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the population bomb was wrong the world now struggling to make more babies
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‘The Population Bomb’ was wrong: The world now struggling to make more babies

I was born in the 1960s, just about the time people decided it was bad for children to be born. Oh, I don’t take it personally. It’s just people started to worry about a “population explosion.” Thanks to antibiotics, vaccines, mosquito eradication and better farming, people weren’t dying off as they had been. But they were still having babies. This led to more people. And quite a few folks — themselves already born — thought that was bad. The most famous is Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist whose bestselling book about people, “The Population Bomb,” promised the Earth a grim Malthusian fate, only a decade or so away. We’d see mass starvation, he predicted, and food riots in American cities before the 1970s were out. He urged the Federal Communications Commission to use its powers to ensure large families were always portrayed negatively on TV. (Take that, “Brady Bunch”!) He made a bunch of predictions, and pretty much all turned out to be wrong. (Instead of mass starvation, the biggest nutritional problem on Earth is now obesity, a problem even in countries once associated with hunger.) That Ehrlich made a bundle on wrong predictions isn’t such a big deal — we’ve had dozens of doomsaying futurists who’ve cashed in on fears that never materialized. The problem is people listened to him. Across the world, governments adopted population-trimming policies, from massively subsidized birth control to promoting two-worker households to China’s draconian “one child” policy, in which each couple was allowed only one child. That has left China with crippling demographic problems just as it hopes to burst forth as a superpower on the global scene; it’s now trying to encourage people to have more babies, as its leadership realizes it’s hard to be a superpower when your military-age population is shrinking (and, as only children, too valued by their parents to safely be employed as cannon fodder), your elderly population is growing and your society is stagnating. But don’t laugh too hard at the Chinese, because the problem is hitting almost everyone. Two decades ago, Phillip Longman wrote in Foreign Affairs about the coming “Global Baby Bust”: “Today, the average woman in the world bears half as many children as did her counterpart in 1972. No industrialized country still produces enough children to sustain its population over time, or to prevent rapid population aging.” Now it’s happening. “Global fertility isn’t just declining, it’s collapsing,” James Pethokoukis writes. “If you’re a Millennial or a younger Gen Xer, you’ll probably see the start of a long-term decline in human population due to the global collapse in fertility. That’s something that’s never happened before with Homo sapiens.” Fewer people are being born; in most countries outside Africa, nations (including the United States) are not producing enough people to replace the ones dying. This means the population will shrink, and the average age will go up. Some people think that’s fine. The world was doing OK with 3 or 4 billion people before, so why should we worry having that few people again? The trouble is 4 billion people on the way up is a very different population from 4 billion on the way down. The former was young and dynamic, with productivity increasing and risk-taking popular. The latter will be older, probably with a lower appetite for risk, and becoming less productive as it ages further. Some nations are already trying, with limited success, to encourage people to have more children. Others are relying on immigration, though if your native population is shrinking as immigrants pour in, it starts to look less like reinforcements and more like replacement. Elon Musk has been calling attention to this problem for a while, famously telling Italians their greatest contribution to the future is: “Make more Italians.” (And he’s put his, er, money where his mouth is, having far more kids than the average American tycoon.) But as the Chinese have learned, after a couple generations of being told to have fewer kids people aren’t ready to turn on a dime and have more again. Children are a blessing but also, especially in the early years, a sacrifice. I sometimes wonder whether the sexual revolution, which stressed nonreproductive sex, flourished in part because the Ehrlich message made that sound virtuous rather than selfish. Or maybe Ehrlich’s message flourished because it reinforced the sexual revolution. Meanwhile, the people still around will be the children of parents who had kids, and over a generation or two they’ll probably be disproportionately the children of parents who held pro-natal religious views and had big families. By the turn of the next century, we may see a world dominated by the descendants of Amish, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, traditional-rite Catholics and fundamentalist Muslims. Not the 21st century we expected in Ehrlich’s day. But that’s what we get for listening to an “expert.” Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.

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