May 19, 2013
The great goodbye
People are losing interest in mass producing offspring
Hardly a day goes by without distraught biologists telling us that, thanks to our depredations, entire species of animal and plant life are dying off at an alarmingly rapid rate, linguists bewailing the imminent departure of the last speaker of his or her tribe’s native language, or ecologists saying they fear that carbon-spewing industry will soon turn planet Earth into a smouldering cauldron. Well, here is something else to worry about: the way things are going, within a couple of centuries there may be nobody left to deplore mankind’s nasty habits.
For history as we know it, not just the Hegelian version once played with by Francis Fukuyama, but all of it, to come to a definitive end, the world would not have to treat itself to a nuclear war, be hit by a huge asteroid like the one that allegedly did for the dinosaurs, get poisoned by pollution or be invaded by pitiless creatures from outer space. Should humans refrain from reproducing themselves in sufficient quantities, that would be more than enough to do the trick.
A few decades ago, many took it for granted that the human race was breeding so recklessly that, unless it slowed down fast enough to defuse the “population bomb,” the future would resemble a Malthusian nightmare, with famines and massacres doing whatever it would take to restore the balance between resources and requirements. Though such distasteful thoughts are still being expressed by speakers at international conferences, they refer to yesterday’s world, not the one that exists today. Almost everywhere, people are living longer and birth rates are plunging. This is happening not only in Europe, Japan and the more waspish parts of North America, but almost everywhere else as well, including China.
The traditional replacement rate, what is needed for a population to maintain its present numbers, is 2.1 children per woman: in Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Greece and Spain, they find it hard to manage 1.3 infants apiece. Other developed countries may be doing marginally better, but with few exceptions — one is Israel — they too are falling short.
Until quite recently, it was generally assumed that the widening gaps being left could be filled by immigrants from famously prolific Third World countries, especially Muslim ones, but that seems increasingly unlikely, not because of the social and political problems arising from the multicultural experiment, but because they too are losing interest in mass producing offspring. In Turkey and Iran the fertility rate is currently at 1.5 per potential mother, while in most Arab countries it is dropping fast as, in this particular area at least, they “catch up” with their European counterparts.
There is rather more at stake here than the fate of national pension plans, most of which are bound to share the fate of Argentina’s because the money to meet all those generous entitlements is running out. Grim as the economic problems already are in those European countries where grandparents outnumber grandchildren by more than two to one, they are minor in comparison with what they will soon have to confront. So too, needless to say, will be the plight of people in other parts of the world that, as some demographers pithily put it, are going to grow old long before they grow rich.
Why is this happening? When birth rates started to decline in Europe and Japan, curmudgeonly oldsters attributed the phenomenon to the selfishness of the young who, they said, were more interested in acquiring material goods like electronic gadgets and sleek cars, as well as treating themselves to expensive holidays, than in going to the trouble of giving birth to children and then looking after them. In Russia, plummeting birth rates were said to be the result of despair as the old Bolshevik certainties gave way to the horrors of neoliberal capitalism. And in Iran? Perhaps young people were rebelling passively by going on strike, like Lysistrata, against the religious fanatics who run their country.
Some daring souls have suggested feminism might be to blame. There is no doubt that educating women has been a highly efficient prophylactic: that is why all birth control agencies recommend it. Letting millions of them into the workplace has also had a strong effect but, as development economists are at pains to point out, without their contribution living standards would be far lower than they currently are.
In any event, it is easy to understand why as yet nobody has come up with an acceptable solution to what is surely the most pressing problem of the many facing the human race. In Singapore, the authorities, who are accustomed to being obeyed, have tried to make their city state sexier in the hope that a touch of lasciviousness in the air would be enough to induce people to do their demographic duty, but these days sex has less to do with procreation than ever before.
This being the case, those interested in seeing our species survive for a bit longer will have to choose between resigning themselves to its forthcoming extinction or press for coercive measures that force families to produce enough children to prevent the population from dwindling away until our descendants follow the dodo, the dinosaurs and countless other creatures into the dark.