Pathfinders – The Baby Bust
The existential crisis of global warming as well as rocketing inequality have made many people start to question the viability of capitalism as never before. But you still hear some dismissing the idea of post-capitalist common ownership with the time-honoured objection that ‘there are too many people.’
There’s sometimes a suspicious whiff of racism or Nazi-style eugenics about this argument, but it’s not hard to see why people might innocently believe it, particularly in the crowded urban environments most people inhabit nowadays, and particularly if they remember China’s infamous one-child policy, and Indira Ghandi’s even more infamous forced sterilisation programme in India. Ever since the 1970s (or indeed Malthus in the 1800s) people have been banging the drum of doom about an impending population catastrophe. It’s been a staple trope of Hollywood movies from Soylent Green (1973) to Avengers Infinity War (2018). And last month, to great fanfare and only 11 years after passing the 7 billion milestone, the world passed the 8 billion mark, with the population still increasing at around 3 people per second, at least according to the population clock at bit.ly/2UKMS7c.
But it’s not rising everywhere. Indeed, it’s not rising almost anywhere. If you look at the 20 largest populations on the clock, India is the only one visibly ticking upwards. China isn’t moving. The USA isn’t moving. Globally, almost all populations outside sub-Saharan Africa are either stable or in decline, with fertility rates generally well below replacement levels. At current rates, China’s population, along with that of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and most European countries, is set to halve by 2100. Japan is ‘super-ageing’, with the oldest median age, 48, in history. Latvia is worried that it’s running out of Latvians (bit.ly/3hPBvr0 ). Instead of a baby boom, the future looks more like a baby bust. In July this year the UN downwardly revised its 2019 projection of 11 billion and rising by 2100 to a peak by 2080 and declining by 2100 (bit.ly/3TMMbUx), while other studies suggest a peak by 2070 (bit.ly/3tVZO9D ). One HSBC economist, following the work of two Canadian demographers, is even predicting a peak in 2040, declining to 4 billion by 2100 (bit.ly/3ApdoG2).
What’s happened to overturn the received wisdom of decades, if not centuries? There are lots of reasons, including more women in the labour market choosing to delay parenthood, high housing costs, high childcare costs, and understandable insecurity about the future. But the two main global drivers of falling birth rates are better female education, which leads to better prospects and more independence for women, and female access to contraceptives. Regardless of income, wherever women gain control of their own fertility, the birth rate declines, giving the lie to that old saw about poor people deliberately breeding children as insurance policies for old age. Where these drivers are not present, as in sub-Saharan Muslim countries where girls do not go to school and men don’t allow them to use contraception and won’t use it themselves, you see dramatic population increases.
Capitalist states regard declining populations not with enthusiasm but with alarm, because low birth rates combined with longer lifespans mean a relative reduction in the young workforce and hence a reduction in profits, combined with an increasing burden of ‘economically inactive’ old people who constitute a considerable cost to profits, via government taxation. Immigration would in theory solve the problem but has been made politically toxic, so many countries have instead adopted what are called ‘pro-natalist’ policies, involving financial and other incentives to have more babies. In France they give the woman a medal. In Iran they give the man a promotion at work, or a zero-interest loan (yhoo.it/3TKfPtA). But such state intervention to increase the birth rate would only yield very long-term results, and is anyway thought to be much harder, and more expensive, than intervention to reduce it, because of the need to incentivise young couples to take on the considerable extra financial cost and loss of personal freedoms. In the UK, the Child Poverty Action Group’s November 2022 estimate of the cost of raising a child to age 18 is £160,000 for couples and £200,000 for lone parents (bit.ly/3E8zbCU).
You might suppose that a smaller population would be better for the planet at least. But many environmentalists now realise that population is not the barrier to sustainable living that many imagine (bit.ly/3g8r1CJ). Rather it’s resource usage that makes the difference. One 2020 study of the global farming system concluded that the present food production system could only sustainably feed 3.4 billion people, but that with certain key changes, particularly in reducing meat consumption and food waste, and being smarter about choices of crops, that could be increased to 10 billion (bit.ly/3gfEbO0 ). Overall, resource use is wealth related, with the carbon emissions of the richest 1 percent being more than double the emissions of the poorest 50 percent (bit.ly/3Of1Tqk).
It might upset an anti-abortionist, but it’s axiomatic to a socialist that the only person with the right to say whether or not a woman has a baby is the woman herself. In a socialist society, money and patriarchal power dynamics would not exist to restrict that woman’s ability to determine her own fertility. If the global population fell as a result, which the evidence suggests could well be the case, what would be the result? Not a crisis of care for the old, because care in socialism would be a matter of communal aid, not taxable profits. The world would simply scale down production to suit what was required. And productive work doesn’t require the labour it used to. As a recent Wired podcast pointed out, ‘we can do more today with fewer workers than at any other time in history’ (bit.ly/3V752uq ). Might the population rise, perhaps because of zero financial costs and because socialism offers a life worth being born into? Possibly, but even socialism couldn’t socialise the child-bearing process, so the physical costs to women would likely be the limiting factor. In either case, if the need for social debate did arise, it would at least be done in the open, without competing sectional or state interests intervening to weaponise it.