By Michelle Goldberg
There are two ways to look at world population numbers.
By one measure, the world has grown beyond its capacity. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s science adviser, Dr Nina Fedoroff, recently told the BBC: ‘The planet can’t support many more people.’
But in parts of Europe and other developed countries, the problem isn’t too many people but too few: Dwindling birth rates have raised concerns about whether a shrinking pool of young people will be able to maintain the social safety net for the previous generation.
Politically, the discussion about population is deeply polarised.
Conservatives talk about falling birth rates in almost apocalyptic terms, suggesting Europe is being punished for its sins of secularism and feminism.
Best-selling author Mark Steyn has predicted ‘the demise of European races too self-absorbed to breed’, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate last year, warned that ‘Europe is facing demographic disaster’. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to see the Malthusian spectre of overpopulation as a far greater threat, fearing that it could give rise to widespread poverty as resources dwindle.
So who is right? Is our future endangered by overpopulation or underpopulation? The answer is both. But in an elegant irony, the two problems have the same solution: giving women more control over their fertility and their lives. Both very high and very low birth rates threaten social stability, and both, it seems, stem from countries’ failures to meet women’s needs.
Right now, the world’s population is growing at an unsustainable rate of 78 million people a year, and according to the United Nations, the numbers will probably keep rising by 70 million or 75 million a year through 2020. Almost all of that growth will take place in the slums of the Third World.
The ethical and effective way to counter such rapid population growth would be to bolster women’s rights and improve their access to family planning.
Education is crucial – study after study has found that girls who go to school end up marrying later and having fewer but healthier children. Access to contraception is also key. According to the Guttmacher Institute, almost a quarter of the married women in sub-Saharan Africa labour under an unmet need for birth control.
In some Latin American and African nations, more than 40 per cent of recent births are said to have been unwanted. Meanwhile, high rates of unsafe, illegal abortion – responsible for 13 per cent of maternal mortality globally, according to the World Health Organisation – speak to women’s desperation to control their fertility.
At the same time, several developed countries, including Japan, Russia, Italy and Spain, have what seems to be the opposite problem.
A stable population requires each female member to have an average of 2.1 children. (The extra one-tenth of a per cent accounts for early deaths.) Demographers say countries can adapt without much trouble to fertility a few tenths of a per cent below that level.
However, when the rate falls below about 1.7 children per woman, economic growth, pension systems and general cultural viability all come into question as a shrinking pool of young people is forced to support a growing number of the country’s aged.
Italy, for example, has a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman. One leading demographer estimated that if Italy’s birth rate in 1995 remained in place for 100 years, then without immigration, the country’s population would in that time shrink to a mere 14 per cent of what it is today. And that kind of population decline can’t be remedied simply by encouraging immigration, not without causing major cultural upheavals and nationalist backlashes.
Fertility is reaching dangerously low levels in countries where social attitudes and institutions haven’t caught up with women’s desire to combine work and family. When faced with men who are unwilling to share domestic burdens, inflexible workplaces and day-care shortages, many women respond by having fewer children or forgoing motherhood altogether.
However, when societies make it possible for women to combine having children with pursuing other ambitions, fertility rates are fine.
It works differently in different cultures. In Scandinavia and France, working mothers are aided by lavish state support. Britain and the United States lack such generous benefits, but their flexible, even volatile labour markets lessen the importance of working uninterrupted at a single job, which provides more on-ramps for mothers to return to the workforce.
It’s counter-intuitive, but apparently, the more opportunities women in developed countries have to work, the more likely they are to have children, because they can do so without giving up their other dreams.
‘The evidence from Italy, and indeed from Spain, is that a traditional family structure now leads to very low birth rates,’ British MP and intellectual David Willetts concluded in a report on Europe’s pension woes.
Modern family policy, he wrote, must be about enabling women’s choices so that they needn’t forgo childbearing in order to have satisfying careers and egalitarian marriages. ‘Feminism,’ he wrote, ‘is the new natalism.’
Give women freedom and support, and they will find reproductive equilibrium, so that when societies do shrink or grow, they do so in a manageable way.
The lesson from these twin demographic dangers is clear: Take care of women, and they’ll take care of the rest.
The writer is the author of The Means Of Reproduction: Sex, Power, And The Future Of The World.
Los Angeles Times