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It's Time to Fight Population Growth, Which Exacerbates Global Warming and Sprawl

It's ridiculous that we don't fight attempts to promote population growth while we wring our hands over global warming, species loss and suburban sprawl.
 
 
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Getting a better deal for mothers has been at the forefront of the feminist agenda for decades, although you'd never know it from the way the women's movement is always being accused of attacking women with kids. So it's ironic that what is finally driving at least some governments to act is the desire to boost fertility rates. The aim is to breed the next generation of workers -- ethnically correct workers, too, not the troublesome immigrant kind. As Sharon Lerner noted in The New York Times Magazine ("The Motherhood Experiment," March 4), fertility rates -- the average number of children per woman -- have fallen below replacement level in ninety countries, including such Catholic stalwarts as Ireland (1.9), Spain (1.3), Italy (1.3) and Portugal (1.4). Even the much-trumpeted increasing US population is mostly a product of immigration (the actual fertility rate is 2.0). While politicians in Japan (1.3) seem fatally drawn to chastising women as recalcitrant "baby-making machines," European governments have started asking if making life easier for working mothers might do the trick.

In the modern world, the traditional ways of producing large families -- early marriage, lack of sex ed and birth control, religious propaganda, community pressure, denial of education and jobs to women -- don't work so well, especially when combined with the high cost of living that prevails in many developed countries. Even in comparatively conservative countries like Greece (1.3), young women are going to college, working and postponing marriage, as young men have been doing for years. Faced with the choice between career and kids, a lot of women seem to be voting with their wombs. As Lerner notes, the countries with the most rigidly patriarchal families and the most sexist workplaces are the ones with the lowest birthrates. (That's something for the World Congress of Families to consider when it meets in May in Warsaw. Founded by right-wing "family values" ideologue Allan Carlson, the WCF inveighs against abortion, same-sex marriage and secularism and promotes large "natural families" and "religious orthodoxy." I don't get the feeling working moms are on the agenda.)

If fears of population implosion result in paid parental leave, improved childcare and more support for mothers' careers, it won't be the first time a government has done the right thing for the wrong reason. But isn't it weird to promote population growth while we wring our hands over global warming, environmental damage, species loss and suburban sprawl? The United Nations projects that in 2050 the world's population will reach 9.2 billion! When we think of overpopulation the usual image is of some teeming Third World slum, and indeed most population growth will come in the developing world. But actually it's the developed world that's doing the earth in. Every American uses as much energy as forty-eight Bangladeshis, and as many resources as an African village. Europeans and Japanese aren't far behind. What feels right for a nation or an ethnicity -- we need more Russians! more Italians! more Scots! -- might be wrong for the human race, to say nothing of polar bears.

For decades experts have argued that heavyhanded fertility-control schemes were unwarranted and that modernization -- better healthcare, women's rights, voluntary contraception -- would cause birthrates to fall naturally. And so they have! It worked! We should be cheering. Six billion people is plenty. Since women themselves are taking the initiative, why not take advantage? There's a limit to what family-friendly policies can achieve. Even Sweden, which has done the most to help mothers keep working and is also ahead of the curve on encouraging men to take leaves, is at only 1.7.

Measures that facilitate combining work with motherhood are simple gender justice. But paying women to have kids, as in France, which offers a year's paid leave of up to 1,000 Euros a month for a third child -- that's just nationalistic vanity. Fact is, population decline looks practically inevitable -- according to the UN, in a few generations Asia and Latin America will start shrinking as well -- so why not learn to live with it? Economically, the problem is a coming dearth of young workers to fund social security and care for an aging population. Yet while demographers fret about those unconceived second and third babies, every country on earth throws away plenty of children who are already here. Poor children, for example -- why can't they grow up to be those missing skilled, educated people and productive workers? What about the children of France's Arab immigrants who rioted two years ago to protest joblessness and social exclusion? The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, whose kids are written off at birth and who have been sterilized without their consent in Slovakia and the Czech Republic? Vladimir Putin bemoans Russia's free-falling population, but babies are still being stashed in his country's appalling orphanages. Get those kids out of there, or stop complaining! The disabled, or older people who'd like to keep their jobs past the legal retirement age -- there are a lot of would-be workers who just need a bit of accommodation. Instead of cajoling or bribing women into gestating the home-health attendants of the future, states should start treasuring the people -- all the people -- they have right now.

That includes immigrants. Just below the polite official discussion, there's a disturbing undercurrent of nativism and racism that in some places is merging with the family-values religious right. "Europe is almost lost; to a demographic winter and to the secularists," claims the WCF. "If Europe goes much of the world will go with it." Fortunately, one country is a beacon of hope: "Poland has saved Europe before. It is likely she will save Europe again." When was it exactly that Poland saved Europe, you ask? That would be 1683, when the Polish army of King John Sobieski led the defeat of the Turks in the siege of Vienna, thus halting Muslim expansion in Europe. Will Polish women bear kids for Christ? The ruling Law and Justice Party is doing its part, with legal restrictions on abortion and contraception. Maybe they should try childcare. Current number of children per Polish woman: 1.3.

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation.