The global population hit eight billion in mid-November, a “milestone in human development” made by a newborn in the Dominican Republic (CBS News). Despite this, concerns of a population collapse stoke fears that civilization and the world are about to face its biggest threat — one greater than climate change. Anxiety about underpopulation, or population decline, has been around for over a century as countries contend with low birth rates. A resurgence of the pronatalism movement amongst tech CEOS, lawmakers, and wealthy elites has gained momentum in the past decade to counter lower rates. But within this “pro-birth” movement, the overall continuation of humanity is secondary to its underlying motive.
Globally, the average total fertility rate, the average number of children that would be born to a woman over their lifetime, went from five births in the mid-20th century to 2.3 births in 2021 (United Nations). It’s expected to fall to 2.1 by 2050, a stable replacement for countries with low mortality. However, more than 60% of the world’s population currently live in regions below that fertility rate. In 2019, the rate was 1.53 births per woman in countries in the European Union (Eurostat).
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As a result, the world will look different in 2050 than it does today. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania will contribute to more than half of global population growth, with India surpassing China as the most populous country (United Nations). Nigeria will tie for third with the United States, moving up seven spots since 1990. Overall, Europe and Northern America will reach peak population size and see a population decline in the late 2030s, with migration being the sole driver for population growth in high-income countries.
Low birth rates are often viewed as a threat to the economy and society, especially since longer life expectancies create an aging population (BMJ). This is seen as detrimental because for society to run as is, there has to be a steady supply of young, working-age bodies contributing to the labor force and tending to the country’s older population. Additionally, it’s feared that an aging and declining population will mean losing innovation and weakening political and military power (UN).
However, a declining population does not equate to population collapse. While demographers acknowledge that though there will be a peak in population, the decline will be gradual. For countries like the U.S., adopting universal healthcare for all and long-term care systems will be vital for this shift to an older population. Instead, countries with low birth and fertility rates turn to pronatalism, promoting childbearing and parenthood.
“Pronatalism, as an ideology, can mean many different things. In its worst version it is associated with imperialism, racism, eugenism, reinforcement of traditional family structures where the man is the income generator and the women is economically dependent. This version gives women severe limitation of reproductive choices and a selective combination of strong pronatalism for some and strong anti-natalism for others. In its best version, it is associated with policies supporting women’s emancipation by making the role of mother more compatible with the role as income generator, and state assistance for families with children” (National Library of Medicine).
It’s associated with the former as countries with low birth and fertility rates implement pronatalist policies to reverse population decline, not necessarily to support women. And while these policies are for cisgender women, they have ripple effects that affect the existence and reproductive health of LGBTQ+ people.
Globally, governments have incentivized childbearing with pro-family or pro-child policymaking to ease the financial burden and increase interest in having — multiple — children (BMJ). And some wealthy elites are performing their civic duty by having larger families. While initiatives that support families through housing, childcare, and other needs are encouraged, these seemingly feminist and pro-family policies often come at the expense of bodily autonomy and reproductive rights becoming banned or reversed when implemented to explicitly raise rates, especially when desired birth and fertility benchmarks fail to come to fruition. They rarely do and are often short-term increases.
There is also a limit to who is an acceptable addition to a country’s population. Pronatalist countries enforce anti-immigration policies, despite migration being a key contributor to population change. A strong desire to preserve “a linguistic and culturally homogeneous society has outweighed the economic, fiscal, and geopolitical risks of declining populations” (Lancet). Migration becomes synonymous with national extinction, as with the “great replacement theory.” Survival is thus dependent on native-born citizens reproducing, which prompts “demographic measures” like Hungary’s lifetime income tax exemption for mothers of four or more children (The Guardian). “Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children,” Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in a 2020 state of the nation address. “Migration for us is surrender “… it’s “a suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilisations.”
Some countries encourage and even coerce citizens to have children, while ethnic minorities and immigrants in detention report forced sterilizations and hysterectomies, measures seen in both China and the U.S.
Curbing and accounting for undesired population growth is not just a concern of governments but also wealthy pronatalists and population collapse believers who feel it’s their job to repopulate the planet. Business Insider interviewed a self-proclaimed “hipster eugenicists” and pronatalist couple who said that they “could set the future of our species” if “each of their descendants [could] commit to having at least eight children for just 11 generations,” a calculation that would mean their bloodline would outnumber the current human population (Business Insider).
Elon Musk’s father, Errol Musk, told Insider that “productive nations” with low birth rates concern him. The father of seven, who recently revealed he had a second child with his stepdaughter, is also quoted as saying, “the only thing we are on Earth for is to reproduce” (Rolling Stone). Similarly, his son shared his concern about an imminent population collapse due to the low birth rates and his contribution to resolving it. The father of 10 allegedly urged “all the rich men he knew” to have as many children as possible.
It’s true that the global population is slowing down. Still, the U.N. predicts that there will be 8.5 billion people by 2030 and 10.4 billion in 2100 (U.N.).
Nonetheless, saving the world and humanity with your lineage is nonsensical (and gross), especially when Black and Brown countries are having a baby boom. But that’s the problem with pronatalist practice and policy. It’s not about preventing a population collapse but shoring up a political, economic, and racial stronghold in the future. If it were, the emphasis would be on ensuring a present and future where food insecurity and water scarcity were not a daily occurrence, reforming health and welfare systems to meet the needs of aging countries, embracing migrants and their potential, and combating the threat of climate change, specifically in regions where climate migration occurs, not calculating how to ensure a future that looks like you.
• Population collapse does not mean the end of humanity.
• There will be a racial and ethnic shift in the global population by 2050.
• Pronatalist policies value larger populations at the expense of racist and reproductive injustices.