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8488falling birthrates: good news

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  • De Clarke
    Nov 2, 2003
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      We 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

      Martin Woollacott

      Friday August 15, 2003

      The Guardian

      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 :
      :Web: www.ucolick.org | of you. --Kurt Vonnegut :
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