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Ken Barrows

Sure it's both. The Economist just wants to maintain the status quo, as does Hans Rosling.

Despite the decrease in fertility, world population still increases by about 200,000 per day. In a couple of weeks, that's Chicago. Imagine if the newbies consumed like Americans!

On the consumption side, the exponential growth gets you, too. How much of the oil ever extracted has happened since January 1, 2000? 20%? 25%?

Julian Bond

Fertility rates may fall with increased wealth. However average lifespan and percentage that make it to fertility also rises. And there are major lags in all this, so survival rates can rise considerably before it turns into a social pressure to reduce numbers of children. And the combination can lead to decades or even centuries of change and growth in absolute population numbers before anything stabilises. But of course we probably don't have centuries to deal with the side effects.

What is important though is that the entire debate above is about the implications of a model that only looks at a couple of factors when even the simplest economic models need to allow for another 10 or so. Wealth may go up, fertility rates come down, longevity go up, consumption go up. But then pollution and resource depletion might still produce catastrophic failure and population collapse at some point in the process. Yet again, please see,
Limits to Growth - model3 predicts fertility falling, but death rates falling faster and hence population growing. And lots of interconnected factors with lags in the system. And a "Big Thwack" (tm).

Alexander Ač

Poor Egyptians! They don't need to read The Economist to know that they are not fucked. Hm... really?

John D

Excellent article! I agree that consumption is a major issue and the developed countries are much more to blame for our problems than the poor countries with high birth rates. The unfortunate thing though, is that when the shit hits the fan the poor, low-carbon emission folks will be the first to suffer and die.

Alexander Ač

John D,

"when the shit hits the fan" -- What do you mean?

I think the shits are hitting the fans for many years now in many countries for many (3-4) decades. I was born when the world was already in the decline (if hidden by rising debt - uh-oh). I dont care about the new I-shit etc...



The average American is getting poorer, so does that mean fertility rates are increasing in the USA? The concept seems a little bit too simplistic but maybe I am missing something. Fertility rates in Mexico have gone way down (the decline started in the mid 60s) but are Mexicans really that much wealthier now?


There is a fatal flaw in modern thinking due to compartmentalization. A biologist only thinks in terms of biology, an economist only thinks in terms of economics, and so on.

I think the question of why birth rates drop in advanced economies is really very simple when looked at in common sense or economic terms. In the Third World, you don't have health insurance or massive doctor bills, you don't have both parents working (and so have to pay for extremely expensive child care), you don't pay outrageous amounts for college, and your daily expense bills are only raised in terms of food (not the extra car, or the insurance for that car, or the child's cell phone and bills, or brand-name clothing, and on and on).

In short, there is strong economic disincentive to have many children in the developed world. There's nothing mysterious about it. Biologically, a person still wants to pass on their genes, though. With low infant and child mortality rates, the average person figures 2.1 children will do the trick, and having more than that means they can't buy that jet ski they've been eyeing.

All of it, though, is dependent on an ever-increasing global economy. To an economist, this is no problem. In their mental framework, all resources are infinitely substitutable (you run out of cod, you move to tuna, and so on). Their form of compartmentalization can't see beyond that.

I tend to think the equation is population times footprint. In simplistic terms, we could halve our population, but if the economy doubles in that time, we're basically still at square one. And no one really factors in the time element. All resources, if not used in a sustainable way, get drawn down per year. We only have so many years we can continue modern industrial agriculture before we fully deplete the soil and water support structures. Tick tick tick.


Trying hard not to shout juvenile obscenities in peanut-brained Rosling's direction, I have a thought to add to this great essay today.

Could it be that as "we" get richer, we simply get greedier? Why would we consume more, when much of it is unnecessary to life - unless we are making a very human point that because we can consume more, we will consume more?

En masse, this greed factor of ours could explain why Homo sapiens could never have adopted sustainable living on a planet of finite resources, no matter how much warning and wailing from future-seers. Instead of conserving, the rich countries (led way in front by the Emperors of Guzzling the US of A) gobbled and gobbled with no care for the future. Part of the reason for the drop-off in reproduction in the rich countries could be the transition in human drivers from covert evolution/biology to overt emotion/psychology, complete with such burgeoning delights as self-obsession, lust for social status and plain old greed.

And to think that the poor impoverished peoples in have-not countries desire to emulate rich countries, whose lifestyle is propagandized by Hollywood et al. Understandable but pure bananas.

Ken Barrows

Lowest US fertility rate was during the Depression. So, wealth and birth rates don't have a perfect inverse correlation.


