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Anybody who has been paying attention has long grasped the truth: under-population, not overpopulation, is our problem. This will soon be true on a global scale. It is already true in most of the developed world. Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, explains why this is undeniably so.

Unfortunately, the explanation is shrouded in confusion and ideological distortion, so the authors are never able to provide a clear message. Instead, they offer rambling, contradictory bromides combined with dumb “solutions” until the reader throws his hands up in despair, as I did.

But then I got a stiff drink, finished the book, and now am ready to tell you about it.

Urbanization, other factors

The authors, two Canadians, offer an apparently complete story. Every part of the world is becoming more urbanized. Urbanization causes a drop in the fertility rate, for three reasons.

First, when off the farm, children are a cost center, rather than a profit center.

Second, urbanized women choose to have fewer children.

Third, urbanization means atomization of social life, such that the networks in which people were embedded, most of which exercised pressure to have children, disappear and, if replaced, are replaced by friends or co-workers who do not exercise the same pressure.

These causes of population decline are exacerbated by two other factors not tied to urbanization: the worldwide decline of religious belief, and lower infant and child mortality – which means people don’t have children as insurance.

And the end of the story is that when the fertility rate drops far enough, it is, in the modern world, permanent. It is the “fertility trap,” analogous to the well-known “Malthusian trap.”

Why the fertility trap? It’s due to two totally separate causes. One is mechanical – if a society has fewer children, obviously there will then be fewer women to bear new children.

But the other is social. When there are fewer children, “employment patterns change, childcare and schools are reduced, and there is a shift from a family/child oriented society to an individualistic society, with children part of individual fulfillment and well-being.” In other words, it’s not a trap, it’s a societal choice.

Empty Planet then sequentially examines Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. There is a great deal of annoying repetition. Nonetheless, there is also much interesting data, all in support of the basic point – population everywhere is going to go down, soon and fast.

True, the United Nations predicts that the global population will top out at eleven billion around 2100, and then decline. The authors instead think and make a compelling case that the United Nations overstates fertility in the 21st century.

Startling decline in China

The authors say, and do a good job demonstrating why, population will top out at nine billion by around 2050 – it is seven billion now – and then decline. Some declines will be precipitous and startling – China, currently at 1.4 billion but deep into the fertility trap, will have 560 million people by the end of the century, they say.

So, what problems result from an aging and then declining global population? Economic stagnation is what the authors focus on. This is driven by less consumer demand, but also, less visibly but more importantly, by less dynamism.

Old people are takers, not makers. Moreover, they don’t do anything useful for driving society forward, let’s be frank.

Our future, on the current arc, is being the Eloi; hopefully there will be no Morlocks (from HG Wells’ Time Machine).

Governments from Germany to Iran recognize this problem. The authors give numerous examples, all failures, of trying to resolve the problem by, in effect, begging and paying women to have children.

What is the authors’ solution, then? They don’t have one. Well, they have a short-term one, or claim to. Much of the back half of the book is taken up with endless variations on demanding that the West admit massive numbers of Third World immigrants.

The claimed reason for this is necessity – without immigration, Europe and North America will not have enough taxpayers to support the old in the style they desire. They realize the disaster that’s befallen Europe by admitting alien immigrants with nothing but their two hands.

Canadian system

Instead, they recommend the Canadian system to America, where only the cream of the crop, educated and with job skills, is admitted. They fail to point out that the cream of the crop is by definition a tiny percentage of the overall number of immigrants, so how exactly we are going to welcome only these worthwhile immigrants is not clear, especially if other countries are competing for them.

Nor do the authors point out that at best, this is a short-term solution – if every country in the world will soon have a less-than-replacement birth rate, emigration will soon enough become rare, so no amount of competition will attract enough people.

Beyond this, Brickell and Ibbitson have nothing to offer, except muttering about how it’ll be nice to have a cleaner planet when there are no people to enjoy the clean planet.

So that’s Empty Planet. All of it could have been said in 20 or 30 pages. On the surface, it’s a pat story, though one without a happy ending. That’s not for the authors’ lack of trying to be happy. Normative judgments abound, all of them oddly in tension with the gloomy top-level attitude of the book toward the problem of under-population.

Thus, the authors assume that large populations are necessarily terrible for anyone who lives there; adjectives such as “miserable” abound for any people born in a high birth-rate country. Not for them any acknowledgement of Angus Deaton’s point in The Great Escape, that people in poor countries are generally very happy.

In what may be the single most clueless passage in a book chock full of them, the authors offer this: “Small families are, in all sorts of ways, wonderful things. Parents can devote more time and resources to raising – indeed, cossetting – the child.”

Given that the entire point of the book is that small families are a disaster for humanity, this type of thing suggests, to be charitable, cognitive dissonance. Not to mention that cosseting children is not a good goal.

If you look at the story from another angle, not the one of received wisdom, strange unexplained lacunae appear within the text.

Some countries that are largely poor, uneducated, and not urbanized – Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay – have extremely low fertility rates, while other, very similar-seeming countries still have high rates – Paraguay, Honduras, Guatemala. Uneducated Brazilian favela dwellers, normally the type of people who have lots of children, have experienced a big drop in fertility.

What brings together these seeming outrider facts, and in the darkness binds them, is the inevitable human tendency toward selfish self-interest. The creation of virtue, through self-discipline and self-control, was once the ideal. It was, and is, the opposite of “living as one likes,” of the quest for supposed emancipation.

Having children is among the least selfish and most self-sacrificing things a woman, and to a lesser extent a man, can do; thus, when being selfish and self-centered both become exalted, we have fewer children. It is not a mystery.

How did we get here? As the result of two late-18th-century developments. The first, the fruit of the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, is wealth. The second, the fruit of the Enlightenment (which had nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution), is the exaltation of individual autonomy, of self-actualization as the goal of human existence.

Lethal to human progress

The problem with urbanization and its impact on birth rates, especially in the West, is not something inherent to urbanization, but that city dwellers are more wealthy (or at least exposed to wealth) and have, in practice, fallen prey more easily to Enlightenment ideas. Either of these anti-virtue developments can crash fertility by itself. Combined, they are lethal to human progress.

Poor Brazilians are not converted to the gospel of self directly by Rousseau and Locke, or by wealth, both of which they totally lack, but indirectly by both – by obsessive watching of telenovelas, the plots of which, as the authors note, “involve smaller families, empowered women, rampant consumerism, and complicated romantic and family relationships.”

For a final set of proofs, it is obvious from Empty Planet’s own statistics, though apparently not obvious to the authors themselves, that as the material blessings of the West finally spread around the world, fertility rates drop in tandem with adoption of the West’s techniques for acquiring wealth, further exacerbated when countries adopt Enlightenment values.

To the extent the country’s elite push back against Enlightenment values, such as in Hungary and Russia, some progress can be made in increasing birth rates. Similarly, when a country’s people experiences shared challenges, social pressure against atomized Enlightenment, individual autonomy can increase greatly, resulting in more children.

Jews in Israel, alone among advanced economies, have a birthrate far in excess of replacement, even if you exclude the Orthodox. They value something beyond their own immediate, short-term desires, which counterbalances the natural human tendency towards vice.

Charles, who uses only one name, is the administrator and maximum leader of The Worthy House, a blog where a longer version of this review originally appeared.

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline (Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson), published by Crown (US$14.81).

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