Title: Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline
Author: Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Publisher: Signal Books, 304 pages
It has been observed that when a village or region gets access to television, its rate of child-bearing goes down. For a long time, the explanation was that “people have found something better to do with their evenings,” which betrays a rather bleak view of sex as nothing more than a way to spend a boring evening until something more interesting comes along.
The explanation does not really add up; very little sex, fortuitously timed, can easily yield a large family. In fact, closer analysis in Brazil showed that what really made a difference was the kind of television people were watching. What made the birth rate fall was not the arrival of television itself but the arrival of soap operas which showed aspirational lifestyles – smart apartments, chic clothes and hairdos, fancy cars. Once people started to watch and aspire to these ways of life, they quickly realized that they were incompatible with big family sizes. Too much money spent on nappies to afford Nespresso. Too much time spent with babies to have time for the beautician. And so the fertility rate went down.
John Ibbitson (a Globe and Mail political columnist) and Darrell Bricker (a pollster and public-affairs commentator) have written a sparkling and enlightening guide to the contemporary world of fertility as small family sizes and plunging rates of child-bearing go global. Although the book does not tell us anything hugely new – similar ground was covered by Ben Wattenberg 15 years ago (Fewer) and Fred Pearce nearly a decade ago (Peoplequake) – this is one of the biggest stories shaping our futures and it is moving so fast that it is high time for an update.
The writers offer a bracing overview of demographic history and then focus on particular countries and issues to which they bring sharp insight, refreshingly coupled with colourful anecdote. They are right to argue for policies which facilitate education and access to contraceptives, and to excoriate coercion as both cruel and unnecessary. Above all, they are right to point out the globally widespread extent of low or very low fertility, a fact of which, they correctly say, we need reminding because our perceptions of family size often lag reality by a generation or two.
All of that said, the book is not without its flaws. It has the positives but also the pitfalls of works written by journalists, at least from the perspective of the academic. The causal links are sometimes pared down to the simplistic. The strong, clear argument sometimes lacks nuance; is there really a conspiracy at the United Nations to bolster the forecasts of peak population? Surely it is worth noting that in Africa’s behemoth, Nigeria, fertility rates have hardly fallen at all so far, despite intense urbanization. But directionally, Ibbitson and Bricker are right: The Malthusians and their heirs will be finally silenced before the end of the century (although perhaps not so long before its end as these authors suggest), as falling population plus rising agricultural productivity allow us to return to nature some of the space we have taken from her.
While the authors get fertility broadly right – and fertility is the main focus of their book – they skate on thinner ice when it comes to migration. They suggest that mass movement of people is a declining wave of which we should have no concern; we can and should all be like Canada. But countries such as Britain have never seen ethno-demographic change on this scale before (at least for the best part of 1,000 years) and whether it is good or ill in itself, it is surely the most significant driver of an unprecedented populist backlash including not only Donald Trump and Brexit but the inclusion of parties in government which were once beyond the pale in places such as Italy and Austria. For sure, slowing the flow will have economic consequences but if we don’t slow it, we should be prepared for political ones.
Of course, even on matters of forecasts of low fertility and slowing population growth, events could take radically different turns. In some ways demography is predictable but it has its surprise,s too. The idea that, once low, fertility can never recover as small families become normalized is an interesting one but it is too early to be sure. Nobody expected fertility to start rising in highly developed Israel, for example, any more than they expected it to fall to below-replacement level in Puerto Rico. Might India, as the authors suggest, follow the Sri Lankan model of a “Goldilocks” scenario with a long period of fertility falling to, but not below, replacement level? Or will it undershoot like China? Perhaps their predictions should have a few more caveats than the authors allow. But from where we stand now, their view of the future is about as close as we can get.
London-based demographer Paul Morland is the author of The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World.