The great slowdown in population growth

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, New York City welcomed its first new resident of 2022: Leyla Gessel Tzunun Garcia, born at the start of the new year at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn.

With changing population and fertility trends, there is less competition to become the first baby of the new year than before. Fewer babies were born in New York in 2020 than any year on record, while the US population grew just 0.1% over the year between July 2020 and July 2021, the country does not adding that 392,665 people from net migration and births to deaths.

This is the smallest numerical increase since the Census Bureau began making annual population estimates in the early 20th century. In percentage terms, this is the weakest growth in the country’s history.

Rising deaths from the pandemic play a role, as do inevitably creeping death rates in an aging population. But the main cause is falling fertility rates, as fewer Americans are having children and those who do tend to have smaller families. The total fertility rate in the United States – an estimate of the average total number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – fell from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.64 in 2020, well below 2.1 necessary for a population to replace itself without immigration.

Nor is it an American phenomenon. By one estimate, half of the world’s population lives in countries where fertility is below replacement level, and countries like Japan – with very low birth rates and little immigration – are already experiencing population decline.

China, which has become a symbol of population control with its coercive one-child policy, now has an even lower fertility rate than Japan, and the government is struggling to convince a dwindling number of young people to have more children – or children at all.

Overpopulation is not what you think

Despite this, the world population at the start of 2022 was almost 7.87 billion and is expected to cross the 8 billion mark in the next few years. For those worried about climate change, fewer people — especially in some of the world’s richest and most carbon-intensive countries — may seem like an absolute good.

Indeed, there is evidence that a growing number of young people are choosing not to have children specifically because they worry about what life would be like for their offspring in a hot and chaotic world. Those concerns may be more intense these days, but they’re nothing new — human overpopulation has been a major concern for the environmental movement for decades.

The freedom to choose the desired family size should be a human right, but there is evidence that many people do not have as many children as they would like. Surveys in the United States show that the reported ideal number of children in a family has remained just above 2.5 since the mid-2000s, even as actual fertility rates have declined. Whether due to delayed partnership and marriage, economic concerns, or changing lifestyle preferences, there are forces keeping population growth below the level people say they want.

And while population growth plays a role in climate change — it’s called anthropogenic warming for a reason — it’s not as big a factor as one might expect, as Sigal Samuel has written. for Future Perfect in 2020. Consumption of the resources that lead to carbon emissions is important more to climate change than to population growth per se, and these resources are primarily consumed by a relatively small number of wealthy people around the world .

Change those consumption habits – through a combination of better efficiency and new, carbon-free technologies – and there’s plenty of room to keep growing the population without cooking the planet.

The reality of slower population growth

However, slower population growth could paradoxically make it more difficult to achieve this transition. Fewer babies are making for aging countries, which slows economic growth and stifles innovation. It can be harder to garner support for forward-looking politics in a country with fewer children – just look at the gerontocracy that is the US government, with its 79-year-old president and legislative branches and judicial octogenarians.

And while it may seem that a slowing or even declining population would at least reduce crippling house prices, that may not be the case. Conor Sen notes in Bloomberg that when people flee dozens of declining metros like Toledo or Syracuse, they’re likely to crowd into cities that continue to grow, like Austin or Raleigh, driving up housing prices even further. .

Developing policies to encourage people to have more children is difficult and costly, as country after country has learned. That’s why, for countries like the United States that have historically increased their populations through immigration, encouraging more migrants is probably the fastest and most resilient way to maintain vibrant population growth.

But while last year marked the first time in US history that net international migration added more people to the population than net births, the number of people moving to America has dropped drastically again in recent years, from over a million in 2016 to less than 250,000 between July 2020 and July 2021. This is a function of both Trump-era immigration restriction policies and the lasting effects of the pandemic. Reversing this decline should be a national priority, and a priority that, unlike rising births, is absolutely within reach.

We may have avoided the crowded, dystopian future prophesied in books like The population bomb or movies like soy green (the latter, featuring a world so overpopulated that corpses are converted into food, is set in the year 2022). But a good future is always abundant – and that should also include people.

A version of this story originally appeared in the perfect future newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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