Religion and Babies
A TED Talk by Hans Rosling
April 2012

If you watch the above video before reading the critique below, it will make a lot more sense.

Religion has very little to do with the number of babies per woman.

Hans Rosling examines religion’s influence on birth rates by comparing nations which have a majority of one of three religious faiths: Christianity, Islam, and all Eastern religions grouped together.

He shows that it makes no difference which religion a majority of citizens adhere to because both Muslim and Christian nations are found in the high and low cohorts. Nations with “Eastern religions” have all improved to the low end, but that’s two out of three.

To say that religion has no influence on birth rates ignores the continued repression of reproductive freedom, especially of contraceptive services, by Catholic Church hierarchy and fundamentalists among Christians and Muslims on a nearly global basis. Also, many sects function as if they were fertility cults, pressuring female adherents to breed at unhealthy rates.

Moving on to social factors influencing birth rates, Rosling cites “scholars and experts” who refer to “Total Fertility Rate per woman,” and note that:

The most important factors [lowering TFR in Qatar] are as follows: increased age at first marriage, increased education level of Qatari women, integration of more women into the labor force.

All three are results of an increased status of women, as is an improved fertility rate.

All the religions are fully capable to maintain their values and adapt to this new world.
Unless their values include keeping men in charge. Patriarchal societies, and the religions legitimizing them, continue to enforce institutionalized gender inequality, often blatantly if not brutally.

Eighty percent of humans live in countries with about two children per woman.
Eighty percent of seven billion is about 5.6 billion. Actually, 134 nations have TFRs of 2.4 and below, totaling 4.1 billion, or 59% of the world population. If we assume “about two” is more like 2.2 TFR, 120 nations comprise 3.5 billion or 50% of humanity.

But even if 80% had nearly achieved “replacement level fertility,” it would be inaccurate to infer that population growth is nearing an end. Growth rates give a more immediate picture than birth rates: fewer than 9% of us live in countries with 0.1% growth or less.

It’s encouraging to see Rosling dare to go against decades of conventional wisdom and the Demographic Transition Theory:

You don’t have to get rich to have few children, it has happened across the world.

His dynamic chart showing TFR and per capita income over time reveals that since 1900 birth rates generally drop and then incomes increase rather than the other way around. More on TFR and income.

Rosling correctly states that war increases birth rates and population density. This counter-intuitive fact is too often ignored.

Consistent use of “babies” and “children” to describe adding more people tends to cloud analysis. When a new person is created with a lifetime ahead of them, calling them babies or children is short sighted and adds a logic-inhibiting emotional factor.

Babies per woman decrease when
1. children survive
2. children are not needed for work
3. women get education and join the labor force
4. family planning is accessible.
1. It stands to reason that lower infant mortality rates will lower birth rates, but the data don’t show this to be the case. We do need to reduce infant and child mortality, but not as a means to improve birth rates. More on TFR and IMR
2. The idea is that improved living standards eliminate motivations to create offspring for financial reasons. Instead, couples will create them because they can afford to. Urbanization reduces birth rates because children become a financial liability in cities, unlike the supposed benefit of breeding more indentured farm workers. However, moving rural people to cities isn’t a practical method of reducing birth rates nationally.
3. Opportunities for something besides wife and mother are results of greater gender equality, as is
4. access to family planning.

Rosling shows that the number of humans under 18 years old has peaked at 2 billion. Using one box for each billion, he demonstrates our increase over the coming century:

The old will die and the rest of you will get older and you will get two billion children.
This is the great fill up. It’s inevitable.
This increase took place without life getting longer and without adding children.
We will be 10 billion in this world if the poorest people get out of poverty, their children survive, and they have access to family planning.

He doesn’t venture a guess as to how many there will be if those three conditions are not achieved.

The pile of boxes reaches 2 wide by 5 high and the audience applauds. (We like towers).

So when you plan for the resources and the energy needed for the future for human beings on this planet, you have to plan for 10 billion.

Now let’s get some boxes proportionately representing available resources and try to cram those 10 boxes in them. At present levels of population and consumption, we’re about 50% into overshoot: there’s only enough to support 4.6 billion of us. Raising two or three billion people out of poverty will increase their consumption. Add three billion more, hopefully at above-poverty levels of consumption. Now factor in peak everything, which reduces available resources. Maybe we can reduce wealthy regions’ consumption, despite virtually every human’s desire for more of everything.

Human population steadily increases day by day. There are no generations in populations, only in families. Two boxes representing the present two billion humans under 18 help us visualize their proportion to the whole, but adding the next two in one fell swoop while a billion old folks kick off is something of a carnival trick.

“Presto! This increase took place without life getting longer and without adding children.”
“Wait a sec, you just added two billion children to the pile.”
“Nope, those two billion are no longer children, so there are still only two billion children. Here, watch me do it again.”
“Golly. How do you do that?”
“Magic. Now watch while I replace fossil fuels, double agriculture output, and make potable water appear out of nowhere.”

In reality, increasing our population density by 43% will be disastrous for Earth’s biosphere and for billions of people needlessly brought into a world with diminishing resources. We can forget about lifting billions out of poverty when basic needs can’t be met.

It won’t be easy to improve birth rates further: they’re more resistant to change as they become lower. In many regions, particularly those where women’s rights are not respected, birth rates have stalled at a high level. As difficult as it will be, improving population density is more realistic than trying to provide an adequate standard of living for 10 billion of us with only enough resources for less than half that many.

To succeed, we must approach solutions from several directions simultaneously. Gender equality is the single most influential social factor determining birth rates, and is a worthy goal in its own right. Resistance to improving women’s status remains so strong that proponents must advocate secondary goals such as education for girls, employment opportunities for women, and access to family planning, rather than directly demanding equal status.

Gender equality doesn’t exist anywhere: it ranges from unfair to so horrific we don’t even want to think about it. So we don’t. Besides, no one wants to be accused of cultural imperialism. Wherever we live, support for ongoing efforts to improve respect for women’s rights will advance reproductive freedom and lead to improved birth rates. Religious and cultural traditions aren’t valid excuses for denying women their basic human right to not breed.

At the same time, a variety of economic, environmental, political, and social improvements are needed to deal with our overshoot of Earth's carrying capacity.

No matter what cause each of us chooses to support, it’s critical we resist fatalistic denial, and think outside the boxes. 10 billion is not inevitable. It may not even be possible. We could continue as we are until we slam up against the harsh reality of population crash, or we could increase efforts to voluntarily improve birth rates worldwide.

Analysis of a similar Hans Rosling population fantasy.