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Planet English

Population decline, social justice, and the environment

Birth rates are declining in high-income countries such as the US and the UK. It is an alarming trend which has several causes, some positive such as the emancipation of women, and some negative such as social, economic and environmental insecurity.

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Decades ago, it was thought that the world population would balloon out of control, but recent trends show that birth rates are declining everywhere. A recent study published in The Lancet, the world’s most important medical journal, says that the world population will peak around 9,7 billion in 2064, and afterwards it will slowly decline. “It’s extraordinary,” said professor Christopher Murray, one of the authors of the study. Birth rates are already declining at an alarming rate in high-income countries. The US and the UK are no exception; both are experiencing historically low fertility rates.

The success of emancipation

There is a reason why this is happening first in high-income countries. More affluent people have more freedom to choose and plan their lives. In fact, low fertility rates can be seen as a success story: the rate is low because more women delay starting a family so that they can dedicate their 20s to going to university and building their careers. Research shows that many women, as well as their partners, want to reach a certain economic level before having children. Freely and widely available contraception also allows women to choose to have fewer children. Low fertility rates are therefore strongly linked to wealth, education, and emancipation.

Social and economic insecurity

That said, a reduction in pregnancies can also be the result of economic insecurity. Many women delay having children because they are afraid of being sidelined by their employers. Also, many couples never achieve the economic stability they feel is necessary to start a family. Raising children can be expensive, and this is a problem when aspiring parents have low salaries and uncertain job conditions. Measures such as longer parental leaves, free nurseries, and after-school clubs, are necessary to help new families. Many nations are beginning to adopt pro-natalist policies such as these, but still not enough is being done. So, a low birth rate might be a sign of development and emancipation, but also of economic and social problems.

New, environmental fears

Another growing concern for aspiring parents is the climate crisis. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has asked if a belief in an approaching climate breakdown would lead younger generations to ask: ‘Is it okay to still have children?’ British singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino went so far as to found the activist group BirthStrike for Climate. Its members, said Pepino, “feel too afraid to have kids because we feel we are heading towards civilization breakdown as a result of the environmental crisis.” Pepino hoped to spread this urgent environmental message, but her focus on birth control proved too controversial and BirthStrike was disbanded in 2021. Yet, the belief that having fewer children is a way to save the environment is still shared by many. After all, won’t fewer people have a smaller impact on the climate? As we shall see, the answer is not so straightforward.

A reorganization of society

Scientific research shows that more children does not necessarily mean a bigger carbon footprint. For one thing, younger generations are more environmentally aware and active than older ones. Older people tend to be more conservative and, if they have no children, less interested in the future security of the planet. “An ageing society is a declining society,” writes journalist Polly Toynbee, “in outlook, creativity and inventiveness. Babies mean new life, hope and energy.” Unless the trend changes, governments will have to deal with challenging problems, and not just environmental ones. For example, in an aged world, there will be more pensioners than working people, and so the increasing costs of pensions and healthcare will be paid for by fewer taxpayers. As professor Murray notes “we’ll have to reorganize societies.” It will be crucial for aspiring parents and young people to take an active part in this reorganization.


1) Read these two BBC articles to learn more about the declining birth rate around the world:

2) Read the Polly Toynbee editorial (mentioned in the article) about falling birth rates:

3) Learn more about the positive and negative causes of low fertility rates in the US:

4) Watch this short video on the falling US birth rate:
1) Read the article and complete the sentences with the correct alternative.

1. Several years ago, scientists thought that
a. birth rates would slowly decline.
b. the world population would be kept under control.
c. the world’s population would continue to grow indefinitely.

2. Birth rates are decreasing
a. everywhere.
b. only in ‘rich’ countries.
c. mainly in the US and the UK.

3. Women in high-income countries
a. are less free to decide when to have children.
b. start having children later in life.
c. are less emancipated than in the past.

4. Low fertility rates can be considered a ‘success story’ because
a. it’s partly the result of the emancipation of women.
b. women become mothers only when they become rich.
c. women won’t have children unless they have a career first.

5. Many women and their partners are delaying having children because
a. they are economically secure.
b. they don’t have parental leave.
c. they are afraid of losing their job.

6. Starting a family can be expensive, so the governments of several nations are
a. encouraging young parents to work harder.
b. helping young parents with measures such as longer parental leaves.
c. increasing the salaries of young parents.

7. American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
a. decided not to have children.
b. said that young people are afraid of a coming climate breakdown.
c. thinks it is not wise to have children.

8. British singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino founded BirthStrike for Climate
a. to solve the declining birth rate problem.
b. as a direct answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s concerns.
c. to raise awareness of the climate crisis.

9. According to scientific research, a growing population
a. always has a greater impact on the climate.
b. might not have a greater impact on the climate.
c. has a smaller impact on the climate.

10. One of the major economic problems of an aging population is
a. finding the money to pay for pensions and healthcare.
b. less creativity.
c. less energy to face challenging problems.

2) Complete the sentences with the following words. Put the verbs and nouns in the right form, if necessary.

to peak  *  income  *  affluent  *  to delay  *  pregnancy  *  to sideline  *  nursery  *  to disband  *  straightforward  *  healthcare

1. His career as a writer ………………………………………….. in his 40s – that’s when he wrote his best novels.
2. A ………………………………………….. is nine months long. It’s enough time to buy all that the baby will need.
3. Our flight has been ………………………………………….. because of air traffic.
4. ………………………………………….. should always be free: the state should bear the costs of treating you if you are ill or injured.
5. Her answer was …………………………………………..: direct, simple and clear.
6. The football player injured his foot, so the coach ………………………………………….. him until he recovered.
7. I’m determined to have a child, even if my ………………………………………….. is less than €1000 a month!
8. In many countries, very young children attend a ………………………………………….. school before going to kindergarten.
9. “Yes, we live in an ………………………………………….. society,” he said, “but spiritually we are not as rich!”
10. The company failed and was ……………………………………………

GRAMMAR – Past tenses: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, past perfect continuous
3) Complete the sentences by selecting the correct past tense.

1. My parents  lived / were living in London when I was born / had been born.
2. This picture of my grandmother was taken / took when she was 10 years old; as you can see, she had / was having five siblings.
3. By the time she was having / had a child, she had already become / became the general manager of the company.
4. When I finished University, I had / had been having nightmares about the climate crisis for years, so I was deciding / decided to join an environmental organization.
5. I was reading / read the paper when she had been telling / told me she was pregnant.
6. She was waiting / had been waiting for 2 hours at the station before the train had been arriving / arrived.
7. She had finished / had been finishing her homework when her father was arriving / arrived home.
8. The birth rate had been declining / was declining for over a decade when the government was adopting / adopted pro-natalist policies.
9. He was studying / had studied the subject thoroughly so his lecture was / had been a success.
10. We were still running / ran to school when the alarm bell had rung / rang.

4) We saw in the article some of the reasons why today families have fewer children. Why do you think in the past it was normal to have many more children? (60-80 words)
5) Do you have any brothers or sisters? Or are you an only child? What is it like growing up with (or without) siblings? (60-80 words)

(Carlo Dellonte)
(Image: SolStock – iStockPhoto))

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