Why Falling U.S. Birthrates are a Good Thing

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Did you hear that birth rates are falling in the U.S.?

A report out from the CDC last week showed that the birth rate fell 2% in 2017. That means that the general fertility rate in the country has fallen by 3%.

In a world of 7.4 billion people, with a growing climate crisis, rampant and severe poverty, and increased militarism and violence related both of these problems – this would seem to be good news.

And yet, all the mainstream reporting I saw focused exclusively on the potentially negative economic consequences of falling birthrates. This concern is rooted in a widely accepted paradigm that economies need “replacement” level birthrates in order to “replace” retiring workers and keep the economy stable.

“Replacement level” birthrates are problematic

However, there are serious flaws in this “accepted wisdom.” Flaws that I rarely hear discussed in conjunction with the hand-wringing about falling birthrates. To name just a few:

  • healthier, longer lives mean people are retiring later and later
  • millenials are having a hard time finding jobs
  • technology is eliminating jobs
  • many available jobs don’t pay a living wage

The job market and our economy have radically changed in the last fifty years. While we do need to figure out how to maintain a stable economy, the emphasis on “replacement population” is an outdated and dangerous way to think about fertility rates.

After all, there is general agreement that the earth’s carrying capacity (the number of people the earth can sustain) is not unlimited. That said, there is some disagreement about what we should do in response. There are three major strategies to address the problem.

  • technology will fix it.
  • we must live more simply.
  • we need to reduce our numbers.

These correspond to three primary approaches: technology (meaning largely business and industry), changing cultural habits and expectations, and global population control.

Technology approach

The technology approach argues that human ingenuity is so vast that humans can innovate our way out of anything. Scientists will eventually figure out how to genetically modify crops so that will feed the growing human population. We will devise ways new approaches to renewable energy sources that will power all of our devices forever and at very little cost. We will create new and unforeseen solutions to our garbage and waste disposal problems. Including nuclear and environmental waste. We will figure out how to colonize other planets and relocate there. This approach allows us to live our lives unchanged and unburdened by guilt or concern for our environmental footprint.

Culture change approach

The culture change approach begins from the fact that many people across the globe are consuming more resources than the earth has to offer. Most of us know that U.S. Americans consume more than our fair share. One popular way of illustrating this is to point out that we would need at least four or five planets to sustain the world’s population living at our level of consumption. From our reliance on our cars and fossil fuels to our love of air conditioning and fast food – we live lives that take a heavy toll on the earth’s resources. The “simple living” movement seeks to help individuals reduce our individual “ecological footprint” by eating less meat, using public transportation and walking more, and recycling. This approach holds that if people live more responsibly we can solve the problem.

Global population control approach

The global population control approach maintains that there are simply too many people on the planet. With 83 million people added to the world’s population every year, we are projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. And at current fertility rates we are expected to surpass 11.2 billion by 2100. Given that fertility rates are below replacement levels in many of the wealthier countries and stand at around 4.3 births per woman in the 47 least developed countries – it is usually poor women who are blamed for the problem of overpopulation. The emphasis of this approach is to focus on lowering the fertility rates of the poorest of the poor in our world.

Intersectional approach

There are clearly strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches. Yet, the reality of our climate crisis is so profound that we must recognize no one approach is going to save us. It will require embracing technological innovation, living more simply, and reducing the size of our global population. And not just the growing population of the world’s poorest people. After all, the people in those 47 countries have far smaller ecological footprints than children born in the U.S.

A recent environmental report looked at the top four lifestyle changes that people could make to reduce their environmental impact. Out of living car free, avoiding airplane travel, eating a plant-based diet, and having one fewer child – the choice of having one less child had far and away the largest impact. This is not surprising given that the ecological footprint of a child born in the U.S. is 8.4 hectares (we rank sixth highest) compared to the .8 hectare impact of a child born in Afghanistan (they rank sixth lowest).

Getting ourselves out of the mess that we made will require the human community to develop new and imaginative ways of thinking about work, labor, wealth, productivity, and the common good. It will also require us to work together in heretofore unseen and unimagined ways.

One more reason to welcome immigrants

Our focus on “replacement level” birthrates as our gauge for a healthy society is extremely misplaced. It is part and parcel of our outdated and dangerous obsession with the economic model of capitalism that is exacerbating global economic inequality.

We live in a world of abundant resources. Our capacity to effectively control our fertility is historically unparalleled. We are smart enough to figure out new and different ways to structure our markets, our economies and our societies so that people can work and care for their families without killing the planet.

Recognizing the value and importance of falling birthrates in an overcrowded world is just the first step. Perhaps the falling birthrates will also help us recognize the value and importance of welcoming immigrants into our midst.

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About Rebecca Todd Peters
I am a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. I am a feminist Christian ethicist and work on issues of social justice, particularly globalization, economic justice, and reproductive justice. My latest book is Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice. You can read more about the author here.
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