Mass Immigration is Easing the Transition to a Climate Friendly Low Birthrate Future – Watts Up With That?

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The Guardian thinks immigrants from poor countries will be happy to take care of the old folk in rich countries who chose not to have kids. Or maybe robots will sort it all out.

Why declining birth rates are good news for life on Earth

Laura Spinney
Thu 8 Jul 2021 19.00 AEST

In the midst of a climate crisis with 8 billion humans on the globe, it’s absurd to say that what’s lacking is babies

Fertility rates are falling across the globe – even in places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where they remain high. This is good for women, families, societies and the environment. So why do we keep hearing that the world needs babies, with angst in the mediaabout maternity wards closing in Italy and ghost cities in China?

The short-range answer is that, even though this slowdown was predicted as part of the now 250-year-old demographic transition – whose signature is the tumbling of both fertility and mortality rates – occasional happenings, such as the publication of US census data or China’s decision to relax its two-child policy, force it back into our consciousness, arousing fears about family lines rubbed out and diminishing superpowers being uninvited from the top table.

In the 19th century, a country needed youth to operate its factories, consume what they churned out and constitute a fighting force in times of war. That became less true over the 20th century, and in the 21st it bears very little relation to reality. More and more of the jobs that require stamina and strength – including fighting – are done by machines, while a nation’s products are consumed globally.

Gross domestic product (GDP) might influence a nation’s geopolitical standing and a large GDP fills government coffers, but there’s no evidence that young workers are any more productive than older ones today. Twenty-somethings and 50-somethings have different kinds of intelligence, says gerontologist Sarah Harper of the University of Oxford, but both play a part in entrepreneurship. And if you care about human wellbeing you should pay more attention to GDP per person than per country.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to adapt to the new reality. We do, in part because the way many countries distribute resources is also rooted in the 19th century and is unsustainable. More people need to work longer, for example. Although creativity doesn’t fall off with age, skills change, and we need to replenish those that are lost from the workforce. And when elderly people do finally stop being productive, we need to find new ways and new workers to care for them. 

Immigration – which tends to bring in young adults – is a critical component of that adaptation, smoothing the demographic transition for richer countries while redistributing capital to poorer ones where fertility rates remain relatively high. The evidence is overwhelming that, in general, immigration is good for societies – economically, but also socially. Closing doors to it is, in this sense, self-destructive.

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I think the idea that we no longer need young workers is a little premature. Machines have made significant inroads, but we are still at least a few decades away from the end of manual work.

I also think it is a big assumption that the current low birthrate trend will continue. Going forward, the gene pool is going to be increasingly dominated by the offspring of people who bucked the demographic trend by having large families. Sooner or later people who want large families will begin to dominate, and population growth will resume.

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