(Yes, I’m back in the bloghouse. I’ve traveled thousands of miles so far this month, and am catching up.)
Over the past two weeks two interesting opinion pieces appeared, calling for families in certain nations to make more, not few, babies. It’s one of those times when I as a futurist can mutter “I knew it! about time!” We might be seeing a trend appear and start to rise.
Let me back up and explain.
Back in the 1960s and 70s many people feared overpopulation, and for good reasons. Human population was rising. Serious research, most notably The Limits To Growth (1972; based on a powerful computer simulation), suggested crises to come, ranging from overcrowding to starvation. Science fiction and popular culture echoed this with novels like Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968), books like The Population Bomb (1968), and movies like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972).
(I remember clearly reading the liner notes for a piece of electronic-ish music around 1975. I was about eight, and the album cover back described music for an overpopulated future, when the earth was covered by giant buildings, packed tightly with far, far too many humans. I wish that memory was clear enough to include a title or composer.)
You will notice that during the decades after the population bomb’s warning Earth hasn’t been overrun by teeming hordes devouring everything in their path. Mass starvation hasn’t occurred. One big reason for this welcome development is that overpopulation terrified large numbers of people and many governments to take steps to reduce population growth, most notably China’s one child per family policy. (This is one of those cases where predictions can be productively wrong: by successfully influencing the world to take steps to avoid a bad state of affairs. Futurism often gets dinged unfairly for this, in terms of predictions that didn’t play out. People forget the futuring work is an intervention, with consequences, we hope.)
Another reason, which bears on education, is, well, education. Since the 1970s humans worldwide have received more formal instruction than at any point in our history. As plenty of research has shown, when girls and women have more education, they tend to give birth to fewer children. Schools have helped defuse the population bomb, in other words.
Additionally, and related, women in the wake of feminist progress have been choosing lives that might not focus mostly on child-bearing and -rearing, which is a massive social transformation in itself, obviously. This change includes a reduction in reproduction rates. As one writer pithily sums up, “The population bomb is being diffused. By women. Because they want to.” (I’m pretty sure they meant “defused”)
On top of that, we’ve had progress in public health, including the promulgation of birth control, improved sanitation and water access, improved treatment, and more. (Uneven, yes, but still, overall progress.) Hence our living longer lives, meaning folks over 65 constitute a larger proportion of the population, driving average and median ages up. Hence our having great abilities to control population growth.
There are other reasons in play here, including a possible generational downshift in births, but you get the idea. Overall, that mid-to-late 20th century fear of overpopulation has been addressed well enough to become the staple of a new round of popular culture about people under-reproducing themselves, in films like Idiocracy (2006). Silicon Valley can emit a food-thing called Soylent without it being a sick joke, at least in terms of overpopulation concerns.
Beyond fiction and the Valley, a growing number of developed nations worry about underpopulation as their inhabitants age, giving rise to concerns about imbalances between younger workers and older pensioners/retirees, which have implications for taxes, labor economics, pensions, and many other issues. (This plays a role in immigration debates.) . China has changed its one child policy to allow, and even encourage, families to have two children each. It’s not uncommon to speak of the opposite of a baby boom, a baby bust.
Accordingly, for several years I’ve been watching for signs of someone calling for people to have more children.
(NB: I am not echoing such a call, in case you’re wondering. I am observing it as a cultural development with potential power to shape the future.)
Some on the cultural right have been urging people to have more children for some time. The Quiverfull movement, for example, celebrates families with oodles of kids. These voices have been clear, but culturally very marginal. Instead, I’ve been waiting to see them, or rather, their ideas, go mainstream.
Cue American politician and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who was a baby when Limits to Growth Appeared, and a two-year-old when Soylent Green appeared. He just published a high profile editorial calling for Americans to have more children. Continue reading