“Decline and Prosper!” A review of a comprehensive book about fertility by Vegard Skirbekk

A new book by the productive demographer Vegard Skirbekk has the commendable title Decline and Prosper!. It is a valuable resource, presenting much research on fertility around the world. It also raises questions about how to deal with high fertility and population growth in many countries.

By Frank Götmark

The book, in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan 2022, has the subtitle “Changing global birth rates and the advantages of fewer children”. It’s refreshing to see such a title after several alarmistic, one-sided books on the subject, like Empty planet: the shock of global population decline. On the last page of Decline and Prosper, Skirbekk concludes, “It is my view that countries should accept – if not embrace – low fertility and focus on how to make the most of a world with fewer children”.

The book’s focus is fertility (i.e. children per woman, birth rate) rather than population growth. It reads partly like a textbook on demography, and the title is thus a bit misleading. But Skirbekk makes clear that the literature on fertility per se is huge. I marked 124 references in the book that I would like to check or read. The reference lists comprise in total 139 pages.

The book has 20 chapters, each relatively short, ending with a sort of summary and then references. Skirbekk starts by introducing basic demographic concepts needed to grasp the research. Here I miss the concept of population momentum which combined with high fertility helps explain strong population growth in many countries (the mechanism is dealt with briefly on p. 333).

The chapters cover measurements of fertility, its limits and history, the demographic transition, global fertility, childlessness, education, planned childbearing, fertility preferences, delayed parenthood, finding a mate, the economics of fertility, the role of disasters and religion, evolutionary aspects, population projections, population growth, and the past and future. Overall, the book is quite focused on “the West” and low fertility, rather than high-fertility countries, although they are also discussed. This is clear in e.g. chapter 19 under the heading “What countries should be doing”, where problems of high-fertility get a third of a page, and low fertility almost two pages. Skirbekk repeatedly emphasizes the tension between “West” and “South”, religion-linked population growth, and other global factors.

In chapter 1, the author stresses that “The increase in education is probably the main reason why global fertility has decreased” and that “it appears to be the most effective way to reduce fertility without resorting to coercion”. This argument and its evidence are elaborated in chapter 8 where he presents the fertility-education relationships as causal. This is backed up by results from so called natural experiments. However, several recent studies are lacking here. A review from 2019 on the role of education in low- and middle-income countries concluded that its effect on fertility is weak. Another study from 2019 examined both education levels and the strength of family planning programs in Sub-Saharan Africa, and showed that family planning programs had a greater influence on contraceptive use than women’s education. A model published in 2020 was also consistent with a strong role for family planning programs.

The international family planning revolution took place over about 35 years (1960-1995) and several researchers have concluded that family planning programs were important for declining fertility in developing countries from about 1970. A separate chapter covering family planning programs therefore would have been motivated. In the book, family planning and its history are mentioned, mostly briefly, on pp. 8, 97, 99, 166-167, 198, 359-63, and 368-369.

Education, especially secondary and tertiary education, help reducing fertility, and there is evidence for this. But is it the main factor? The content of education may be critical, but few quantitative studies seem to exist on this aspect. Is sex education included in the curriculum? What about teaching on gender roles and family size? To what extent is contraception included, in developing and other countries? Where such teaching does exist, it is very rarely linked to environmental aspects (this is true also in my own country, Sweden). I presume that family planning programs covered such aspects – which is worth a separate study.

Migration and fertility are mentioned in passing, and perhaps deserved a separate chapter. Migration-related conflicts increase, and influence elections in many countries. But there are many chapters already in the book, where lots of interesting studies are described. For instance, in pre-modern societies, 27% of newborns died in their first year, and 48% died before puberty (p. 41). As Christianity spread, monogamy replaced polygamy; pre- and extra-marital sex faced harsh penalties, even imprisonment (p. 44). Marriage and its social conditions, and early forms of contraception, contributed to reducing human fertility.

An interesting graph on p. 92 illustrates how replacement fertility (‘no population growth’) is related to the average life expectancy: when it is 30 years, replacement fertility is 5 live births; at 50 years, it is 3 live births; and at life expectancy of 80 years it is 2.1 live births. Clearly, mortality is critical, and will remain so. In Europe, childlessness was common, even more common a hundred years ago than today: 20-30% of women remained childless (p. 109). Between 1940 and 1979, childlessness increased from a low level, especially among the least educated men. Few people prefer to remain childless: the proportions are highest in (East) Germany, Austria and the Netherlands (about 10%) (p. 123). In most developing countries the proportion is lower than 5%.

