Falling birthrates a problem? Someone has lost their sense of perspective. NY Times op-ed columnist David Brooks’ recent piece “The Fertility Implosion” cites falling birth rates in many countries and discusses the difficulties faced by societies in which elderly will significantly outnumber young people. Certainly there will be challenges. While in the US the Social Security program (SS) is expected to continue another 25 years, with relatively small changes needed to change that time to “indefinite”, and most developed countries have better systems for caring for the elderly than the US does, there is still much concern for how the young people are going to foot the bill for those older than them. But how does this stack up against the effects of the current population explosion itself?
Is the “Birthrate Implosion” really a problem? Or is it a blessing? Many people ignore the point that we U.S. workers all pay into the social security trust fund throughout our working lives, and essentially pay our own way with some help from those paying in during our retirement years. I recognize that rising medical costs will be a challenge and could decrease our ability to provide for ourselves in our later years, even threatening systems like the Social Security program, but medical costs are a different problem we need to solve a lot sooner than any potential problem with SS. No matter what, I fail to be convinced that a birthrate decrease of any magnitude will be worse than the problems threatened by overpopulation and its resulting challenges including declining fossil fuel supplies, water and food shortages, climate change, pollution and environmental destruction, and the inevitable and frightening loss of population that will accompany them.
The simple numbers reveal the realities. Simple numeric calculations reveal the difference between the “Birthrate Implosion” and the population explosion. As the population ages, standards of living could decline somewhat due to the burden vast numbers of retirees will place on the economic system, but this problem could easily be eclipsed by the effects of shortages and pollution, to name just two of our already-significant problems. In contrast, the simple math suggests that, if the global population was sustainable at 3 billion, but reached (as the U.N. predicts) 9 billion around 2045 and then had 50 years in which to be brought down to a sustainable level, it would require over 328,000 people (plus a number equal to the live births that day) to die every day for 50 years! That’s more than a million people dying every 3 days … for five continuous decades – a lifetime for many. When you contrast that with recent (and world record) national disasters you can see that we’ve never … I repeat, never … seen a population decline of that size. Even the bubonic plague of 1347 took months to kill an estimated 25 million people, but the outbreak lasted less than a year. Imagine a major calamity – 50% larger than the Indonesian tsunami of 2004 – happening every single day for 50 years. Imagine averaging 120 million deaths per year for 5 decades. I really don’t think the problems of a graying population are going to compare with that at all.
The “Birthrate Implosion” doesn’t even come close to the population explosion. In fact, the “birthrate implosion” may not even be mentioned in the history books by the end of the century, while the population explosion and collapse will be one of the most significant events in human history and will be remembered at least as well as the plagues (though probably a lot more vividly and a lot longer).
The NY Times is promoting a “red herring”. In summary, Mr. Brooks’ article is getting a lot of attention, but that attention should be going elsewhere, to the MUCH larger problem of the population explosion. The thought that some will use his article and the thinking in it, which has circulated among conservatives in recent times, to justify measures to increase the birthrate is simply appalling.
Humanity needs a better, long-range perspective. It is clear that we humans are getting lost in short-sighted concerns that misdirect us, or actually get us working in ways that make our future problems worse. That is the biggest single danger we face, and will face in the coming years. The immigration problems; energy, food, and water shortages and high prices; pollution; and problematic effects on local and regional (if not global) climate we face today are all directly traceable to our burgeoning population. While developed countries have reported leveling and even declining birthrates I need to see a lot more evidence before I will agree that declining population is anything more than a minor problem when compared to our one big root-cause problem: the population explosion.
We need to work, single-mindedly, towards a sustainable population. Sustainability is a long way off, unfortunately, and our lack of foresight and long range planning, driven by the obliviousness of our religious institutions and short term focus of our corporations and, by extension, governments, threatens to send our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren to early graves. Only a world-wide, all-out effort, at all levels of government, institutions, and business, can mitigate the coming disasters, and I fear that will only happen when we each individually become activists, do the right things, and demand that our governments and institutions do the right things. Beyond that, we need to each actively learn about and change our lifestyles for the good of our future. If my efforts in that direction today save two tablespoons of oil, for example, it may give some young inventor the time they need to invent a concept or tool that could improve the lives of people in the future.
Fortunately, I see a steadily increasing understanding of our real problems, but only among individuals. It may be that the Birthrate Implosion is, at least in part, a result of people around the world starting to correct for the future the population explosion suggests. While there are many other people besides myself agitating for planning for the next century instead of the next quarter, governments, businesses, and the media still won’t even mention the words “population explosion”. Every day in the media, and among the people I know and deal with daily, I hear more concern expressed about the popular issues – gas prices for example – but I have never heard anyone come out and talk about overpopulation-related issues such as the crowding in our major cities, immigration caused by population pressures, and the risks involved in trying to feed billions, let alone the risk to our global infrastructure as it is increasingly overloaded and under-maintained. Only rarely do I hear news coverage of the decline beginning in worldwide oil production due to major oil fields being “tapped out”, even though this may be the first clear indicator that we are indeed running out of oil. It is the individuals that are catching on first, apparently, without help from any of the institutions we set up to protect and serve us. (I should mention that there are major universities teaching about these matters, but such courses are never given the emphasis they deserve – that they are central to our future – and I suspect enrollment is quite low.)
Failing to plan is planning to fail. While the topic is frightening – that’s a given – it is more frightening that our media aren’t mentioning it. The longer we take to reduce birthrates, the more we can expect global systems to be harmed and possibly eventually collapse as tax bases plummet and the infrastructure and environmental “bills” we’ve incurred come due. The offset to that is in the actions of individuals with courage who will push our government representatives to do the right things, and who will organize and boycott corporations that work against our future, since we know that changes in profits will change their actions far more than anything else. We all need to be involved and communicating with our representatives, demanding that government and the media change their behaviors and do what’s right for everyone: Ignore the “red herrings” and stay focused on reducing the birthrate, however that can be done. I hope you will help your descendants (and all of us) by doing the right thing for the earth today.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading — Tim