April 24, 2023 - 10:00am

What is the world’s most under-reported apocalypse? Unmitigated climate change? The threat of nuclear war? The possibility of another, deadlier, pandemic? All of those could wipe millions, perhaps billions, of people from the face of the planet. But, then again, they haven’t happened yet (even if we are pushing our luck). 

Most worrying, surely, is the population-reducing crisis that is already underway. In countries around the world — including all the rich ones — births have plummeted. 

Some governments have tried to turn things around with pro-natalist policies. But, at best, the results have been disappointing. Instead of looking for a nation that has restored its birthrate to the replacement level (because there isn’t one), more local examples are surely worthy of attention.

For instance, there’s the small town of Nagi in Japan. There are varying estimates of the town’s total fertility rate (TFR). A 2022 article for the Asahi Shimbun quotes a figure of 2.95 children per woman, which is certainly well above the Japanese average of 1.4.

So what made the difference? The conventional explanation is that the local authorities offered various forms of material support to young families — including help with childcare and access to affordable housing. While not discounting these factors, an opinion piece for the New York Times offers an alternative theory. The author, Peter Coy, suggests that “maybe people in Nagi are having babies because other people in Nagi are having babies.”

Pregnancy is not contagious of course, but, as Coy points out, “we are social animals and we take our cues from family, friends and sometimes even passers-by.” While the offer of support to Nagi’s parents may have got the ball rolling, peer effects could have had a multiplier effect. 

Another example of a town that’s defying the global baby bust is Larsmo in Finland. For a long time, Scandinavia was held up as an example of pro-natalism through generous welfare provision. Finland, with its famous baby box scheme, is seen as being especially good at giving its youngest citizens a good start in life. And yet that hasn’t stopped the Finnish total fertility rate from tumbling. Last year it fell to a just 1.32 children per woman — a new low. 

However, there was better news from Larsmo — according to Birth Gauge, the coastal community has maintained its TFR at over twice the national level.  

So what makes Larsmo special? Most of its people belong to Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority; but while the ethnic Swedish TFR is a bit higher than the ethnic Finnish TFR, this isn’t nearly enough to explain the town’s stellar baby-making record. Rather, the crucial factor appears to be religious. Larsmo is a stronghold of the Laestadian movement, a revivalist offshoot of the Lutheran church. 

Though not closely related to the Amish in the US — who are also known for their high fertility — the Laestadians have a similar focus on plain living and family values. 

It’s easy for metropolitan types to make fun of small and remote communities — especially if they’re religious. But perhaps it requires isolation, whether geographical or ideological, to insulate people against a culture that has normalised childlessness. 

Of course, the latter has its advantages – above all, freedom from the strictures of traditional family life. But on the other hand, the old way has a future. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.