Why do extreme environmentalists appear to dislike babies so much? These eco-radicals jubilantly celebrated the news that the number of children born in Britain has taken another tumble, on the grounds that fewer rich Westerners means less consumption. In a world in desperate search of meaning, this kind of neo-Malthusian, misanthropic nonsense has tragically found willing ears, with some young people pledging not to have children to “save the planet”.
I hope they reconsider. The eco-extremists’ fixation with over-population, beginning in 1972 with the Club for Rome’s infamous Limits to Growth, is hopelessly outdated. The real threat today is a global demographic collapsecaused by an unprecedented reduction in the number of babies, and the social, economic, cultural and philosophical revolution this will unleash.
Yes, the world population will continue to grow for many years (albeit fewer than previously thought), led by a group of African countries, but there are now 82 countries where the total fertility rate has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, according to the World Population Review. The majority of the world’s 195 countries will soon be affected: fertility is plunging in Asia, South America and elsewhere.
Korea suffers from the world’s lowest fertility at a staggering 1: its population could halve over the next 80 years. America is at just 1.6, and Canada at 1.4; Italy at 1.2 (it counted just 392,598 births last year, against 713,499 deaths), France at 1.8 and Germany at 1.5, numbers that are mostly tumbling fast. The total fertility rate has even fallen to below replacement in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Jamaica.
In 2016, 18.3 million babies were born in China; by 2022, this had slumped to 9.56 million and to some 8 million this year. The total fertility rate collapsed to just 1.09 last year, down from 1.3 in 2020. Remarkably, India (now the world’s most populous country as a result of China’s slump) is only just growing at 2.2: many of its states are already in negative territory and the country as a whole is likely to follow suit soon. Israel is the only OECD country with a fertility rate above replacement: at 3 for Jewish Israeli families, it is a remarkable outlier.
Britain’s fertility rate sank to a record low of 1.58 children per woman in 2020, and is probably now hovering at around 1.5. There were just 605,479 live births in England and Wales last year, the lowest since 2002. Schools will be shutting soon, and the number of pensioners per young person will grow inexorably.
Something will have to give: either the pension triple lock will be axed, or taxes will be jacked up. Our numbers would be even worse without immigration. The percentage of births where at least one parent was born outside the UK reached a record 36.7 per cent in England, including 66.5 per cent in London (and 80 per cent or more in a handful of boroughs, including Brent and Harrow). As immigrants integrate, their own children adopt similar fertility patterns to the rest of the population, so yet more immigration is needed to prop up numbers.
Many people in Britain are understandably worried about the scale of immigration, want to reduce numbers substantially and are angry at the establishment’s refusal to act. Our national debate must recognise this, but also the trade-offs: either we import even more workers (from the diminishing number of countries with surplus labour), or we somehow start having more children, or we accept a shrinking working age population.
All three are legitimate options – GDP per capita is more important than total GDP, though an ageing population would affect risk-taking and innovation – but costs and benefits must be discussed openly. There have been too many lies and obfuscations.
Japan’s case is instructive: its population is expected to slump from 126.2 million in 2020 to 87 million in 47 years’ time. Crucially, however, these figures are being propped up by an expected jump in foreign residents from 2.8 million to 9.4 million. Will the voters put up with this? Japanese house prices are cheap these days: it is easy to build homes, and yet this seems to have made no impact on fertility.
There is no simple, general explanation for the global collapse in child bearing. Many proffer parochial or ideologically pleasing explanations for what is a historic and incredibly complex global phenomenon, but countries with lower house prices or higher childcare subsidies or more generous child benefits or different labour laws or a less individualistic culture or a more egalitarian workplace are also suffering falling fertility. The basic rule seems to be that the richer and more educated a society the fewer children it bears, and that government policies that attempt to reverse this almost always fail to move the dial meaningfully.
But there are key caveats. A decline in religiosity appears to be the single most important driver of lower fertility: truly engaged orthodox believers continue to have a lot more children than secular people, even in the case of highly educated women and regardless of wealth. A complementary explanation is the extended family: in Israel, grandparents are much more likely to help their grandchildren than in Britain. In a modern, capitalist, individualistic society, strong, extended family networks may be a necessary but not sufficient condition to make having more children bearable and viable. This would require major changes.
There are many other factors. Urbanites have fewer children than suburbanites and rural populations, though all groups are declining. Men are struggling in the labour and education markets, making them less attractive to better-educated women.
Ultimately, however, a society’s values and culture must be key: is parenting held in high esteem, seen as a wonderful, essential contribution to the maintenance of civilisation – while respecting those who can’t or won’t have kids – or is it denigrated? Are we an optimistic society, or a pessimistic one? Could a new civic culture, a new national mission, help revive fertility?
Elon Musk believes that a race to colonise other planets would galvanise many into having more kids; others will have different answers. For now, however, we are in the midst of the greatest crisis of the 21st century, and yet the green radicals are still fighting the last war.