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WETZSTEIN: Delusions and the ‘people problem’

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"Eco-terrorist" James Jay Lee's recent brief, bizarre takeover of the Discovery Channel building in suburban Maryland should not be forgotten too quickly. His decisions to enter the building armed with a gun and bombs and to take three hostages before police gunned him down were certainly insane. But Lee is not alone in his disgust and condemnation of the "parasitic" human race, and especially those "filthy" babies.

Most pro-environment materials I see use pleasant or neutral-sounding terms, but they still conclude that people are "the problem." To save the planet, people must reduce their consumption of resources. The fastest way to do this is for everyone to have two or fewer children. For the virtuously green, having zero children is best.

Lowering world fertility is among the Millennium Development Goals pushed by the United Nations. Children are mostly a burden, the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs implies in its report released last month. If only birthrates would fall, there would be more and better education, nutrition and health care for the children already here, plus "full and decent employment" for them when they grow up. Thus, it's important to get safe, affordable, family-planning products into the hands of anyone who can still reproduce, the agency says.

The U.N. demographic predictions, however, estimate that the number of children age 4 and younger will peak in 2015, with 653,683,000 children. For the next 35 years, the number of babies is projected to fall steadily, to 592,057,000 — about the same level as the late 1980s.

Had James Jay Lee done his homework a little better — or had he read veteran environmentalist Fred Pearce's "The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future" — he might have realized that his concerns were badly misplaced.

Lee would have learned that in great swaths of the world — Europe, Russia, Asia and most of the Caribbean — babies are already relatively rare. (A population needs a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to replace itself, and all these areas have rates below that level.)

In fact, the only places where women typically have three or more children are sub-Saharan Africa, Guatemala, Haiti, Afghanistan, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and a few other countries, according to a map in Mr. Pearce's 2010 book.

Why do falling birthrates dismay some people and not others (such as those U.N. officials)? Here are some answers, from Phillip Longman's "The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It."

• The world's population has always gone up, so world ideologies, economies and domestic agendas are built on that premise. This means neither capitalism nor socialism — or any other -ism — is prepared for a shrinking population. There is one known truism, though: Businesses historically flock to population-growth areas and flee depopulated areas.

• Since pension and welfare programs are predicated on a robust younger generation supporting its elders, a shrinking work force will utterly upset these schemes. Instead, as the fewer young workers face heavier taxes on average to pay for elder care, they will have even less income to bear and raise children. This likely will depress fertility, compounding the depopulation problem.

• History has shown that when healthy, young workers become scarce, people turn to monstrous "solutions," including "brutal work hours, serfdom, debt peonage, indentured servitude, child labor and slavery," Mr. Longman writes.

• Aging populations are risk-averse, conservative and invested in the status quo. When elders outnumber everyone else, social, economic and political reforms will be hard, if not impossible, to enact, even when they are clearly needed.

And these are just a few of the unpleasant consequences of falling fertility rates.

I will mention one more angle that especially concerns me: the loss of important family bonds. How many families will cope well if their children have no siblings with whom to go through life? What will be the impact of a lack of aunts, uncles or cousins?

If we are hard-wired to be interdependent, having tiny families can only breed more loneliness — and, most likely, more sad, alienated loners like James Jay Lee.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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