Is The World Running Out of Children? (And Sperm??)
They can’t power a car or provide a habitat for local wildlife but children are nevertheless considered one of our most valuable resources.
And even though babies are essentially an infinitely renewable resource that doesn’t mean we can’t run out of them.
The global birth rate has fallen since the 1950s. The US birth rate has been in decline for decades. In 2017, the US saw the lowest number of births in 28 years and has been below replacement level since 1971. And infertility rates are on the rise as sperm counts decline. We’re not only running out children. We’re running out of sperm.
Even Huggies and Pampers are feeling the pinch as diaper sales plummet.
Are we looking at a Children of Men or Handmaid’s Tale scenario where children are a scarce commodity and we all live in a bleak dystopia? Could it be the beginning of the end for humanity?
Maybe . . .
But less children might be a sign that the world is getting better.
But first we have to talk about a guy named M. King Hubbert.
M. King Hubbert wasn’t a king. He was a geophysicist — a king of the rocks some might say. Not me.
While M. King Hubbert was a consummate scientist with a keen mind for calculating the size of underground water reservoirs and oil deposits, he’s most famous for his curves.
Bell curves, that is.
Hubbert predicted that the rate of production from an oil reserve — whether it be a single oil field or that of the entire planet — would resemble a bell curve. Over time, the amount of oil extracted from reservoir would grow until it reached a peak — the top of the bell curve — after which, supplies would consistently dwindle until the oil was essentially gone. That moment right before the drop off was dubbed “peak oil.”
Hubbert predicted the US would reach peak oil some time between 1965 and 1970. And it did — in 1970. That is, until hydraulic fracking and improved extraction technology revitalized the industry in the early 21st century. Hubbert also forecasted that worldwide oil production would peak sometime around 2000. It didn’t. But revised predictions put peak oil at somewhere between now and 2030.
Despite some imprecision in his early models, Hubbert’s luscious curves could also be used to predict the depletion of all kinds of resources, from gold to natural gas to uranium.
But it can also be applied to renewable resources.
In 1992, the cod population in the the northwest Atlantic collapsed. Even though fish can replenish their numbers through the magic of biological reproduction, reckless fishing practices and ecological ignorance meant the cod were captured faster than their populations could recover. The rate of this depletion closely followed Hubbert’s peak curve.
So just like we can run out of oil and cod, we can run out of children.
Which has led some scientists to come to the conclusion that we have reached peak child. Or are about to.
Just like peak oil, peak child is the point where the maximum amount of children are born and/or extracted from the Earth.
And it’s very possible that we have reached maximum child.
If we are at peak child, there will never be more children born than there are today. And if we haven’t quite reached peak child yet, it could be very close. By the end of the century, the total population of the Earth might very well be less than it is now.
But we’re not mining children out of the ground. There isn’t a finite number of babies that can be born. This isn’t because we’re using up too many people. It’s because the entire planet is undergoing a demographic transition.
And this isn’t the first time
First postulated by demographer Warren Thompson in 1929, human populations all over the world have experienced several demographic transitions throughout history.
In the beginning, the babies born were many. But so were the deaths. Either by disease or famine or some natural disaster, our population was held in a perpetual balancing act between the number of children born and the number deceased. This was the state of things for most of human history.
But at some point, we got better at fending off disease and feeding ourselves. We improved our agricultural techniques and started taking a bath every once in a while. We cleaned up our act and came up with some better inventions. And the birth rate increased and so did our lifespans.
And populations exploded.
The human population on Earth first reached 1 billion at the beginning of the 1800s. It wasn’t until 1927 when we reached 2 billion — over a century. But it took less than 50 years to double that.
But as nations become wealthier and the populations become healthier and better educated — especially women — birth rates begin to decline. This is because people who are better educated stay in school longer, and therefore put off having kids longer generally. Higher education levels tend to lead to better careers where having children might be an impediment. But most of all, a better educated, financially emancipated female population, with access to medical care and contraception, more often than not has the agency to choose when to start a family — which wasn’t often the case in the old days. In fact, nations with a low birth rate tend to have a higher standard of living. So a falling birth rate is indicative of a smarter, more prosperous society
Except when it isn’t.
Social welfare programs that rely on the young to subsidize the old in retirement — like social security or pension plans — can suffer if the labor pool is significantly smaller than the older generation it’s meant to support. Like a Jenga tower where the lowest blocks are removed, the system will eventually topple.
