By Rob Stein
For the first time in 35 years, the U.S. fertility rate has climbed high enough to sustain a stable population, solidifying the nation's unique status among industrialized countries.
The overall fertility rate increased 2 percent between 2005 and 2006, nudging the average number of babies being born to each woman to 2.1, according to the latest federal statistics. That marks the first time since 1971 that the rate has reached a crucial benchmark of population growth: the ability of each generation to replace itself.
"It's been quite a long time since we've had a rate this high," said Stephanie J. Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics. "It's a milestone."
While the rising fertility rate was unwelcome news to some environmentalists, the "replacement rate" is generally considered desirable by demographers and sociologists because it means a country is producing enough young people to replace and support aging workers without population growth being so high it taxes national resources.
"Americans are much more religious than Europeans: They believe in God more. They go to church more," said Charles Westoff, a Princeton University demographer. "That sort of religious attitude or set of values is strongly correlated with fertility."
"The world is now consuming resources faster than the Earth can sustain over the longer term," said Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute. "Forests are shrinking. Fisheries are collapsing. Water tables are falling. Large parts of the world's grasslands are deteriorating. The U.S. is already disproportionately responsible for that because of our very high consumption levels."