The human race disappears

The human race is sitting on a time bomb. It is not the sort of time bomb which might or might not explode: it most certainly will explode – disastrously, and it is doubtful whether we can do more than mitigate some of its effects.
I am not speaking of global warming, I am speaking of population. And, if we cannot predict the future with certainty, we can at least predict the number and shape of populations over appropriate time scales with reasonable confidence. The prospect makes me shudder.
The Church teaches that marriage is centred on the procreation of children, and exhorts us to be generous in the size of our families – only limiting them for serious reason. And the Church is absolutely right. The explosion we face is not too many hungry mouths and too few resources. On the contrary, the problem is that we do not have enough children.
Am I barmy? After all, the world’s population has doubled since the 1950s, and is expected to reach over nine billion by 2050. And it’s true that in the shorter term, and in the light of climate change, we will have to make more efficient use of resources, including artificial means, to feed the world. We shall succeed, but that will not solve the real problem. That lies in the fact that, on a worldwide basis, fertility is dropping, and people are living longer. The result has to be that the average age will rise, and there will be fewer and fewer active people to support those who are too old to work.
Let me dip my toes into statistical water. In 1950 around 200 million people were 60 or over; today it is 700 million, by 2050 it will be two billion. The rate of growth in the number of old people is more than twice that of the world population as a whole. Now think of the possible consequences. The ratio of working people to retired people, which was 12 to one in 1950, will be four to one in 2050. (It will be two to one in Europe by that date.)This will create a huge tax burden to meet social security costs when, as is usually the case, they are paid from current taxation and not out of a long-term fund.
The current financial downturn will not help the situation. Not only have many pension schemes been obliged to change benefits from a percentage of earnings at retirement to an investment fund whose results depend on investment success and volatile annuity rates, but individual pension “pots” have been reduced. Intergenerational financial assistance will be much reduced since working children will be relatively fewer and taxed more heavily. And older people living alone (predominantly women) will be vulnerable to much greater isolation.
Developed and developing countries are on a different time-scale. Already developed countries have a much lower ratio of employed to retired, but the developing countries are catching up and, since the changes will occur more quickly, there will be less time to adjust. I leave the effects of political unrest and international security to your imagination.
If you would like to check my summary and look into further detail, try Googling the UN World Population Ageing Report 2009. I promise you that the executive summary will make “each particular hair stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine”.
But the worst is yet to come. Do you recognise the following figures: 2.1, 1.96, 1.37, 1.82? The first is the number of children each woman must have on average to replace the population in a developed country. The remaining figures are the median ones achieved between 2005 and 2010 in Ireland, Malta and Britain. I have included two “Catholic” countries, but I could have chosen almost any developed country.
We are simply not reproducing ourselves. And this is why the world population will begin to fall after 2050 – when the effects of population ageing have worked their way through. A good thing, too, you may say, looking at the birth rate of developing countries. But the birth rate of developing countries is a function of high, early, mortality rates; it will fall to European levels as standards of living rise and economic contraception is widely available. Always has, always will.
A problem lies in the fact that the fertility rate of a country is a decision of personal convenience not a decision of government. Even China, with its draconian legal curbs, achieves 1.73 children per woman, virtually the same as Britain. But our prosperity is, rightly or wrongly, founded on modified market forces. A falling population means falling consumption, and that means economic depression on an unprecedented scale and unprecedented length.
Do the maths. I calculate, assuming a rate of 1.5 children per average woman, that a given population of 100 per cent will reduce to one per cent in 15 generations. Eventually the human race will get all the way back to Adam and Eve – and we can wrap it up and all go home.
You can see this illustrated informatively and amusingly here. But look at the information rather than the entertainment. It’s serious. I have seen it suggested that every married woman, who is in a position to do so, should aim at a family of three children. That looks about right because it allows for the unmarried, the infertile and those who have grave reason for restricting their families. It won’t solve the problems I have described in this column but it will be a step or two towards reducing them. A quick check tells me that my wife and daughters have a fertility rate of 3.2. So we pass, but many of you will have done much better.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The human race disappears

