E Tu India? What Do Falling Populations Potend?

I have often joked that the Indians got a bum deal when it comes to use of their identifier. Thanks to the misidentification of the people of the Caribbean way back in 1492, the world ‘Indian’ is applied to the natives peoples of the Western Hemisphere and efforts to replace that word with ‘Native American’ or ‘indigenous peoples’ has failed. ‘Indian’ is linked with ‘Cowboy’ and now we’re stuck with it.

If the Indians don’t put their foot down, the term ‘Asian’ will be applied to them as well, as in ‘South Asian’ though in the minds of most people, ‘Asian’ doesn’t mean ‘Indian.’ Perhaps the Indian government needs to operate a worldwide campaign to reclaim the term ‘Indian’ exclusively for the people who live in India.

But, at least the Indians had plenty of fellow Indians to pursue the issue and they’d always be part of that vast group that the British writer Paul Johnson referred to as ‘half-mankind’ meaning the Chinese and Indians who together made up half of the people on earth.

That is, until recently and now it seems that the Indians have gone the way of their Chinese neighbors and stopped having enough kids to see their population grow. Recent reports are that the Indian fertility rate has fallen to 2.2, which is right at the replacement rate. The Chinese are already below that rate at 1.7 children per female. In Italy, the home of Roman Catholicism, the rate is 1.3 children per woman. South Korea is the lowest, at 1.

There is something truly fascinating about the demographic change that is now sweeping the world and leading to a place humanity has never been, at least not in living or historical memory. The growth of the world population has slowed and is about to stop if it hasn’t already. Then, inevitably, the human population will begin to fall.

This decline has been noted for years and has been predicted, but now it’s coming faster than ever, and India’s release of demographic data confirms that even in what was once the most fecund society on earth, the urge to limit childbirth has arrived. Whatever the impulse is, or the reason, it’s the most powerful force on earth because nothing, not war or disease, has caused the population of the earth to fall in thousands of years. And yet, here it is.

At a certain point, if that point has not already passed, the decline will be inevitable unless the remaining fertile women start having many more children or there is a technological breakthrough in childbearing. The latter seems more likely than the former. As women pass their childbearing years, the decision about population passes to those younger than them, and those women might be ‘only children’ themselves. At some point, in many societies, no women has seen a family of more than 3 people.

So, what does this mean?

Environmentalists will cheer since it will mean, in theory, less stress to produce food for the growing population. A declining population will eat less. Might the remaining population find new ways to stress the environment? No one knows.

A declining population might mean that the remaining people value each other more, and there might be a competition for immigrants. Again, that’s the theory, but reality is always messier and perhaps a decline in economic output will accompany the fall in population and so countries with a depopulating countryside will have less food. There will be fewer hands to harvest the crops.

Africa is the only continent that currently has growing populations. Population figures that project out 80 years often show Nigeria as the most populous country in 2100, though I find that hard to believe. Nigerians will leave Nigeria as the population grows and the population declines elsewhere else. For the first time ever, there may be a kind of ‘colonial’ culture driven by the economic needs of the colonized rather than conqueror. Will countries compete for Nigerians or shun them? Will countries with human exports go out as workers or pirates? The Europeans had people to export at one time, and they went looking for weaker societies to dominate. They found them in the Western Hemisphere. From Canada to Argentina, European languages dominate. A society with lots of children will be strong if compared to a society where the average age is 70. Falling populations are not assured to be peaceful populations.

It is said that the rising economic power of women is fueling the decline in fertility. As other avenues open for women, they take them, as opposed to having more children. This implies they wouldn’t have had as many children in the past, and maybe that is true as well. Children are viewed as costly now and they aren’t invested with the economic status they once were.

Perhaps this enormous epoch making change is more than economic, however. It might be cultural as well. At one time, children were vehicles for preserving and communicating our values, and our values have clearly changed. Wealth, even great wealth, is far more accessible for more people than ever before and many people, clearly some portion of the women, don’t want too many kids to interfere with wealth creation. If wealth is identity, and kids inhibit wealth, there will be less kids.

There is another possibility.

There was a Soviet scientist, his name was Dmitry Belyaev, and he set out to domesticate foxes as part of his investigation about how dogs became domesticated. Foxes were wild animals and said to be untamable. But, by breeding foxes in captivity, Belyaev and his successors were able to breed foxes that had no fear of people. After a few generations removed from the wild, the foxes started to have floppy ears and spots, something wild foxes don’t have. Ears and spots are genetic, and these foxes, having had the adrenaline and other fight hormones made irrelevant, genetically adapted to the environment they found themselves in.

Perhaps a safer world, one in which kids aren’t dead from disease or killed in battle, has altered our genetics and made us less likely and willing to have kids at all. Breeding is, at least in part, genetic. Perhaps this primary impulse had gone into reverse. If that is so, is this a good thing? Tame foxes reintroduced to the wild would be food for wolves or other predators in short order. If human population goes in decline, does human society follow? Or does it cycle back around until a wild and highly fertile society rise from the ashes. We’re going to find out in about 30 more years unless there is a new disrupter to human civilization. I am writing this nearly two years in to the Covid pandemic, and disruptors don’t ever seem to be far on the horizon.