Top-Down Stabilization Attempts

In a previous blog (February 11, 2014) I summarized some of the current measures being taken to reverse the existing trend of fertility rates lowering to below replacement levels in countries throughout the world. These attempts include restricting abortions (although, as I have mentioned before, most of such measures have nothing to do with demographic considerations), giving families money as an encouragement to have more children and providing incentives to attract and keep women in the workforce. Additionally, attracting women to the workforce serves to mitigate negative consequences associated with a shrinking workforce. I also mentioned other plans working toward the same purpose, including incentives to keep older people in the workforce and the development of robotic technologies to supplement human labor.

On the face of it, none of these steps target demographic stabilization, but I will try to use this post to describe two possible stabilization efforts. In the February 4th, 2014 blog I tried to describe the science of stabilization, using a thermostat as an example of our goal. In short, we need to find the means to set the temperature (or in this case, population) to a desired value, lowering the temperature to that value when it goes higher and increasing the temperature when it drifts below the desired value.

The crudest attempt in that direction can be associated with China’s one-child policy, which was instituted in 1979. Many demographers consider the name a misnomer because of the many exceptions that it entails. It was enacted to alleviate the social, economic and environmental problems associated with growing populations. Indeed, China’s fertility rate is now well below replacement (See data on the January 28, 2014 blog). However, as we saw in a previous blog, about half the world’s countries now have fertility rates below replacement. This is in spite of the fact that with the exception of China, none of these countries have instituted a policy similar to the one-child policy. Over the last 20 years the total fertility rate in China was kept approximately constant. Meanwhile, in economic terms, China was developing at the fastest global rate – approaching a constant of 10% in US$. Clearly the term, “development is the best contraceptive” applies here, with the two driving forces (one-child policy and the economic development) working in parallel. To isolate the separate contributions of the two is not an easy task. The similarities between China’s decrease in fertility rates and those of other developing countries provide a solid argument that the major contribution came from the economic development.

The exceptions that demographers claim makes the one-child policy a misnomer actually make it more apt to qualify as a stabilization policy or as an attempt at a demographic thermostat. The exceptions (which can be changed, as we will see shortly) are listed along with the policy’s main negative impacts on Wikipedia, as quoted below:

Rural families can have a second child if the first child is a girl or is disabled, and ethnic minorities are exempt. Families in which neither parent has siblings are also allowed to have two children.[2] Residents of the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and foreigners living in China are also exempt from the policy. In 2007, approximately 35.9% of China’s population was subject to a one-child restriction.[3] In November 2013, the Chinese government announced that it would further relax the policy by allowing families to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.[2][4]

The policy has been implicated in an increase in forced abortions,[8] female infanticide, and underreporting[9] of female births, and has been suggested as a possible cause behind China’s sex imbalance. Nonetheless, a 2008 survey undertaken by the Pew Research Center reported that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.[10]

The policy is enforced at the provincial level through fines that are imposed based on the income of the family and other factors. “Population and Family Planning Commissions” exist at every level of government to raise awareness and carry out registration and inspection work.[11].

The resulting sex imbalance is shown below:


Jim Foreit (guest blog – January 14, 2014) emailed me an article from the Washington Post written by Lauren Sandler regarding the policy’s recent change to allow families a second child. Her article was skeptical of the ability of the changes to reverse the decline in fertility rates. She should know because she wrote a book on the topic (One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.”). In the article she claims that most Chinese share this view. It seems that development really has acted as a contraceptive, and China can now join the rest of the world by abandoning the one-child policy altogether without fear of adverse consequences.

A friend of mine is making a movie that was intended to document family life under the one-child policy. Below is part of my email exchange with him after seeing the movie.

My remarks:

I was glued in-spite of the fact that for a guy that was constantly preaching that a movie has to have a story, this movie doesn’t have a story. Similar footage in a very raw form can be obtained by attaching a small mobile camera on almost every one of the 7 billion or so global inhabitants (including your two kids). As such, the movie itself has very little of the one-child’s consequences. That means very little about sex, child prevention, issues with gender ratio, selective abortions, etc. it’s fascinating.

His response:

 Yes, the film is not about the policy—I wanted to steer clear of the heated political debates about it—the film is certainly about the consequences of a family living under that policy and all you are seeing is one third of the film. More is expected to be covered to contrast the 2nd daughter and young boy, we will see the true nature of how this family must survive in China. Last month China just fined a famous Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou, for having 3 children—so this topic and penalty levy is still an active issue.

On a completely different premise, US Secretary of State John Kerry cited demographic stabilization as a driving reason for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians in some form of a two states solution.

Here is a recent quote from a speech that he made on the topic:

The US Secretary of State said that a team of American experts headed by General John Allen has “extensively analyzed Israel’s security needs in any future agreement and presented Israel with a concrete plan. According to the proposed plan, Israel would be able to defend itself against any potential threat while the United States will lead countries that will support it during an emergency.” Kerry said that “Israel needs to understand the fact that its security is associated with the two-state solution. Military force cannot defeat or defuse the demographic time bomb. The scene tomorrow will differ from today.”

The sentiment about the demographic time bomb is shared by many – both in and out of Israel – but it is wrong. It seems that the US State Department didn’t do their homework.

Here are the data:

The population is divided to the following groups (the exact borders to which this division applies to is described on the site):



















As to fertility rates:

Jewish total fertility rate increased by 10.2% during 1998–2009, and was recorded at 2.90 during 2009. During the same time period, Arab TFR decreased by 20.5%. Muslim TFR was measured at 3.73 for 2009. During 2000, the Arab TFR in Jerusalem (4.43) was higher than that of the Jews residing there (3.79). But as of 2009, Jewish TFR in Jerusalem was measured higher than the Arab TFR (2010: 4.26 vs 3.85, 2009: 4.16 vs 3.87). TFR for Arab residents in the West Bank was measured at 2.91 in 2013,[46] while that for the Jewish residents was reported at 5.10 children per woman.[47]

Fertility rate, by year and religion[42]





























 The ethnic group with highest recorded TFR is the Bedouin of Negev. Their TFR was reported at 10.06 in 1998 and 5.73 in 2009. TFR is also very high among Haredi Jews. For Ashkenazi Haredim, the TFR rose to 8.51 in 1996 from 6.91 in 1980. The figure for 2008 is estimated to be even higher. TFR for Sephardi/MizrahiHaredim rose from 4.57 in 1980 to 6.57 in 1996.[48]

The demographic time bomb is not necessarily between the Arab and the Jewish populations. The fertility rate of the Arab population is higher than that of the Jewish population, but it is quickly decreasing, following the trends in many developing countries. The larger “time bomb” seems to apply instead between the secular and religious nationalist Jews (presently approximately 80% of the Jewish population) which have relatively small fertility rates and the more orthodox Jewish population (the Haredim – presently around 20% of the Jewish population) with a much higher fertility rate than either the Arabs or the less orthodox Jews. It seems that there are two demographic time bombs that are in danger of “exploding,” with perhaps the most imminent one being within the Jewish community itself. Small steps are now being proposed to apply “development is the best contraceptive” to the Haredi Jewish community but few people outside Israel know much of these efforts.

From these two examples, we can see that so far the construction of a demographic thermostat has taken a lot of work, but does not show much progress. The next series of blogs will take us back to the water shortage issue. I will start with an Israeli example where the construction of a hydrological thermostat has been a bit more successful.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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