If Utahns continue to have fewer babies, group says it will make state richer and help the environment

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Bannister speaks at "Fertility Decline: Richer Lives for All," a presentation by the Utah Population and Environment Council in Salt Lake City on Monday Oct. 21, 2019.

Continuing Utah’s recent trend toward women giving birth to fewer babies will make the state richer and help its environment, according to a report by a group that advocates slowing population growth.

The Utah Population and Environment Council cheers that Utah’s fertility rate has dropped to 2.1 babies per woman in her lifetime, essentially the replacement rate needed to maintain the population without increasing it.

It says “slowing the pace of population growth in Utah — and moving toward stabilization and then a decreasing population — will offer unambiguous benefits from better air to more affordable housing to less crowded freeways and classrooms.”

The group held a roundtable on Monday at the Salt Lake City Main Library to discuss what it acknowledges is a controversial issue, which may draw fire from both ends of the political spectrum.

Its report notes that “conservatives tend to argue that economic progress demands steady population growth,” and that “liberals tend to argue that, with an aging population, we need more kids and thus future workers to help pay the retirement bill of our seniors.”

Some cultural and religious beliefs may also work against slowing growth. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a 1995 proclamation about the family saying Adam and Eve were commanded to have children and, “We declare that God’s commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”

Still, Stephen C. Bannister, principal author of the new report and an economics professor at the University of Utah, says Utah’s living standards would be better if the state keeps the number of children it adds low.

“We passionately support the voluntary right of women and couples to choose their family size,” his report says, “but we do hope that Utahns will increasingly consider having just two children or even stopping at one.”

He showed a picture of a smoggy inversion in Salt Lake Valley. “Does that look like a richer life?” Bannister asked. “This is one aspect of too much population consuming too many carbon fuels.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City skyline is obscured by dense fog as an inversion settles over the valley Tuesday Dec. 26, 2017.

The report says smaller population growth could do such things as consume fewer resources, create less trash, reduce needs for more schools and cut congestion and crowding.

“Modern economic growth, especially in wealthy, knowledge-based economies, is driven by innovation and productivity increases — not by the sheer body count,” it said.

“Yes, if we had 10 billion people in Utah, of course we would make a lot more stuff in the aggregate than we do with 3 million. But what matters above all is not the total size of the economy but .. how well, or poorly, each of us lives.”

For example, it said Japan’s living standards have continued to improve even while its population has been shrinking.

Similarly in Utah, “average living standards will likely grow with or without population growth,” the report said, but slowing population would help solve environmental challenges.

The report urged consideration of such things as not stigmatizing those who choose to have few or no children, make birth control cheaper and more accessible, and to continue to promote women’s rights and education.

“We at UPEC actually believe that slowing population is one of the easiest and most effective steps that we — as a society, as Utahns and as individuals — can take to improve our lives and to repair the planet,” the report said.

“We should embrace these fertility trends,” Bannister said, adding that his studies have shown him that “population levels are a very important driver in the long run of what happens to our planet, maybe the most important.”