The fertility crisis revisited

It seems that the media have finally caught up with what demographers have been saying for some time now: overpopulation, to the extent that it’s a problem, is not going to be one for much longer. The world is headed for a period of declining fertility, and in many countries it has already arrived.

In many quarters this is described as a “crisis”, but it’s an issue where a little perspective can be helpful. I was in my teens when the world population hit four billion, and no-one then suggested that this was dangerously low or that many countries were underpopulated. Since then, in less than fifty years, it has doubled: if, over the course of the next century, it should gradually return to something like the 1970s level, I fail to see why that should be any cause for concern.

Sudden transitions, of course, can pose problems (especially for countries that refuse to admit immigrants). This story from James Gallagher at the BBC is now a couple of years old, but it’s an admirably clear presentation of the issues – acknowledging the difficulties, but also pointing out that “In many ways, falling fertility rates are a success story.”

Funnily enough, when women are given real choice about whether they want to go through the huge workload of having children, with its attendant health risks and life disruption, many of them decide not to. Or at least they decide not to have as many children as (male) pundits and politicians think they should have [link added].

I used to write about this quite a bit, back in the days when Peter Costello, who was otherwise one of the most sensible members of the Howard government, kept banging on about the supposed dangers of declining fertility. That came to mind a couple of weeks ago when the channel nine papers (of which Costello is now chair) published a particularly awful piece by Roshena Campbell rehashing all the old myths of the “fertility crisis”.

So I thought I’d go back and collect my past efforts to counter some of those myths. Here are the links, in order of publication, with some highlights. It’s a window into another time, but also a sign of how little has really changed.

Who’s afraid of the fertility crisis? (October 2005)

Time for a reality check. Fertility is a complex matter, but if we know anything about it all we know that falling birthrates are primarily driven by two things: increased living standards, and improved status of women. The Malcolm Turnbulls of the world, who argue for increased fertility rates, are (consciously or not) arguing that we should reverse one or both of those trends.

Are Muslims taking over the world? (February 2006)

[The argument] that abortion is bad because countries need population growth … made sense at a time when a nation’s standing depended on military power, which in turn depended on huge conscript armies. But its relevance today is dubious at best. [Mark] Steyn neglects the fact that China’s boom has coincided with getting its population growth under control (partly by odious means), while regions of Africa and the Middle East that have failed to do so remain mired in poverty.

Unmasking the “fertility crisis” (June 2006)

Now the world in general does not have a problem of underpopulation. I’m almost embarrassed writing that sentence, because it seems so blindingly obvious, but sometimes obvious things need to be said. If Australia needs more people, it can choose them from almost anywhere in the world – there is no shortage of people who want to come here. … [W]hat animates the advocates of higher fertility is concern about the type of people we get – they want nice white Christian babies, not dark-skinned foreigners.

Costello wanders into the immigration minefield (July 2006)

Commentators talk about “motherhood” statements, meaning those that are supposed to have universal, uncontroversial appeal. But the campaign for increased fertility should be controversial, because its unstated assumptions are fundamentally racist and misogynist.

Does Australia need more babies, or more migrants? (September 2006)

Let’s be blunt about this: every additional baby born in Australia will be used as an excuse by the nativists to keep out another one of the millions from other countries who would like to come and live here, condemning many of them to poverty and starvation in their overpopulated homelands.

No, Mr Costello, we don’t need more babies (April 2007)

Australia is not an unpopular place to live. On the contrary, there are millions of people who would like to come and make this their home — we spend a small fortune on patrol boats and detention centres to try to keep them out.

If Australia wants more people, we don’t need to return our womenfolk to domestic drudgery in order to get them. We just need to open the door a bit wider.

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