The complexities of finding a partner in the West, especially for women, get much attention in the book. Can the Internet offer help and affect fertility? In the US 1999-2007, regions that got such access earlier had stronger declines in adolescent fertility, which was confirmed in Germany too, but in addition childbearing increased among women 25+ there (p. 167). Women in Europe want more children than men do, while in poor countries the opposite is the case, according to surveys. Television may be helpful in reducing fertility: the show Shuga, addressing safe sex and unwanted pregnancies, reached 40 African countries and up to 550 million viewers (p. 183). Many other interesting examples are given.

Chapter 13 discusses the role of the economy in influencing fertility, and the financial costs and benefits of children. Skirbekk notes that the “dollar models” of G.S. Becker and other economists are partly unrealistic; 40% of global pregnancies are unplanned. Yet a subheading here (“It’s still the economy, stupid”) makes clear that economy matters: people, and fertility, respond to changes in the economy, and to uncertainty. The dramatic drop in fertility in Eastern European countries after the Soviet Union fell apart (see the fourth graph here) could have been added as an example.

Skirbekk and colleagues have done important work in quantifying the association between religious affiliation and fertility level. The findings have been reported by Pew Research Center: globally between 2010 and 2015, the average fertility rate of unaffiliated women was 1.7 children, and the figure for women affiliated with any religion was 2.6 children. Moreover, average fertility was 1.6 children for Buddhists, 2.4 for Hindus and Jews, 2.7 for Christians, and highest (3.1) for Muslims. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate is higher for Muslims than Christians, according to a recent review. Across European countries, the fertility of Muslims is 47% higher than the national average. The consequences are discussed and dealt with in several chapters.

In the introduction, Skirbekk emphasizes that “low – but not too low – fertility is best” and mentions the environment. Ecosystems and wild nature do not get much attention, but on pp. 335-337 the author describes the threat of population growth to biodiversity, the natural environment, and climate conditions. This section could have been expanded, since ecosystems are critical for humans, not least for food. Environmental ethics and the purpose of our lives could also have been discussed. But demographers often neglect environmental matters, and it’s good to see that Skirbekk includes the threats and the need to “bend curves”.

Returning to family planning programs in the last parts of the book, Skirbekk describes their remarkable success in East Asia (pp. 359-63) and Iran (p. 368). He states that historians concluded the programs also had an intention by rich countries to reduce and control foreign populations. TOP has earlier described the delusions of historians, especially the influential professor Matthew Connelly who argues that “the West” (mainly the US) conspired to force population control on the Third World. The demographer John Cleland described Connelly’s book Fatal Misconception as “bizarre and fundamentally flawed”. Cleland remarked, “To equate efforts to reduce population growth with coercion is to ignore the fact that most poor countries pursued clear demographic goals by entirely voluntary means”.

I would have liked to see research on “optimal population” presented in the book. What is the size of a global human population that can be supported sustainably on the Earth without degrading the ecosystems humanity depends on? If all people had the standard of the average European, one study calculated the optimal population at 3.1 billion, less than half of the present 7.9 billion. A recent study by the economist Partha Dasgupta arrived at a range from 0.5 to 5 billion people, depending on standards of living and average income.

The paper book lacks an Index, making it hard to search for a subject or author. References are after each chapter, also making it time-consuming to search for them. The E-book might therefore be a better choice. The text contains much data (numbers given in the text), perhaps more of this could be provided in figures (the book contains 29 Figures, and no Tables). There are very few typos in the book, it is well written, and easy to read. I recommend it to anyone interested in human fertility and demography.

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20 thoughts on ““Decline and Prosper!” A review of a comprehensive book about fertility by Vegard Skirbekk

  1. Thank you for highlighting a serious and misguided issue (by those with a conflict of interest). In a speech by the president of a group, ‘Humanists of Puerto Rico’ David Tamayo commented on exponential growth. He said: ” If you take 30 linear steps, you cross the street. if you take 30 exponential steps you go around the Earth 26 times…” Our population growth is exponential. In a recent publication by the “Negative Population Growth” group was a study of the effects of a shrinking population in Japan. https://npg.org/library/forum-series/japans-ride-into-demo-danger-zone-fp2022-2.html Despite all the dire warnings things are actually improving for Japan. Housing is becoming more affordable and food more plentiful. The one odd thing is that energy consumption is rising. The reason, robots are replacing the fewer number of unskilled labor lost due to a shrinking working class.