@Oliver: Absolutely. Everything is on a comparative basis. Humans compete to outdo their peers to gain social status and increase their sexual attractiveness. If you live in Nigeria and you own two run down Hondas, you're the tits. If you live in America with two run down Hondas, you're nothing.

Almost any millionaire wants more. They know someone else who has two million - and look at them, they just bought a condo in Nassau. The game is always to grow.

I was eating dinner at a Thai place the other night, and there was this 20-something hipster talking to his parents about his new cell phone in a rather loud voice. "They said this thing was 4G. It isn't 4G. Tom's is 3G and it's faster. It isn't right."

The Mad Duchess

No no no. The scientists are working too hard. Nothing in the genetic imperative to have as many babies as possible changes with levels of consumption. What has changed in the industrialized nations is the availability of birth control. The genetically driven urge to procreate is expressed as the desire to have sex. This led to overpopulation in all societies through history ending in localized crashes. It's heading towards a global crash now, thanks mostly to religion.


@Jim - Your lovely experience at your local Thai reminds me of a "joke" that aptly sums up what we're talking about today.

A man was walking down a lane towards his local boozer when a leprechaun appeared in a puff of purple mist right in front of him. The leprechaun, hopping from one foot to the other, said, "Fella, it's your lucky day. I grant you three wishes." The man stood there dumbstruck. "Come on fella," said the leprechaun, "tell me your wishes and I'll be off." At last the man spoke. "Three wishes? I can have any three wishes?" The grin widened on the leprechaun's face, and he replied, "Yes, anything your heart desires." "Well, now," responded the man, scratching his chin, "I'm fond of the Guinness, so okay, I would like my first wish to be a bottle of Guinness - and make that a never-ending bottle of Guinness."

In a flash of hands, the leprechaun presented a bottle of Guinness to the man, who promptly raised it to his lips and drank a deep draught. He was delighted. No matter how many times he took a swig, the bottle magically refilled to the brim. The man was agog as he drank and drank. Soon, however, the leprechaun became impatient. "C'mon now fella, I want to be off, tell me your other wishes!"

The man stopped drinking and stared into the distance, thinking, thinking what his other wishes should be. Suddenly, he laughed gleefully. "I've got it, I've got it!" The leprechaun readied his fingers, saying, "So, what do you want now, fella?"

The human replied, "I'll have another two bottles just like this one."

Mike Roberts

I'd read that male fertility is decreasing, in terms of sperm production, probably due to environmental degradation. Could this be a factor?

In any case, I always shake my head at stories like this. Actually, almost any story that is trying to project the future trends. They all assume business as usual. Some also assume humans making rational choices. Not only is business as usual unlikely by the end of the century (indeed, much, much sooner than that) but humans in developed nations like the US are not getting richer, as you've shown many times. Rosling's notion that the whole project 10 billion people will be rich is, of course, laughable.

I'm reminded of a special edition of New Scientist, some years back on why the economy is killing the planet. The kinds of articles in that edition get read and forgotten about - even by the magazine itself. It's as if they were never written.

Robert Cook

In the absence of birth control and abortion women would be having
babies at the rate of one every 4-6 years, assuming they breast feed until each child is around five years old. Shorten the term of breastfeeding and the birth rate would go up. This would be true until their death or menopause. Women in developed countries generally do not breastfeed for very long, so it is birth control that is keeping the birth rate down, and sufficient food and shelter, disease control, and absence of war is allowing those children to live and breed. But why are women choosing birth control? First, many cannot afford too many children, and second, most of them want to "have a life", even if they could afford more children. Their husbands (when they have them) likely feel the same way. For persons of power overpopulation in the places where they live creates a dangerous social environment, but overpopulation in their foreign labor sources just creates more cheap labor. Notice how opposed to foreign aid in the form of birth control programs the Republicans are? The only use persons of power have for overpopulation in their own environment is to use the powerless as cannon fodder, otherwise to allow such a situation is a demonstration of political incompetence (e.g. Pakistan, India, and probably Saudi Arabia). An exception might be religious leaders, many of whom encourage their followers to breed prodigiously, regardless of the quality of life of those followers and their offspring. But note, a neighboring power whose numbers constitute a threat may create a need for you to offset that threat by increasing your own numbers, and to reduce the threat by initiating war. I wonder when China will invade Mongolia, and Eastern Siberia. If Europe continues to lose population, those burgeoning numbers of North Africans will fill in for them, won't they? And isn't the same happening in the US (Hispanics), Australia?


Oliver asked "Could it be that as "we" get richer, we simply get greedier?"

As we get richer, we get greedier and nastier...


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