Saturday, October 14, 2006

Which Birth Rates are Catastrophic?

Keywords: birth rates; Japan; James Lovelock; Gaia; demography; demographic transition theory; opportunity costs; William Ryerson; Population Media Center; television; mass media.
There was a jarring piece in today’s Globe and Mail by a BC woman, , that elaborates her concern about low . She claims that if you Google “low birth rate,” you’ll find panicked reports from all over the world. “’s drop is catastrophic; at 1.25 births per woman, Japan has the rate at which believe a cataclysmic downward spiral is inevitable,” she says. And she spends the rest of the article speculating about how to get women back into the breeding business.

I had to laugh. It’s true that there are some economic problems, mainly in affluent countries, that reflect disproportions in the size of the relative to their dependants — old, retired people and children. But it would be a terrible idea to try to bring the birth rates up as a way of solving these economic problems. The most serious global problems today result, not from our vanishing species, but from our vast numbers on the planet. The name of the game is to reduce the birth rate globally as much and as quickly as possible. Japan’s is the opposite of “catastrophic,” for the survival of humankind itself requires us to bring our population down enough to save the environment for future generations. It is bizarre to read articles based on the contrary assumption. Some knowledgeable people, such as , the theorist, even believe that the self-repairing homeostasis of the planet has already been fatally broken, so that most of us will die, leaving an environment that cannot sustain life for our descendants. Compared to that scenario, in which it is already too late to save humankind, the projected of low birth rates amount to mere piffles.

Tonight I’ve been reading some more articles about population problems and how to solve them. Fortunately, birth rates have been declining for several years but because of the large proportion of human beings who are still young, the actual size of our population is bound to increase for a while. The fateful question is: by how much?

The continuing growth of the world's population is not a result of high birth rates but of the sharp decline in death rates. Nevertheless, cutting birth rates is the only solution to this runaway growth. Indeed, we’re going to have to bring birth rates down well below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman if we’re to reach zero population growth in time to be sustainable as a species. That fact is not a subject of dispute.

Demographers simply differ in the variables that they identify as paramount in determining human reproductive behavior. There are lots of population theories, but few of them are very good at generating reliable predictions and policies about growth. However, three of the articles I've read tonight have given me a slightly different understanding of our situation.

's piece on the Population Media Center web site reviewed several theories or myths that all fall short when it comes to curbing the expansion of the population. The most widely accepted theory, the , predicts that as societies become more prosperous, their death rates decline. Since high death rates depend mainly on the mortality of children, a reduction of death rates means a reduction in . Parents recognize that the odds of their children surviving are increasingly favorable, so they need not produce extra babies to make up for the usual number of losses. Hence, a while after the death rates are reduced, the birth rates will start declining as well. It's the size of the population born during that time lag that determines population growth.

There is a lot of evidence supporting the demographic transition theory, but there are also variations in birth rates that it cannot explain. For example, sometimes after a society becomes more prosperous, its birth rates actually increase instead of declining, as predicted. Also, birth rates sometimes decline before economic development takes place, not afterward.

To improve on the predictions of the model, it is useful also to take account of "." Thus, if there is an increase in educational levels among women, along with more chances for them to take paid jobs, they will see child care as a costly impediment to their careers, and are less eager to give birth. Hence it is not merely economic growth that influences them but also the amount of income they must forgo by becoming mothers. Female education and employment determine such opportunities.

Ryerson points out that the most common approach to lowering birth rates has been to provide family planning facilities for couples, on the assumption that they will use if they do not want a pregnancy. This is not the case. Only about half of all the couples who are able to reproduce actually use contraception. Many women are passive and fatalistic; they don't want to become pregnant, but say that it is God's decision, not theirs. And of the people who do want to use contraception, the vast majority are able to acquire the material. According to a 1992 report by UNICEF, increasing access to birth control, making it available to absolutely everyone, would reduce the rate of world population growth by only about 30 percent. Some additional variable must be factored into the equation.

That extra variable is motivation, Ryerson explains. In other words, to bring the birth rates down, it is not sufficient to introduce structural changes in society. Psychological or cultural or attitudinal influences are also required -- indeed, they are the main point. So: how do we do that?

Answer: mainly through television. Robert Hornik and Emile McAnany's article, "Theories and Evidence: Mass Media Effects and Fertility Change" (in Communication Theory, Nov. 2001) indicates:

"There is evidence of a very substantial association between access to mass media and the level of fertility in a country....Excluding four oil-rich smaller countries, ... televisions per capital accounted for 74% of the variance in fertility in 1997. This is a substantially better prediction of fertility than one obtains from measures of GNP per capita, or from indexes of female education."
There are numerous studies showing the impact of television dramas that have been written specifically for the purpose of influencing public opinion about reproduction. Such soap operas a telenovelas are known to be immensely influential. What Hornik and McAnany are describing, however, is the effect of television in general, not the shows that are meant to change the culture. It seems that television has a generally effect on viewers, and this will translate over time into all kinds of behavioral changes in life style, certainly including motivations to limit completed family size.

This means that it will pay us to invest in television dramas of all kinds -- but especially popular series that demonstrate life styles that are ecologically sustainable, and especially that show happy single individuals and happy small families.

The Japanese have plenty of such shows. And so their birth rates are low — admirably, not catastrophically, so.


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