The Shock of Global Population Decline
by john ibbitson and darrell bricker
crown, 304 pages, $26
Malthusianism is enjoying something of a revival these days. The term “Malthusianism” comes from Thomas Malthus's eighteenth-century thesis that food production could not possibly keep up with population growth. Today, whether it is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asking “Is it OK to still have children?” in the face of climate change, or Marvel villain Thanos seeking to eliminate half the life in the universe to conserve resources, the unspoken assumption is that the problem of the future will be too many people, not too few.
John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker are challenging this consensus. The core message of their book Empty Planet is that our future problem will not be overpopulation, but underpopulation. As they point out, the replacement rate for any given population is 2.1 births per woman. But fertility rates in Europe and nearly all developed nations worldwide are below replacement rate, including the United States—with a tidy 1.8.
Empty Planet argues there are two primary causes of birth rate decline: urbanization and increased education/birth control access. In other words, the decline in birth rates seen in developed countries will eventually be duplicated in less-developed nations, and accelerated due to globalization. 2100’s demographics will be very different from today’s. We will see an increasing number of long-lived geriatrics and a declining number of youths. This will create a “fertility trap” in which lifespans extend while the number of people responsible for the economy’s primary production and consumption—the young—decreases.
Much of the developed world has already reached this stage, and there may be no going back. China, with its self-induced fertility trap, brought on by mass sterilization, propaganda, and one-child policies—combined with increased urbanization and wealth—could see its population plummeting to 754 million by 2100. An urbanized and immigration-averse Japan can look forward to a decline of 25 percent in the next thirty-five years, and South Korea and Singapore face similar futures.
Ibbitson and Bricker are more hopeful about America’s chances:
The twentieth century has been named the American Century. The twenty-first will be American, too. American economic and cultural power, along with its geopolitical and military heft, will grow rather than weaken. Provided Americans don’t close themselves off from the world, they will influence the world more than ever before.
The U.S. has a higher fertility rate than most other developed nations, thanks in large part to migrants. The U.S. also has a unique ability to absorb immigrants—unlike nations that virtually prohibit it, such as Japan.
For Ibbitson and Bricker, Canada is the measure of all things: “Any country that wants to stave off the economic effects of population decline,” they write, should adopt the “Canadian solution [of] an immigration level of 1 percent of population annually.” Despite Justin Trudeau’s kindly front, the Canadian system is more utilitarian than the U.S. lottery systems.
Ibbitson and Bricker are not allies of any nationalist, conservative, or religious cause. But they have more common ground with the religious right than first appears. They seem to have a positive interest in U.S. hegemony. They are contrarians, but their central point is that Malthus was wrong: Humanity is not mindlessly reproducing itself into extinction, and it just might do the opposite.
One gets the impression from both Empty Planet and the Malthusians that irresistible forces are at work, pushing the world toward one extreme or another. For Malthusians, the final push could be war, disease, sea-rise, or famine; for Ibbitson and Bricker, urbanization and globalization produce a relentless pattern of economic growth and population decline. When it comes to political solutions, Malthusian prophets generally fall into a totalitarian mode: For them, overcoming the problem requires mass mobilization of the unwilling—see AOC’s predilections for bovine genocide as a case study. Empty Planet presents something closer to paralysis. As Lyman Stone pointed out in his review of the book, if birth rates are declining the world over, immigration will only ever be a temporary solution. “When the bubble does pop,” we’ll only have delayed the problem. America’s relative openness to immigration is a comparative advantage, but it only can insulate social order so far. We need alternatives.
Ibbitson and Bricker are not optimistic about “pro-natal” policies, nor are they terribly interested in exploring their possibilities and permutations. They spend more time bashing right-wing xenophobia in Hungary than evaluating Viktor Orbán’s Family Housing Support Program (CSOK). Given the obvious limitations of the immigration solution, this might be the book’s biggest shortcoming.
The authors examine a few clear failures—Singapore’s “government-sponsored dating agency” being the most amusing example—and a few that have shown limited success, such as Sweden’s (now-defunct) extremely generous maternal leave policies. Leveraging government policy to promote baby-making is costly work with uncertain results. Even recent successful programs—like those of Georgia—are not easily exported, especially to diverse nations like the United States. However, there are several pro-natal packages around the world, and at least some political will to see them examined.
A world without children is a dark one. Ibbitson and Bricker are prophets, and their analysis should be in the toolkit of pro-family lobbyists. It should also be a bridge to parties who would otherwise be turned off by politics as usual. The potential convergence of pro-natal policy and hedging against future social and economic collapse makes for an attractive political position, and one ready for a champion. Those who see strong families as essential for human flourishing must pay attention. In the rising tide of population decline, we only have so much time to get our response right.
Brevin Anderson writes from Boston, Massachusetts.