What if declining birth rates are the key to enabling sustainable economies?

Written by Olivia Nater | Published: May 8, 2024

The idea of an economic system in which people and a healthy environment matter more than money appeals to large parts of the general public, but not so much to decision-makers who are chained to the interests of big industry. This is a problem, as we cannot achieve the necessary transformative change without top-down policy. Something is happening around the world, however, that may just force policy-makers to embrace more sustainable economic systems: people are having fewer kids.

Environmentalists won a few battles, but we are losing the war

University of Michigan students marking the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. © University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability CC BY 2.0 Deed

On April 22, millions of people around the world marked Earth Day, the biggest international observance day for the environment. First celebrated in the United States in 1970, Earth Day helped launch the modern environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that same year, which paved the way for some major milestones, such as the Clean Air Act. Despite over five decades of calls to strengthen environmental protections, however, humanity’s onslaught on the planet continues unabated.

Our environmental crises, from climate change to biodiversity loss to resource depletion and pollution, will continue to worsen as long as we fail to tackle the root cause, ecological overshoot. People who understand this generally agree that to save life on Earth and ensure the long-term survival of our species, we must end our reckless pursuit of infinite economic growth. The post-growth movement is gaining traction around the world as people are getting increasingly fed up with the existing power structures that are wrecking the planet and perpetuating extreme inequalities.

One of the most common criticisms of post-growth systems is that they are politically unfeasible – in a society where money is power, convincing decision-makers to implement policies that go against profit-seeking interests seems impossible. This David and Goliath set-up makes it very difficult to be hopeful for meaningful change. But what if there is, in fact, a stone already in motion that will ultimately force Goliath to his knees. Despite the metaphor, I am not talking about anything violent or harmful – quite the opposite.

The neglected population factor

The post-growth movement rightly advocates for reining in overconsumption, but is generally less outspoken about the need to end population growth. Population and economic growth are two sides of the same coin. As illustrated by the IPAT equation (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology), our numbers are a multiplier of every harmful human activity. According to the UN, our population is on track to exceed 10 billion in the second half of this century, which will make it increasingly difficult to ensure a good quality of life for all within planetary limits.

The most effective way to slow population growth is to empower women by removing barriers to family planning and education. When women are free to plan their families and pursue careers, fertility rates (the number of births per woman) naturally plummet. According to the UN, two thirds of the world’s population now lives in a country or area with fertility at or below the replacement rate of 2.1. In the absence of net immigration, this eventually leads to a stable or declining population.

While extremely low fertility rates, such as in South Korea, can be indicative of harmful patriarchal norms and expectations, the global trend towards smaller families reflects women’s emancipation and should be celebrated. Unfortunately, many media outlets and some influencers, including Elon Musk, portray this positive development as a crisis, sowing panic over a supposed “baby bust,” and “birth dearth.” Elon Musk went as far as claiming that our population is on the verge of “collapse” due to low birth rates, and that these present a “much bigger risk” to civilization than the climate crisis. Don’t fall for this nonsense. Mainstream economists and billionaires like Elon Musk just want a steadily expanding consumer base to prop up our Ponzi scheme economic systems that mostly benefit the wealthy.

Small family norms will lead us toward sustainability

Governments in countries with below-replacement fertility have funneled billions of dollars into pronatalist policies, with little effect. Even the countries with the most generous pro-family policies have not managed to achieve a long-term reversal of the low fertility trend. Financial constraints do represent a barrier to having (additional) children, and making raising kids more affordable would likely help some couples marginally grow their family size, but overall, small families have become the social norm and are here to stay.

Eventually, governments will need to accept an absence of national population growth, which will force them to implement much-needed socioeconomic changes. Low birth rates may be the key to enabling a post-growth society. An increasing proportion of elderly citizens as a result of declining birth rates is already forcing governments to rethink social security and pension programs, which in their current form, rely on an endlessly growing supply of young tax payers.

Greater investment in preventive healthcare, education, and child welfare are key to maximizing the number of productive members of society. Japan, which has been shrinking and aging for over a decade, but retains high levels of human welfare and living standards, proves that we can thrive without growth. Achieving zero population growth is our ticket to less destructive systems that prioritize human and planetary well-being over profit. Let’s urge decision-makers to embrace low birth rates as the first step in an inevitable transition to a sustainable society.