- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A few months ago, I wrote about a two-part documentary on the latest demographic “bomb,” which warns that many countries will see their populations implode, not explode.

The people behind the “Demographic Winter” series are associated with traditional values and conservative pro-family organizations, so there’s no surprise that people who like marriage, babies and big families would sound an alarm over a global birth dearth.

But now comes a similar warning from a man who dwells in the world of science and environmentalism.

“The stage is set for population peak and decline,” says Fred Pearce, an award-winning journalist who writes a column in the (London) Guardian and appears regularly in New Scientist magazine.

Global fertility rates are falling, and the final outcome of this “peoplequake” will be the “rise of the wrinklies,” the age of the old, Mr. Pearce writes in “The Coming Population Crash and Our Planets Surprising Future.”

Mr. Pearce told me recently that he wrote his book particularly for those in the green movement.

“I don’t like environmentalists who start talking about ‘We can’t solve any of these [environmental] problems because of all these people breeding in poor countries,’” he said.

For one thing, someone in a poor country makes “a small ecological footprint,” compared with someone in America or another rich nation, so it’s nonsense to blame the poor countries.

Second, the world’s families are already getting smaller, “so we are already defusing the population bomb,” he said.

“For more than two decades now, the average number of babies being born to women in most of the world has been in sharp decline. Not because of compulsion but out of choice,” Mr. Pearce explained in a speech at the World Affairs Council in the District.

Roughly half the worlds countries already have below-replacement fertility (less than 2.1 children per woman), and even in many high-fertility places, birthrates are falling to half of what they were.

“The idea that the poor women of the world are breeding the planet to disaster is a lie,” said Mr. Pearce. “Smaller families is a global phenomenon. It is a massive revolution.”

The story doesnt end there, though, he warned.

Demographers have imagined that once humanity reached replacement-level fertility, it would “settle down” and stay there — but why should it stabilize, he asked. In real-world experience, falling fertility can just keep getting lower — Hong Kong and a few other places already have a fertility rate at or below one child per woman.

It’s true that “probably nothing will stop humanity reaching about 8 billion by about 2040,” Mr. Pearce said.

“But sometime soon after that, the falling fertility rate will be translated into a real decline in the world population — the first since the Black Death of the 14th century.”

The result will be an unprecedented “graying” of the world population, where old people are ubiquitous, and babies and children are “rare, exotic and unusual.”

Mr. Pearce, like Theodore Roszak, historian and author of “The Longevity Revolution,” sees some silver linings in this demographic shift.

Billions of old people may need some level of care, but they are also a source of human capital, wisdom, social cohesion and other useful things. They are also more stable and risk-averse, which means the 21st century “will be older, more mature, less frenetic, less consumerist and a more frugal and greener society,” Mr. Pearce predicted. “Older, wiser, greener.”

In addition, as the world moves toward “a low-mortality, low-fertility” future, societies are likely to become dominated by “tribal elders,” because they will represent the largest age group.

Fair warning to men, though.

Women substantially outnumber men in old age. Thus, in all probability, Mr. Pearce said, the tribal elders “will be dominated by women.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]

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