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Experts wrangle over ‘birth dearth’

While the world’s population continues to grow, birth rates are dropping at unprecedented rates. By Julia Sommerfeld
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In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift cheekily suggests that one-year old children be sold for food to solve the problems of overpopulation and poverty in 18th century Ireland. Now, almost 300 years later, some demographers are predicting a shortage of Irish babies.

Today, the average Irish family no longer consists of the three, four or six children that Swift bemoaned, but 1.8 - a number below the rate at which a population starts declining.

In fact, no major industrialized country has a fertility rate above 2.1, known as the replacement rate because it is the number of children per woman at which a population replaces itself. The average fertility rate in Europe is 1.45, a rate that could lead, one day, to a severe decline in population. And 22 developing countries have also dropped below this threshold.

Slowing momentum
Some of these countries are expected to begin experiencing population declines over the next half-century as the momentum responsible for current population growth grinds to a halt.

The rate of global population growth has been slowing since the 1960s, when birth rates began to decline around the world due to changing cultural and economic factors, including increasing education, urbanization and access to family planning services. Though birth rates vary widely between countries, the world’s total fertility rate (the number of children per mother) has dropped from five in 1950 to 2.7 today.

Ben Wattenberg at the American Enterprise Institute, who coined the phrase “birth dearth,” warns that over time decreasing birth rates, especially in countries like Italy, Germany and Spain, which at between 1.2 and 1.3 children per woman are significantly below the replacement rate, will lead to the unknown consequences of a declining population.

“I don’t believe we will run out of people, but you are going to see a stark decline in population in Europe and this isn’t something the world has been through,” he said. “My own guess is if we start losing population it opens up a lot of troubling situations. One is economic - what happens to an economy based on growth in such a situation?”

Fewer babies being born and increasing life expectancies will give rise to what Wattenberg calls the “grayby boom.” He says that by having fewer children we are eroding the population base of its “worker bees.” And who will pay for our pensions in old age, he asks.

Sheldon Richman of The Freeman, a libertarian magazine, worries about the cultural and psychological effects of such demographic trends. “Personally, I think a culture where nobody has brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles is somewhat impoverished,” he says.

Disparate birth rates
But populations professor Joel Cohen says that while 44 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where fertility is at or below the replacement rate, the average number of children per woman across the world is almost three, 50 percent over the replacement level. And many developing nations have fertility rates as high as five times that of the countries Wattenberg cites. Yemen, Ethiopia and Uganda all have fertility rates above 7 and in Nigeria, the fifth largest contributor to the world’s population, the average woman has almost 6 children.

Population activists and environmentalists say that while Wattenberg is talking about events that may happen 50 years from now, their concerns are more immediate. Further population growth will quickly surpass sustainable limits on a number of environmental fronts, including freshwater supply, cropland per person and oceanic fisheries, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

“Increasingly, we are talking about the effects of population growth in 10 or 20 years,” said Alex Marshall of the United Nations Population Fund. “Ben Wattenberg and company seem to me to be deliberately ignoring there are still almost 100 million births a year.”