Most of my life, I have heard dire warnings of population explosion. I remember TV ads growing up warning that the world population would soon be over 4 billion. And in my lifetime, the population has exploded, both locally and worldwide.
However, most European countries are not producing sufficient children to reproduce themselves and a few, such as Italy and Spain, and parts of eastern Germany, are experiencing an especially steep decline.
According to a recent New York Times article, women in Europe want more babies than they're having. Not surprisingly, in the countries that provide the most robust supports for young parents, such as Norway with 54 weeks paid maternity leave, the birth rate is highest. In the U.S., the birth rate is higher than in Europe despite almost no maternal benefits, in part, the Times article theorizes, because our job market is more flexible than in Europe, allowing women to drop in and out with fewer penalties
I wonder if we are wrong in thinking overpopulation is the problem. Perhaps we're on the brink of a sharp drop in population.
Reproductive control is spreading to developing countries such as India and places in Latin America, where the birth rate has dropped off markedly, according to the Times. China, of course, has been aggressively pursuing population control for decades.
There are other factors. For example, AIDS is devastating Africa. Some, like the late Dr. John Lee, argue(d) forcefully that environmental damage is leading to chromosome damage that will cause fertility to plummet. Another issue is the amount of estrogen poured into the ecosystem in the form of fertilizers and growth hormones. High estrogen is connected with low sperm counts.
So for all our fears of overpopulation, we may be on the brink of the opposite problem. Add to that the possibility of a famine, especially as we don't practice biodiversity in large-scale agriculture, and the possibility of a disease epidemic and the earth population could be rapidly reduced.
Some population reduction might be a good thing, but the same geometric progressions that lead to massive population gains also work in the opposite direction. Zero population growth is very different from zero population, which is what shrinking populations head toward.
Do I think the human race will die out? No. Do I think we have to worry unduly about overpopulation? No.
But what are the implications for social policy if we start heading toward deep population decline?
The issues that have been dear to the conservative Christian agenda (I am not a conservative so I am simply stating these issues, not advocating for them) for the past 30-40 years (coincidentally the same period that we became worried about population explosion)-- banning abortion, stopping gay rights, supporting traditional families with tax breaks -- are all issues that the public as a whole has not embraced.
If our framing story is overpopulation, the dismissal of these initiatives makes sense. If the big problem facing our society is the horror of too many people, then abortion provides a service, the inefficiency of gay reproduction is a boon, and making it easier to raise families should be discouraged so that people will have fewer children. Redefining community and interpersonal relations away from child bearing/childrearing, and towards personal fulfillment becomes important as a way of encouraging low population growth.
But if childbearing takes on more urgent importance, is the conservative Christian agenda, unamended, what we want to embrace? Much of it seems to me a throwback to the bad old days of female (not to mention gay) oppression. Is there another way? And how to build it?