    1. Thank you for comments, Jack. Very interesting about Japan. Sweden has population growth, and now we have about 10 million people here – compare with Japan, a country which is smaller than Sweden, with 125 million people! Surely there will be benefits of a declining population, as many of them have high consumption levels too. TOP published a quite detailed paper and analysis of declining population in 2018 (see Publications), and this TOP blog is also interesting:

      1. Most of central Europe has a declining population (Italy has one of the highest declines). All the gain comes from immigration (which is a policy and should not be connected with individuals). I lived in Germany 15 years and saw first hand what happens when immigration levels overwhelms a country. In 1989, when the Soviet Union started to crumble floods of ‘refugees’ came into Germany. Later East Germany fell and the country was reunited with the sad result of the lower skilled and educated East Germans going after immigrants from other countries as they saw the immigrants as impediments to their job prospects. Violence ensued and people were killed. Germany has a huge population density yet, they succumb to the idea of growth is imperative to economic health and fail to see the harm this idea does to the citizens of a country. It takes a lot of money to assimilate people with other languages and cultures into a country. The more the diversity the more it costs. Too few seem to understand this fact or even want to talk about it.

    2. I’m waiting for a collective debate on this robot fixation. Everyone seems to be fine with the assumption that robots and automation will definitely replace workers. But where is the energy for that going to come from? And is that even a good thing for humans, to not be able to do anything manually anymore? To be surrounded by machines instead of animals and people?

      1. I think we need to talk about the kind of energy and where is it being used. Robots do not need food and can work under conditions humans cannot. The simple fact is there are simply too many humans and either we do some paring ourselves or nature will, and is starting, to do it for us. Humans are the most toxic and invasive species on this planet and if one wants more animals (remember we are in the age of the sixth great extinction) we desperately need to reduce our numbers. About no one doing anything manually and being surrounded by machines I am hearing the usual claim from the business world where we go from one extreme to the other. I have been retired for 20+ years and I am doing more things ‘manually’ than ever before.

  2. Jack, robot do need food – energy – and the people who are unemployed due to robots still need to be fed, it’s not like they’re just going to disappear. I don’t see the resource or energy advantage in using robots vs humans. The only advantage is that they allow us to produce more and work less – both things good up to a point, then bad.

    If we have less people, we need less stuff, and so less robots, too. The robot debate isn’t about the total number of humans, which I agree with you is too high right now, but about why we should have machines use up energy to do everything while we sit idle and unlearn the things we used to know.

    1. Robots do not need ‘food’ (from animals or plants) of which additional energy is expended to provide this resource never-mind the extreme harm to the planet caused by eating animal based foods. Fewer people does not mean less stuff. As we have seen our, per capita ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ continue to climb over what people in the past required. We all know what ‘hand-on’ work did to industries as producing cars. Often the workmanship was inferior and prone to breakage. Robots have revolutionized the auto industry (to name one) to giving better quality and dependability. Despite what you or I may feel robots are here and will only increase. That often means more work will be done by low skilled laborers (mostly immigrants) which is the force behind population growth here and Europe. Just this morning was a report on NPR about the fights to reduce robots in a certain field. Remember this is nothing new and was started even at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Luddites are still alive and active in today’s world.


      1. Jack, eating animal based food does not do “extreme harm to the planet”. Only the abuse of it (like everything else) does. Well-managed pasture is actually better for the climate, land and biodiversity than many vegetable crops. This demonisation of animal food really needs to stop, it’s ignorant.

        I’m not advocating, as I said, doing without machines altogether. Still, using machines causes a net increase in energy consumption since the people who used to work still have to be fed anyway, plus you need the energy and materials to build and run the robots. So we should use robots not as a default, but on a case-by-case basis.

        I’m not convinced machine-made stuff is necessarily of superior quality – in the fields I know something about it’s often the opposite – although, of course, there are things that people cannot do or have a very hard time doing. I have heard that Ferrari claims to do more by hand than other producers, and I’m sure their cars aren’t lacking in quality.

