- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2005

Last year was rich in news: war, politics, death and destruction in East Asia, among other things. But I will also remember 2004 as the year I was invited to watch my eldest daughter’s sonogram.

These days checking out an expected child with ultrasound technology isn’t unusual. I had seen the printouts from her first pregnancy and from our second daughter’s pregnancies as well. Everybody oohs and ahhs obligingly at such images, but frankly they aren’t all that appealing.

But actually watching the images of a 4-month-old baby squirming inside the womb and sucking on its thumb brings a different level of appreciation. Wow, this is a child. Not a fetus, not a clump of tissue, not some alien-looking creature, but a real live human being getting ready to enter the world.

But after the emotional impact subsided a bit, another thought intruded in the doting grandpa’s incorrigible policy-wonkish mind: This is child No. 2 — one-tenth of a child shy of what demographers say is the “replacement rate” for a society such as ours. Two children are enough to replace the parents, but if the broader social goal is to maintain population in a steady state, more are needed. Even in a modern society, some children either can’t or won’t reproduce themselves.

Our daughter and her husband will make their own decisions, of course. And the grandparents can hardly complain: Two is the number my wife and I settled on, and that has certainly worked out well for us. The average American family apparently agrees.

The U.S. fertility rate is now exactly 2.0, nearly half the rate of only a few decades ago. In the days when a majority of the population worked the land and death rates were higher, families usually picked a far higher number. But things are different now — thank goodness.

Odd, then, that there is still such hysteria about population growth. As recently as the early 1970s, a learned Stanford professor, Paul Ehrlich, could pen a best-seller titled “The Population Bomb,” predicting mass starvation as early as the 1980s due to overpopulation. Environmentalists fretted about mass die-offs of other species at the hands of humans.

But the bomb never went off, and not just because of birth control. Human ingenuity was providing more food and wealth than ever. The problem in most parts of the world is not shortages but surpluses. And while the alarmists have been slow to pick up on the fact — visions of apocalypse are good for fund-raising — fertility rates have been falling dramatically.

One of the more interesting books of 2004 was “Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future,” by Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington (and a long-time Democrat).

As Mr. Wattenberg notes, the fertility rate in Western Europe and Japan has sunk to 1.8 from 2.7 in the early 1950s, meaning those areas are starting to lose population. Fertility rates are plunging even in the less developed countries of South America, Africa and most of Asia: to about 2.7 from about 6.0 only a few decades ago. Still worried about swarms of Mexicans pouring over the border? Their fertility rate is down to a modest 2.5 from 6.9 in the late 1950s.

Many will see this as good news, and maybe it will turn out that way. But it could also mean fewer Einsteins — and even fewer workers to pay for the Social Security many Americans think they have been promised. As Mr. Wattenberg says, zero growth in population, much less a decline, raises serious questions. The plain fact is that the last few centuries of population explosion have also been a time of accelerating, worldwide, prosperity.

It’s difficult, in fact, to resist thinking that little hospital monitor image, who will soon take his or her place in the world (the parents didn’t want to know), is sending another message: Happy New Year. Such a sight makes it much harder to view population, human beings, as a liability rather than an asset.

Correction: In my column in these pages on Dec. 27 (“At the shrine of Pale Male”), I wrongly said anchorwoman Paula Zahn works for Fox News. She left Fox three years ago for CNN.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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