Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Anthropologist proposes link between per capita energy use and fertility rate


As world reserves of oil and natural gas dwindle over the coming decades – a prospect predicted by many energy experts – the rate at which the people in most societies around the world have babies is likely to drop precipitously as well.

That is the prediction of anthropologist Virginia Abernethy, professor emerita of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, speaking on Feb. 13 in the symposium "From the Ground Up: The Importance of Soil in Sustaining Civilization" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Seattle.

"The availability of energy has been a major factor in population growth," said Abernethy. "In the modern context, energy use per capita affects economic activity. So a prolonged decline in energy use per capita will tend to depress the economy which, in turn, will cause a decline in the fertility rate."

Abernethy’s argument has two parts: the link between the availability of petroleum and the economy, and the link between changes in economic conditions and fertility rates.

Regarding the first link, she points out that oil and gas are "unparalleled" sources of energy. Not only does petroleum provide the fuel that powers modern vehicles and the natural gas that people use for home heating and cooking, but petroleum products are the source for hundreds of industrial and agricultural products, including fertilizer, pesticides and plastics. This means that petroleum cannot be easily replaced by other fuels and feed stocks.

Despite the fact that continuing low prices are encouraging Americans and the inhabitants of other industrialized countries to consume oil and gas at profligate rates, "numerous geologists, physicists and computer scientists have calculated that petroleum and liquid natural gas production will begin to plateau and then decline within five to 10 years," she said.

Such a downturn will have major economic effects, Abernethy expects. In the United States since World War II, rising oil prices have preceded most U.S. recessions and unemployment rates have risen following significant increases in the real price of oil.

"Higher priced energy may force policy-makers to think of economic recession or slow growth as the usual state, and force farmers to rethink agricultural inputs. The shift away from high inputs to soil-conserving technology is theoretically ideal from the perspective of moving to a sustainable agricultural system. The downside, however, is that crops will be smaller and food costs higher – probably much higher – than with industrial agriculture," she said.

The second link, from economic change to the fertility rate, is based on a theory called the "economic opportunity hypothesis" that Abernethy first proposed more than 30 years ago. According to her hypothesis, people increase the size of their families when they are convinced that economic opportunities are expanding and decrease family size objectives when they believe that resources are shrinking and the difficulty of raising children is increasing.

What is important in this regard is not how rich or poor a society is, but the perception its people hold about how things are changing. When the future appears threatening, for example, people tend to exercise reproductive caution and adopt such measures as marrying later and putting more space between births within marriage.

According to Abernethy, this correlation holds true over the entire socioeconomic range and its predictions differ substantially from the conventional view that increasing educational levels in a society by itself can reduce fertility rates.

Abernethy uses recent U.S. history to support her proposed energy-fertility link.

The 15-year burst in fertility rates that followed World War II, known as the "baby boom," was accompanied by the widespread substitution of energy-intensive technology for labor that substantially improved productivity. Higher productivity and labor shortage in an expanding economy produced an increasingly large and affluent middle class that "responded with early marriage and closely spaced births." The baby boom ended within a year following rising energy prices and the 1961 recession.

Fertility rates fell to the lowest level ever recorded in the United States following the oil-induced recession of 1980-81. Both white and black fertility rates plunged below replacement level.

In the late 1980s, lower oil prices and other factors encouraged rapid job growth. Nevertheless, the bottom half of wage-earners enjoyed little increase in real income. So fertility rates rose only slightly and the recession at the beginning of 1990 reversed the modest upward trend.

"The improving standard of living to which many societies have become accustomed will be difficult to maintain in the face of rapidly rising prices for energy. In these circumstances, fertility rates are unlikely to rise. Indeed, a future marked by declining energy use per capita may be the ultimate driver of worldwide declines in fertility," she wrote.

David F. Salisbury | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>