Save the world! Stop having children!

By Paul Vallely

A leading medical journal recently called for British couples to stop having so many children to 'reduce global warming'. But much of the rest of Europe has a different problem: declining birthrates and ageing populations. And trends across the traditionally more fertile developing world are just as uneven.

Save the world! Stop having children! Such was the rather drastic solution to the problem of climate change proposed in an editorial in the prestigious British Medical Journal, no less, the other day. And since one of its authors was a distinguished academic - Dr John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London - we should consider the notion seriously.

His argument was straightforward. The mushrooming population of the world is putting extreme pressure on the planet's resources and increasing the output of greenhouse gases. Every single month there are nearly seven million extra mouths to feed. And because a child born today in the UK will be responsible for 150 times more greenhouse gas emissions than a child born in Ethiopia the obvious place to start cutting back is in Europe rather than there.

Dr Malthus, thou shouldst be living at this hour. But, actually, this goes one better. When Thomas Malthus first published his gloomy Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 he had others than himself in his sights. His argument sounded academically neutral. Human populations grow exponentially whereas food reproduction expands in a linear fashion (it's the difference in maths between multiplication and addition) so disaster always looms, in the shape of disease, war or famine, to balance the population out. But he wasn't looking to himself for the solution; those he had in his moral scrutiny were the lumpen poor, breeding mindlessly, careless of the demographic implications of their lusty loins.

Since then Malthusian disciples have continued to point the figure at a Them rather than Us. Zealots for population control have always had the poor in their sights. Until it fell out of fashion a decade or more ago, "population control" always targeted the hapless peoples of the Third World as the ones who we needed to stop breeding. Holland is the most densely populated major country in the world but there was rarely any talk of too many Dutchmen. It was always too many Indians and Africans. Dr Guillebaud has at least had the good grace to point the finger of blame at himself.

But hold on. All this anxiety is premised upon the idea that the population of the world is mushrooming. It certainly was throughout most of the 20th century. But, quietly, something has changed in recent years. The global population is continuing to grow. But, fairly suddenly, birthrates are falling all across the globe. In the 1970s women around the world had six children each; today they have just 2,7 children on average, and in some places that figure is as low as one.

The implications of this will take a generation to work through, because the children born in the boom years have yet to have their own children, so there is a great deal of increase built in. Demographers call that population momentum. But the United Nations has had to revise downwards its prediction that the world population would reach 11,5 billion by 2050. The human race is now expected to peak, according to one of the world's top experts, Dr David Coleman, Professor of Demography at Oxford University, at 9,5 billion people. Then, around 2070, it will begin to decline. We have reached a demographic crossroads which will have dramatic consequences for large sections of the world - including us.

Things are as bleak in Japan. There the total fertility rate declined by nearly a third between 1975 and 2001, from 1.91 to 1.33. The average family size has remained the same, but there are fewer families. Half of Japanese women have not married by the age of 30, and 20 percent of them are not marrying ever.

But it is not just the developed world. The birthrate is plummeting in east Asia, too, in countries which were, until three decades ago, considered poor. Overall in Asia the fertility rate fell from 2.4 in 1970 to 1.5 today. China's rate is down from 6.06 to 1.8 and declining. Thailand is now 1.5. Singapore, Taiwan and Burma are similar. The lowest is South Korea with only 1.1 children per couple.

"South East Asia has plummeted to levels it took Europe 150 years to reach in just 30 years," says Dr Jane Falkingham, Professor of Demography and International Social Policy at the University of Southampton. Alarmed by this extremely low fertility, South Korea has slashed government spending on birth control. Singapore is now offering tax rebates to couples with more than two children. Japan is piling money into nurseries and childcare.

But the New Demography does not mean that the population explosion may be about to become a population implosion. It is more subtle - and gives more interesting pointers about how we are to live - than that.

There is still rapid population growth in many parts of the world. Birthrates are still very high in Africa. At their peak in the 1970s Kenya had a growth rate of 4.1 percent, which was doubling its population every 17 years. The rate is down but 11 African countries still have a whopping growth rate of 2.6 percent a year. Populations in Uganda, Burkina Faso and Congo will treble or more by 2050. And India is set to leapfrog China as the world's most populous nation by 2050 when its population is expected to top 1,750,000,000 people. (China will be 1,400 million, and the third biggest, the United States, around 420 million.)

