Freaking Out Over Falling Fertility Rates

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

July 22, 2017
In 1986, demographers Michael Teitelbaum and Jay Winter wrote a prophetic book entitled The Fear of Population Decline.

In the three decades since, the population of virtually every country on Earth has grown larger, many by substantial amounts. The planet as a whole has added about 2.5 billion human beings since their book was published. So was the book or the “fear” which it described misplaced?

No – Teitelbaum and Winter were onto something. They described the primordial fear of diminishing numbers and strength felt by every family, tribe, village, community and nation on Earth since Homo sapiens first walked upright and strode out of Africa 100,000 years ago.  
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*Per 1,000 population
Whether in one-person/one-vote democracies, autocracies, monarchies or armies, numbers count and size matters, and everyone senses that intrinsically.

In recent times, politicians, economists, generals, ethnic groups, religions, political parties and races all see increasing numbers as key to prosperity, power, strength and superiority. (Ever heard of the saying, “strength in numbers?”) In contrast, stable (or what they would denigrate as “stagnant”) or decreasing numbers are considered worrisome, leading to economic stagnation or recession and political, social, military or cultural inferiority, retreat and shrinkage.   

The problem is that numbers also count and size also matters when it comes to natural resources and the environment. In a finite biosphere, greater numbers of people and larger population size signify bigger negative impacts on limited environmental resources. 

In recent years, as a result of fertility and birth rates that have been in decline for decades – a positive development that helped at least partially defuse the “population bomb” that Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote about so explosively half a century ago – dozens of countries have approached the historic milestone of zero population growth. Several have even begun to experience so-called “negative population growth,” that is, falling real population numbers (not just a falling growth rate) from one year to the next. 

The respected Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington, D.C. projects that in Asia, by 2050, most countries will still possess larger populations than at present. Some, like India, will be substantially larger: 1.7 billion (2050) vs. 1.3 billion (2016).

However, based on current and expected demographic trends, the four most developed, prosperous countries in Asia – China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – are all projected to have smaller populations in 2050 than at present. This, along with the related phenomenon of population aging (which every country on Earth is experiencing), has caused a good deal of consternation and hand-wringing in those countries, even though all of them are already overcrowded and overpopulated. To their credit, the Japanese in particular seem to be adjusting relatively well to this emerging demographic reality with their particular brand of verve and ingenuity.

In Europe, PRB expects that the populations of virtually every European country without large-scale migration or substantial higher-fertility Muslim immigrant populations will be smaller than today. 

The case of low-fertility Germany is illustrative of a country that, under its leader Chancellor Angela Merkel, is allowing its demographics – and identity – to be utterly transformed by mass migration. A decade ago in 2006, when Germany’s net migration rate was just 1 per 1,000, its population, with a fertility rate of just 1.3 (only two-thirds of the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population), PRB expected Germany’s population to decline from 82 million to 75 million by 2050, a drop of 7 million. Now, as one who was born in Germany and has visited it, I can attest that it, like the Asian countries mentioned above, is both very crowded and quite overpopulated. I remember standing atop a high hill in southern Germany beside an ancient, crumbling castle looking out over the smog-shrouded countryside at village after village after village receding into the veiled distance, with carefully demarcated green space and farmland separating each of them. Even every Alpine valley had a village nestled in it. There is no real wilderness anywhere.    

From an environmental and quality of life perspective, if not an economic one, a somewhat smaller population would arguably represent an improvement. Just what an “ideal” or optimal population size would be for Germany (or any country) is a reflection of one’s values and preferences, and is up for debate, although it rarely is. That there is some limit to population growth is not up for debate. Nature does not permit any entity to grow indefinitely – except perhaps stupidity and avarice. 

By 2011, six years ago, Germany’s demographic situation had become even more pronounced. Its population had declined slightly from 2006, and PRB demographers projected an even steeper decline by 2050, down to 69 million, a decrease of 13 million from the 2011 population of 82 million.

