Population biologists have long singled out sheer human numbers as the number one threat to the biosphere. On this Earth Day, for a case study in the world's most rapidly depopulating country, we need only turn to Russia.
The world's largest country has known centuries of population dips. War, imperial forays, genocide, nuclear accidents and communism have all played their part in low national birth rates. In the post-communist era however, Russia has come to lead industrialized nations in population decline. By 2005, Russia's Total Fertility Rate declined to 1.3 percent, down from a communist era high of 2.2. There has been a parallel increase in childbirth out of wedlock, which now surpasses 30%.
This results in a current net population growth rate of —0.085%. The U.N. has warned that Russia's 2005 population of 143 million could fall by one third by 2050 if the trend was not arrested
As World Affairs notes, "the country has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history."
Several culprits are fingered for Russia's seemingly suicidal decline. Rates of cardiovascular disease are off the chart; death from injury and violence invite comparisons with an "impoverished sub-Saharan conflict or post-conflict society"; and there is the age-old specter of alcohol consumption. Binge drinking is rife as is the countryside tradition of brewing samogon, or hyper-proofed moonshine. In the Urals, doctors have attributed 40% of all adolescent male deaths to alcohol.
Interestingly, the state response to the population crisis has been slim. The Kremlin has reached out to its farflung enclaves on other continents offering them stipends and other favors if they return to the motherland. But emigration could hardly arrest depopulation and makes the long-term economic growth and remilitarization the Kremlin is advocating--at least one driven by a human population--unlikely to succeed. But the Russian state still seems to cling to the Hobbesian notion that an atavistic stance toward the world, especially its once Soviet neighbors will guide the way forward for the Russian people.