Environment

Low Fertility Rates Isn't a Crisis as Some Argue—It's a Solution to a Safer, More Sustainable World

The real debate about fertility rates is about what kind of planet we want to inhabit.

Pedestrians at Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, Japan. The famous crosswalk is used by over 2.5 million people daily. (November 20, 2010)
Photo Credit: Thomas La Mela/Shutterstock

Last week, news outlets around the country reported on an emerging crisis: low fertility rates. Commentators argue that women having fewer children will harm the economy. That comes as a surprise to Sarah Evans, a mother of one. “Sitting in Los Angeles traffic all day in heat waves, hearing about climate change, watching parents struggle and seeing more families become homeless, it just doesn’t feel like people having too few children is the problem,” she says.

(image: khorzhevska/Bigstock)

For some parents, having one child is just right. Some experts agree, arguing that having an extra child is the worst thing a person can do to exacerbate climate change, thereby endangering the children we already have, not to mention the fact that rapid human expansion is destroying natural habitats and driving the extinction of other species.

Other experts cite the need for parents to plan their families better, given the number of abandoned children being cared for by the state, at tremendous cost, in a child welfare system many believe is failing.

Others argue that traffic, which contributes substantially to emissions, is itself becoming an increasing threat to the economy.

Underpopulated or overpopulated—how do we make sense of it all? The fact is that lower fertility rates are part a larger historic trend toward sustainable families, and the product of an intentional effort by countries around the world to improve child welfare, protect the environment and produce economic equality. Those intentional state interventions cut fertility rates by more than half and averted famines and many environmental disasters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is the problem: Those efforts have fallen short. The world’s population is projected to skyrocket from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050, with the U.S. expected to rise from its current 325 million to 438 million people by 2050. Those state interventions also ignored cooperative family planning techniques that could have promoted equity, setting egalitarian qualitative family planning targets that would give the children of both the wealthy and poor a fair start in life. That in turn exacerbated inequalities, helping lead to the massive gap today.

Graph of human population from 10000 BCE to 2000 CE, showing the extremely rapid growth in the world human population that has taken place since the 18th century. (image: Wikipedia)

Think about your daily routine, and how crowding reduces your quality of life—pollution, climate change, vast inequality and people around you that didn’t get what they needed growing up, disconnected communities, traffic, etc. Now imagine it all getting significantly worse, in a world already well beyond its natural capacity to support a high quality of life for most people.

Why then are some today calling lower fertility rates a crisis? Babies are big business. Experts point to trends such as stagnating food prices, which rely on historically high demand driven by population growth. For conservative governments and big companies, an ever-increasing supply of babies helps drive profits, leading some to call for making America “mate again.”

There is, of course, the very real threat of increasing public costs that come with lower fertility rates, in essence brought on by an ageing populace that’s supported by fewer producers. Others see this trend as a threat to the security of developed nations like the United States and are urging policies to women to have more kids.

But why are we treating kids as future consumers, workers, and taxpayers that we create more of to support us, especially when that growth will make their lives worse than they otherwise could be? Instead of our economies producing real value, are we supposed to just constantly add more people? Perhaps the womb raiders that rely on the Ponzi scheme of perpetual population growth should stop exploiting children and instead try to protect them?

It may be time for one generation to step forward and shoulder the burden of demographic transition, and stop shuffling this onto future generations. The simple fact is that we need human rights-based, objective, and sustainable family planning now, and a model that guarantees every child a fair start in life relative to other kids in their generation. 

Many companies and governments, however, are doing their best to fight the trend towards fairness and sustainability. Efforts range from the obvious to the more subtle. Under Putin’s plan, Russia is paying people to have kids. Spain has appointed a sex tsar to increase fertility rates, and even China, at almost 1.4 billion people, is considering paying its citizens to have a second child. Yet much of China is an environmental nightmare, where many children have to play under cover of plastic domes to protect their developing lungs from air pollution, and most of the country’s water is severely polluted.

South Korea has mapped areas where women of prime childbearing age live in the hopes of increasing birthrates, while some in Singapore are calling for women to have kids as part of their national duty. In the United States, conservative commentators push back against critics of teen pregnancy and citing large families as a way to be patriotic, or question the very idea of family planning.

In order to give every child a fair start in life, we need to talk about sustainable family planning.(image: monkeybusinessimages/BigStock)

Ivanka Trump, whose significant influence seems exclusively a product of the family into which she was born, promotes a family leave program cynically sold as a caring subsidy but clearly responsive to years of calls for government intervention to increase U.S. fertility rates.  

Others shame women who don’t have kids, calling them deficient or arguing that they are selfish. More subtly, many governments are using the media to urge women to have more kids, creating and publicizing surveys that insist having a second child is the key to happiness. In Singapore, doctors are urging women to have children, in some cases despite risks to the infant from the Zika virus.

Companies, especially those that rely on large families that consume a lot of products, are following suit. In a perversion of stealth persuasion technique originally meant to reduce fertility rates, business media routinely run stories about celebrities choosing larger families as a means of increasing growth rates, stories that otherwise have nothing to do with business news.

Unilever is an example. It sells its products, including baby products, under more than 1,000 brand names worldwide, with over two billion people using a Unilever product on any given day. It has used cunning advertising to encourage parents to have children, assuaging fears that weigh on would-parents’ minds as they plan families. Its brands sponsor persuasive blogs, aimed at mothers and those considering having kids.

Disney is getting in on the action, sponsoring blogs where large families push back under the banner of personal freedom against criticism, including for things like hitting their children.

For Sarah Evans, one child is enough. “I want to be there for her. It’s about her future, not about propping up some unsustainable and unfair system. I want her to have a safe, healthy future. I hope other parents want the same—my daughter shouldn’t have to live in a polluted and dangerous world filled with billions more people divided into the ultra-rich and the poor."

To learn more about the benefits of having smaller families, check out Having Kids' Fair Start model.

Carter Dillard is the founder of the nonprofit organization HavingKids.org. He also serves as senior policy advisor to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

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