Then, by 2016, as a result of the mass migration unleashed by Frau Merkel, Germany’s demographic present and future were altered irrevocably. Net migration was 14 times greater than just a decade earlier: 14 per 1,000 vs. 1 per 1,000. In 2016, PRB projected a “German” population of 81 million by 2050, fully 12 million larger than its 2050 projection made just five years earlier in 2011. 
crowd walking in the street
Some of the mothers of the next generation in Germany.
I put “German” in quotation marks because it is anyone’s guess just how “German” future residents of the geographic area now known as Germany will actually be: under the official doctrine of “multiculturalism,” and given the high rate of inflow, whether the newcomers and their descendants will ever even be encouraged to assimilate and acquire uniquely German habits, traits and values is highly questionable.

It could well be that, given native Germans’ own ultra-low fertility, and the relatively higher fertility of Muslim newcomers, native Germans have set off on the path that will lead to their eventual demographic replacement. What will it even mean to be “German” in 2050 or 2100? Certainly not what it has meant for centuries. These questions of national identity loom large but are particularly fraught, especially for a country like Germany, still contending with the Nazis’ sordid 20th century history of active eugenics and genocide of its (and other countries’) Jewish minority.  

So for the time being, mass migration has arrested Germany’s self-imposed demographic descent, but at what cost? Germans are now wrestling with the increased crime, cultural clashes, fiscal costs and threat of jihadist terrorism that mass migration from parts of the word with radically distinct cultures and religions can bring.

The existential challenges that low fertility, cessation of population growth, and incipient population decrease have entailed for America’s two prime World War II nemeses and post-World War II allies – Japan and Germany – illustrate why so many folks are so fearful of population decline.

Yet what is an overpopulated country supposed to do?  It can’t grow forever. But if its fertility rate drops too low for too long, it risks the other extreme. 

With zero net migration, it is a mathematical certainty that any population where the birth rate exceeds the death rate even slightly will grow to infinity given enough time – or in the real world, until environmental limits intervene. On the other side of the coin, it is just as mathematically certain that a population where the death rate exceeds the birth rate will go extinct eventually.      

What is needed is some semblance of balance. 

Faced with similar demographic circumstances – ultra-low fertility and declining populations – Germany and Japan have opted for opposite policies. Because it prizes its own unique national identity, Japan has let in few immigrants – even other Asians – to compensate for its own declining numbers. (PRB projects Japan’s population to decrease from 125 million in 2016 to 101 million by 2050.) Instead, senior citizens are working longer, and robotics is booming.

Perhaps out of guilt for the sins of its recent past, and perhaps because of a wider Western conceit that “blood and soil” are antiquated, non-inclusive measures of belonging, Germany has embraced a postmodernist philosophy of universality and is welcoming the world.

Critics of each nation might say the Japanese eventually will be replaced by robots and the Germans by Middle Easterners and Africans. Alternatively, a fascinating new fusion of sorts might be the outcome.

In the United States, the deep-seated fear of population decline was illustrated recently when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the birth rate had declined to a historic low. Indeed the June 30 Washington Post article about this was titled: “The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low. Why some demographers are freaking out.”

Keep in mind that the alleged freaking out supposedly observed by the Post’s reporter is in a country whose population grew by 33 million in the 1990s and another 28 million from 2000 to 2010. We are projected to grow from 325 million to 400 million by 2050 or shortly thereafter. The U.S. is in a completely different demographic universe from Japan and Germany, yet even here, some people are “freaking out” that there are just too few of us and that reproduction is too low!

Among the 1,764 online comments below the Post article, there was one with 60 “likes” that read:

There are too many people in this world gobbling up too many of the earth's resources and making too big of a mess. Look at how polluted the world is because of this and how many species are being lost irretrievably because of this mistaken notion that we must be fruitful and multiply. Well we've multiplied ourselves almost out of existence with this mindset. Time to change it.


At least 60 readers could acknowledge reality!
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