilities if the population fell beyond a certain
For instance, the country was already having trouble
recruiting the 750,000 men and women needed for the armed
forces and, if certain trends continued, by the year 2000,
the men available for military service would be "just half"
of those available in 1939. "We would then be bound to
become a second- or third-class power."
What now seem arcane calculations about mass armies
illustrate how irrelevant yesterday's arguments can become.
Today's German anxieties, for example, about a halving of
population by the end of the century ring similar bells,
although concerned with industrial rather than military
manpower, and both the prediction and the arguments could
prove equally wrong-headed. But Mrs Hubback also knew that
population levels are only distantly under the influence of
governments, quoting AP Herbert's lines on the subject:
The world, in short, which never was extravagantly sane,
Developed all the signs of inflammation of the brain,
The past was not encouraging, the future none could tell,
And some of us were not surprised the population fell.
Whether the low birthrate of the 1930s in Britain was
largely a result of uncertainty and fear of the future, as
Herbert implied, could not be easily established. The
equally important cause, as it is today, would be a
determination both to enjoy the present and to focus more
resources on fewer children so as to equip them better for
life in their turn.
Perhaps, as proposed on these comment pages this week,
better daycare and other services would make some
difference. Perhaps, too, as also argued here this week,
more migration would help, but, again, not to the point of
reversing a settled trend. The aspirations involved in
choosing smaller families and in emigrating are, after all,
similar ones of personal and family betterment.
The one set will not long work against the other, as most
new arrivals come to make similar reproductive choices to
established residents. Indeed, they are already making them
in developing countries. Professor Robert Cassen, an expert
on development and population at the London School of
Economics, notes that two-thirds of the reduction in the
population rate in India, for example, is the result of
choices made by uneducated people, especially women who
want their children to go to school and reckon the chances
are better if there are fewer of them.
The fundamental point, as Professor Cassen says, is that
population growth in any given society must end, and, as it
ends, the problem of a disproportionate class of ageing
people has to be tackled. His is an insight which seems
obvious enough, yet it is rarely part of the discussion.
This inevitable change cannot be staved off by natalist
policies such as those practised by most European
societies, and by the Soviet Union in the past. It can be
made somewhat easier by the right kind of family policies,
by extending the retirement age, and by a judicious
approach to immigration. But the sooner the transition is
negotiated, the better. On the other side of it should lie
a better and more sustainable world.
Reduction in population growth, or its actual decline in
some societies, will not have an immediately miraculous
effect on problems of pollution and overdevelopment
anywhere, since a smaller number of people will expect and
demand more. The increased demand and reduced population
growth are, after all, aspects of the same change in
What people demand will be contradictory. The recent
trouble at Heathrow is just a minor example of this in
comfortable Europe. People want cheap air travel and
holidays, yet recoil from the consequences of their choices
when they affect the reliability of the services on which
they depend or their own wages and conditions.
Maintaining this kind of contradiction, whether in the
travel, construction or health industries, leads to
exploitative immigration policies, all part of the attempt
to hang on to population growth's supposed advantages after
the fact. The idea that what is not going up must be on its
way down is deeply engrained. But in fact we should be
celebrating the opposite, which is that in the 21st century
going down is the best way to go.
:De Clarke, Software Engineer UCO/Lick Observatory, UCSC:
:Mail: de@... | Your planet's immune system is trying to get rid :
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