Then you have an economic sector desperate for workers — because they were never born. And an economy lacking a workforce is like an engine running low on gas.
Except when it isn’t.
A labor shortage can result in lower unemployment and higher wages as employers compete for a dwindling pool of potential workers. And if there aren’t enough people to go around, industries can often supplement the workforce with automation and robots (which they already do).
Japan, Germany, and Russia have all experienced economic growth despite a declining population.
Less children means a smaller portion of the population is wholly dependent on parents or guardians to feed, clothe, and take care of them. That means childless people have more disposable income to invest in the economy by buying fancy new gadgets. With less children taking up space, a larger percentage of the population will be of working age, making a country’s overall GDP higher than that of one with the burden of supporting lazy, unemployed children.
And then there’s the fact that land, housing, and resources all become more plentiful in this scenario. With less people around, there’s more to go around.
How exactly the economics of a dwindling population will shake out is hard to predict. A long, slow decline in the number children is something we’ve never seen before on a global scale. We are in an unprecedented point in history. But any possible economic consequences of a declining population might pale in comparison to the environmental repercussions of overpopulation and excessive resource depletion.
There are 7 billion people on the planet now and we’re fast approaching 8 billion. The carrying capacity of the Earth has been estimated to be somewhere around 10 billion. Beyond that, the planet just won’t be able to support us all. If our population kept growing as it has been since we first hit one billion people, we’d surpass the carrying capacity of the planet within a few decades.
Then we’d enter another unprecedented demographic transition. One where the death rate outstrips the birth rate — which is not a demographic you want to be part of.
But on the other hand, our extinction might not come from anything as dramatic as a total ecological collapse.
Over the last four decades, we’ve seen a 59.3% decline in overall sperm count. Men are becoming increasingly infertile. So far this has had very little impact on the overall birth rate. Even with reduced sperm counts, men can still conceive children. There’re a whole lot of sperms in there.
But in the long run, this is a real problem. Over the last 40 years, sperm counts have not only been dropping, the drop has been accelerating.
And unlike the largely beneficial societal changes which have been forcing down the global birth rate, this widespread infertility is a profound and deeply concerning biological dilemma.
And we don’t know what’s causing it.
But there are several suspects.
Since the industrial revolution, we’ve filled our environment with all kinds of chemicals. Plastics like BPA and pesticides can interfere with hormone production in the body. These contaminants could be making their way into our bodies and scrambling the development of male embryos while in the womb, hampering the production of sperm later in life.
But chemicals aren’t the only thing we’re putting in out bodies. The world is getting fatter. The rate of obesity has nearly tripled in the last 30 years. Obesity can cause a complex array of health problems — one of which is reduced sperm count.
Or it could be *gestures broadly at everything*.
We live in a fast paced, hectic world where the existential fears of climate change, environmental collapse, and nuclear war live neatly alongside the everyday responsibilities of going to a job where you could be replaced by a robot, or going to school where you could be shot, or raising a family in a time where that is becoming a progressively more dubious proposition. And all of it is constantly delivered to us through social media, 24 hour news, and streaming video in an endless battle for our increasingly divided attention. We are more connected than ever. Consequently, it is harder than ever to tune out and just relax. No wonder self-reported stress levels are on the rise around the world.
And stress is connected to reduced sperm counts.
Or it could be all of the above.
Or something we don’t even know about yet.
Whatever the cause, we do have solutions.
In vitro fertilization and fertility treatments can help couples conceive. Researchers at Montana State University have even been able to successfully transform skin cells into something like a sperm cell.
But there’s a problem here too. Not all insurance covers fertility treatments. The cost of these medical procedures might make them out of reach for sections of the population. Then we might be living in a world where only the well-off and well-connected can reproduce — where children will be a privilege of the upper classes.
So we’re not doomed, per say. The human race won’t go extinct — just the segments of society that can’t afford not to.
What exactly the future will look like is anybody’s guess. Just as Hubbert’s predictions for the end of oil had to be adjusted in the face of unforeseen technological advancements, our vision of a planet with less people will have to be periodically re-evaluated. But it most likely will not result in the end of humanity — though it might signal the end of the unsustainable population growth we’ve seen over the last couple centuries.
And that’s a good thing. So don’t stress out about it. That’ll only make it worse.
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