by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
In November 2022, world population surpassed 8 billion people. Despite the strain already placed on Earth by our prolific species, many countries are worried because their current fertility rates are lower than the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman. In a misguided effort to “correct the problem”, some countries turn to demographic engineering tactics that range from monetary incentives to abortion bans, contraception prohibitions, and other forms of coercion. In a 2023 report, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reiterates that people should not be used as tools to achieve demographic targets. Instead, UNFPA urges governments to pursue demographic resilience, a strategy that defends a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproduction, sex, work, and life in general while also creating a society that makes those choices possible. That message may sound familiar to the readers of Ecocities Emerging since it aligns with the goals and spirit of the Ecocity Standards.
The report, entitled 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The Case for Rights and Choices, State of World Population 2023, points out that country fertility rates are more diverse now than at any other time in history. Higher than replacement rates occur mostly in Africa and Asian countries. Because of low average incomes in these countries, UNFPA argues that the environmental impacts of these high growth rates will have relatively low impact on climate change. While possibly true in the near term, everyone wants these nations to prosper in the future. As we succeed, people in the developing world will aspire to consume at developed world rates. That is not a trivial concern if you agree with the simple formula that the number of people times the average amount of environmental damage per person equals total environmental impact.
On the “two few” side of the ledger, UNFPA reports that two-thirds of the world’s population live in places with fertility rates lower than 2.1 births per woman. The leaders of many countries with these less-than-replacement fertility rates react with programs that, again, attempt to “fix” this problem citing fear of a collapsing economy and/or difficulty supporting too many old people with too few workers. Less openly, they may really be concerned about the decline in prestige and power that they associate with a shrinking population.
For whatever reasons, these leaders often offer incentives for couples to have more babies such as tax breaks and loan forgiveness. In addition to carrots, they may deploy sticks such as anti-abortion laws and contraception bans. If a leader is genuinely worried about supplying more working age people to support an aging population, does it make sense to attempt to induce more babies that will also have to be supported for the years of childrearing and education needed before these kids can become tax-generating workers?
The UNFPA report offers many alternative solutions that seem much more practical. For example, governments can work to eliminate traditional gender roles and wage inequities that keep women from joining the workforce. Daycare, parental leave, and flexible work arrangements can make it possible for more of the existing population to both work and raise a family. Seniors themselves can be allowed to remain productively employed if they so choose. Some of the “too-few-workers problem” can also be addressed by attracting former expats to return to these countries and by increasing immigration, an approach rejected by some of the most rapidly-shrinking countries because demagogues there have found ethno-nationalism to be an effective means of gaining power.
By trying to engineer a baby boom to support a “senior boom” aren’t some countries just creating the same problem when this new baby boom becomes a new senior boom 50 or 60 years from now? That scenario would just be ironic if it did not also needlessly result in additional population that the planet somehow has to accommodate.
8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities offers a workable roadmap for replacing the often-counterproductive tactics of demographic engineering with a demographic resilience strategy grounded in giving women the freedom and support to make their own decisions about sex, family, work, and life.
United Nations Population Fund. 2023. 8 Billion Lives, Infinite Possibilities: The Case for Rights and Choices, AKA State of World Population 2023, accessible at: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/swop23/SWOP2023-ENGLISH-230329-web.pdf.