DEMOGRAPHIC SUICIDE IN THE WEST AND HALF THE WORLD: Either More Births or Catastrophe?
by Alejandro Macarrón Larumbe
Paperback: 310 pages
Reviewed by Lucy Sullivan
Spanish engineer Alejandro Macarrón Larumbe begins his book, Demographic Suicide in the West and Half the World, with a big threat, one that obviates the current obsession with global warming. If birth rates across the northern hemisphere (Europe, Asia and North America) – in trends that characterise the developed world – take on in the developing south, the human race could well be as good as extinct in about 200 years.
With birth rates uniformly below, in some places well below, replacement level (2.1 live births per woman) this means that in each generation there will be fewer women successively failing to replace each current population, inevitably resulting in an exponential decline that could make recovery impossible.
Like many studies of trends in human affairs, the author assumes that the trend will continue, unaltered, without deliberate human intervention, even though the birth rate trend was in the opposite direction a mere half-century ago.
The book is replete with graphs and statistical tables giving national detail and demonstrating practical and economic consequences of this trend, which has accelerated, with only a few reversals since the 1970s: for example, one consequence of which we are well aware is the rise in median age of the population, exacerbated by the huge increases in life expectancy of the late 20th century.
Macarrón Larumbe expositions of the adverse effect of population decline do not always ring quite true and he seems unaware that the prospect of constant population expansion and increasing production to support it that he often appears to consider necessary may strike fear for this Earth into the hearts of even the most moderate of environmentalists. Indeed, the future he predicts may well be embraced with rejoicing by ardent greenies.
He leads with deploring the fall in gross domestic product (GDP) that is likely to follow from a fall in population. But as GDP is a population-specific measure, this does not mean that the ordinary citizen will be deprived of accustomed goods and services. It just affords less substrate on which entrepreneurs and investors can enrich themselves.
Similarly he regards the resultant contraction in need for new housing as undesirable because it will undermine developers and construction firms’ growth prospects. To me, however, it presages rather plentiful, affordable, spacious housing. Imagine a family being able to afford a whole London Regency terrace house, rather than just one floor, or pay off the mortgage of a spreading Brisbane Federation home in just a decade and keep the backyard.
The burden of a disproportionate elderly population on younger generations is not as much a between-generations disproportionate burden as is commonly presented, for remember this is a young generation that has shrugged off much of the financial burden of providing a replacement generation and so, comparatively with their elders when young, has “money to spare”.
These problems, he points out, are still largely in the future, for the last of the era of population growth, the “Baby Boomers”, are still alive in these nations, living to extreme old age and consuming in unprecedented numbers, while immigration is being permitted to fill the shortfall in the productive age group, a “solution” that Macarrón Larumbe distrusts as another kind of cultural suicide.
Macarrón Larumbe considers a long list of reasons for the decline put forward by others, including reduced child mortality, the state taking over support for the aged, women’s employment, divorce, choice through contraception and abortion, older first pregnancies, state intrusion on parenting, cost of raising children, and loss of religious belief.
His rejection of all these on the basis of irregular correlations between nations is speculative rather than a sound use of statistics and he concludes this section with a statement of his own conclusion, which is none of these: “Inconvenience of having children with current lifestyles, due to the freedom, time for fun and money they take away from parents and the responsibilities they create.”
In the author’s opinion, this is by far the most important cause of the current low birth rate in developed countries, and increasingly, in developing countries. In other words, the human race is becoming selfish and hedonistic. The fate of Sodom and Gomorrah threatens, by natural causes.
I would like to suggest two factors that Macarrón Larumbe does not consider, although they are related to those he does.
In 2003 the Menzies Research Centre published my monograph, “The Influence of [SES] Income Equity on the total Fertility Rate”, written at the request of Malcolm Turnbull (then its chairman), who was concerned at the fall in the Australian birth rate. It had fallen from the Baby Boom peak of over 3.5 in the 1950s to below replacement level in 1976, the decline continuing to 1.7 in the year 2000.
Although there was decline in the 1960s, the steepest fall came when the Coalition Fraser government dismantled the financially realistic system of compensation for the costs of raising children, set in place after World War II, of a flat payment per child, various tax rebates and taxable income deductions for the extra costs of a family (educational, medical, pharmaceutical, council and water rates), and replaced it with a single flat payment per child, unindexed, which rapidly became trivial in a time of rapid inflation.
The change was made under two political pressures. The Menzies system of family income support was in accordance with the principle of horizontal equity, which deemed it proper that having children should not reduce one’s standard of living below that of the norm for one’s socio-economic status (SES). Higher SES children (as Macarrón Larumbe acknowledges) cost more to raise in keeping with their class than do lower, and the system awarded greater tax savings as SES rose.
In a new era, in which class was deplored, this was no longer acceptable. But the validity of the model in terms of actual human motivation is convincingly demonstrated in the following graph from the subsequent period, when the Labor government denied family support to all incomes above the welfare level.
It can be seen that, where SES equity was maintained, birth rates were highest even though this was the lowest level of income, and were lowest where income was highest but where the comparative cost to lifestyle was greatest (supporting Macarrón Larumbe’s contention that absolute income is not a significant factor in determining birth rate). The 1950s was a rare period when higher SES birth rates were similar to lower.