  3. Jack, I agree with your comment about immigration above, but I don’t get why everyone keeps saying that Europe has a declining population – with the exception of Eastern Europe, most European countries are either growing or have begun declining very little and very recently.

    1. The population growth in much of Europe is and has been declining precipitously for a couple of decades. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1251591/population-growth-rate-in-europe/ The growth is due mainly to immigration. I lived in Germany for 15 years and was present when the Soviet Union broke up. I saw/experienced what happened when refugees flooded Europe especially Germany. It was not a pretty sight. Still, we can’t even seem to get to ZPG never mind NPG. The end will and is being determined by nature despite our petty efforts. We need to wake up and start doing things now. There will not be a future for our future generations.

      1. Jack, yes, but there’s a difference between declining population and declining population growth (rate). In the latter case your population is still growing. And even if it’s due to mainly (I’d say exclusively) to immigration, immigrants are still people so populations are mostly growing.

    2. Sorry, I have to strongly disagree. Study after study have shown unequivocally plant based foods are much better for the environment than animal. https://our-compass.org/2021/12/06/yes-plant-based-meat-is-better-for-the-planet/ I live in a very rural area with lots of sheep, cow and pig farms. People, usually those with a conflict of interest say pasture, chemical free meat is better (but I ask when people leave the community and eat elsewhere are they vegetarian). Not only do the animals need more water and their own food but the waste and treatment of the animals also need to be taken int account. Besides, 8 Billion people can only be fed using factory methods of animal productions of food at an affordable food. I have spent 28 years studying this subject and have changed my own lifestyle because of what I have learned.
      I did sent a link about the decline in Europe. My problem is trying to understand how people can say they are deeply concerned about the human caused problems we and thousands of other species are facing yet trivialize some aspects of our involvement or the need to drastically alter our way of thinking. Seems to me the central problem is not enough critical thinking involved in this issue.

      1. I actually raise sheep, and I can tell you from personal observation and in all honesty that I consume *way* less water not to mention fossil fuels, pollute less, have more biodiversity on my land and cause less erosion than neighbouring fields growing corn, wheat, soy, or vegetables. All my animals together consumed over one summer of unprecedented drought the water that one neighbour used to fill up his pool once.

        Of course, it depends on what you’re comparing. It makes zero sense to grow food crops and feed them to animals instead of humans. But well-managed pasture is basically the best way you have to produce food. It also fosters self-reliance, independence and practical knowledge among local communities including the poorest members, something that industrially produced plant-based meat definitely doesn’t. It has precious by-products such as wool or leather, and improves soil fertility.

        Yes, then you will need to eat a lot less animal products. Which I do already, knowing how much land and effort they require. But animal products produced this way are, again, as sustainable as they come. You can basically keep going on the same land indefinitely, since grass has evolved to be eaten by herbivores.

        There’s been research done lately on regenerative farming and grazing that proves this. There’s a big literature if you’re interested. Lots of the studies demonising all types of meat are based on wrong assumptions about land use and alternatives, or consider factory farming as the norm, which is cruel and unsustainable. I’m only discussing here pasture and free-range animal products.

        You’re of course free to disagree but I for one am glad the tide is turning. No ecosystem exists without animals and I don’t see why agriculture should be an exception.

      2. (Just to be clear, I’m not entirely disagreeing with you. We cannot feed 8 billion people animals products in every meal. But animal-based food are not intrinsically unsustainable)

  4. This has been a known issue for decades. When one calculates their carbon footprint going vegetarian is one of the biggest things one can do. https://www.vox.com/2014/7/2/5865109/study-going-vegetarian-could-cut-your-food-carbon-footprint-in-half I was once a carnivore and thought nothing of it but time and being open to information changed all that. https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=907 One issue is, I saw a conflict of interest is at play here (I enjoyed meat and didn’t give it up easily). However, once I/we did a lot of doors were opened to new foodstuffs. Ever hear of a man named Howard Lyman. http://www.humanemyth.org/howardlyman.htm

    Correct, animals (and plants) are a major part of the planets biodiversity. That biodiversity is crashing due to our numbers and activity and one major activity is animal husbandry. This site and population demographics, in general, is the most critical element facing our existence. We need to be open to all sorts of ideas and be willing to change our lifestyle if not for our sake but our progeny. It seems giving up ones religion is much easier than giving up one’s addiction to meats. I remind others eating meat is a sensuous activity (it touches all the senses). For me, and others like me, a part of the enjoyment of food should not include guilt

    Please note: I try to add links to promote my statements.

