COVER STORY: France and Italy address fertility crisis
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, November 1, 2003
For decades, environmentalists have been shouting that the world is overpopulated, and will soon run out of food, oil, and other necessities on which modern societies depend.
Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, published in 1968, set the scene for the adoption of "zero population growth" policies in most Western countries, as well as some in the communist bloc, including China.
In some countries, the size of the average family fell from around 5 to about 3 in a generation.
Ehrlich's Population Bomb, though provably wrong at the time it was written, became the gospel of the environmental movement, and was embraced by much of the Western world's intelligentsia and media, followed by politicians, then the general public.
Years later, Ehrlich wrote The Population Explosion, a book described by one breathless reviewer in these terms: "This sequel to Paul Ehrlich's 1968 landmark bestseller The Population Bomb examines the critical choices we face today and proposes an agenda for the 1990s to avoid global ecocide.
"The Population Explosion vividly describes how the Earth's population, growing by 95 million people a year, is rapidly depleting the planet's resources, resulting in famine, global warming, acid rain, and other major problems."
Now, however, European nations are facing a real crisis of major proportions: their populations are ageing, and there are simply too few children to keep their societies going.
In Spain, women have 1.15 babies each, in Italy it's 1.23, in the UK it's 1.6, France 1.89 and Ireland is top at 1.9
Italy, traditionally a country with large families, is one of the worst affected by the birth dearth.
It now has the lowest birth rate and fastest ageing population in Europe, and the foundations of the ample state pension scheme have already begun to crumble.
Italy leads a crisis throughout Europe, where fertility rates are plummeting and life expectancy increasing.
"If projections are right, then in 2050 Italy will have 15 million fewer people than today, which means we won't have enough young people to pay for welfare system, pensions, health and so on," economist Giuseppe Pennisi told the BBC recently.
This means that the current population, which is about 56 million, will have fallen to 41 million.
Towns and cities will be left with thousands of unwanted apartments, schools may well be half empty and whole swathes of the countryside could be depopulated.
And, naturally the proportion of old people within the population will continue to rise.
To address the problem, the Italian Government has introduced a new plan to help parents financially, by offering 1,000 (approximately $1,680 AUD) to each child born.
The program will cost the Government 500 million a year (approximately $840 million AUD).
However, the question is whether it is enough to change deeply-entrenched attitudes.
While birth rates in the rest of Europe are in decline, French women are having more children every year, with the average number of children per woman now 1.9.
The French state classifies a couple with three or more children as a "famille nombreuse", a status which opens the door to all kinds of benefits.
The high French birthrate has been attributed to tax breaks and lower rents for families with three or more children.
The incentives offered by the French Government are very substantial, with many families paying no income tax at all.
While the French Government's incentives for families seem to have worked, the program has its critics.
Maura Mitziti, a researcher from the National Institute of Population Research in Rome said, "Measures like these have been used in Sweden, and we do see a peak of fertility when the measure is first implemented.
"But then we see that the attitudes come back to normal levels because it is not just about money."
However, countries which have strong pro-natal policies seem to be addressing the problem, while those which do nothing face a growing crisis