The Coming Baby Bust

Ecology and Politics After the Population Boom

Rising ethno-nationalism in recent years has many mothers. Migration, increasingly multicultural societies, economic dislocation and inequality in a globalized economy have all contributed to a role in a growing sense of alienation among populations whose demographic, economic, and cultural hegemony is in decline. But one factor rather less remarked upon is the population bust.

Among white Americans, fertility rates have fallen to 1.75, well below the replacement rate (around 2.1). Among native-born residents of the United Kingdom the rate is 1.76. In France, Austria, and other sites of prominent nativist ethno-nationalist movements, fertility rates have been well below replacement for decades.

In a world in which momentum from the twentieth-century baby boom will continue to drive population growth globally for decades to come, it is easy to forget that the global fertility rate peaked decades ago and has been falling consistently ever since. Population continues to grow globally, but in many places and among many populations, it is falling precipitously. Europe, presently ten percent of global population, is projected to fall to 6 percent by 2050. Japan, a nation of 120 million today will number fewer than 100 million by 2050.

But the baby bust, as Paul Robbins notes in a new Breakthrough Journal essay, is by no means limited to wealthy societies. Greater access to education and economic opportunity for women has resulted in falling birthrates all over the world. As Hindu birthrates fall in Ladakh, Hindu nationalists accuse minority muslims of “love jihad.” Singapore has embarked upon a concerted effort to encourage reproduction among the native born population while tightly controlling reproduction among its guest worker population.

Continuing population growth will bring with it increasing environmental pressures. Barring a technological miracle, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise in the coming decades. Growing food demand and slowing growth in agricultural yields will increase pressure to convert forests and other valuable habitat to cropland in order to feed a global population that, under the best of circumstances, will top 9 billion people by the middle of this century.

But the spread of the demographic transition — and with it the baby bust, reminds us that global population growth, sooner or later, will come to an end. The future of human societies does not point toward endless growth in resource demands and, hence, environmental degradation. How quickly that transition proceeds, and how well we are able to manage it will ultimately determine what the future climate looks like and how many of the earth’s ecosystems can be preserved.

But recent events like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump suggest that the same dynamics that may hold much promise for environmental protection, may also be undermining many of the institutions that we might count upon to manage the transition. Rising nationalism and a turn away from globalization could result in a turning away from the multilateral institutions that we will need to manage twenty-first century ecological challenges. A world with fewer people will not necessarily be one with lower environmental impacts if that future brings less innovation or investment in better infrastructure. Slowing population growth will likely bring slowing economic growth. Without the rising tide that has floated all boats over the last several centuries, social, economic, and environmental conflicts may become more zero sum and less amenable to shared investments in a common future.

Both Malthusian pessimism and Cornucopian enthusiasm are legacies of two centuries of rapid demographic growth. Robbins reminds us that virtually all of our analytical and ideological frameworks for thinking about the environment, the economy, and society were born amidst a period of unprecedented population growth, one that is already coming to an end. To manage the challenges and opportunities that are already manifesting as demographic growth comes to an end in many parts of the world, Robbins argues, we will need new approaches for a world in which depopulation and slower rates of economic growth may henceforth be the norm.

Responses welcome.