    1. Jack, the problem is that “meat” is an abstraction. There’s a world of difference between a cow who lived in a feedlot or a pig from an intensive farm, and a chicken you raised in your backyard or a sheep that has been grazed on land unsuitable for other uses – or a hunted deer, even.
      You’re providing links but you’re not addressing my points. Of course it’s possible to find links supporting almost any statement, but then you have to discuss them otherwise we’re just shouting past each other. If you want to see the research, look up “regenerative grazing” or similar terms and you can see the science.
      You might think I have a conflict of interest but I’m actually not that crazy about meat (I mostly only eat my own or the meat and dairy I can verify the origins of, so that means not a lot. I try to avoid fish).
      I started keeping sheep because I thought it was good for the environment, not the other way round – and several years of experience have confirmed I was right. Food production is a very context dependent, highly variable activity, so a lot of those “eating meat is always bad for the planet” studies often do not apply to single cases. For a better explanation of this point, please read this: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/aug/30/its-not-the-cow-its-the-how-why-a-long-time-vegetarian-became-beefs-biggest-champion

  5. I have tried to address the issues but, as language is not an exact science comments are often misinterpreted . The Elephant in the room is that almost all carnivores are not being fed from animals grazed in ‘backyards’ or outside of massive feedlots. Again, it is too costly and can’t meet the demand. It’s not just providing links but looking at who supplies the information. Are they credible and science based or another shaky, conspiratorial group working with shaky or even self-interested motives? I have seen, over and over, it is often harder to get people to question their food sources (carnivore vs. plant based) that to question their religion. I have heard all the usual comments many times. Perhaps the ideas of ‘sustainable’ meat production might be possible with a small population but with 8+ Billion of us it is not even close. The exceptions does not answer all questions especially on this subject. Of course this does not take into account what happens to the animals. Live a few years and then get slaughtered for their meat. When people say they think something or they could never do such and such my late partner would always say, you mean you don’t want to think or do anything else. This is called critical thinking and when there is a conflict of interest critical thinking is not present.
    I became vegetarian because of information (originally from NPR) that was irrefutable. It was not easy and it took time. As time went on there was more information and it seems new information comes out every day. Eating meat is, in no way, beneficial for the Planet no matter how one spins it. Look up overpopulation and the first items say it is a myth. Industry is pushing hard to make the idea of a shrinking population a form of doomsday. The idea of continued population growth being critical for a viable economy is stuck deep in their psyche. The meat and fossil fuel industries are included in the constant growth and no change to traditional way of doing things.
    I am done with this discussion.

    1. It seems to me veganism (I must assume you’re vegan, since dairy and eggs are just as bad as meat) has become more and more like a religion, intolerance and dogmatism included.

  6. Religion is about belief in a god and an after life. When one understands the state of the planet and the serious wreckage we have and are creating to our host ‘some’ of us approach protecting what we have with an ‘almost’ religious zeal. We are members of the Overpopulation Project (among other environmental groups) and our dedication to learning about (again, ‘some’ of us with an open mind) and informing others, about what we all must try to do to alleviate our continued carnage. Often this requires doing things which may seem uncomfortable. For too many their food choices are their religion and they are unwilling to even question those choices. I have become an atheist and a vegan and got to where I am by not being afraid to question. My late partner asked her 2nd graders what is more important people or dirt (or food choices or the health of the planet). Not only 2nd graders got it wrong but often many adults do as well.

    1. With all due respects, it’s a strange question to ask 7 year-olds.
      I am all in favour of asking difficult questions about food (or anything else), but not of dogmatic, one-size-fits-all answers.
      Also note that we have an obsession with food choices as if eating right was all it takes to save the planet, but land is also used to grow a variety of non-food crops (fabrics, ingredients for alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, paper, flowers, hay and other food for pet animals, fuel for transport…) that make up a very significant portion of land use, but aren’t questioned nearly as much. Why?

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