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Pyle: Saving the world, by choice

Published June 7, 2013 5:42 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Most folks claim to be in favor of freedom. Until someone else uses that freedom to do something they don't like.

Like save the world.

There are growing sounds of panic — particularly, it would seem, in Utah — reacting to the utterly predictable fact that the number of children being brought forth by educated women in developed nations is falling.

It's a common theme over at The Deseret News, where our opposite numbers often lament the fact that women throughout ever-larger parts of the world are choosing not to reproduce as early, or as often or, in some cases, at all. And the concern that there won't be as many births in the future as there were in the past was the focus of a gloomy presentation offered at a big picture conference put on by Utah's Zion's Bank.

In keeping with the modern "Let's not drag religion into this, shall we," attitude of many Americans — even those who write for a newspaper owned by a church, or who are hired by a bank founded by a church — these fears of a population collapse are not overtly based on biblical admonitions about being fruitful and multiplying. No, the argument is portrayed as one of demographics, not dogma.

And oddly, perhaps, for an argument that is coming mostly from the political right, there is little to suggest that government is to blame. It is nothing more than free choice being exercised in a way that some other people find troubling.

Maybe it is because that freedom is being exercised by women. Women who, new studies confirm, like sex just as much as men and, with increased and, hopefully, soon-to-be universal, availability of contraception, will be acting on those desires.

The argument that a declining fertility rate is bad, meanwhile, implies acceptance of the welfare state, specifically the part of it that taxes the incomes of current workers to pay for the retirement and health care of former workers.

The perceived problem was given a scientific gloss by geographer Joel Kotkin, who told the Zion's meeting late last month that, if we fail to make our society and our cities more "family friendly," we will be faced with a population decline that, outside of war and famine, the world has never seen.

Of course, 45 years ago, when other experts were writing books like The Population Bomb, raising fears of a horribly overcrowded planet with exhausted resources and wars over land and water, people not only having fewer children, but doing so by choice, without either government edict or extreme poverty to push them, it would have been seen as a major breakthrough.

Once religion, habit and, perhaps most of all, the fear of women controlling their own lives are burned away, what remains is a slowing population curve that is exactly what the planet needs.

Either that, or we find the four more earths that will be necessary to provide the soil, water and other natural resources to sustain even the world's current population, each living lives that consume as much as the average American.

It has long been understood that high birth rates are a symptom of a society where most children die young and larger families are needed to provide labor in the fields, factories and manor houses. And it has long been known that the first thing women — and men — who become educated and affluent do is choose — choose — to have fewer or no children.

It will take some changes, both socialistic (higher payroll taxes on the wealthy) and capitalistic (a free flow of immigrant labor) to adjust to a society demographically lopsided toward the old.

But adjust we must, because a lower birth rate is a rational, personal choice made by free human beings. And most folks claim to be in favor of that.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is very much looking forward to being a burden to his children.