No. 99

Let women decide how many billions of us there will be

STONE the crows! We’re all doomed – what with the way over-population is accelerating. Unless, of course, the problem is a people shortage.

Last week was a doomsayer’s delight, with the UN announcing the arrival of the 7th billion person. This generated jeremiads from environmental activists about developed economies using an unsustainable share of the world’s resources and how capitalism is to blame.

As Paul Ehrlich (yes, the population bomb is still ticking) told Eleanor Hall last Monday:

We are way past the point of diminishing returns and also studies have shown when you start getting diminishing, what they call technically diminishing marginal product, it is a sign that civilisation is going to collapse and what is stunningly terrifying right now is the first time we have a global civilisation that is teetering on the brink of collapse and doesn’t even realise it.[i]

And (what a surprise) the Americans are to blame. As The Guardian (what another surprise!) pointed out:

With less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, the US consumes about one-fifth of the world’s energy. … the average American is responsible for about 200 times as much carbon as the average Ethiopian.[ii]

US religious conservatives are, specifically, responsible for more underprivileged Africans because foreign aid for contraception, “became entangled in America’s abortion wars.” [iii]

Which all confuses the Crows because there is also a case the planet faces a people shortage. According to the UN, unless women all over the world have less than two children “for an extended period” the world’s population could double by the end of the century. But if fertility does fall in developing countries the number of people on the planet will peak at 8 billion plus mid century and then gently trend down before trending up over a couple hundred years. (Only the UN could be so certain.) If fertility drops below replacement levels there will be less than 5 billion of us by 2100. While it is only arithmetic, if this continues to 2300 the joint will be all but empty, with just 1.3 billion humans.

Sound unlikely? Demography commentator Fred Pearce writes that once a nation’s fertility level drops to replacement level it keeps dropping.[iv] Sure, the number of births exceeds deaths by 158 per minute all over the world, but 154 of them are in the developing world.[v]

So how to help African women (where the population is expected to more than triple to 3.5 billion by the end of the century) have the chance to act like their sisters in other countries? [vi] Like Germany and Japan, where close to 30 per cent of women are childless. Like Russia where the population is less stable than shrinking. And Iran, Burma, as well as Vietnam, where births per woman are below replacement rate.[vii]

One way is perhaps the most outrageous example of social engineering in human history, which is occurring in China. The dreadful one child policy has already ensured 400 million people were never born and births per woman are now down to 1.4, well below the 2.1 replacement rate. With 118 male babies born for every 100 girls the impact of this authoritarian exercise in family planning has changed China forever.

People over 60 now account for 13.3 per cent of the population, a percentage which will grow, while under-14s, down from 23 per cent to 17 per cent in the last decade, will not.[viii] And while we can only guess at the impact of nearly 20 per cent of young men being denied the chance to marry none of the Crows’ speculations are happy ones.

In India, people are engineering society for themselves. India’s birth rate is now running at 2.6 births per woman, only because technology in the service of tradition makes it possible to selectively abort female babies.[ix] The normal ration of children under six is 952 girls for 1000 boys. In 2001, there were 927 little girls and in this year’s census just 914. [x]

In part, this occurs because peasant families need sons to work the land. And hasn’t peasant agriculture served India well. Some 48 per cent of Indian children are malnourished and only 66 per cent complete secondary school.[xi] But it also takes place because, across classes, Indian cultures assume girls are lesser beings than boys.[xii]

The way to reduce the rate of population growth anywhere is not to allow thugs whose idea of good government is to oppress peasants and punish people for having children (as the Chinese Communist Party did), or for ancient social customs that treat women as chattels to continue.

Nor is it to abandon capitalism for subsistence socialism that holds humanity responsible for making Gaia ill and angry. Bob Brown told the party faithful on Saturday, politicians and business were peddling population increase as the way to maintain the economy:

They follow the old absurdity that you must continue to increase the number of mammals on the planet in the form of Homo sapiens, all consuming more on a finite planet.[xiii]

In fact, economic growth does not depend on more people, just more productive ones.

As The Economist explains:

Subsistence farmers, who live off their harvest and risk falling victim to rapine or drought, can depend only on themselves and their children. For them, a family of eight may be the only insurance against disaster. But for the new middle classes of China, India or Brazil, with factory jobs, cars and bank accounts, the problems of extreme insecurity lie in the past. For them, a child may be a joy, a liability or an accident – but not an insurance policy.[xiv]

The way to lower birth rates is to empower women by creating economies where there is growth, and political systems where law protects ordinary people’s property and gives them a real say in running the show via the ballot box, societies where woman have access to education and equality as rights, where the assumption that girls are lesser beings than boys is abhorred. Teach women to read, let them control their own fertility, give them the chance to make money of their own, to have a life of their own choosing and birth rates fall.

They did in Europe, they have in Taiwan where women, not the state or their family, decide how many children they bear and the reproduction rate per head is 0.9.[xv] They do in Brazil where it has fallen from 2.9 in 1990 to an estimated 1.8 last year.[xvi]

The stronger the economy, and the more respect for women’s rights, the fewer babies they choose to have.


[i] ABC Radio, The World Today, “Population analyst warns of catastrophe,” October 31 @ recovered on November 5

[ii] Thomas Lovejoy. Stemming population growth is a cheap way to limit climate change,” The Guardian, October 31

[iii] Nicholas Kristof, “Family planning the key to future of crowded planet,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 5

[iv] Fred Pearce, “Dubious assumptions prime population bomb,” Nature News, May 11 @ recovered on November 5

[v] Joel Achenbach, “Alarm as world population enters a grey area,” Sydney Morning Herald, November 1

[vi] United Nations Population Fund, The state of world population, 2011 @ recovered on November 5

[vii] Alan Greenblatt, “Asian, European nations fret over birthrate swoon,” National Public Radio, November 2 @ recovered on November 5

[viii] “China’s population: the most surprising demographic crisis,” The Economist, May 5

[ix] UN Population Fund, op cit 4

[x] “Seven Brothers: an aversion to having daughters is leading to millions of missing girls,” The Economist, April 7

[xi] UN Population Fund op cit 12

[xii] Diksha Sahni, “Indian census reflects a grim reality for girls,” Wall Street Journal March 11

[xiii] AAP, “Brown labels Greens most ‘exciting’ party, Sydney Morning Herald, November 6

[xiv] “Falling fertility,” The Economist, October 29

[xv] Ralph Jennings, “Taiwan’s birth rate falls to world’s lowest,” Voice of America, August 17 @ recovered on November 5

[xvi] Mary Mederios Kent, “Brazil’s fertility falls below two-child average,” Population Reference Bureau @ recovered on November 5