The United Nations announced that the 7 billionth human probably arrived in our crowded world last week, so it was predictable that we would get another crash course on the threat posed by overpopulation.
Cartoonists cranked out sad images of hungry multitudes. Activists murmured about the planet’s limited “carrying capacity.” The New York Times ran a story rehearsing the link between birth rates and carbon footprints. The writer mentioned a study saying every American child, over his or her lifetime, emitted seven times as much carbon dioxide as a child in China. This was the polite version of the more extreme view, which sees human life as a “cancer” on the Earth.
Never mind that savvier commentators have been writing about the dangers of a “birth dearth” for more than 15 years. In Europe and Japan, the birthrate is below replacement levels and the worry is too many old people and too-few young to support them.
In much of the developing world, fertility rates have been dropping as incomes rise, a trend that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. As The Economist noted a couple of years back, it took 130 years for Britain’s fertility rate to drop from 5 births per woman to 2. In South Korea, a similar shift took place in 20 years. As prosperity rises, fertility drops — and concern for the environment increases.