Baby Busts and Ponzi Demography: The Costs of Population Growth

crowd of people

There’s been a strange new outbreak of hand-wringing “baby bust” stories in the media recently, most notably fed by right-wing author Jonathan Last, author of the new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. Clever title, silly book.

Last makes the typical arguments that we’re all familiar with – we’re running out of babies, it’s the fault of birth control, abortion, working women, college educations, secular socialism, modernity in general, car seats, et cetera. (No, I’m not joking about the car seats.) If we don’t boost the birthrate, he says, the United States will continue its supposed slow spiral toward doom. It’s the perfect articulation of Ponzi demography – the idea we need never-ending population growth to support the people already here.

Last is correct on one account – the United States is growing older. (You can thank us bountiful and aging Baby Boomers for that.) We will need to make adjustments in order to have a healthy economy in the coming years. But running out of people? That’s crazy talk. The United States population is expected to pass 400 million by 2051. That’s 85 million more people who will need good jobs, sufficient space, clean water and energy.

So what would happen if the world population – including in the United States – just kept growing to feed the Ponzi scheme? It’s simply not sustainable. The costs to both people and our planet would far outweigh the benefits. Here are some facts Last and his friends simply can’t hide under their pro-growth rug:

Water Resources are Already Stressed: According to the World Health Organization, one in three people around the globe is already being affected by water scarcity, and that number will only grow along with our global population. Even here in the United States, a number of Western states that rely on Colorado River water are watching their supply shrink thanks to population growth and drought. Climate change is expected to make things worse.

Feeding Everyone Will be a Huge Undertaking: Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that we must raise food production 70 percent to feed 9.3 billion people in 2050. Adding to the challenge: The best cropland is already in production. The “Green Revolution” has slowed down. Returns on using more fertilizer have been diminishing and are subject to rising oil prices. And plants can’t grow without water, of course.

We’re Losing Wildlife Habitat: Population growth doesn’t just affect humans. Wild plants and creatures are harmed when land they inhabit is plowed under to grow food, extract minerals and build more roads and houses. In fact, 1,500 plant and animal species are endangered or threatened in the United States alone. Globally, some of the most biodiverse areas are also experiencing the most rapid population growth. We may lose species forever even before they’ve been formally discovered.

Growing Population Means People Suffer, Too: And rapidly growing populations don’t just hurt plants and animals. They hurt people, too. Most of the places around the world with the highest birthrates – Afghanistan, Niger, Yemen, Uganda – also have very high levels of maternal and child mortality and low levels of women’s education. In general, they are extremely poor, and they are plagued by violence. Women’s lives have improved as the birth rate has gone down. Is it really necessary to reverse that trend?

So while feeding the Ponzi demographic scheme might pay off for Pampers shareholders, in the long run, population growth is good for no one. Not even Jonathan Last. Though I doubt we’ll ever convince him of that. But we’ll certainly keep trying!

John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation’s largest grassroots population organization. The organization’s website is populationconnection.org.

Image credit: geezaweezer via photopin cc

  1. Melissa Reginelli

    Such a refreshing article! I am childfree with no regrets and while I haven’t been invited to many baby showers lately, I appreciate the importance of communicating with the people who need this information…such as high school assemblies.

  2. Amy Phillips Bursch

    Hey Melissa: I’m glad you liked it! Like the author of this piece, I also work at Population Connection. One of the most important things we do is train teachers to teach on population and other environmental topics. We’ve been doing that since 1975! You can learn more about that work here: http://www.populationeducation.org/

  3. Scott

    I’m 38 and childless. My girlfriend and I long ago decided not to have kids and I made the decision permanent by having a vasectomy. We couldn’t be happier. We give back in so many ways to make the world and our community a better place–that’s part of our fulfillment in life. We see our peers who have kids, and all they can do is work, eat and sleep. They started shopping at Costco every weekend (literally, that’s how they spend their weekends) because, well, kids are bloody expensive, and who has the time to do any real shopping or exploring of restaurants or new services when you have a 2 year old? If that’s not bad for our economy, I don’t know what is.

  4. Isabelle

    Nice article. I do have children (2… both adult now) but have long felt that population pressure is at the root of most of our current problems. Pollution, climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, etc etc… Just symptoms of too many people.

    There is no shortage of babies in the world, thousands and thousands die every year just from lack of clean water, and basic diseases like measles and malaria. It is true that the birth rate s dropping among many groups in the developed world and this will mean some changes but it is easily manageable. One problem is that people are wildly unrealistic. The retirement age was set at 65 when almost everyone was dead by 70. Pensions and social security were never intended to support someone for 25 years. Now people routinely live to 85+ but they expect to retire at the same age! They study longer but want to retire at 65 or even earlier, and don’t appreciate that they must work more years to build up enough funds. A generation or two back, many people started work at 18 or even 16, and worked to 65, and had longer to build up sufficient retirement funds for a few years of decent retirement. Now they are often in college until their late 20s, leave with mountains of debt, and don’t start saving until their 40s. Sorry, but if we want to get educated and also live to 85, we MUST expect to work well past 65 and very importantly, we must take responsibility for staying fit and healthy so that we are still capable of contributing. It’s not too many old people who will sink this country – it’s too many severely infirm old people, who cannot work although they should.

    1. Isabelle

      Sorry, that ended up being more about retirement than population! But what I am trying to say is that we CAN manage an aging population, by working longer and getting realistic about when we should expect to retire and how much money we personally need to save. And also about taking real responsibility for our health and fitness. That way the lowering birth rate can be seen as a positive thing which is good for the earth, rather than a burden which leaves us with too many old people. This whole issue also touches on immigration. If we are running out of workers (which personally I don’t accept) then there are plenty of nations out there willing to send us their surplus people! I strongly suspect that Mr Last’s angst about the falling birth rate has some slightly racially based undertones; what really concerns him is the drop in the white population. Sorry Mr Last but the world – and women – are changing. You cannot turn back the clock. Get over it.

  5. Winthrop Staples

    Good article. But efforts like this must expose the motivation of so many of political and business leaders for opposing population stabilization and doing everything they can do to keep population rising in the USA and in most other countries. This motivation is that if you part of the small percentage of humanity who is wealthy and powerful you usually benefit from increasing population which keeps wages low, increased the number of consumers for business owners, gives leaders a larger population to tax and threaten neighboring nations with – while at the same time these “few percent” can dodge the negative collateral damage of increasing populations by living in expensive zip codes, with security guards, drinking bottled water, filtering air and sending their pampered children to private schools. This will work for them up until the ‘collapse’, and then due to their own great wealth they at least think that they will be able to bail out for what ever place is not totally devastated yet. Leaders simply do not have to care about what the average environmental or social conditions may be. They do not like in the average conditions that common citizens suffer anywhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *