Environmental Consequences of Low Fertility Rates


But isn’t it great news for the environment that we are having fewer children?”

We should always stress the positive in life. Were it not for the dramatic slowdown in birthrates that began the late 1960s and 70s, the apocalyptic warnings of overpopulation then voiced Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and many others could well have come true in short order. We are lucky that they did not. But it is not clear the “the planet” is any better off as a consequence.

Consider, for example, that when Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the other Asian Tiger countries first began to experience sharp declines in fertility in the 1970s, their economies simultaneously took off, leading to far higher levels of per capita and total consumption. More recently, China, and to a lesser extent India, have followed the same pattern. Viewed through the lens of demography this does not look like a coincidence.

The first order effect of fertility decline is that there are proportionately fewer children to raise and educate. This both frees up female labor to join the formal economy, and allows for greater investment in the education of each remaining child. All else being equal, both factors stimulate economic development, and by extension pollution and resource depletion.

Low fertility societies can put extra burdens on the environment in other ways as well. For example, they have a higher proportion of singles and childless couples, who generally have more money and opportunity to engage in new forms of consumption, such as world travel or eating out regularly, than do people bearing the responsibilities of family life. (Think of Japan’s so-called “parasite singles”—childless, young adults notorious for their high living).

A rising proportion of childless households also affects the pattern of living arrangements in ways that can be harmful to environment. Five childless singles living in separate housing units, each with its own washer and dryer, stove, refrigerator, etc., will tend to have a bigger environment footprint than a five-person family that lives under one roof, as will be confirmed by any “carbon footprint” calculator. Such factors help to explain why even in places like Japan and Germany where population is already deceasing in absolute size, increases in per capita consumption result in increasing total carbon emissions.

Of course, over time, low birthrates lead not to just fewer children, but to fewer working age people as well, even as the percentage of dependent elders explodes. This means that as population aging runs it course, it may depress economic activity for a variety of reasons. Yet even if these and other factors related to population aging ultimately cause a Great Recession and thereby tamp down use of natural resources, is still not clear the consequences for the environment are necessarily positive.

For example, a society that is paying more and more for pensions and health care also has fewer financial resources available for environmental remediation and investment in “green technology” Also, a society facing dwindling numbers of workers available to support each retiree may respond by adopting patterns of production and consumption that save labor but are far more energy intensive and thereby create lots of environmental damage. (Modern industrialized agriculture, with its high inputs of fossil energy, synthetic chemicals, and water, for example, becomes closer to a necessity if there are dwindling numbers of people available to work the land).

An aging society may also come to believe that there is no other way to preserve an eroding tax base or to pay for old age entitlement than by stimulating economic growth by whatever means. These could include subsiding suburban sprawl, bailing out auto makers, and other measures that are particularly hard on the planet. Finally, once the point of absolute population decline sets in, this may work against the feasibility of mass transit, high speed rail, and other forms of infrastructure that require a high population density to be economically feasible.

Was Malthus wrong?
Malthus and his many present day followers could still be right that we face a future of scarcity. Particularly alarming is the declining growth in agricultural productivity. The so-called Green Revolution, which involved the intensive use of petroleum-based fertilizers, synthetic chemical pesticides herbicides, irrigation, genetic engineering of crops and animals, mechanization, and economies of scale, appears to be approaching its limits. Already, the rate of productivity growth on American and European agriculture has dropped substantially in this decade compared to the 1990s, due to such factors as soil and water depletion, the increasing resistance of pests to chemical treatment, and the simple fact that there is only so much fertilizer one can add to soils and still have it benefit crops. World food production no longer produces a surplus, and in recent years has fallen below the rate of population growth. Decreasing genetic diversity in the crops on which humans depend also makes world agricultural production increasingly vulnerable to climate change, which is always occurring regardless of cause. Feeding the next one billion could be a lot harder than feeding the last one billion, even if most are seniors.

Yet here again, emerging scarcities of food and other natural resources argue against any reversal in the current downward trend in fertility. If a huge and growing portion of mankind already finds the cost of children prohibitive under modern conditions how will they respond in their family planning when the cost of food and energy (to say nothing of health care and pension contributions) rises further?

Key to understanding here is that phrase “modern conditions,” or more specifically the institutional arrangement that affect the economics of family life far more than the simple “cost of living.” If rising food and energy prices cause a reversal of the global trend toward urbanism and a renewal of small-scale, local production and rural life, this could be begin to restore the economic basis of the family. In that process, children would regain stranding as productive assets and fertility rates could be expected to rise as a result.

The ongoing rollback of social security and other intergenerational transfer programs around the world pushes in the same direction. But until globalism and the welfare state are damaged to the extent that they lose even their short-term viability, increasing scarcity will push down fertility rates by increasing the cost of children and thereby accelerate global aging with all its attendant challenges.

Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Washington Monthly, is the author of The Empty Cradle and many other writings on demographics and social change.

Photo by Ethan Prater

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