  1. claret says:

    There is a short film called ‘Demographic Winter’ that I think is available on-line and makes the same chilling predictions about the future of population ‘implosion’ rather than the popular ‘explosion’ that is constantly being fed to us. It is so much easier to raise the spectre of overcrowding (how often is Britain referred to as an ‘overcrowded island’ as though we were standing toe to toe with our neighbours when in fact we could all fit easily on the Isle of Wight – in terms of acreage alone.)
    Similarly when we see those awful images of mass starvation in Africa it is so easy to think of the simplistic answer to the problem as being one of restricting the number of mouths to feed rather than helping the ones who are there to be self sufficient.
    More countries are waking up to this and in fact paying a ‘bonus’ to women who have ‘above average’ nos. of children. I read somewhere that Russia was one of them.
    It is perhaps not an exact science but ’cause and effect’ are a good measure of how things will eventually end up if we give in to the easy solutions to what are identified as pressing problems.
    We have thus been fed a continual diet of population control as being the answer to all sorts of problems when in fact the ‘effect’ is to cause more of them.

  2. DJPNicholls says:

    In Augustan Rome, special privileges were granted to me who had at least three (sometimes four) children. Perhaps the answer to our current problems would be to introduce something similar, such as lower-priced public facilities (e.g. transport etc.).

  3. eclaire says:

    Abortion and a contraceptive mentality come to mind….(once again). Ah, yes, I can hear the secularists’ (and some ‘Catholics’) indignant voices ringing in my ears; ‘but we don’t need the Church to tell us these things are gravely wrong….it’s perfectly logical that killing your own babies does not make sense, especially when the future of mankind is at stake?’
    Children are not objects to be had, or disposed of at will.
    ‘Demographic Winter’ was aired on EWTN not so long ago and is worth watching.

  4. Ion Zone says:

    There was a woman recently imprisoned for killing all six of her secret babies, the reaction to this was much as if she had aborted them, there was no huge coverage, she was not treated as a murderer, and she only got something like fifteen months in prison with the recommendation that she be taken on by a mental health trust afterwards on the grounds she would reoffend (please correct me if I have blurred the details at all).

    The real reason I am posting, however, is just as worrying. Apparently there are a number of faith schools that force beliefs upon their students rather than assuming them, to which point, and to paraphrase a recent ex-pupil, some of them have become nothing less than chaotic atheist factories run by fundamentalist Christian teachers.

    Here is the one I think she was talking about:

    http://www.archbishops-school.co.uk

    This is something we must not ignore.

  5. Horace, it took me a second or two, but I love SUHTLAM!
    Is it correct to speak of an exponential rate of discount?

  6. Juliana says:

    Please share the SUHTLAM joke (?) Horace and Quentin! Or can’t it be expanded because unsuitable?

    And re article, perhaps the younger generations can make a small fortune from the aging ones by running expensive (they’re all expensive) care homes for them? They’ll be needed, unless euthanasia for the elderly becomes the thing.

  7. You’ll kick yourself, Juliana. Approach the problem backwards.

    On care homes – the old won’t have any money so their fees will be met from taxes which will be met by the young. So the world goes round.

  8. Juliana says:

    Ah! The light dawns. Thanks.

    As for care home fees….those with houses to sell are still having to pay and I bet that won’t change, even though the political parties looking for votes are suggesting that that this might be phased out. But the inter-war and post-war babies have done so well out of property, I doubt they’ll be relieved of the obligation to cough up.

    However, I can see that those now in their 30’s/40’s won’t have enough money as their houses have much bigger mortgages which may well not be paid off by the time they’re ready for a care home. As Quentin says, they won’t have the money for care home fees.

