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Below-Replacement-Level Fertility: Don’t Fear It, Ross Douthat

Feb 11, 2020

On January 18th, 2020, the New York Times printed an op-ed written by Ross Douthat. The title of his work was “The Chinese Population Crisis: How Communist cruelty and Western folly built an underpopulation bomb.”

To anybody who has thought deeply about the ecological crisis and has grasped that the current size and ongoing growth of Earth’s human population are categorically unsustainable, Douthat’s ideas and perspectives seem tawdry at best, bewildering at worst.

Fortunately, Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research immediately published a biting take-down of Douthat’s position. That same week, Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, succinctly described what ails Douthat: Pro-Growth Demographic Dogma. Chamie defines this ailment as ongoing advocacy for “maintaining robust population growth and a larger and youthful population.”

Indeed, Douthat tries to use China’s unique demographic history and observable trends as an exemplar for all of humanity — in effect, he tries to parlay the end of population growth in the world’s largest nation into a warning (and a lecture) for all who oppose endless human population growth on a finite planet.

Douthat uses language seemingly designed to shame people who have different views than his own, and to disparage facts he does not like. For example, he tries to stigmatize below-replacement fertility as “common demographic decadence.” Yet many other thinkers in the world celebrate below-replacement-level fertility as the crowning achievement of developed nations — not a disgraceful and dangerous “decadence.”

Douthat’s position is common to those who cannot imagine a human economy predicated on anything except endless global population growth. Anything involving below-replacement-level fertility reflexively makes them think human civilization faces an “empty planet” future. Unfortunately, this idea was popularized by the 2019 book, “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.” The book’s authors attempt to make a case that the world’s population will peak far lower and sooner than the UN forecasts, because of a faster-than-expected decline in fertility rates.

Other experts have already deconstructed the flimsy evidence this book is based on. The global total fertility rate (TFR) — currently 2.4 live births per woman, per lifetime — is slowly moving towards “replacement level,” or about 2.1 live births per woman, per lifetime. Humanity still needs a 12% reduction in global TFR before we achieve replacement-level fertility. The United Nations does not think this will happen until sometime around 2060.

Let’s take an even bigger step back: as of writing this, it has been 24 days since Douthat’s article was published. During that time, the global population has increased by more than 5 million people. This is equal to the population of all of South Carolina. In the next 24 days, that increase will recur. Over and over again, throughout the year, the same thing will happen until humanity adds 80,000,000+ people to the already-existing 7.7 billion. Likewise, this 80-million-person increase will repeat itself in 2021, and for many years after that. The United Nations does not expect population growth to stop until the next century, and not until humanity has grown by 3 billion more people!

But Douthat’s ideology makes him believe that below-replacement-level fertility anywhere will automatically mean “knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually vanishes.”

So, perhaps one redeeming aspect of Douthat’s rudely-stated concerns is that he values and loves increases in human knowledge and living standards. But if these concerns are the emotional drivers of his position on population size and growth, he should do more work to understand alternative economic models that are not predicated on infinite growth on a finite planet. Alternatively he could research a country like Japan, which has had a decreasing population since 2010, but has seen no worrying decrease in living standards.

It is important to emphasize, after all, that human knowledge and living standards will not simply “stagnate” as Earth’s ecosystems collapse — they will collapse as well. Unfortunately, such cataclysm is becoming ever more likely with ongoing, rapid population growth, incessant increases in carbon emissions, and the human-forced sixth mass extinction building momentum.

Which brings us to Douthat’s greatest failure of imagination.

In the year 2020, the poverty and stagnation Douthat should fear most is the poverty and stagnation that comes from myopic, anthropocentric worldviews. Let’s look at that by examining Douthat’s attempts to preempt himself from criticisms related to carbon emissions:

An aside to answer a predictable objection: Yes, in an age of stagnation, CO2 levels won’t grow as fast, delaying some of climate change’s effects — but at the same time a stagnant society will struggle to innovate enough to escape the climate crisis permanently. And yes, an empty planet wouldn’t have a climate change problem at all, but if that’s your goal your misanthropy is terminal.

If nothing else, the sentiment found in that last sentence is as shockingly arrogant and self-centered as it is condemnable.

“An empty planet” here means just one thing: an imaginary planet without homo sapiens. Think about that. If you take humans out of the equation, then for Douthat, there is no other life worth mentioning. This editorial stance is patently absurd, contrary to natural history, and unspeakably small-minded. Douthat clearly does not comprehend that anthropogenically-forced climate change is indeed a problem for non-human species — or if he does, he simply does not care in any ethical or moral sense.

Thus, we know what Douthat would say when asked, “If the Earth’s climate changed, but there were no humans there to suffer from it, would it matter at all?”

It is clear his answer would be no.

So, to borrow a phrase from Douthat himself, “we should reserve particular opprobrium for those who chose, in the arrogance of their supposed humanitarianism,” to deny the intrinsic value of Life On Earth. Especially those who create beleaguered fantasies in their head of catastrophe caused by the end of human population growth.

The good news is, like many bad ideas that have afflicted humanity over the course of our evolution, pro-growth, anthropocentric human exceptionalism will eventually fade away. It may be too late, but new, more holistic and informed generations are rising. Generations that will embrace and celebrate what Douthat fears as the biggest problem of the 21st century. Instead, they will grasp it as one the greatest and most positive points in human evolution.

The natural end of human population growth.