By Jenna Dodson
The United States’ birth rate has fallen to a 30-year low, and the media is giving this new figure much attention. Unfortunately, most of that attention is misplaced. Since last week, countless news organizations released articles reviewing the new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that documents the 3,853,472 births last year. Overall, the vast majority of articles are cautionary, referencing problems commonly associated with degrowth such as aging societies and shrinking labor forces. It is true that if the total fertility rate of 1.76 is sustained, then the current generation will not be replaced. However, the fertility rate has generally been below replacement level since 1971. And why is this portrayed as a bad? In fact, it is very much the opposite – it is an opportunity. An opportunity that necessitates a departure from our obsession with growth, and a willingness to embrace a new perspective.
The United States is home to over 326 million people, who on average, each emit 16.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Despite the average American consuming roughly the same amount of energy as 60 years ago, total emissions have increased by 180%. The primary driver of this increase? Population growth. Furthermore, population growth has been identified by the International Panel on Climate Change as a key driver of anthropogenic emissions leading to climate change. Climate change impacts society in a variety of ways, including changes in rainfall and crop yields, water stress, effects on human health, and even energy supply. Recent research has shown that the highest-impact action to reduce personal emissions and help slow climate change is to have one fewer child. Fewer births that can contribute to a lower population growth and alleviate climate change impacts is a promising figure to be encouraged.
As many news responses point out, a trend of lower birth rates would also shift the demographic structure of the United States towards an older population. However, what the news sources neglected to include were the positive effects of population aging. Firstly, an aging population would augment the emission reduction from fewer births through a reduction in energy consumption. A study from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research found that aging populations are associated with improvements in education, increased productivity, shared wealth, higher quality of life, and overall healthier populations. Over time, aging populations from declining birth rates will lead to fewer people – this is already happening in more than 20 countries, including Japan and many countries in Eastern Europe. With the appropriate social programs and policies, a smaller, older population can provide social and environmental benefits for the betterment of the country.
There are substantial social and environmental benefits to be had from declining birth rates in the United States. Last year, the decline was primarily driven by a decrease in unintended teen pregnancies and an increase in women joining the workforce, indicators of social progress. If this degrowth continues, the United States has the opportunity to expand on this progress, reduce emissions, and allocate more resources to each citizen. This will enhance the benefits of an aging society to improve the overall quality of life for its population, and environment.