One of the most important decisions made in a newsroom is story selection. The editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine made a very interesting decision in choosing to run a lengthy story about the demographic collapse of Europe. Reporter Russell Shorto, whose work we’ve looked at before, examines various explanations for the low birth rates in Europe in his piece titled “No Babies?”
His main theory seems to be that when the traditional family met modernity, cultures that adapted fared better. Better is a relative term, however. His example of success is Northern Europe, where the birth rates still aren’t near replacement level.
The average number of births per women to maintain a country’s population level is 2.1. A 2002 report showed that birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. That means that — all else equal — the country’s population will be halved in 45 years and will never be able to recover. Such a rate is called “lowest-low fertility,” and it’s worrying various public policy analysts, according to the story. In the 1960s, Europe represented 12.5 percent of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2 percent, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5 percent of the world will be European. And it’s not just Europe. Where only a few decades ago my elementary school teachers were proclaiming the looming disaster of overpopulation, birthrates have plummeted from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today.
The story only aims to explore a few theories for why birthrates vary in Europe, but I do wish Shorto had explored why people think it’s problematic. The article mentions many people who think the birthrates are dangerously low:
To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”
It may seem obvious why this is a problem but later in the story, Shorto speaks with people who think declining birthrates in Europe are fantastic. So why the two sides differ is needed. Why is it bad if a society dies out? Why is this pathological?
Readers of Shorto will not be surprised that he does not shy away from religious discussion. As is reinforced daily, religious views will have a tremendous effect on how they order their sex lives:
There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.”
But Shorto brushes aside spiritual concerns to focus on economic ones. A great deal of time is spent looking at how labor force participation among women correlates to fertility rates. And the European data are quite interesting. Apparently one way to increase fertility rates is to have a, well, nanny state. But the United States has a fertility rate of 2.1 — far higher than Europe — and much less socialism. Which brings us back to a religious mention:
Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.
Another factor in our high birth rate seems to be the flexibility of our labor force. While many European countries give mothers approximately eleventy gazillion taxpayer-funded weeks off when they have their maternity leave, labor force flexibility helps here. Women are more content to take time off to have children because they sense they can make up the difference after their kids head off to school.
The most fascinating part of the article, however, deals with Germany. Some urban planners are welcoming their cities’ demises. Dessau, where the architect Walter Gropius planted the Bauhaus school of design, is surrounded by forest with no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II). City planners are demolishing underused sections of the city with every decrease of the population. Twenty-five-hundred flats have been destroyed with 8,000 on the chopping block. One gets the feeling that Shorto finds the whole thing a bit creepy:
Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route — from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died — that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism. The idea is to attract more tourists and money and build up the locals’ pride in their history. There is a certain paradox here: thanks to its Communist heritage, this part of Germany has the distinction of being one of the least religious places on earth. Eisleben gets 100,000 religious pilgrims a year, but only 14 percent of its population are churchgoers, and hardly anybody expects a turnaround.
But while few locals themselves may feel religiously inclined, the thinking is that if religious pilgrimage is the best card in your hand, you play it. This notion — embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies — is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline. For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”
Religious ghosts haunt stories that deals with life and death issues such as these. So it’s wonderful that Shorto didn’t just acknowledge the role religion plays but included religious voices and concerns in the story. And, again, kudos to the editors for selecting this story. Much more could and should be written about this topic so hopefully other media outlets will follow suit. People who are interested in this topic would also do well to watch this 2007 documentary which covers much of the same ground.