Continuing the discussion from Margaret Atwood and "The Handmaid's Tale":
I remembered near zero when I read the book originally. I re-read the book (been meaning to, anyway) about a year ago and this time I made specific citations of anything relevant in the text this time.
The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center.
“Chances are one in four”, presumably whether a pregnancy once started – and pregnancies already extremely rare – will carry to term. So a contributor to low effective birth rate.
There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia. She stands at the front of the room, in her khaki dress, a pointer in her hand. Pulled down in front of the blackboard, where once there would have been a map, is a graph, showing the birthrate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.
Birth rate “down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down”.
We’re already at the zero line in the US, other countries have been there for a while. So the zero line itself isn’t particularly interesting or shocking, it’d need to be far lower.
Those are the two most substantive refences to specifics about the birth rate in the book. But they are clear.
As for the TV show, there are also graphs presented at the Handmaid indoctrination center in episode 1, season 1.
It’s kind of hard to tell if this is the complete graph (can’t see the height of the two left-most bars) … I just checked again and aha, you can see a zoomed out version briefly!
that’s 22 → 10 → 8 → 4 → 1. So the birth rate in 2015 is at most1/22nd or 4.5% of the birth rate in 1960, and presumably still declining? In 1960, 107 million children were born. So 4.5% of that would be under 5 million.
As of 2011 per this data there were 2.3x as many births as deaths
The 2011 rate is close enough to 2015 to be good enough for more back of the envelope estimations … if 5 million children were being born per year (at the fertility rate of the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale) and 55 million people were dying per year in 2011 … that’s 50 million people lost every year. If we take the earth’s population as of 2015, how many years are left until things … er… stabilize?
7,358,000,000 ÷ 50,000,000 ------------- 147
This is… very primitive… math that breaks down because it doesn’t account for the overall age of the population to begin with, increasing human longevity, or declining rate of birth among smaller populations. It takes the current 2015 population to produce 5 million children per year, and that keeps going down. Say you eventually get to 5 million people left on the earth, at such a low fertility rate, those 5 million people can’t possibly produce 5 million more people. I am sure someone else can math this so much harder than I can, but this gives you an idea of the best case scenario in the world of Handmaid’s Tale, which is … grim.
Also in the dystopia of Handmaid’s tale, the population is already lower than what we’d show in 2015; their birth rates were halved by 1980 and kept declining, so they likely are not producing 5 million children per year by then.
In season 1, episode 6, the Mexican ambassador to Gilead notes that in a Mexican city the size of Boston there have been zero live births in six years.
Back-of-the-enveloping it, Boston’s population in 2015 was 669k people. So per the TV show – and corroborated by the book – specifically, one live birth in 6 years for 669k people. If the earth’s population in 2015 was 7,358,000,000 (7.3 billion) this means
7,358,000,000 ÷ 669,000 ------------- 10,999
That means roughly 10-15 thousand children born per year in 2015, for the entire world? That’s why I was thinking “near-zero” since that effectively would be. I admit it’s way off the first graph which is ~5 million children per year, but maybe the birth rate is still declining … or, more likely, Mexico is a poorer country and can’t afford mass fertility policies and treatment?
Both of those scenes in the TV show are consistent with the book’s portrayal, and would put the birth rate at, if not near zero, so low that the survival of the human race is very much in question – 147 years.
Where did the decline in fertility come from? Unfortunately Margaret Atwood (no relation, my last name is Atwood, though I do like to joke that my mom writes some dark stuff, and I do enjoy a good abyss gazing) is a liiiittle bit on the extreme side when it comes to the whole “GMOs / chemicals are gonna destroy the world” thing:
The reasons for this decline [in birthrate] are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites , of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.
The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deathwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion.
Climate change is much more likely in my opinion, but the book (and thus the TV show) goes with “toxic hellstew of chemicals, GMOs, and radiation” as the cause for the massive drop in fertility to near-zero.
The book also hints at a weaponized virus that makes men sterile as a secret part of the cause, but that hasn’t appeared in the TV show yet.
Professor Wade and I have speculated in our joint paper, “The Notion of ‘Seed’ in Early Gilead,” that both—like many of the Commanders—had come in contact with a sterility-causing virus that was developed by secret pre-Gilead gene-splicing experiments with mumps, and which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar used by top officials in Moscow. (The experiment was abandoned after the Spheres of Influence Accord, because the virus was considered too uncontrollable and therefore too dangerous by many, although some wished to sprinkle it over India.)
Having seen Children of Men (which is literally zero birth rate), and having children myself, I believe that there is no collective human insanity as profound as the one that would descend once there were effectively no more babies. It would literally be the end times. It would make previous world wars look like tea parties. Gilead would be possibly among the least of the things happening in the world at that point:
Anyway, just thinking about all this because I continue to watch Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, which is on season 3 and we’re finally seeing some comeuppance for Gilead…