DifferenTakes #46: From Explosion to Implosion: A Call for Population Skepticism Print E-mail

DifferenTakes is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.

We are pleased to send you our latest issue, "From Explosion to Implosion: A Call for Population Skepticism" by Elizabeth L. Krause.  This issue examines how popular media and demographic reports portray low birth rates in Italy as a threat to national identity.  The logical solution to labor shortages caused by the population 'implosion' is to increase immigration levels, but instead immigrants are stigmatized as a threat to (white) cultural cohesion and social order.

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

* Also in pdf form HERE
* Also check our new color pamphlet: "10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation" at: http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt

From Explosion to Implosion: A Call for Population Skepticism

by Elizabeth L. Krause
A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College • No. 46 • Spring 2007

Fears of global overpopulation pervade the American psyche. In the past several years, however, an unlikely bedfellow has slipped under the covers of the sleeping giant of overpopulation: The new ally stirs under the namesake of “population implosion.” Loud alarms from Europe reverberate elsewhere in a chorus of too few babies and too many immigrants.

In the 1990s, Italian women gave birth to an average of 1.1 to 1.2 children ­ a trend that leading demographers reported as the lowest birthrate of any country in the world and “likely the lowest ever documented in the history of humanity for a large-scale population.”1

Alarmism about declining births became widely accepted as proof of a society gone awry. In November 2002, Pope John Paul II joined the chorus, and in a historic and controversial address to Parliament described the situation as a “crisis of births” that amounted to a grave minaccia, or serious threat, that weighs on the future of Italy.2

In 1995, I embarked on an ethnographic study of Italy’s demographic trend and for two years lived in a sweater-making zone of central Italy. As a cultural anthropologist interested in contemporary issues, I wanted to learn how a society known the world over as family centered was experiencing the trend of record-low birthrates, only children, aging first-time parents, and disappointed would-be grandparents. I participated in daily life as a parent activist, sweater worker, and coffee-group member. I also conducted library research at the University of Florence and pursued archival research in a commune in the Province of Prato.

To frame low fertility as a crisis erases a host of histories. Indeed, the last time the government took a stance against reproductive trends was the 1920s. Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini launched his infamous demographic campaign that taxed bachelors, made abortion a crime against the race, awarded prolific mothers, and attempted to create an Italian “super race” as part of an anti-malarial project of social engineering in the Pontine Marshes south of Rome.3

Ultimately, family-making among Italians is the outcome of a quiet revolution that began nearly a century ago against the rigid pecking order of the patriarchal family. It is a consequence of society’s embrace of an egalitarian model of the family. Today, a generation grapples with gender relations in a context where a “culture of responsibility” weighs most heavily on women. Low fertility reflects the reconciling of family work with wage work in a context where social obligations of trust and reciprocity were and are foundational to the economy. Furthermore, it marks the rejection of the stigma of a rural past, which included attributing innate racial inferiority to certain segments of the population. Distancing oneself from the rural past meant striving toward a new location of social class and all the consumer practices that went with that. Having few children displays middle-class decency. Finally, low fertility signals the contradictory victory of rationality with regard to sex ­ contradictory because it leads to new forms of stigma for those who violate the norms.4

Taken from a critical and gendered perspective, then, the new-fangled alarmism about population implosion might be received with a hefty dose of old-fashioned skepticism. The scientific discourse on fertility decline is anything but neutral. Fear-instilling metaphors dominate the media and demographic portrayals of the dynamic, leading to an unfortunate consequence: themes of dangerous demographies enable racism.

One women’s magazine wrote of “demographic desertification”; a national daily newspaper described Italy as a nation that is “old and without babies,” while another juxtaposed “empty cradles” with a growing “immigrant supply.” More than a decade ago, then-Labour Minister Carlo Donat Cattin, in an interview with the news magazine L’Espresso, called on Italians to produce more babies “to keep away the armadas of immigrants from the southern shores of the Mediterranean.”5

The weekly opinion magazine New Republic in 1999 forecast that “Italy will be a theme park in a couple of generations.” Similarly, a 2003 BBC report entitled “Ageing Europe is Unprepared” provided one worrying statistic after another for Italy: a village with four births for every 14 funerals; predictions of a 1:1 ratio of productive worker to pensioner by 2050 in a population that will have dwindled from 56 to 40 million.6

A June 2006 issue of Science legitimated this dominant reading of Europe’s current demographic moment, characterizing the situation as a “baby deficit.”7

Overpopulation, population implosion, white people having too few babies, brown people having too many ­ in short, population is something to be controlled. In Europe, but also in Japan and the United States, a dominant message is that reproduction has gone awry.