But there has been an unexpected upturn in birthrates in parts of Europe too. Populations may be expected to shrink in Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany (which is losing 100 000 people a year) and decline even more rapidly further east in Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, which is set to plunge by almost half. But in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia birthrates, which declined steadily between 1900 and 1960, are creeping up again.

"The span of fertility across countries has never been wider," says Dr John Cleland, Professor of Medical Demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Both extremes cause their own problems. If Europe continues at 1.5 the population will halve every 65 years. If Africa continues with half its population under 15 it will continue to consume more than it produces making it harder to escape from poverty and illiteracy."

The conventional wisdom - academics call it the demographic transition - is that when people are poor they have lots of children. When half your kids die before they reach adulthood you need to have lots to ensure there is someone to look after you in old age. If it takes one person all day to plough or weed the fields, or fetch the firewood, or find grazing for the goats, or carry the water and pound the grain, then you need a big family. And if there is no contraception available you don't have much choice anyway.

But when you get richer family sizes start dropping. The health of your children improves. You have savings for your old age. Girls go to school, get jobs outside the home, marry and have babies much later. Contraception becomes available. You move to the city where you don't need so many children to do the household chores. Make people prosperous and the population falls.

"That's the biggest lie that's ever been perpetrated," says Professor Cleland, who is something of a hawk on population control. "People are very bad at calculating survival probabilities. Twenty years ago fertility started to decline in Nepal and Bangladesh when they were still poor. Korea wasn't rich when fertility declined. By contrast the Gulf oil states continued with high birthrates long after they got huge wealth." It's even true in Western Europe, adds Professor Falkingham, where the upper class has more children than the middle class.

But the relationship between poverty and population is there, it's just more subtle, says David Hulme, Professor in Development Studies at Manchester University and Director of the Chronic Poverty Research Centre. He has specialised in studying Bangladesh where average family size has fallen from seven in 1981 to two or three today.

When girls go to school and women work they have fewer babies. "In Africa most women work in agriculture around the home," Professor Hulme says, "but in Bangladesh women get out and meet other women at work who may be using contraception. Getting outside the home fixes a new social norm. Prosperity and fertility are interlinked in a chicken and egg way."

But it is in Europe and Japan that the interaction between female emancipation and fertility has taken its most dramatic twist.

The world's highest fertility rates are to be found in the most religious countries. People there seem to adhere to traditional views of how the world works. "Food, sex and procreation are core elements of humanity and changes to them are often met with fierce hostility," says Cleland.

That is true of Christians in the US, Hindus in India and Muslims in many states. The more fundamentalist the leadership, the higher the fertility rate, says Kenneth W Wachter, the Professor of Demography and Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Is this because Muslim countries are by and large poor? "In my view the evidence is that there is something intrinsic to the culture. It's there in the rich Muslim states in the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia and in the Muslim provinces of the former Soviet Union. It is perhaps bound up with the status of women."

So you might expect, then, that in Europe fertility rates would be highest in the Catholic south. But intriguingly the opposite is the case. It has a more rapidly falling population than the Protestant north. "Not just in Catholic Spain and Italy but in Orthodox Greece the strong traditions ... are not boosting fertility rate as many might suppose," says Coleman.

In Italy and Spain and Greece, by contrast, the feminist revolution is not so far advanced. There has been economic change. Women get the education and even the jobs. But social attitudes remain rooted in a model of the woman as mother and the male as breadwinner, what the Australian demographer Peter McDonald, calls "out hunting the mammoth". But those Italian women who go out hunting the mammoth are still expected to change all the nappies; they do more than 75 percent of the housework and child care.

As a result only around 50 percent of Italian women work outside the home, compared with 75 percent in Scandinavian countries. Women without their own income have very little bargaining power inside the home, but they can go on baby strike. The outcome is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, working mothers are now having more babies than those who stay at home full time. "The tradition that once boosted fertility," says Falkingham, "now undermines it." - The Independent

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