World Population Day in a World of Depopulation

by Clare Halpine

On a recent flight from Seattle to New York, I spotted a baby on board and immediately began to fret that I would be seated next to him/her. What if he cries the whole time? What if I can’t read my book or listen to my music or close my eyes and sleep?

The following day, jumping on an already-crowded subway at the last minute, I caught myself raising an eyebrow in frustration as a couple with a stroller attempted to push in behind me. What were they thinking? There was clearly only enough room for myself, let alone a couple, a stroller, a toddler, and the animal-cracker entourage.

But, holding on to the subway bar, knees pressed up against the woman in front of me, I marveled at my own hypocrisy. Earlier that day I had been discussing North America’s falling fertility rates, stemming from what I proposed was our cultural perception of children as obstacles to a certain way of life and our newfound perspective of biology as choice, rather than a reality carrying with it its own normative constraints. 

There I was, a subconscious embodiment of my own critique.

Much of our culture today is predicated upon our belief that overpopulation is the root cause of the world’s ills. Consider these statements, which have recently graced the pages of learned tomes, the first from a New York Times commentary:

Our failure to regulate the human population ensures a future of environmental toxicity including genotoxicity, disease, famine, warfare, and massive social upheaval . . .

And Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting observes our new cultural attitude:

We have reached a point where children are actually an impediment to economic and social success . . .

The theory of overpopulation informs our view of life so fundamentally that although no one really knows what genotoxicity is, and children are not typically birthed for reasons of social climbing, we live schizophrenically: rejoicing in birth notifications and baby shower e-vites from our friends, while  feeling guilty for being accessory to what we have been told is the selfish act of reproduction.

But understand this: Current population growth rates in North America are being sustained only by the relatively high rates of immigration.  And the current childbearing patterns of North Americans will lead to an eventual and indefinite depopulation.

Citing United Nations data, Nicholas Eberstadt wrote in Foreign Affairs that Canada is set to slip into negative growth as early as 2015 and the U.S. by 2035. And according to the U.N., almost all of the world’s developed countries have sub-replacement fertility (which, as a rough rule of thumb, is 2.1 births per woman), with overall birthrates more than 20 percent below the level required for long-term population stability. This is not the definition of sustainability, by anyone’s standards. 

So, is this something that we should try to fix? What can we really do about it? Reproductive conscription?

No, and, as a matter of fact, in the Western world, where pro-natalist policies – every baby is a new personal exemption and a standard deduction on your 1040 – provide incentive for couples to reproduce, these policies have largely failed. It seems no amount of money is compelling enough for a young bachelor, bachelorette, or start-up couple to embark willy-nilly on a government- sponsored “found a family” project.

So, what then? Biological imperative aside, women seem to desire fewer children as the culture has shifted to one in which education and career opportunities are valued above most everything else. We value education largely as a means to an end: job, status, and wealth. In this understanding of the good life, there is, necessarily, little room left for the messiness of life itself.

Given the statistics, which indicate we are not in the midst of a global overpopulation crisis, perhaps it’s time to re-think our negative assumptions and attitudes towards our bodies and those other selves – namely, children. Perhaps we might not be so quick to raise an eyebrow when our space on the subway is impacted and our personal sound boundaries on airplanes are breached.  We might even find that in welcoming the mothers and fathers on subways and sidewalks with strollers and babies and animal-cracker entourage, that we find room in our lives for more than ourselves.

— Clare Halpine is director of North America programs at the World Youth Alliance.

UPDATE: This post has been reworded since posting. 

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