We should welcome signs of a shrinking population

What is regarded as good news and bad news is a changeable thing. Thirty years ago, when anxiety about rising population and diminished resources was fresher than it is today, figures showing a flattening out of population growth in many countries, including our own, would have been seen as a boon.

Today, on the left-hand page of a newspaper you can read about John Prescott’s plans to rim Dickens’s moody estuarial lands with houses, about proposals for yet another London airport, about Britain’s vanishing oil and gas, about threatened birds and sick seals, about nuclear power stations in France bubbling away like so many dangerous cafetieres — all demonstrating the stress rising human numbers place on the environment and society.

Yet, on the right-hand page of the same paper, news about the slowing down of population growth in Europe, North America and Japan, presaging an easing of the very pressures just fearfully related, is also gloomily presented. The demographic transition, in this latest manifestation, is seen as a threat rather than a relief.

The questions glowering over such accounts are how to pay pensions, how to avoid recession, and how, if possible, to slow the slowdown. The morally and practically complex issues of migration and asylum tend to be bundled into the argument on the grounds that more people coming in will help retard the downward curve.

It is of course arguable that there are dangers in both sorts of curves. But rarely is a moment given to voice thanks for a profoundly welcome shift in reproductive behaviour, one even more welcome as it has taken hold across the world in countries such as India and China.

A small organisation, the Optimum Population Trust, had some publicity recently with its suggestion that Britain might be best served if it had a population of 30-million or so. If such a thing were ever to come about, would it be such a disaster? Yet many act as if it would.

In western countries, at least, the natalism of the past has been replaced by an unrealistic dependence on migration as the means of maintaining supposedly desirable numbers. The figures suggest, however, that while immigration can help a society get over the hump represented by a temporarily high proportion of older people, it cannot be a substitute for falling rates of natural increase for long.

Anxieties such as these were also in the air when new towns were being planned and new airports projected. The Royal Commission on Population warned in 1945 of “the ultimate threat of a fading out of the British people”. Eva Hubback, author of a Penguin book on the subject published two years later, argued that Britain simply could not meet its responsibilities if the population fell beyond a certain point.

For instance, the country was already having trouble recruiting the 750 000 men and women needed for the armed forces and, if certain trends continued, by the year 2000, the men available for military service would be “just half” of those available in 1939. “We would then be bound to become a second- or third-class power.”

What now seem arcane calculations about mass armies illustrate how irrelevant yesterday’s arguments can become. Today’s German anxieties, for example, about a halving of population by the end of the century ring similar bells, although concerned with industrial rather than military manpower, and both the prediction and the arguments could prove equally wrong-headed. But Hubback also knew that population levels are only distantly under the influence of governments, quoting AP Herbert’s lines on the subject:

The world, in short, which never was extravagantly sane,

Developed all the signs of inflammation of the brain,

The past was not encouraging, the future none could tell,

And some of us were not surprised the population fell.

Whether the low birthrate of the 1930s in Britain was largely a result of uncertainty and fear of the future, as Herbert implied, could not be easily established. The equally important cause, as it is today, would be a determination both to enjoy the present and to focus more resources on fewer children so as to equip them better for life in their turn.

Perhaps, as proposed on these comment pages this week, better daycare and other services would make some difference. Perhaps, too, as also argued here this week, more migration would help, but, again, not to the point of reversing a settled trend. The aspirations involved in choosing smaller families and in emigrating are, after all, similar ones of personal and family betterment.

The one set will not long work against the other, as most new arrivals come to make similar reproductive choices to established residents. Indeed, they are already making them in developing countries. Professor Robert Cassen, an expert on development and population at the London School of Economics, notes that two-thirds of the reduction in the population rate in India, for example, is the result of choices made by uneducated people, especially women who want their children to go to school and reckon the chances are better if there are fewer of them.

The fundamental point, as Professor Cassen says, is that population growth in any given society must end, and, as it ends, the problem of a disproportionate class of ageing people has to be tackled. His is an insight which seems obvious enough, yet it is rarely part of the discussion.

This inevitable change cannot be staved off by natalist policies such as those practised by most European societies, and by the Soviet Union in the past. It can be made somewhat easier by the right kind of family policies, by extending the retirement age, and by a judicious approach to immigration. But the sooner the transition is negotiated, the better. On the other side of it should lie a better and more sustainable world.

Reduction in population growth, or its actual decline in some societies, will not have an immediately miraculous effect on problems of pollution and overdevelopment anywhere, since a smaller number of people will expect and demand more. The increased demand and reduced population growth are, after all, aspects of the same change in mentality.

What people demand will be contradictory. The recent trouble at Heathrow is just a minor example of this in comfortable Europe. People want cheap air travel and holidays, yet recoil from the consequences of their choices when they affect the reliability of the services on which they depend or their own wages and conditions.

Maintaining this kind of contradiction, whether in the travel, construction or health industries, leads to exploitative immigration policies, all part of the attempt to hang on to population growth’s supposed advantages after the fact. The idea that what is not going up must be on its way down is deeply engrained. But in fact we should be celebrating the opposite, which is that in the 21st century going down is the best way to go.

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