Updated: May 15
This article in Newsweek by Stable Planet Alliance's board chair Nandita Bajaj was published on 28 February 2023, based on an article she co-wrote with Kerstin Stade. You can read the original version here: https://www.newsweek.com/too-much-good-thing-pronatalism-killing-earth-opinion-1784197.
London subway riders struggle to get on a crowded subway car at rush hour on the Central Line. ANDREW HOLBROOKE/ CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES
With fertility rates falling, life expectancy rising, and population skewing older worldwide, governments are getting anxious. Will there be enough younger workers to maintain economic growth? Who will take care of retirees?
This anxiety is helping fuel a surge in pronatalism—narratives and policies that encourage and sometimes coerce people to have children, and disparage and sometimes punish those who don't.
Reaction to Chelsea Handler's comedy sketch "A Day in the Life of a Childless Woman" is a case in point. In it she joked about the benefits of her choice not to have children, triggering outrage from conservatives. That should be recognized for what it is: a pronatalist backlash against people without children. Handler's sketch was silly, but the nerve it touched connects to something serious.
Pronatalism is ascendant worldwide, from China's three-child policy, to 120 countries, including the United States, restricting abortion and clamping down on family planning. Such policies may serve economic, nationalist, religious, and/or xenophobic agendas. In fact, their rise tracks with rising right-wing populism in many countries.
They often marginalize certain groups and militate against liberalism, gender equality, and economic empowerment of women. They disproportionately affect those who have the least personal or reproductive autonomy and are most vulnerable to coercion. And they leave those women who don't have children at risk, often subject to divorce, social stigma, and/or violence.
Pronatalism is also fueling population growth and rising consumption, which have mounting consequences for people and the planet. This growth was one of the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels over the last decade and is a factor in the Sixth Mass Extinction.
Yet despite this evidence, policymakers, journalists, and academics tend to minimize, dismiss, or simply ignore global population growth's negative impacts. Instead, they focus on populations declining in specific countries, including Japan, South Korea, Russia, and Italy, even as global population grows by 80 million per year.
Reluctance to discuss population growth's harms is understandable in light of a history of coercion which includes forced sterilization and abortion campaigns. But the silence is harmful and shouldn't continue. Exploring the advantages of lower population growth and examples of constructive interventions to achieve it need to be part of the debate.
Today's culture militates against this. Media, advertising, and pop culture glorify and sentimentalize pregnancy and parenthood. Influencers and corporate elites like Elon Musk (who has 129 million Twitter followers and nine living children) extol the virtues of large families and spread alarmist propaganda about depopulation. Pronatalist rhetoric ranges from pro-growth narratives claiming we need population growth for GDP growth to racist tropes like the "Great Replacement Theory."
Even progressives who champion women's rights and social justice can be unwittingly unhelpful on this front. The notion that "you can have kids and fight climate change at the same time" is meant to be empowering, but it ignores how unrestrained growth drives climate change and biodiversity collapse. Arguing we must defuse the "demographic timebomb" to achieve shared prosperity and support retirees may be motivated by justice, but it also plays into pronatalist narratives that treat women's bodies as vessels for a growth agenda. Such messages can be used as cover to justify abortion bans and other policies that harm women.
This discourse is ripe for reframing. Does population growth feed labor supply and fuel GDP growth and jobs for people, or does it primarily enrich the wealthy while expanding our environmental footprint? Can't we call out leaders who are fixated on GDP growth at all costs, and consider the benefits of alternative approaches? Declining populations can prosper, and aging demographics can be a good deal for economies and for the planet.
For example, as more women are freed from the unpaid labor of childcare, they can join the workforce, contribute to the economy, and help support retirees. We can remove ageist barriers to meaningful participation in workplaces and communities for seniors, who live longer, healthier lives than in previous generations. More population growth requires more infrastructure—roads, housing, schools, hospitals—which has a big environmental footprint and costs economies far more than pensions, healthcare, and Social Security. Instead of pumping GDP growth with perpetual population growth, we can fight poverty and share prosperity more effectively with a more progressive tax code.
In the end, alarmism about population decline is a distraction from the real crisis demanding attention: the human enterprise in overshoot, overwhelming the natural systems that enable life on Earth. Norms need to shift so that having fewer or no children is understood as a legitimate, positive choice and lower fertility is recognized as a path to a positive future. A critical discussion of outdated pronatalist norms and straight talk about how population growth drives environmental destruction are now as essential to our collective survival and prosperity as they are to reproductive rights.
Nandita Bajaj is the executive director of Population Balance. She co-hosts The Overpopulation Podcast and teaches the first-ever graduate course on Pronatalism and Overpopulation. The views expressed in this article are Nandita's.