  9. st.joseph says:

    My Mother-in-law, died last year at 103. She was in a care home and very well looked after for 4 years after my husband died. She was never ill except the usual colds and flu aches and pains brought on by being aged.At 102 she developed a chest infection, and I received a phone call from the care home to say her Dr would not treat her with anti-biotics. I phoned the Doctor and asked him why, and he said that when her saw her he didn’t think she had much quality of life and was sleeping.
    I told him she would be sleeping if she was not well, and if he didnt treat her she could die as she was fragile. I also asked him how he judged a persons quality of life, shortly before that on her 102 birthday she was singing along all the old tunes with her grandchildren ( my husband had died) and her great grandchildren and blowing out candles on her birthday cake, and visited most days by my family. He apologised and treated her.I wondered if an elderly person had no relations -what would have happened.He knew her son had died and presumed I would not mind Thank God for the care home who phoned me.After that shehad a suspected thrombosis in her leg(a false alarm)’ The hospital askedme if her heart stopped would they resucitate her. I asked what would they have to do and was told they would break her ribs. I said that if her heart stopped ,to me she had died at 102. I made that decision , obviousley if it had been my husband giving the chance of resuciation I wouldnt mind him having his ribs broken.
    My mother in law lived for 10 months after that and died peacefully. R.I.P.Maybe some one else would have made a diffirent decision!

  10. gerry says:

    I don’t know where to start. An adequate response to the above would need a book. Nevertheless, here goes:

    Figures are boring, but they are important.

    Firstly the local picture: The UK birth rate has risen every year since 2001. In 2001 there were 594,634 births. In 2008, there were 708,711 births. This was partly due to an increase in births to mothers born in this country and partly due to the higher fertility rates of mothers born abroad.

    Secondly, the wider picture: (1) Europe including Russia is the best region to examine a population implosion. The United Nations estimates for this region are: 547 million in 1950: 726 million in 2000: and 691 million in 2050. It is fair to say that soon the population of Europe – excluding immigration – will be imploding.

    (2) Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan is the best region to examine a population exploding. Most of you know the figures, but here they are again from the United Nations: 300 million in 1950; 600 million in 1976; 1,200 million in 2002; 2,400 million in 2050 And – in sheer numbers – onwards very rapidly from there.

    (The United Nations latest (2008) low, medium, and high estimates for the 2050
    population are 2413 million, 2760 million, and 3132 million respectively. The more exact figure for 1950 is 308 million. The numbers do not include Turkey.)

    Those countries whose population is imploding will have to put up with heavy burdens, as is well described above: working until seventy or longer, and paying higher taxes. But those living in countries where the population is exploding also have to suffer heavy burdens. The fact that people from the exploding region are desperately trying to get into the imploding region suggests that life is better, far better, in the latter region.

    My own guess is that the miseries of life are so great in Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan that huge numbers of people will try to escape these miseries. At present the migration from this area into Europe is only in the millions. I’ll be surprised if this does not become “in the tens of millions” in the next few decades. (Even if a thousand million come over in this century, this will still leave Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan with many times the population it had in 1950, and the population there – excluding serious famine and diseases worse tthan AIDS – will still be expanding.)

    The point of all this is that none of you need worry about a declining population in Europe. There will, almost certainly, be a decline in the number of native Europeans, but this will be more than made up for by the influx from south and east of the Mediterranean. These newcomers will bring with them their higher fertility rate, and this is unlikely to decline to present European levels for a generation or so.

    Unless you think – quite understandably – that the cultural change inevitable with such large immigration numbers cannot be managed peacefully, don’t worry about conditions in Europe. On the other hand, do worry about conditions in Africa and the Middle East to Pakistan, and try to persuade Catholic organizations to provide effective family planning in Africa. We should not leave population control in this region to disease, famine, and war as we are doing now.

    It can be done. In Iran, an intensely religious country, governmental and organizational enthusiasm for family planning has reduced the fertility rate from 6.6 to 1.8 in 25 years. We should imitate them.