From a global perspective this obsession with dwindling numbers of people is suspect. Since the middle of the twentieth century, fears of “overpopulation” rather than underpopulation have dominated popular, scientific and academic studies. One might expect Italy to be held up as a model for other countries to follow. Instead, the demographic trend is viewed with great concern.8

The media alone cannot be blamed for distorted depictions of the “crisis.” Worries about low birthrates, aging, immigration, and the societal consequences that are calculated to flow from them can be traced largely to demographic reports. As demographers churn out statistics and interpretations about the trend, the Italian government worries that its nation’s birthrate is “too low.”9

Demographers’ reports exhibit several patterns, which frequently stray from fact, figure or observation into the realm of opinion and morality.10

First, Italian demographers consistently describe the country’s birthrate as bassissima ­ extremely low. For example, a book entitled Children of Italy noted that the “birthrate has undoubtedly sunk to the lowest level in the world.” The metaphor of sinking suggests a threatening process.11

Second, the demographic experts agree the low birthrate constitutes a serious problem. The report Demographic Tendencies describes the birth rate as: “provoking in the population ­ quickly but silently ­ a true and real ‘mutation,’ which has in itself the potential to unhinge the whole social and economic structure of the country.” Similarly, the authors of Atlas on Population Aging classify demographic trends as bringing about “rapid and profound transformations that have radically modified, and in some cases unhinged, the entire structure of the whole society.”12

Renowned Italian demographer Antonio Golini and his colleagues portray pending “deformations” in the age structure that will create a vulnerable society, weakening its ability to meet the needs of its citizens for services, buildings and jobs. They ponder the dangers that transmogrified generational ratios may pose to “adequate social cohesion.”13

Third, many demographers believe that the Italians responsible for the low birthrate ­ those of childbearing age, and women in particular ­ have become irrational. Some demographers take the consequences of this demographic trend to signal a dire finale: the end of Italian culture. When a journalist challenged Golini for waking up “the ghost of Italian extinction,” he said:

“If we have a global view [of population], there is no problem. If the Italian population declines quickly, the immigrants will arrive and Amen. But we cannot stop at this. I study Mayan civilization and just as I regret their disappearance, I can regret it if the Italian or European culture were to disappear.”14

Golini implies that immigrants bring difference and hence pose dangers to Italian national identity on the assumption that immigrants cannot continue Italian civilization. In the few decades since Italy has been registering immigrants, Golini and his colleagues note that their presence “has already created some social tensions to the point of manifesting rejection.”15

The disappearing discourse also appeared, albeit in a humorous rendition, in a 1999 ABCnews.com article that quoted the Population Reference Bureau’s Carl Haub, who calculated that the last Italian would be born in the year 3880!

The alarms that demographers sound about the low birth rate rarely strike direct racial chords ­ yet racial intonations can be heard if one listens closely. While demographers are often silent on the subject of race and like to appear objective, their silence can mask the effects that their alarmist claims have on racist feelings and actions.

Race scholars acknowledge that the terms of racism have changed but that racism still matters albeit in new ways. As sociologists John Solomos and Les Beck have observed, race today is “coded as culture.” In a review essay, Paul Reitter explains, “The structures of racist ideology remain operative, in other words, but they now stigmatize cultural ­ not specifically racial ­ groups as innately deficient and dangerous.”16

Bodies once discriminated against through naked racializing discourses are now clothed in cultural discourses that have powerful and harmful stigmatizing effects.

Demographers’ alarms assist in constructing and normalizing Italians as homogenous, “white” and European. They enable racism by promoting a politics of difference that heightens whiteness, not as an objective skin color but as a subjective ideology. This ideology functions as an instrument of power by guaranteeing and naturalizing privilege.17 Furthermore, alarmist discourses encourage a form of demographic nationalism in which the national population is depicted at risk from internal sources ­ low fertility and rapid aging ­ as well as from external ones ­ such as increasing immigration.18

Constant scientific, media and popular reiteration of the demographic “problem,” the “crisis of births,” and demographic “unhinging” does not cultivate sympathy or invite equality for immigrant populations. Immigrants understand who is implicated in this alarm-ringing. Cultivating a world of open frontiers, open hearts and equal footing remains the work of alternative initiatives whose shape is still emerging.
Elizabeth L. Krause is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her ethnographic research examines record-low fertility in terms of the everyday experiences, emotions and memories of mothers, fathers, sweater-makers, former peasants, and counts. The findings expose the cultural politics of class, race, gender, nation and science, and they appear in her book, A Crisis of Births: Population Politics and Family-Making in Italy (Wadsworth, 2005).

The Population and Development Program
CLPP • Hampshire College • Amherst • MA 01002
413.559.5506 • http://popdev.hampshire.edu
Opinions expressed in this publication are those of he individual authors unless otherwise specified.


Note: This essay was adapted from “Dangerous Demographies, The Scientific Manufacture of Fear,” The Corner House, Briefing Paper No. 36, July 2006. Particular thanks are due to Sarah Sexton and Betsy Hartmann.

