The Sunday Telegraph
Overpopulation fears have not kept up with the facts
What is the purpose of sex education in schools? It tends to focus on contraception, but doctors are starting to suggest that that approach is 180 degrees wrong. Instead of teaching young people how to avoid babies, says the Fertility Education Initiative, we should teach them how to make babies.
This might seem a countercyclical message. Don’t we have a problem with under age pregnancies – to say nothing of global overpopulation? Actually, no. As so often, our fears have not kept up with the facts.
Teenage pregnancies were common in the late 20th century, but their rate has halved since the Nineties, and now stands at a record low. As the average age of motherhood rises (at 30, it has never been higher) a more serious problem is that increasing numbers of women are struggling to conceive.
A similar perception-lag governs our ideas about overpopulation. We blame it for crowded roads, GP waiting lists, pressures on the green belt. We fret that there were a billion human beings in 1800, two billion in 1930, three billion in 1960, six billion in 2000. How much longer before the whole planet starts to resemble Oxford Street in the sales?
In fact, birth rates are dropping on every continent. The rate of reproduction in Kenya has fallen over the past 50 years from eight live births per woman to 4.5. In Brazil, the decline is from 5.7 to 1.8, in Iran 6.8 to 1.9.
It’s always the same pattern: as prosperity rises, fecundity falls. The increase in female education correlates closely to the reduction in fertility rates. So, indeed, does the spread of television – possibly because it gives couples a different way to occupy their evenings.
Most of all, though, birth rates fall in tandem with infant mortality. When not every child is likely to reach adulthood, people want lots of children. After the arrival of modern medicine, there is often a population explosion, because the first generation retains the cultural habit of large families.
But, in the next generation, numbers stabilise. Europe went through its bulge in the early 20th century. Latin America in the late 20th century. Africa is doing so now.
According to a major study by Deutsche Bank, the world population, currently 7.4billion, will peak at 8.7billion in 2055, before dropping back to 8billion by the end of the century. Even if those dates turn out to be too early, few demographers doubt that a peak is coming.
Depopulation will bring a different set of challenges: decaying towns, unaffordable pensions and the like. But, just like the challenges of rising numbers, they will be overcome. And, when they are, people will look back in wonder at a generation which, Hamlet-like, recoiled at the notion of procreation.
Every tradition, every instinct and, for what it is worth, every major religion, rejoices in children. How odd that we should need to take that message into the classroom.
The i newspaper wins this week’s award for the most asinine front page: “Britain may be forced to take inferior US milk”. The story was based on a claim by Greenpeace that American milk, which apparently has a shorter shelf-life than ours, might be included in a future UK-US trade deal.
The headline was wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where criticism should begin. Britain is a net exporter of milk and, even if it wasn’t, it would hardly source its imports from across the Atlantic.
The preposterous word “forced” implies that government inspectors will somehow make us buy things against our will.
Silliest of all, though, is the idea that America’s ultra-fastidious regulators would allow the sale of toxic milk. Have i journalists ever been to the US? Did they drink any milk while they were there? Did they feel OK afterwards?
These stories have less to do with health than with dislike of America, dislike of industrialised farming, dislike of trade and, in the last analysis, dislike of the idea that Britain might prosper after leaving the EU.
What an unedifying blend of motives. FOLLOW Daniel Hannan on Twitter @DanielJHannan; at telegraph.co.uk/opinion