There’s been a great deal of recent handwringing about declining birthrates. The world population (currently 8 billion) is expected to peak at roughly 10 billion in the late 2000s, and then begin declining. In the past few years, already low birth rates have declined even further in many countries.
I don’t share this anxiety about population trends. I have no idea as to the optimal world population. Is it five billion? Ten billion? Fifteen billion? How would we go about proving that one figure is better than another? I cannot even begin to imagine how this question could be answered.
Nor do I believe we have any ability to predict population trends in the 22nd century. Most demographers failed to predict that birth rates would fall so sharply over the past five years—why would anyone take long-term forecasts seriously?
It is true that falling birthrates are associated with rising affluence. But we don’t know if this will always be the case. I could imagine a 22nd century where almost every family had a highly skilled robot that could do housework and provide education, eliminating the need for schools. These robots could also take children to play areas to socialize with other kids. Parents would presumably continue to spend time with their kids, but only when they wished to. No longer would large families represent a big financial and time burden.
Do I believe this prediction for the 22nd century will come true? Absolutely not—just as I don’t believe in any of the current long run predictions of anxious demographers. Recall that a few decades back this group was in a panic about “overpopulation”, and now they have the opposite fear. (In the late 1960s, my mom took me to hear a talk by Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb”.) Who knows what the worry will be in the 22nd century, when China’s population is projected to have fallen in half and housing costs will likely be extremely low in all but the biggest Chinese cities. Perhaps big families will be back in style.
In addition to anxiety over trends in total population, many pundits have concerns about the racial mix of the world’s population. When I was younger, there was a lot of anxiety about threat posed by Asia, which contains most of the world’s population. Fear of a rising Japan reached hysterical proportions in the 1980s, as seen in films such as Rising Sun. After Japan faded from the scene, concern switched to the rise of China. In recent weeks, that fear seems to have abated a bit with news that China’s economy is stagnating and its birth rate has plunged to the almost unbelievably low level of 1.09 births per woman. Perhaps India will be the next bugaboo.
As population growth has slowed sharply in the West and in East Asia, a new sort of alarm has spread among pundits—fear of a black planet. Of course it’s not politically correct to express this fear. Instead, we see lots of ominous looking graphs and pundits exhorting white and East Asian women to bear more children.
Even Africa is now experiencing rapid declines in fertility rates.
I suspect that many of these anxieties reflect the current dominance of Western pundits. Even if only subconsciously, each culture tends to view its own practices as normal and foreign cultures as abnormal. Thus Westerners might tend to view one culture as too lawless and another as too obedient. One culture is viewed as not studious enough; another is viewed as being too studious. It’s hard to shake off one’s own upbringing, and see the world as others see it.
Don’t take this post as being anti-natalist. While I don’t favor policies explicitly aimed at boosting fertility, I do favor policies aimed at addressing other problems that might incidentally lead to higher birth rates: