In May 2021, both China and the U.S. released census data indicating decreases in birth rates (the number of live births per 1000 people per year), at roughly 8.58 and 10.98 respectively. While both of these trends have been proceeding steadily since the 1960s, both are entering unprecedented territory and have recently become the focus of much media coverage. In the U.S., the fertility rate (the number of live births per 1000 women aged 15 to 49 per year) has fallen to 56, the lowest number ever recorded. And in China, a country that relies primarily on domestic births for population growth, a population peak is anticipated by 2030.
In both countries, and in political, academic, as well as journalist circles, these continued declines in birth rates have been universally framed as a crisis. Furthermore, while in many other countries birth rates remain high, similar trends have lately been identified and lamented in other wealthy countries, as well as in the world at large. However, negative coverages of these trends tend to obscure systemic power imbalances, place short-term economic prosperity over long-term human and ecological well-being, and omit their potentially beneficial effects.
Birth Rates and the Economy
Across these contexts, commonly cited reasons for concern include the slower economic growth and the societal strain of an aging population (specifically on healthcare, social services, and the workforce) to which declining birth rates lead. On the other hand, explanations for falling birth rates themselves are less agreed upon, and include such suggestions as increases in opportunities for women, increasing costs of living, increasing prosperity, the effects of chemical pollution on our reproductive systems, and, in the last couple of years, the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within China specifically, the past forty years of government restrictions on family sizes have also had a considerable effect. These have yet to be fully repealed in spite of Beijing’s evident concern over the demographic decreases.
“The future can be seen in the northern city of Weihai, where deaths began exceeding births in 2019,” says Reuters journalist Yawen Chen. “Public debt […] rose to over 700% of fiscal revenue in 2020.”
Meanwhile, in spite of slowing rates and concerns raised, the absolute number of people continues to grow steadily both within China – whose population has grown by seventy million in ten years – and on a global scale – at about an additional one billion every twelve years. And while the most accessible sources cast China’s, the U.S.’s, and the world’s slowing birth rates in negative terms, there are two important factors that are excluded from such coverage.
For one, such narratives place the burden of responsibility on the general public to have enough children to prevent an increasingly aging population from overstraining social services such as healthcare and pension plans. Thus, the issue of how dysfunctional these services currently are is totally obscured. Notably, China and the US, the two countries where the baby busts are getting the most negative coverage, are countries with sorely mismanaged social services. Both China and the U.S. also struggle with massive wealth disparity. Furthermore, like most industrialized nations, both are hosts to many, many people who work in jobs with far fewer obvious benefits to society at large than healthcare and social workers, and typically out of desperation rather than moral failure.
Thus, there is no reason to think that the issue of an aging population cannot be solved with a reorganization of social services, increased taxation on the ultra-wealthy diverted into better funding these services, and/or with the creation of jobs and education opportunities in the healthcare and social services sectors for people currently working in jobs of questionable social value. By simply focusing on the lack of babies as the issue, the implication is that the wealth disparity and the mismanagement of social services are completely unchangeable.
The second issue, of ecological impacts, is a little thornier, and deserves thorough reflection. At present, the 7.7 billion humans on Earth are taking a tremendous toll on the planet’s natural resources, and are destroying habitats and species at a terrifying rate. While it is true that the majority of this is caused by giant corporations rather than ordinary people, it is nonetheless true that having fewer people on earth would slow this process, no matter how relatively small the ecological footprint of the average person may be.
Thus, by focusing so much on the economic repercussions of baby busts, mainstream media narratives place short-term economic stability above long-term ecological stability and the very real human price that a lack of such stability will have. It is not that economic stability is unimportant, but rather that it is dwarfed by the urgency of the ecological issue.
The Myth of Overpopulation
However, there are those who might argue that to paint a declining birth rate in a positive light is dangerous, as it feeds into the myth of overpopulation. While this is an oversimplification, it is nonetheless an important point that is necessary to explore to get to the bottom of the real effects of baby busts and how we ought to discuss them.
The idea of an overpopulated world has historically caused a lot of harm and has validated a lot of racist and classist worldviews. Focusing on overpopulation as the root of climate change is an illogical form of discrimination against the countries of the Global South since, while most of these countries do have the highest fertility rates, they also have the smallest ecological footprints per person – several hundred times smaller than the average Global North inhabitant. It is particularly illogical because much of what makes the Global North’s ecological footprints so vast are precisely the non-essential uses of electricity, oil, land, and water. Furthermore, this combination of a vastly lower ecological footprint and of a higher fertility rate is also true of poor populations within rich nations. Thus, emphasis on overpopulation is also a form of classism.
Such thinking obscures the ecological crimes of the rich and powerful and lays the foundation for ecofascism, an increasingly popular political philosophy which claims that severely limiting individual freedoms in the name of the environment is justified. In its more extreme variants, ecofascism even advocates for mass sterilization and genocide to such ends.
In the sense that the concept of overpopulation implies that the sheer quantity of humans is the primary driver of ecological destruction, and justifies treating human lives as if they were dispensable, overpopulation is indeed not real.
Finding a Balance
While the exact limit is unknown, it is broadly agreed upon by ecologists and demographers that the earth has a limited carrying capacity, meaning the maximum permanently sustainable number of people that can live off of the earth’s finite resources. While, again, the number will vary dramatically depending on whether you are talking about supporting the average Canadian lifestyles versus the average Burundian lifestyles, estimates for this number range from 2 billion to 1 trillion.
With that being said, it is possible to entertain both the ideas that overpopulation is a myth and that there is a carrying capacity of which we need to be mindful. The main takeaway from the “overpopulation is a myth” narrative should not be that there is no limit to how many humans the earth can support, but rather that: one, it is illogical to blame the masses of people on Earth who are responsible for a negligible amount of ecological destruction while the majority of it is perpetrated by the ultra-wealthy; and two, no number of people on Earth would justify robbing people of their fundamental freedoms, and certainly not of their rights to life and procreation.
Speaking openly about the benefits of a natural – or, rather, an uncoerced – decline in birth rates is consistent with both of these points, and so is compatible with the rejection of the overpopulation narrative. Such a decline should especially be welcomed if it is a by-product of positive trends such as increased opportunities for women and increased prosperity. Perhaps we should be a little more wary of jumping to celebration if these declines are indeed a by-product of harmful trends, such as chemically-induced infertility, or economic hardship. Even then, however, acknowledging baby busts to be the effects of something harmful would not necessitate that they are the cause of something harmful.
In any case, the issue of baby busts deserves a lot more critical reflection than it is being given by most governments, academics, and journalists. While it is true that these trends are likely to cause economic hardships in the short-term and put a strain on social services as they are set up now, there is much that is being excluded from the conversation. The structures of our healthcare systems, social service systems, and the relations of labour within our society were designed by people. If we so wish, we can change them. The size of the earth and the bounty of its resources, on the other hand, cannot be changed. And while the number of people on Earth is far from the main issue in the fight against climate change, at this point, we need all the help we can get – barring any infringements on human dignity and freedom.