The early 21st-century Coalition policy that reinstituted family income support for a much wider range of incomes resulted in a rise of fertility to 2.02 by 2008. Since then both the ALP and the Coalition have reduced both the value and range of family income support (FIS). By 2016, fertility was back to 1.79.
The other pressure was from feminism, whose goal was to have all women full-time in the workplace lifelong. Part of its strategy was to remove FIS from middle-income families so as to force these women into the workforce by sheer economic pressure. This was largely achieved by the end of the 1980s, particularly in the form of part-time work by mothers of school age children.
But preschool children must have alternative-to-mother care and feminist lobbying focused on this policy; to which government readily (and still) acceded (perhaps for reasons of its own, such as raising GDP). And this created a second factor depressing fertility, not mentioned by Macarrón Larumbe: removal of the richest natural emotional rewards of bearing children. Why bother if one is alienated from the deep joys and satisfactions of nurturing one’s infants in their most delightful (albeit most demanding) years, of passing on one’s cultural traditions as well as one’s genetic inheritance, and watching them flower?
This deprivation suggested itself as the reason for the low birth rates that occurred in communist Eastern Europe and Russia – before child care took on in the West – where women were required to put their children into crèches from their second year. The generous provision of child-care centres in Western European countries has failed to revive the birth rate.
The path taken in the English-speaking world of part-time work availability under the same conditions as full-time may explain why their fertility rates hover closer to 2.0, while the European countries have generally fallen closer to one – the loss of mothering is not so absolute. Macarrón Larumbe sees children as depriving their mothers of work, but does not see that work deprives mothers of their children.
Having despatched all the suggested reasons for the drop in fertility, Macarrón Larumbe returns to them in his suggestions for “what is to be done”. But his overriding and, I think, naive proposal is that we should voluntarily and consciously change the zeitgeist, out of our awareness of the bottomless pit that lies just before us, and urge each other to have more children and, presumably if we are young enough, have more ourselves.
One suggestion I liked was that we should substitute adoption for abortion – an alternative that has strangely disappeared from abortion debates. But changes in the zeitgeist are almost by definition unpredictable, unexpected and unplanned.
There is, however, a quite different possible interpretation of this unpredicted, almost unremarked change in a basic, biological behaviour that has emerged nearly simultaneously across nations and, as the book’s title asserts, across “half the world”. It is also one that would allow the trend to reverse quite spontaneously, as trends usually do.
What we may be seeing is the same adaptive response in human beings as occurs in all other living species in response to insufficient resources to maintain their current population. It may occur via pressure from outside, such as famine or disease, or it may be by internal mechanism, as is reported of rabbits (foetuses are retained in the womb during a bad season and only proceed to birth when verdure returns), and koalas become infertile in similar circumstances.
We are not so remote from instinct that similar pressures could not impinge on our own behaviour subconsciously, while they impinge on our choices with an apparently reasoned facade (such as maintaining lifestyle).
It is at once notable that the worst decline has occurred in the “developed” highly populated but geographically circumscribed nations of Europe and Asia, but that it is less severe in the English-speaking peoples who, as a result of the 18th to 20th-century British diaspora, are in possession of, or have access to, vast lands which alleviate this pressure.
It is also notable that the reversal of the fertility trend occurred just as the Baby Boomers reached adulthood and almost simultaneously life expectancy began its steep rise in these countries.
Conceivably it was at this point that the threshold of sustainability was reached, and thus it was no coincidence that the massive financial support for families that had held for three decades across Western nations was rapidly dismantled.
There are other signs of resource stress that our clever exploitation of natural resources has seemed to solve at one level but with insidious side effects. Genetic engineering has solved world hunger by means of heavily bearing grains but a side effect has been to increase gluten levels to beyond the tolerance of many.
The increase in food allergies and the obsession with diet suggests that many are no longer “at home” with the foods they eat, which have been changed in many ways so as to allow long storage and distant transport, resistance to disease and insect attack, and so on. By globalising food production to relieve local pressure, a different level of food problems has been caused.
While medical advancement has greatly reduced death from disease, people are suffering from a new range of novel morbidities, at young ages, some drug-related, but many (apparently) stress-related, another possible effect of overpopulation. People are herded into ever-closer proximity with each other in apartment buildings, without a private “bit of earth” for themselves, perhaps not even knowing what they miss, but a source of stress nevertheless. This has caught up with us even in spacious Australia, because modern distribution of goods demands compression.
The current young generation is predicted to be the first that will be worse off than its parents, indeed it already is in terms of stressful work conditions – conditions apparently now necessary for us to consume at the inflated rates needed to keep global producers and investors happy. This too is a sign of lower availability of resources: greater cost of accessing them and/or of converting them to useability. We work longer to afford our labour-saving devices and products than the labour saved amounted to.
Despite low fertility, the global population is still rising because of the time-lag and increased ageing. But eventually it will fall, permitting production to diminish unless we proceed to ever- greater excesses of prodigality. In this scenario, an attempt to increase fertility is counterproductive. When the Western, or world, population reaches a level at which our demand on resources subsides to an equilibrium with the Earth’s provision, we can expect it to stabilise, then return to replacement rate.