    Gerry

  11. James H. says:

    Thanks, Quentin, for getting the word out. This is a major issue for Europe especially, and all conventional wisdom would have us ‘running to the side of the boat that is already gunwale under’ as CS Lewis put it.

    I don’t see conditions in Europe changing at all, ever. We’re too self-absorbed in the main. The only families I know who have made a point of having ‘enough’ children are practicing Catholics, whether Latin Mass enthusiasts or Charismatics (!), and we can’t do it all ourselves. European Christendom is almost certainly doomed, barring a miracle of evangelisation.

    As to the church encouraging ‘family planning’ in Africa – it won’t happen. In a country where children are your only retirement plan, small families are a bad idea. You can’t save for your retirement on less that $1 a day, even if third-world inflation wasn’t permanently in double figures. Children are needed, to help at home, on the farm, in the business, and some to be clergy or religious. That’s the way it used to be everywhere. You could say, that’s the way it usually is (our current situation being an aberration). In any case, top-down population control tends to be draconian, and has invariably resulted in a shortage of women.

    gerry cited the example of Iran. Was it not the case that the extremely high birthrate was a government intervention in the first place – in response to the war with Iraq? Now that their birthrate is below replacement, the dominant Persian ethnic group can’t hold onto its relatively privileged position for much longer. There’s another social problem in the making.

    OTOH, I invite readers to google the following phrase:
    Muslim converts to Christianity – good news for a change!

  12. gerry says:

    Thanks James for keeping the ball rolling. This demographic drama is after all probably the most important, non-religious, undoubtedly man-made, event in recorded human history. I doubt that we would be worrying about global warming if the world population was below 1000 million. Only nuclear weapons have the capacity to do more damage to the environment.

    A taboo, or semi-taboo, has prevented this subject being discussed in the media, but this taboo is breaking down. In 2009, Chris Bain, Director of CAFOD, mentioned population increase as a cause of poverty. And recently, Save the Children has issued a substantial paper on the subject. (Download: Policy brief. Population, from their website.) The paper’s opening sentence reads: “The rapid growth of the world’s population is a subject that receives too little political and public attention.”

    Norman Borlaug, the ‘father’ of the green revolution, had this to say in his very long, but very good, speech on receiving the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo:

    “The green revolution has won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only..Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the “Population Monster”.

    (Almost unbelieveably, despite these strong words, the green revolution has been used to support the claim that “Malthus has been proved wrong.”)

    Happily, much of the world took the message to heart and in the Far East and , belately, in Latin America, with the widespread use of family planning, fertility rates have fallen substantially, and prosperity is dawning.

    Unhappily, in parts of the world where Catholic teaching about contraception is influential – mainly sub-Saharan Africa – this warning has been dismissed, and other causes are blamed for the poverty and conflict we see over there. Catholics still fail to comprehend the magnitude and the menace of the “Population Monster”, and we are, I’m afraid, going to continue for the foreseeable future our attempts to deny the poor that effective family planning upon which our own prosperity depends. Curiously, this does not worry us.

    Gerry

  13. James H. says:

    “I doubt that we would be worrying about global warming if the world population was below 1000 million.”

    I beg to differ. 🙂

    “Unhappily, in parts of the world where Catholic teaching about contraception is influential – mainly sub-Saharan Africa…”
    Wait, what? Are you saying that sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Catholic? You are wrong sir, completely wrong. Even in French- and Portuguese-speaking countries, Catholicism makes up at most half of the population. Go and look it up.

    “… other causes are blamed for the poverty and conflict we see over there.”
    Are you seriously contending that if only birth-rates would go down, there would be no more corrupt politicians, extended-family nepotism, tribal conflict, famines and poverty?

    I’m sorry, having grown up in Africa with the horror stories ongoing, I can not agree with the boiler-plate criticism you reproduce here.

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