“From ‘youth bulges’ in the Muslim world to a population implosion in Russia to ‘premature aging’ in China, striking demographic trends the world over will reshape the future environment for U.S. policy,” says a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of how demographic change will affect national and international security in the 21st century. As its title—The Graying of the Great Powers: Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century
—indicates, the report focuses primarily on aging populations in developed countries, although one chapter does address the developing world.
The Graying of the Great Powers does a thorough job exploring the economic, geopolitical, and cultural implications of aging in Europe, Japan, and the United States, and it is to be praised for its readability and attention to concrete policy implications. But its focus on the developed world sometimes causes it to downplay the serious economic, socio-political, environmental, and security challenges posed by high population growth in developing countries—and by a global population that is expected to top 9 billion by 2050.
For instance, the authors use the past tense to refer to a time “when the prevailing worry was overpopulation.” Now, the word “overpopulation,” with its implication that some of us should not be here, is somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is clear that today, billions of human beings are consuming record amounts of natural resources at unsustainable rates—witness Yemen, where current annual water use is 30 percent greater than renewable water resources. Furthermore, many of the countries least able to provide employment and health care to their citizens have the highest population growth rates—for instance, Somalia and Afghanistan, which both have total fertility rates of 6.8 children per woman.
Wrapped up in their worries about the impact of low birth rates on armed services recruitment and government spending on pensions and health care for the elderly, the authors seem to forget what is actually at stake here: a woman’s decision to give birth to a child. Politicians can institute reforms that will make having children an easier proposition, but they should not pressure people to have children because they wish to avoid geopolitical upheaval. Ultimately, wanting to have a child is the only good reason to bring one into the world.