In Praise of Falling Birth Rates

March 26, 2012

A recent column by Froma Harrop makes a point I’ve repeatedly alluded to in FREE INQUIRY — the demographic contraction that comes from years of falling birthrates is not only survivable, but could portend a more pleasant and sustainable future.

In “Birthrates Did Not Doom Japan,” Harrop notes that the last thing Japan needs is more humans, and that both government and the private sector are working to meet (rather than avoid) the challenges of a future with fewer workers and more elders. Foolishly, American politicians look to immigration to keep an already unsustainable population growing; meanwhile, Japan looks to robotics both to make a small number of workers more efficient and also to automate the care of the increasingly numerous elderly and infirm. Finally she observes that a sharp demographic crash would only reduce Japan’s population to what it was in the 1950s. Which approach sounds more constructive to you?

As I’ve argued in FREE INQUIRY (see also the cover feature “Is the Population Bomb Finally Exploding?”, April/May 2009, most of which is only available in print), experts have been warning of overpopulation since the fifties, so an eventual return to the global population of that time (roughly 2.5 billion) would seem a reasonable goal in order to make humanity long-term sustainable on the only planet we’ve got. Of course getting there would require several consecutive generations of demographic contraction. Far from seeing the state of having fewer workers than elders as a crisis, we need to learn to view it as a challenge to be met — as the price of avoiding a future in which we doom ourselves by our own fecundity. That’s a huge challenge for economists, as today’s economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme that depends on a few percent population growth year after year. I only wish more economists were working on it.

Harrop’s column suggests that the Japanese may wind up leading the way.