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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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How Shrinking Families Are Destroying Our Planet

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My wife was called for jury duty when she was pregnant with our fourth child. Since her due date was looming, her doctor wrote a letter to the court, asking for an exemption. When I went to the courthouse office to deliver the letter, I was taken aback by how long the line was.

It seemed everyone wanted to get out of jury duty.

When my number was called, I proudly explained my wife’s situation to the courthouse clerk. I expected the clerk to coo with delight and maybe wish me mazel tov.

“How can you have four children when the world is overpopulated?” she lectured instead. “You’re a drain on the planet,” she said, citing “pollution” and “carbon footprints” and “limited resources.”

As I walked away, my wife’s exemption safely in hand, I overheard the next woman in line explaining her jury-duty excuse: as a contestant on the reality television show “The Biggest Loser,” she couldn’t miss her only chance for reality television fame and fortune. Not only did she get her exemption, the same clerk who’d admonished me insisted on having her picture taken with this future celebrity. Society’s priorities have certainly shifted.

At the time, I was working on a book to be called The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better. Thanks to my research, I could easily have challenged that clerk’s misapprehensions about population, pollution and parenting. (I wanted my wife’s precious piece of paper too much to risk doing so, however.)

The fact is, throughout the Western world many secular young men and women are doing everything in their prime reproductive years except reproduce. Millions of people are busily going about their lives – shopping, working, watching television – blissfully unaware that the equivalent of a giant asteroid is heading toward Earth, one that seems too far away to matter until it’s too late. That asteroid is called “population bust” and will damage countries like Russia far more than any real-life asteroid.

Never before in human history have birth rates internationally fallen so far and so fast and in so many places. Close to half the planet (including most of Europe, East Asia, and many Central and South American countries) has a fertility rate below replacement. America is barely at maintenance level, and new census data shows our population growth at its lowest level since the Great Depression.

* * * * *

If you’ve been following the demographic news of late, you may be questioning my wisdom or sanity. After all, the world’s overall population is growing. On October 31, 2011, the world witnessed the arrival of the world’s seven billionth person, Danica May Camacho. The UN even flew the world’s six billionth person, Lorrize Mae Guevarra (now twelve years old) to be there for the occasion. According to the United Nations Project, the earth’s population could top ten billion by the end of the 21st century.

Yet, when we drill down, these numbers reveal a disturbing picture. Most of the people who will inhabit the planet in the next twenty years have already been born. This means that medical advances that improve longevity are what is really driving up the world’s population. The so-called population boom is more like a “health boom.” Global life expectancy has doubled, from age thirty in 1900 to sixty-five in the year 2000.

We are aging faster than any functioning society has ever aged. It seems the “Golden Girls” will soon become the only girls. The rapid-aging phenomenon combined with the fertility implosion presents the perfect demographic storm, resulting in a shrinking working-age population and rapidly graying population.

“So what?” you may be asking, especially if you have heard nothing but those overpopulation scare stories your entire life. Won’t the planet be better off with fewer people consuming precious natural resources and creating more pollution in the process? Won’t an under-populated world be a quieter and calmer place – a peaceful, prosperous paradise? Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to find parking?

Initially, the answer is yes. Demographers call it a “demographic dividend.” In the early stages of fertility decline, a nation experiences great prosperity. With fewer mouths to feed and an untapped reservoir of female workers, adults have more leisure time and disposable income. As fewer babies are born, more time and resources can be spent on them. Just look at the “tiger parenting” phenomenon in Asian countries, where small families are the norm.

About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known best-selling author whose first book, "Up, Up and Oy Vey!" received the Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He was recently voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”


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4 Responses to “How Shrinking Families Are Destroying Our Planet”

  1. About forty years ago I was the only gentile in an evening conversational Hebrew class in Palo Alto, California. We were learning numbers, and our teacher, Ilana K., asked me how many children I had. I answered, שש (shesh: six). Mrs. X, the sweet little white-haired lady in the seat behind me gasped, "Oh, the pollution!"

    A few days later, a Sunday, was Israel's Independence Day. We lived just a block away from the Jewish Community Center, and after our morning (Mormon) church services, we took the kids, still in their Sunday best, to the celebrations, so that they could learn something of the culture and sample the goodies. The first person we ran into was Mrs. X. She sized up the childfren and exclaimed, "Oh, they're so beautiful! You can have all the children you want."

    With her kind permission, we had three more.

  2. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    כל הכבוד

  3. Ben Abraham says:

    Yes, there's a fertility deccline among most affluent, First World countries; but such concerns may be allayed with advanced fertility methods, adoption and immgiration, as well as robotics/artificial intelligence and cloning. The future is now!

  4. Ben Abraham says:

    Yes, there's a fertility decline among most affluent, First World countries; but such concerns may be allayed with advanced fertility methods, adoption and immgiration, as well as robotics/artificial intelligence and cloning. The future is now!

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