The Global Baby Bust
By Phillip Longman
Phillip Longman is Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the forthcoming The Empty Cradle (Basic Books, 2004), from which this article is adapted.
The Wrong Reading
You awaken to news of a morning traffic jam. Leaving home early for a doctor's appointment, you nonetheless arrive too late to find parking. After waiting two hours for a 15-minute consultation, you wait again to have your prescription filled. All the while, you worry about the work you've missed because so many other people would line up to take your job. Returning home to the evening news, you watch throngs of youths throwing stones somewhere in the Middle East, and a feature on disappearing farmland in the Midwest. A telemarketer calls for the third time, telling you, "We need your help to save the rain forest." As you set the alarm clock for the morning, one neighbor's car alarm goes off and another's air conditioner starts to whine.
So goes a day in the life of an average American. It is thus hardly surprising that many Americans think overpopulation is one of the world's most pressing problems. To be sure, the typical Westerner enjoys an unprecedented amount of private space. Compared to their parents, most now live in larger homes occupied by fewer children. They drive ever-larger automobiles, in which they can eat, smoke, or listen to the radio in splendid isolation. Food is so abundant that obesity has become a leading cause of death.
Still, both day-to-day experience and the media frequently suggest that the quality of life enjoyed in the United States and Europe is under threat by population growth. Sprawling suburban development is making traffic worse, driving taxes up, and reducing opportunities to enjoy nature. Televised images of developing-world famine, war, and environmental degradation prompt some to wonder, "Why do these people have so many kids?" Immigrants and other people's children wind up competing for jobs, access to health care, parking spaces, favorite fishing holes, hiking paths, and spots at the beach. No wonder that, when asked how long it will take for world population to double, nearly half of all Americans say 20 years or less.
Yet a closer look at demographic trends shows that the rate of world population growth has fallen by more than 40 percent since the late 1960s. And forecasts by the UN and other organizations show that, even in the absence of major wars or pandemics, the number of human beings on the planet could well start to decline within the lifetime of today's children. Demographers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis predict that human population will peak (at 9 billion) by 2070 and then start to contract. Long before then, many nations will shrink in absolute size, and the average age of the world's citizens will shoot up dramatically. Moreover, the populations that will age fastest are in the Middle East and other underdeveloped regions. During the remainder of this century, even sub-Saharan Africa will likely grow older than Europe is today.
The root cause of these trends is falling birthrates. Today, the average woman in the world bears half as many children as did her counterpart in . . .