2021-04-08 01:19:42 –
How worried should we be about global depopulation? Birth rates in some East Asian countries are close to or below 1.0, but much of Europe’s core population is declining. In the United States, the fertility rate is below the exchange rate, reaching a record low of 1.7 in 2019, and could fall further in 2020, partly due to the impact of COVID-19. Many of the world’s poorest countries see fertility rates plummeting at unprecedented rates. According to one forecast, by 2100, the world’s population growth will be virtually zero.
If you think the world is overpopulated and has serious environmental problems, you may welcome this news. However, the declining population creates its own relentless logic. If Japan’s population is halved to about 65 million, how can we prevent it from decreasing to 30 million? Or 20 million?
There is some evidence that population decline is bad for the world economy. But for me, the bigger tragedy is the inability to take full advantage of the planet’s ability to sustain human life. No family policy of any kind should be obligatory. But there is a need for policies that make large families a more attractive option, both economically and otherwise.
One possibility is that population decline itself provides a self-reversal mechanism. For example, if Japan’s population is half of what it is today, Japan will be empty and perhaps land prices will fall. Some families find it easier to buy a large apartment in central Tokyo and will probably have more children.
However, the mechanism seems more likely to reduce the population decline than to reverse it. Living space is just one of many factors behind decisions about family size. Also, as the population declines, so does the inventory of homes and apartments, so in the long run the amount of space per family may not increase significantly.
Population trends depend on how persistent the cause of the decline in fertility is. Birth rates are often low because women prefer to pursue a career or have children later. The same logic applies to Japan and Italy, which have a small population.
Another factor that reduces fertility, especially in the United States, is single-parents. If a potential mother is facing a fertility decision without another full-time parent on the scene, she is more likely to choose to have fewer children. Will single-parent families become less common as the population declines? The reason is difficult to understand. Whether the problem is a shortage of men of marriageable age, unstable family norms, or women who simply prefer to go alone, there is a special reason to think that these factors will disappear in an era of depopulation. There is none.
If anything, the impetus to reduce the number of family members may continue or even accelerate. Women’s work opportunities can continue to improve, which increases the opportunity cost of having a large family. In addition, many countries around the world are becoming wealthier. As wealth increases, religion tends to decline, and religion also tends to increase the size of the family.
What are some other interventions to restore fertility? Perhaps a gentle and loving robot will make it much easier to raise a young child. Alternatively, when the population drops to a much smaller level, a sense of moral panic begins. The family may decide to give birth to more children, feeling that the very survival of their country is at stake. A more elaborate and dystopian scenario is for businesses to take over the vacant part of the globe and pay for parenting there in exchange for some of their future income.
Undoubtedly, there are other unusual (and more utopian) scenarios. Whatever their potential, it is unwise to count on them. It is already true that in many places, such as Singapore, the government has embarked on aggressive but ineffective kinship subsidy policies.
Depopulation is a major problem that the world in general, especially its wealthy nations, cannot even discuss, let alone address. Population decline may not be a problem or may be welcomed in any year or country. But there is no mistake. Over time, we are choosing a very different future for humankind.
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