1. A. Golini, A. De Simoni, and F. Citoni, F., (eds.), Tre scenari per il possibile sviluppo della popolazione delle regioni italiane al 2044 (Three Scenarios for Possible Population Development for Italy’s Regions), Rome: Consiglio Nationale delle Ricerche, Istituto di Ricerche sulla Popolazione, 1995, p.1.
2. Itti Drioli, “Le ‘tavole’ del Papa conquiestano il Parlamento,” La Nazione, Quotiadano Nazionale, Prato, 15 November 2002, pp.3-5.
3. Frank M. Snowden, The Conquest of Malaria: Italy, 1900-1962, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. See also, Victoria de Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women, Italy, 1922-1945, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992; and Elizabeth L. Krause, “Forward vs. Reverse Gear: The Politics of Proliferation and Resistance in the Italian Fascist State,” Journal of Historical Sociology 7 (3), 1994: 261-288.
4. I explore the experiences of low fertility in my book, A Crisis of Births: Population Politics and Family-Making in Italy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005).
5. “Italia? Vecchia e senza bambini,” La Stampa, 25 July 1997, p.17. “Culle più vuote, l’Italia cresce solo per l’apporto degli immigrati,” La Nazione, June 27, 1997, p.7. Marco Martiniello and Paul Kazim, “Italy: two perspectives.” Race & Class 1991 32 (3): 79-89, p. 88.
6. Gregg Easterbrook, “Overpopulation Is No Problem ­ in the Long Run,” New Republic, 11 October 1999, p.22. Stephen Sackur, “Ageing Europe is Unprepared,” BBC News, 2 August 2003,  http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk. accessed August 4, 2003.
7. Michael Balter, “The Baby Deficit,” Science 312: 1894-1897 (30 June 2006).
8. The postwar era witnessed books warning about the perils of overpopulation. Betsy Hartmann criticizes this literature for giving birth to a misdirected ideology in her Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, Boston: South End Press, 1995. The demographic situations of ten countries in Europe are presented in Carrie Douglass, ed.,
Barren States: The Population Implosion in Europe, London: Berg, 2005.
9. The Population Reference Bureau, 2001 World Population Data Sheet, http://www.prb.org, Accessed June 15, 2002. The 2005 World Population Data Sheet no longer included a category reflecting the government’s view of the total fertility rate. Italy’s TFR by 2005 had risen slightly to 1.3 births. The PRB defines Total Fertility Rate as, “The average number of children a woman would have assuming that current age-specific birth rates remain constant throughout her childbearing years (usually considered to be ages 15 to 49,” (2005: 14). Accessed June 1, 2006. For critical elaborations of the field of demography, see Susan Greenhalgh, “The Social Construction of Population Science: An Intellectual, Institutional, and Political History of Twentieth-Century Demography,” Comparative Study of Society and History, 38(1):26-66, 1996.
10. Elizabeth L. Krause, “Empty Cradles” and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy,” Cultural Anthropology 16(4): 576-611, 2001.
11. Roberto Volpi, Figli d’Italia: Quanti, quali e come alle soglie del Duemila (Children of Italy: How What and Why at the Dawn of the Second Millenneum ) La Nuova Italia, Bagno A Ripoli (Firenze): 1986, p.31.
12. Antonio Golini., ed., Tendenze demografiche e politiche per la popolazione. Terzo rapporto IRP sulla situazione demografica italiana (Demographic Tendencies and Policies for the Population, Third Report on the Italian Demographic Situation), Milano: Il Mulino, 1994. (Emphasis original). Agostino Lori, Antonio Golini, and Bruno Cantalini, eds., Atlante dell’invecchiamento della popolazione (Atlas on Population Aging), Rome: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, 1995 pp.1. 98-99.
13. Antonio Golini, Antonio Mussino, and Mira Savioli, Il malessere demografico in Italia. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2000, pp. 99-101.
14. “Allarme dei demografi: a causa della natalità sotto zero spariranno centinaia di cittadine italiane,” (Demographic Alarms: Due to the Below-Zero Birthrate, Hundreds of Italian Towns to Disappear) L’Unità, (October 29, 1996).
15. Golini et al., 2000, op cit.
16. Paul Reitter, “Racism: Coded as Culture?” The Nation, October 28, 2002, available at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20021028/reitter, accessed June 7, 2006. See Les Beck, “The New Technologies of Racism,” in D. Goldberg and J. Solomon, eds., A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002, pp.365-378.
17. In 2003, I visited a powerful exhibition in California. See David R. Roediger, “ ‘I Came for the Art’: Exposing Whiteness and Imagining Nonwhite Spaces” in T. Stallings, ed., Whiteness: A Wayward Construction, Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, and Fellows of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2003, p.53.
18. Demographic alarmism creates a raucous noise that gives legitimacy to white public space. See Jane H. Hill, “Language, Race, and White Public Space,” American Anthropologist 100(3), 1998, pp. 680-689.