A while back, after many years away, I happened to visit a town where we lived for a few years when I was a kid: Buffalo, the "City of No Illusions," where "suicide is redundant." It was exactly the opposite of what it must be like to come back to these parts. Our former town was cleaner, greener, and quieter. Gone were the steel mills and the stinking, throat-scratching haze that hung over them. Fields and parks had sprouted where the factories once stood. Those who'd stuck around didn't seem to mind.
Buffalo hadn't starved like other Rust Belt ex-metropolises, but it had shrunk—in graceful, livable fashion. Once it had well over half a million people, about as many as Seattle has now. Now it has three-fifths that many.
Every city should be so lucky? Not if you listen to the propounders of the last big doomsday scenario to strike terror in the op-ed pages before Sept. 11 distracted everyone. This scenario differs from most in not positing people—fanatic jihadists, tin-pot dictators, permissive baby boomers, or overconsuming and overemitting hordes—as agents of destruction. Instead, doom will come because of a shortage of people—a "population bust," in the inevitable catchphrase. The world's population, like Buffalo's, will shrink, and so will its workforce, economy, cities, and armies. . . .
Such scenarios were once the province of paranoid lefties who decry birth control as, in the words of Global Africa Pocket News, "GENOCIDE . . . the process by which Global Europe (whites, Caucasians, Aryans) seeks to guarantee its perpetual domination." Now they've been picked up and flipped around by neoconservative Cold War holdovers (pundit Ben Wattenberg, The Public Interest, the American Enterprise Institute) who've sought a cause ever since the Evil Empire imploded, the New Dems co-opted their social issues, and a new and nastier Right stole the thunder and the government.
The neocons needed a new threat, and they found it in a country everyone else finds rather charming, albeit crowded: Italy, which they decry for having the "lowest [fertility] rate ever recorded" absent plague, war, and famine. (Actually, the fertility rate of seven other nations, including Spain and Russia, is lower.) Their villains are the selfish donne who, refusing to behave like good Catholics, patriots, or economic cogs, produce on average just 1.2 children, way below the "replacement rate" of 2.1 children that would ensure a steady supply of native-born Italians.
Worse yet, 60-plus nations have fallen below the replacement level, including nearly all of Europe, Japan, and—most queasily, considering the means—China. (U.S. fertility hovers at the replacement rate, and immigration keeps the population growing.) At this rate, the doomsayers warn, we might not even reach the "comfortable" 10 billion that the world population was supposed to hit before starting to level off late this century. Add plummeting Russian life spans and Africa's AIDS holocaust, and Homo sapiens becomes an endangered species! Better scuttle those family-planning aid programs fast, some doomsayers warn outright. Others merely hint it.
Memo to the Gates Foundation: Keep the condoms coming, along with the vaccines. For the likes of the American Enterprise Institute to hand-wring at the prospect of too few Bangladeshis and Rwandans is not only insincere but way premature. Fertility and misery are still closely joined around the globe. Sub-Saharan women still average nearly six children—AIDS doesn't stop births; it just makes kids grow up orphaned, desperate, and unschooled, fodder for the child armies of the next Sierra Leone. Not only are all African, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and South and Southeast Asian countries exceeding (often doubling or tripling) the replacement level—their overwhelmingly young populations insure an echo boom however fertility rates may decline. And declines are no more assured than the Malthusian megaboom forecast in the '60s. The fertility rate recently ticked up slightly in America.
Two unspoken, perhaps even unconsidered assumptions seem to underlie the bust prophecies: first, a fear we'll have not too few people but too few of our kind of (native-born) people. And second, what Edward Abbey called "the ideology of the cancer cell": the exaltation of growth for growth's sake.
You might dismiss such prophecies as ideological spasm or opportunism. But cooler heads have picked up the refrain—most recently Fred Pearce in New Scientist (July 20). Pearce forecasts "a much older," perhaps "less innovative, more conservative" world, beset with labor shortages as rich countries compete for immigrants. But the two notions cancel each other out. Immigrants bring innovation; gated, homogenous societies like Japan stagnate. Where's the nightmare in a world that competes for the unemployed, embittered, often overeducated hordes now left to the mullahs and narco-traffickers? Anyway, no boost in breeding now will likely change the prospects for your Social Security payments or mine.
And why shouldn't our overpopulated species give a little space back—perhaps even enough to spare our nearest cousins, the grievously endangered chimps and bonobos, whom we now outnumber, respectively, 40,000 and 600,000 to one. The world would be better off if much of the work humans do—from terrorist training to telemarketing and highway building—were left undone.
So update the slogan: Scaling back isn't suicide, and it's not redundant in Buffalo.
Eric Scigliano's environment column appears every other week.