The interpretation of humanity as a number —more than 8,000 million people since last November— leads many governments to face economic or environmental problems, such as the climate crisis or the pension system, with demographic policies aimed at birth control, according to the latest report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), made public this Wednesday. The United Nations considers that this approach, which turns women’s bodies into a tool to have children, often falls into the “manipulation of figures” and erroneous or biased readings that lead to useless solutions. “We are studying the numbers, but the population is about people and their rights,” summarizes Natalia Kanen, executive director of UNFPA. These are some of the keys that explain how population figures are misrepresented.

The “fallacy” of the rate of 2.1 children per woman

The fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman has become a “red flag” to establish whether the adequate number of children are born in a given country to guarantee the stability of the population, criticizes UNFPA, which labels the figure as “fallacy”. According to the agency, in recent years it has detected greater government intervention to promote births —when the index falls below 2.1— or to reduce them —when it skyrockets.

The United Nations calls for not using it. “It is a kind of arbitrary reference standard that has never been recorded in history, since humanity has always moved above or below it,” says Jaume Nadal Roig, demographer and UNFPA representative in an interview with EL PAÍS. Ukraine. The calculation of 2.1 children per woman to guarantee the replacement of the population is based on the fact that low levels of infant mortality are registered and on a birth ratio of 51% of males compared to 49% of females. From the outset, this percentage “does not occur in many countries due to selective abortions (of girls),” reflects the demographer.

Nor does it contemplate migration by not taking into account how the arrival of immigrants feeds populations with inhabitants, and “ignores the fertility calendar, such as when women delay the decision to have children,” adds Nadal. The case of the Czech Republic is paradigmatic. According to the report, in 1999 the fertility rate in this country was 1.13 children per woman, but for the average of women born in the 1970s, the percentage rose to 1.91 at the end of their reproductive lives. This example reflects that “the fertility rate of 2.1 does not register fluctuations in the short term, as demonstrated by the drop in birth rates that occurred during the covid-19 pandemic,” recalls the expert.

Contribute little and suffer a lot from climate change

The data shows that the reduction in birth rates will not necessarily lead to a decrease in global carbon emissions. The countries with the highest fertility rates are the ones that contribute the least to global warming, to the extent that they emit a low percentage of greenhouse gases. Despite this, they are the ones who suffer the most from its consequences. “Women in the Sahel have no impact on climate change, but they suffer from rising temperatures,” denounces Kanen.

However, according to the authors of the report, brandishing the argument that the world’s population is excessive for a planet with few resources limits the responsibility of systems and societies to find solutions to complex problems and leaves in the background the need to promote as much sustainable consumption and production such as the use of green energy.

This relationship between demography and global warming can also lead to more perverse conclusions: “The logical assumption that follows that global catastrophes are the result of the existence of too many people is that the number of people must be reduced, that is, that an unknown number of people must survive and reproduce while others should not”, alert from UNFPA.

Young people are not the problem

One in six people is now between the ages of 15 and 24 and almost half of the world’s population is under 30 — the median for political leaders is 62, according to 2022 data from the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy for the Youth. But in a resource-constrained world where population growth tends to be viewed as a problem and broad swaths of young people as the seeds of a “population bomb,” UNFPA urges viewing the high numbers as a strength. of young people. “Some legislators view this trend with alarmism; persistent negative stereotypes about young people frame them as a problem to be solved”, according to the UN. However, he continues, “more than a problem, young people are increasingly part of the solutions”, since thanks to their “creative actions” they challenge the status quo.

The increase in the birth rate and life expectancy are recent phenomena in less developed countries

Evolution of the population by age groups, in thousands of people. TO higher color intensitygreater number of people of each age group in each year

“The perspective of the birth rate is very paradoxical, because everyone looks at how many children the enemy has: if he has more children than you, you have to be scared,” says Julio Pérez, a demographer at the CSIC’s Institute of Economics, Geography and Demography. (Higher Center for Scientific Research). But, once again, the population data is manipulated in the face of public opinion. “Palestine and Israel are a very good example for this, since the fertility of the Palestinians is higher than that of the Israelis, but nobody talks about life expectancy – 74.4 in Palestine and 83 in Israel.”

Faced with a world population that is mostly young, paradoxically some of the most developed countries with older populations —and which frequently see population growth as a threat, according to the UN— are betting on policies to boost the birth rate under the pretext of to guarantee the sustainability of its public services and its pension system. However, newborns will not be able to pay current pensions, but they will need, instead, education and health, UNFPA argues. And at the same time, these birth-boosting policies not only reduce women to an instrument for childbearing, but also put the spotlight, once again, on young people as “selfish people who only care about themselves” and not they want to have children. “It is just the opposite: their responsibility is so great when it comes to forming a couple and having children that, if the conditions are not met to have them as they want to have them, they do not have them,” Pérez maintains.

The ineffectiveness of controlling the number of births

Limiting the birth rate in countries with very young populations will not stop the increase in the population of the planet, which according to projections “will reach 10,000 and even 11,000 million,” considers Kanen. This figure is the result of a “certain inertia” due to the youth of the current population, which will continue to have children regardless of the decline in the fertility rate, together with the greater life expectancy, underpins Pérez.

However, “before the end of this century, population will peak and probably decline afterwards, so there is no point in continuing to talk about the alarms of the world’s population growth and considering that it is the culprit of all ills.” a lot of sense,” he adds. This is corroborated by the UNFPA projections, which indicate that the population growth rate will continue to fall and will be negative in 2100 in a large part of the world —except in Africa and Oceania— due to the decrease in the fertility rate and the increase in migration .

Fertility policies do not save the world: they undermine human rights

Crossing data between birth policies and the inequality index yields a revealing result. According to the UNFPA report, countries that intend to increase the fertility rate and those that do not apply any birth control policy have similar development rates. However, the latter “record much higher levels of human freedom.”

“We are seeing, especially in Europe, a revival of an ideology about the population that is very anti-immigration, very ultranationalist and very xenophobic, like Vox in Spain, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Georgia Meloni in Italy, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and even in the Nordic countries, without forgetting the French extreme right”, reflects Pérez. According to the demographer, Europe right now has an ideological problem regarding its population, not a demographic one, because it has already carried out its “demographic revolution” with unprecedented reproductive efficiency. The expert alludes to the theory of the great replacement, coined by Renaud Camus a little over a decade ago, according to which the arrival of immigrants, who usually register a higher fertility rate, will wipe out the white population of the host countries. “We have much fewer children than in the past, but because we take care of them much more and they live many more years,” he adds.

“An ethnonationalist view of demography often denies the reproductive agency of the individual, adopting a gender ideology that subordinates women’s rights, particularly their reproductive rights, to the goals of an ethnic or political group,” the UN warns. . According to the United Nations, “ethnonationalism can use rhetoric aimed at convincing both women and men to increase fertility” and notes an upturn in policies aimed at hindering access to contraceptives or restricting the right to abortion.

This has been the case in Sri Lanka, where concerns about ethnic dominance contributed to the rise in fertility. Or from Turkey, where rhetoric encouraging women to have more children has been accompanied by declining access to contraceptives in the public sector. But it also happens in European countries, such as Spain, where the autonomous government of Castilla y León, made up of PP and Vox, tried to boost the birth rate with a policy that sought to prevent abortions.


Text: Patricia R. White

Graphics: Montse Hidalgo Perez

Development: Jose A. Alvarez Iguacel

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