Anyone who doubts that the worlds we create in fiction can have a profound effect on the reality around us should go read this article on world-wide fertility rates. If you’re anything like me, you grew up being told several unassailable facts: one, that the world-wide population was booming to unsustainable levels and two, this was because third world countries were having too many kids. I remember hearing incredible numbers: the population of the planet would be at 10 billion by 2010, which would of course lead to everyone starving and killing each other over that last piece of broccoli Except this hasn’t quite panned out. The chaotic system turns out to be just a little self-adjusting, and it’s not necessarily for the reasons you’d think — certainly for no reason Darwin would have suggested.
Population growth has slowed radically in the last twenty years. Virtually every part of the world but Africa is now operating at near ‘replacement’ levels of population growth — i.e. populations that are either self-sustaining or shrinking. Africa is still seeing a population boom, but one can argue that all the pressures that would push large birth numbers (large infant mortality rate, violent conflict, ever-present disease and lack of education) are still very much in play. We are now estimated to hit 9 billion by 2050 — still a very large number with a huge global impact, but I can’t help but notice the slider has been moved out a few decades. Most of that isn’t even because we’re having more children, it’s because throughout most of the world, more of those children are living to become adults and have children of their own, while the elderly are taking longer to exit the stage.
What changed? It wasn’t birth control programs, although I’m all in favor of better access to birth control. Most scholars seem to agree that women’s education played a strong part, but that’s not a catch-all answer either: population growth has shrunk even in parts of the world with low literacy rates among women. The article above suggests a brilliant, subversive, totally unexpected explanation:
No, the electromagnetic energy from a TV screen isn’t making us sterile. But fertility rates have shown steady decreases in countries with a strong television presence, and in particular, a strong soap opera presence. Soap operas? Yes, soap operas. In Brazil, for example, scientists have noted a solid causal relationship between the drop of fertility from 6.25 to 1.81 and the access to television-based novelas in Brazil. The study suggests that since soap operas typically portray smaller family sizes (any writer knows a story is spoiled by too many characters who can’t cheat on each other, Game of Thrones not withstanding) women in these areas are more likely to emulate the women they see on the telenovelas and stop having children after they’ve delivered two or three.
Mind boggling, isn’t it?
(Africa, by the way, doesn’t have a lot of soap operas on their channels. They have so far been more interested in sports. So it’s also interesting that they also have the highest fertility rates on the planet.)
I’ve never been a huge fan of the traditional telenovela or soap opera. (Okay…there might be a few exceptions. Thank you for the reminder, Gossip Girl.) This is changing my mind — at least about accepting their presence, if not exactly convincing me to watch them. If one of the key ingredients to dealing with our very problematic overpopulation worries is as simple as letting women watch their stories? Deal.
But just take a moment, step back, and revel in the power of imagination. We (and by ‘we’ I mean a bunch of disconnected television executives, screen writers and actors who had no idea their behavior would elicit this result and were only interested creating a sell-able product with mass appeal) have changed something significant in the behavior of very nearly the entire human race, and we did it by repeating a message we didn’t even know we were communicating: small families are good.
We hacked ourselves. We self-corrected as a species.
Maybe it won’t be enough, but we did it. Isn’t that astonishing?