Fifty years ago, one of the great truths that no serious person dared challenge was that humanity was just a few ticks away from the detonation of what Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich dubbed “the population bomb,” in his book of the same name. The world, everyone assumed, would be awash in (even more) hungry mouths to feed.
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” intoned Ehrlich with all the certitude of a future MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient. “In the 1970s . . . hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
As Jonathan V. Last notes in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Ehrlich was so way off that it’s stunning anyone ever took him and his neo-Malthusian assessment of overpopulation seriously. There were no mass starvations, and the famines that occurred all had political, not agronomic, causes. “What’s so wonderful about Ehrlich’s silly book,” writes Last, a senior writer at the conservative Weekly Standard, “is that he was wrong at the exact moment when the very opposite of his prediction was unfolding.” Total fertility rates, or the number of babies a woman is expected to bear over the course of her life, were already declining in the United States, but starting in 1968 “they sank like a stone.”
They continue to. By 1979 the global fertility rate was 6.0, and now it’s 2.52, according to UN data. All first-world countries are already below a 2.1 rate, the “replacement level” needed to keep a population constant, and fertility rates are plummeting throughout developing nations as well. “Today,” writes Last, “only 3 percent of the world’s population lives in a country whose fertility rate is not declining.” The UN projects that world population, currently around seven billion, will peak over the next eighty-five years between ten billion and twelve billion people before starting a long and inexorable decline. Which is, Last argues, precisely the real cataclysm humanity faces. Though he says he isn’t “selling doom,” Last’s own last-days prediction is right there in his book’s subtitle: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. Building on trends identified and anxieties aired by writers such as Phillip Longman (author of 2004’s The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It), Last invokes a vision of the future that is basically a photographic negative of Ehrlich’s.
Absent massive, sustained levels of immigration, he writes, low-birthrate countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany, and Greece will by century’s end see “their populations . . . shrink by 86 percent, 85 percent, 83 percent, and 74 percent, respectively.” This is already happening in Japan, where the population peaked a few years back at around 127 million, and is now contracting. “If Japan’s fertility stays where it is,” Last writes, “the country will contract by more than half—to 56.8 million—by the end of the century.” In the United States, our fertility rate of around 2.0 has been inflated by immigrant mothers, who tend to have more kids than native-born women. But not only is a thirty-year wave of immigration subsiding; the women who are still coming to America are also starting to have fewer babies.
An extremely sharp writer with a great eye for telling details and revealing anecdotes, Last recounts the story of the last eight residents of Ogama, Japan, who sold their village to a company that turned it into a landfill. Depopulated German towns in the eastern part of the country are managing the process of shrinking their borders through mass demolition of abandoned buildings and new zoning regulations, even as actual wolves have started sniffing around the cities’ perimeters. Programs to bulldoze acres of empty buildings in Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Flint, Michigan, are only slightly less discomfiting.
Last deftly walks the reader through reams of data and methodology on how population demographics are figured and the limitations both of analysis of the past and projections of the future. At the same time, he makes amiable detours and takes potshots at subjects ranging from Old Town Alexandria (a charming close-in Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, where childless couples are too busy eating gelato to have kids) to birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger (“a weird old bat” who railed against “the ‘unthinking fecundity’” of the lower orders) to Japan’s parasaito shinguru (or “parasite single”: college-educated, working women who live with their parents so they can spend more of their wages on clothes and other amenities).
In Last’s account, all roads lead to the same cul-de-sac: Birthrates are falling everywhere and will eventually lead to financial collapse as the population first ages and then declines. Not only will economies shrink, but older people will be less likely to invent the sorts of new businesses and technologies that goose living standards. Old-age entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, already well on their way to insolvency as the number of beneficiaries increases and the supply of contributors shrinks, will simply “disintegrate.” No nation, he writes, “has experienced long-term prosperity in the face of contracting population.”
The ultimate cause of population decline is simple enough: Women everywhere are choosing to have fewer babies. What economists call “revealed preference” underscores that most women—and most men—want fewer children than they used to. And for the first time in history, they are in a position to fulfill that desire. The result, Last argues, is that Europe, the United States, and everywhere else are adopting by choice the same sort of one-child policy that China once mandated by state decree.
Near-ubiquitous birth control plays a huge role in lowered fertility rates (despite his dismay with abortion, Last grants that “higher abortion rates do not necessarily entail lower fertility rates”). So does an increasingly globalized, market-based economy that generally gives women career options outside of the home. Rising levels of education also reduce fertility rates, mostly by pushing back the age of first marriage. Despite his preference for the way things used to be, Last writes not with vitriol or bitterness but with something like pleasant exasperation. “America’s fertility problem is the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” There’s a lot to like about that framework, he implies, which is one of the reasons why it’s spreading far and wide.
Last’s conservatism guides his recognition that there is essentially nothing that governments can do to reverse declining fertility rates. Japan, the country that represents the leading edge in “demographic disaster,” has tried for decades to boost its population by giving parents stipends and cash bonuses, creating nationalized networks of day-care centers, and more. The results? Continuously falling birthrates, a subculture that dresses dogs like babies and pushes them around in carriages, and a booming market in hyperrealistic-looking robot babies.
Nothing has worked on a large scale to promote fertility. Stalin awarded “Motherhood Medals” to women with six or more living children, but the program did nothing to increase the next generation of new Soviet men and women. Authoritarian Singapore has thrown money, housing, ad campaigns, tax incentives, and sex instruction at couples, but all for naught. “If Singapore,” sighs Last, “can’t convince its modern, sophisticated population to have babies, what hope does anyone have? The answer may well be, ‘not much.’”
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is a rich and detailed read, well worth the price of admission just for Last’s cogent summarizing of long-term demographic trends. There is no question that birthrates are going down and that America’s (and the world’s) population will start to decline in the relatively near future. Things will change as a result.
But many, if not all, of the issues raised by this are less clear-cut emergencies than Last contends; they may not be serious problems at all. For instance, consider Social Security. Everyone agrees that the program as currently structured is unsustainable. Benefits will be cut, taxes will be increased, or policy makers will use some combination of these approaches. We all may have differing views on how—or even whether—to provide taxpayer-funded income to retirees. But there’s no reason to believe that older Americans, already the wealthiest slice of the population in terms of total assets, will be reduced to eating cat food.
Similarly, Last’s presumption that “nothing is more serious than having children” may be heartfelt, but it tells us essentially nothing about the future of the human race. For good or ill, we’ve shown a tremendous ability to survive and even thrive on a planet that is often hostile to our continued existence. One needn’t be Panglossian to assume we’ll figure things out along the way. Even Last can’t rouse himself into a full, righteous call to arms. On his last page, he even grants, “Perhaps, after wrestling . . . with the problems modernity has created, we’ll figure out how to balance liberalism, modern economics, and family life.” Perhaps. Or maybe we’re already doing that.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and the coauthor of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs, 2011), now out in paperback.