Population and birth rate need more debate

I had a letter published in the Taipei Times today on the subject of the birth rate and population growth. Another letter by Brian Schack also makes the same point that I do. There is much talk in Taiwan about the urgent need to lift the birth rate, however there is little balance in the debate. It is becoming more and more obvious that economic and population growth is now pushing the world up against physical limits. These limits were clearly predicted in the 1972 book Limits to Growth and have become more obvious and well understood in the decades since then.

Population is a sensitive topic and it is unfortunately used by some people to promote racist and anti-immigrant agendas. It is a topic that needs to be discussed in a sensitive and compassionate manner. Limiting population growth is a key to reducing the most adverse effects of overshoot. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in a recent article about the impending food crisis said, “On the demand side, we need to accelerate the shift to smaller families.” In coming decades, as the impacts of resource shortages and pollution become more severe, small families in Taiwan may be viewed more positively.

The full text of my letter in the Taipei Times is below.

A recent editorial about Taiwan’s low birth rate (“Rabbits and reproduction,” Feb. 14, page 8 ) claimed that the consequences of Taiwan’s declining birth rate are “entirely negative.”

There is no doubt that Taiwan’s low birth rate will have significant social and economic impacts in the next few decades. The burden of caring for an aged population will be significant.

However, the negative impacts of a declining birth rate need to be considered in comparison with the costs and impacts of population growth.

Increasing population leads to increasing demand for resources. At both the scale of Taiwan as a nation and the Earth as a whole it is clear that increasing demand for resources is causing serious harm to ecological systems.

The editorial is correct in identifying people’s anxiety about the future as a reason why they are reluctant to make the long-term commitment to children. However, these anxieties include the spectres of climate change, peak oil and loss of biodiversity. Having more children won’t make these problems go away, but would actually exacerbate them.

Neither Taiwan nor the world can go on increasing its population indefinitely. Stabilizing or reducing the population in the long term is necessary to ensure that all people have adequate food, water and other resources for a happy and healthy life.

It is time for a more sensible debate about population based on recognition of ecological limits. The endless pursuit of growth will only hasten climate change and resource depletion, significantly harming the welfare of all people on Earth. The only sensible and sustainable long-term policy is one that recognizes the need to -stabilize -population and achieve ecological balance.

I am not advocating that people should stop having children. I am just saying that it would be best for couples to only have one or two children. There should also be more respect and support given to those people who choose not to have children.

6 thoughts on “Population and birth rate need more debate

  1. I’m with ya. It will be hard for a generation to care for the increased number of elderly people compared to the numbers of people of working age…but in the long run a smaller population is a good thing, not a bad one, in Taiwan and abroad. Environmentally, we cannot continue to sustain such growth – animal populations reach stability when they are at their optimal size and humans are/should be no different. We’re also getting to a point economically where we are not creating more jobs to accommodate larger generations of new workers.

    In Taiwan, have people not noticed that every settle-able bit of land is crowded? This is is one of the most densely populated countries on earth, and the west and north coasts (and that tiny strip of habitable east coast) can’t hold many more people. The mountains are already at or near their population maximum.

  2. Jenna, I think people in Taiwan can live with high population density to some degree. The limited amount of arable land and the water supply are bigger problems. These are probably the two factors that will most limit population in the long term in Taiwan.

  3. When I mentioned crowding and population density, it was meant to be a catch-all that included all the issues that higher density raises, such as arable land, water supply, traffic and pollution…not just how crowded a street feels.

    Although as an American who grew up in a small town, yes, it does feel noticeably more crowded even outside of Taipei – all the way down the west coast, in fact. Even when I lived in DC and rented apartments there was more space. I don’t mind it at all – in many ways I rather like it. It’s nice hearing my neighbors’ children practicing musical instruments in the evenings (though I could do without the crying babies and the woman who runs the washing machine at 2am). Just an observation.

  4. >spectres of climate change, peak oil and loss of biodiversity.

    Not that you’re wrong about these problems, but I seriously doubt there are a significant number of Taiwanese people who choose to not have children because of *those* specific problems.

  5. blobOfNeurons, I admit the link is a bit tenuous. General awareness of these issues in Taiwan is low. The key factor is probably economic uncertainty/instability. Climate change and peak oil are contributing to this although most people don’t make this connection.

  6. Exactly what I’ve been thinking. Demographers always make assertions about the negative effects of population loss in newspaper articles, but I’d like to see if anyone has actually conducted a proper study into these effects. I would imagine that money saved from not raising children or raising fewer children could help pay for taking care of the elderly.
    As for crowding, even with a falling population more crowding is probably better for society as a whole, as it would shorten the length of trips people take, increase the use of mass transit, biking and walking instead of cars, and leave greater areas untouched by human development.

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