Low Birth Rates: Good for the Planet, Good for People

We marked World Population Day with our communications team: Marian Starkey, Hannah Evans, and Olivia Nater!

Low birth rates and increasing longevity in many countries mean populations are getting older, and economists and governments are needlessly panicking. Our communications team discussed why low fertility is here to stay, outlined the many environmental benefits of slower population growth, and identified potential accommodations to the economic challenges presented by population aging.

Presentation Date: July 11th, 2023

Meet our communications team

Marian Starkey

Vice President for Communications

Hannah Evans

Senior Analyst

Olivia Nater

Communications Manager


Questions from audience, with responses from Marian Starkey, Hannah Evans, and Olivia Nater

In Earth for All, the book club selection for August, reducing poverty [and improved health care and education for women], may limit the top world population below 10 billion. Do we need to lower that number because of climate-related deaths from fires, heat, drought, and floods?  Also, deaths during mass migrations to cooler climates?

Slower population growth is one inevitable result of expanded access to comprehensive reproductive health care and education for women and girls around the world. The extent to which these rights-based initiatives impact future population numbers is yet to be seen. The direct demographic impacts of climate change are perhaps even harder to measure, as its effects and impacts are unpredictable. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, over one billion people could be forcibly displaced by climate change by the year 2050. It is unclear where these people will seek asylum because we don’t yet know where they will come from with any great certainty (or where they will choose to go). A substantial amount of climate migration takes place in-country.

Some estimates also predict that climate change could cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. However, all these predictions can change and depend on a wide variety of factors, including future emissions trends. It’s important to remember that these studies are putting forth predictions that are therefore subject to change. It’s also important to note that we don’t actually know how many people can sustainably live on the planet because this depends largely on the ways in which resources are being used and extracted. So, while slower population growth is clearly beneficial to society and the planet, we aren’t able to ascertain an exact number for how many people can “sustainably” live on the planet in cohesion with Earth’s natural systems.

What efforts can be/are being undertaken to address the critical shortage of senior aide workers, which would likely be exacerbated as demographics continue to shift?  There’s a real challenge, especially as women stay in the workforce longer and as the number of children in families with aging parents (who are the first line of support) declines.

This is indeed a valid concern in high-income, rapidly aging countries. We are certainly not an authority on this topic, but I’m familiar with two potential solutions: One is to welcome nurses and other care workers from countries with rapid population growth and a ready population of would-be migrants. The Philippines is the mostly widely-known example of a rapidly growing country that supplies nurses to aging countries, but large numbers of nurses from African and Caribbean countries also go abroad to work. A second potential solution is to pay care workers a wage reflective of the incredibly difficult work, physically and emotionally, that they do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, the median salary for home health and personal care aides was $29,430, or $14.15 an hour.

Is there any progress with regenerative agriculture and bringing back croplands to natural habitats?

Yes! There is a lot of really exciting work being done in the space of regenerative agriculture. Check out Regenerative International’s webpage to explore dozens of ongoing projects throughout the world. One Earth also showcases a few great case studies.

US politicians overwhelmingly advocate for economic growth to raise living standards and employment rates. How can we respond to that and propose acceptable alternatives?

One thing to keep in mind is that a country’s GDP matters a lot less to individual wellbeing than does per capita GDP. For example, according to the World Bank, India has the fifth largest economy in the world, but the Scandinavian countries, which consistently rank at the top of happiness and wellbeing measures, are quite a bit farther down the list because they have much smaller populations. Politicians’ preoccupation with GDP has more to do with political and military power than with the wellbeing of their constituents.

We only briefly touched on alternatives to GDP growth yesterday, but there are a couple of models that people have developed that focus on human wellbeing and planetary sustainability. I recommend learning about both of them, which you can do by clicking the links below!

Doughnut Economics

Steady State Economy

Can you provide a reference that documents the ineffectiveness of national programs intended to promote fertility?

It’s hard to isolate the effects of pro-natalist policies on fertility rates as these are also influenced by many other things, but UNFPA published a review of the effectiveness of pro-natalist policies in 2019.

What ways have been found to effectively shift the patriarchal cultural perspective about having many children is a good thing?

It takes time to change behaviors and norms, but effective communication and education are key. We humans are highly social creatures who are heavily influenced by other people, especially those we admire or strive to be like. Population Media Center has had good success with positively influencing social norms around family planning, child marriage, girls’ education, etc., through popular entertainment media, such as radio shows and sitcoms. You can read about their model here.

There are several examples of non-coercive population policies that have brought down fertility rates by boosting voluntary uptake of family planning. Thailand’s efforts led by Mechai Viravaidya (aka Mr. Condom), for example, successfully normalized contraceptive use through imaginative and humorous communications campaigns. You can watch a TED talk about them here.

Ensuring that all kids can access quality education is also critical as it makes them realize that a different life with greater equality is possible and desirable. Most of our Global Partner organizations were founded by people who grew up in highly patriarchal societies but were able to “escape” thanks to educational opportunities. They then returned to their communities to plant the seeds of change that will improve others’ lives and eventually transform societies for the better.

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