Does the world need more people? Not if you ask the glaciers, the rain forests, the air, or the more than 37,400 species on the verge of extinction thanks to the relentless expansion of human beings into every corner and cranny of our overheated planet. There are now 7.9 billion of us, and growing—50 years ago there were fewer than half as many. I’d say we’ve more than fulfilled the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply.
In spite of all the signs indicating that slowing population growth would be a good idea, the world’s most populous country is aiming for the opposite. In May, the Chinese government relaxed its two-child quota; now couples can have three. China’s population is getting old: The median age has risen from 24.9 in 1990 to 38.4 today. Who will care for the old folks? Who will pay into the social welfare system to support retirees? It doesn’t help that the one-child policy, in operation from 1980 to 2016, encouraged the killing and abandonment of girl babies and the forced abortion of female fetuses, leading to a huge surplus of men, many of whom will never find women with whom to raise a family. The most recent statistics are not encouraging: In 2018, among youngsters 10 to 19 years old, there were about 120 boys per 100 girls. China is not alone. India’s statistics are similar, and a growing gender imbalance due to sex-selective abortion and other factors exists in many other countries, from Armenia to Vietnam.
Still, an extreme preference for sons combined with a preference for small families is only one reason the birth rate has fallen in the past few decades all over the world, except in sub-Saharan Africa. The improved status of women is also crucial. For most of recorded history, after all, most women were kept uneducated, married off as teenagers, and allowed no rights and few choices. They were little more than breeding stock and cheap labor for their husbands’ families. Their only hope for social power and respectability lay in producing legitimate children, preferably male, who lived to adulthood. This was called “nature’s way.”
Modern birth control allows women to have fewer children, which women almost everywhere prefer, while modern medicine and sanitation mean more people live into old age. In theory, women could nevertheless decide to have three, four, or more kids. Conservatives, and some leftists too, maintain that this is their true desire—or would be, were they not so selfish. On the right, patriarchal self-help guru Jordan Peterson claims feminism deludes women into careerism instead of motherhood, citing the Virgin Mary as a model for all; on the left, Jacobin’s Connor Kilpatrick hymns the praises of East Germany and argues that women’s desire for children is thwarted by liberalism, handmaid of capitalism.
But everything in modern urban life works against big families; even Mormons have smaller families nowadays. Not only do modern economies, higher education, and urban living enable women’s independence, giving them all kinds of ideas, but modern economies also require a large class of educated people. The days of producing children to be your farmhands are over, but raising an educated child is expensive and time-intensive. Modern economies also depend on consumption, which just about everyone (officially) frowns upon but ultimately means encouraging people to enjoy life, expect material comfort, cultivate interests, and seek new experiences.
The New York Times’ Ross Douthat thinks people should have one more child than they think they want, even if it would make their lives more difficult and painful. But he’s a devout Catholic; for him, suffering and self-denial are virtues. I don’t think there’s much chance of that catching on: The logistics are just too difficult. Moreover, many modern economies do a poor job of producing the kinds of material and social goods that would make having more than one or two kids feasible: decent affordable housing, excellent day care and schools, flexible schedules for parents, quality health care, and so on. But even societies with generous social provisions have not managed to produce bumper crops of babies. Sweden’s fertility rate is 1.85 children per woman, barely higher than that of the United States at 1.78. Government can only do so much. Within the traditional nuclear family, the work of domesticity and parenthood is still placed squarely on women’s shoulders; as Covid showed us, when push comes to shove, she’s the one making the sacrifices.
Isn’t it funny how population issues always come down to women? First they had too many children; now they are having too few. If only men—Catholic priests, for example—could have babies, I’m sure they’d do a much better job of it. Not only are women not having enough kids, the women who population boosters think should be doing it most are having the fewest. In the West, the comparatively low birth rate of white educated middle-class women was already of concern to Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the century. The perceived need for population growth comes up against not only the lives of modern women but also xenophobia and racism. It may just be that countries will have to open their arms to the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Japan, historically unwelcoming to foreigners, has a median age of 48. Maybe instead of forcibly sterilizing Uighur women, China should be rewarding them and welcoming their babies.
Maybe the problem is less that there are too few kids than that there are more kids than adults can take care of, some in war zones and refugee camps and slums. Millions of poor children are essentially thrown away, along with their mothers, by their societies—illiterate or barely literate, with zero prospects, suffering from all kinds of illness and trauma, and doomed to the lowest kind of work, if any. Imagine if they were seen as demographic treasures to be nurtured and cherished, and raised to live happy, useful lives.
The world population is still rising, but demographic decline probably can’t be reversed. In some ways, that’s sad—children bring joy and hope and purpose to life. Young people bring new ideas and energy. But from the point of view of the planet, it’s a good thing. And probably from the point of view of women and children, too.