Empty Cradle: Are we facing a global fertility time bomb?

Russ Seidel / 'Empty Street'

The American poet (of Scotch descent) William Ross Wallace wrote the poem The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Rules the World. Although Wallace lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, at a time when the population was still rising in Europe and did not have demography in mind, his paean to motherhood should remind us, today, that countries with empty cradles become the ruled not the rulers.

The total fertility rate in Scotland, in 2016, was 1.5 children per woman.  Although demographic growth and decline depend on a number of factors, simply put when total fertility drops below 2.1 children per woman a population will start declining – and the longer and deeper the total fertility rate remains below 2.1 the faster the decline will be.  Since the end of World War II, the overall fertility rate in Europe has been trending almost ever downwards with few indications that it will reverse itself.  This trend has not been getting much coverage in the news, which is not surprising since it undermines the prevailing politically correct viewpoint that human population growth is a threat to the environment.

Several books such as Ben Wattenberg’s Fewer and Phillip Longman’s The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What To Do About It have sounded the alarm about what might ironically be termed the depopulation bomb!  Ironic because once upon a time we all had our shorts in a twist over Paul R. Ehrlich’s, The Population Bomb, a grim, Malthusian, apocalyptic, vision of future famine, war, and decline caused by ineluctable population expansion.

It has long been known that fertility rates were declining in the developed Western World. Consider that the population of France was 28 million in 1789, the largest in all of Europe including Russia!  Further, consider that France conquered most of Europe in the ensuing two decades.   However, the birth rate in France diminished significantly and the French population was outstripped relative to Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom.  This led to France being bled white in World War I, and to quick collapse and utter defeat in World War II.  With population decline, France became a lesser power and unable to defend itself.

 Consider that Russia’s population of approximately 140 million is predicted to fall by perhaps ten million persons per decade; the fertility rate in Russia is down to 1.6 children per woman. This is a geometric progression downward, a death spiral. Unchanged this trend ultimately spells extinction.

According to Wattenberg and Longman, this pattern, which more or less holds true for most European countries and Japan, has been observable for decades. The future is now in Japan, which is in true population decline (which lags fertility decline by a generation or two), where fashion models sport adult diapers because they outsell baby diapers.

Alarmingly, this trend is spreading to most of the world with very few exceptions.  Countries like China, India, Brazil, and Mexico have or will shortly reach fertility rates below 2.1 children per woman. And the population decline that ultimately follows depressed fertility will not be a gradual decline, but more like a roller coaster: a short continued sharp rise followed by an abrupt and intense drop!

When four grandparents produce two children who in turn produce one child think of the ramifications!  That one child will one day have to pay taxes to support seven people. Wattenberg relates in Fewer that the German magazine, Der Spiegel, ran a cover picture of a baby hoisting sixteen old Germans on a barbell. The headline read, ‘the Last German – on the Way to an Old People’s Republic.’ How will health care and retirement benefits be maintained?  Who will replace the workers needed by the economy?  Who will take care of the increasingly elderly proportion of the population?  Will social attitudes towards a much more significant number of elderly change?  What alienation is produced when you have no brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, or cousins?

If trends continue, countries like Germany or Italy or Scotland could have no native Germans or Italians or Scots in a hundred years.  What effect would this have on immigration?  Would Germany cease to exist when there are no more German speakers?  To paraphrase Charles Dickens, if these trends remain unaltered by the future, Germany, Italy, and perhaps Scotland (and many other countries) as we have known them, will just vanish!

Will any country or countries be spared from this?  Right now there are some areas of the world, notably the Islamic world and Sub-Saharan Africa, that have positive levels of fertility.  Among the Western, industrialised world the United States is the only country that has maintained a positive fertility rate – but just barely, with current fertility at just about 2.1.  But the rub is in the U.S. that this depends on the higher fertility of many immigrants.

There is another intriguing hypothesis: as general fertility declines, ultra-religious people will out conceive secular people.  University of London demography Eric Kaufmann posits this scenario in his book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.  Kaufmann notes that the total fertility rate varies significantly by religious fervour: orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims reproduce at much higher rates and, given a few generations to do so, will make the demographic landscape a much more religious one.

The United Nations Population Division, which studies these trends intensely, predicts that the population of China will peak and start to fall as early as 2025; Mexico by 2030; Brazil by 2035; India by 2050.  In contrast, Egypt’s, Saudi Arabia’s, Yemen’s, Libya’s, Kuwait’s, and Iraq’s populations will all continue to grow beyond 2050.

The implications are not only economic but strategic. Historically, countries whose populations fall will be exiting the stage as world powers.  This was as true of ancient Rome as it was of modern France whose populations fell relative to their enemies’ population and, doubtless, remains true today.  While armies and navies of the twenty-first century may be replete with drones, robots and remote control, it has always been boots on the ground needed to take and secure enemy territory.  Napoleon observed that in the end, regardless of the brilliance of strategy or the intellect of the generals, it is always the big battalions that win, meaning that more troops will eventually prevail over fewer.

Predictions vary, but some of the direst ones suggest a scenario where certain parts of the globe may merely depopulate completely!  Lest we glibly think this impossible reflect on the fact that a Roman citizen of the time of Augustus would have felt the same way – and yet certain parts of the Roman world did depopulate and became wilderness.  It is, of course, impossible to know for sure what will happen with human demographics, but we have gone from woefully predicting a population bomb to a population bust in the demographic blink of an eye. How long until the cradles are empty and there are no hands to rock them?

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