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Fires, Refugees, Traffic, Gentrification ... So Why Isn't Anyone Talking About Population?

Even though population trends lie at the very heart of our national politics, the topic is oddly absent from our contemporary conversations.

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In fact, Earth's human population has doubled since 1968, and projections suggest it will reach 11 billion by 2100. Yet even as population has surged, human life expectancy has only increased, and discussion of the issue itself has gradually receded from popular dialogues — replaced by such planet-wide concerns as pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and global warming.

Although projections such as Ehrlich's did not come true, they arguably were quite influential in helping to slow down birth rates in the developed world. All across the Northern Hemisphere and the southernmost parts of the Southern Hemisphere, birth rates have plunged in the years since The Population Bomb was published. The United States' birth rate has gone negative — to 1.8 children per woman. Across the globe, advances in education and the empowerment of women have radically reduced fertility rates and family sizes in the nations farthest from the Equator — including Europe, industrialized Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the southern half of South America, Canada, and the United States — home to roughly two fifths of the planet's population. The home of the other three fifths — including Africa; the Mideast; Central, South, and Southeast Asia; the Caribbean; Central America; and the northern half of South America — have much higher fertility rates.

These realities arm contemporary discussions of population with racial and ethnic tripwires.

"Population growth in Africa — yes, it's a problem," said consulting ecologist Josiah Clark, a San Francisco native. "But by focusing on that, we're making it into a Third-World issue, like we can blame them for the problems we're causing."

When some people ask other people to refrain from reproducing, Zetland noted that it sounds like "a big fuck you" to anyone who has chosen to have children. Even though bringing humans into the world has negative impacts on shared public resources, the acts of procreation and parenting are treated as inalienable rights.

"What do politicians do?" Zetland quipped. "They kiss babies, so they're not going to go around telling people to have less of them."

In a rare exception to this dynamic, several months ago Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested in a video that it's appropriate for young people to ask, "Is it okay to still have children?" Not surprisingly, she was immediately disparaged by conservative talking heads like Sean Hannity, Pete Hegseth, and Tucker Carlson, all of whom basically accused her of trying to sabotage civilization.

Because population growth is closely linked to economic growth, it can be dangerous for elected officials to scorn reproduction. In fact, Republican lawmakers often encourage population growth, ostensibly for the benefit of society.

In March, Republican senator Mike Lee, of Utah, gave a speech in which he called for Americans to "fall in love, get married, and have some kids." He claimed that having more people on the planet, not fewer, is the best way to provide the needed brainpower to think our way out of the climate crisis. Back in 2017, Representative Paul Ryan told reporters, "We need to have higher birth rates in this country," explaining that the social assistance programs that he has tried to weaken through funding cuts are at risk of sinking if birth rates decline.

However, the same politicians who call for higher birth rates also tend to oppose liberal immigration policies, even though replacement migration — how some European countries now maintain their populations — is a viable and humane mechanism for populating economic sectors like agriculture and construction.

"They're certainly looking to grow only certain populations in the United States," said Stephanie Feldstein, the population and sustainability director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

This dynamic is seen in other countries, too. Israel's high birth rate of 3.1 children per woman has been applauded by pro-Israel analysts as a boost to its political and economic standing — and preferable to the alternative of simply accommodating would-be immigrants.

"In 2018, Israel is the only advanced economy and Western-style democracy endowed with a relatively high fertility rate (number of births per woman), which facilitates further economic growth with minimal dependency on migrant labor," wrote Yoram Ettinger in a 2018 article at JewishPolicyCenter.org.  

Japan, on the other hand, is where to best study the economic ramifications of population decline. Its population keeps steadily shrinking as the lowest birth rate found among any modern nation continues to decline — now just 1.42 births per woman. In 2018, the nation's total population dropped by 445,085, to 124 million people. In 2009, about 128.5 million people inhabited Japan.

As the median age of Japanese citizens increases, the matter is being treated as a national crisis. That age is now 46.3 years, with more than half the population 46 or older — statistics only slightly amplified above those seen in much of Europe. The problem with an aging population is that the number of retired individuals increases, and the workforce contracts, placing the burden of supporting them onto the shoulders of fewer and fewer people.

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