Just read this article which provides a rare divergent chord struggling to be heard among the deafening chorus of Chicken Littles loudly squawking on about our impending doom from the unstoppable population explosion and resulting global resources over-exploitation and scarcity. The Malthusian nightmare is probably the biggest Meme circulating around the world right now, together with that other global canard, ‘religious’ Environmentalism.
So, quite refreshing to read an article which takes the opposing view, that of global population topping out at about 9 billion around 2070 and dropping steadily thereafter (which is no big secret: probably based on UN population statistics which have been published for about 3 years now; in fact, I remember reading other reports which pegged an earlier date for the turnaround – 2050), and examining the economic and social consequences resulting from a global population decline.
[Joseph Stiglitz had written in more detail about this before.
Am a bit more reluctant to mention another pundit, the defense intelligence and strategic analyst, and slick self-promoter, George Friedman; but he did had an interesting section in one of his books regarding global population decline, and applied to his forecast on economic and military dynamics on a possible future conflict between a diminishing US and a strengthening and resurgent (ie. back to pre-1848 levels) Mexico.
So, while not exactly predicting a Mayan or Easter Island-like population collapse and civilizational decline, this article does take the opposing view from that common idea that currently has the world in its grip, that we are heading towards a Malthusian catastrophe.
[But perhaps both opposing views (or at least at their extremes) are missing their marks…there may be a middle ground between them]
About That Overpopulation Problem
Research suggests we may actually face a declining world population in the coming years.
The world’s seemingly relentless march toward overpopulation achieved a notable milestone in 2012: Somewhere on the planet, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the 7 billionth living person came into existence.
Lucky No. 7,000,000,000 probably celebrated his or her birthday sometime in March and added to a population that’s already stressing the planet’s limited supplies of food, energy, and clean water. Should this trend continue, as the Los Angeles Times noted in a five-part series marking the occasion, by midcentury, “living conditions are likely to be bleak for much of humanity.”
A somewhat more arcane milestone, meanwhile, generated no media coverage at all: It took humankind 13 years to add its 7 billionth. That’s longer than the 12 years it took to add the 6 billionth—the first time in human history that interval had grown. (The 2 billionth, 3 billionth, 4 billionth, and 5 billionth took 123, 33, 14, and 13 years, respectively.) In other words, the rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today.
And then it will fall.
This is a counterintuitive notion in the United States, where we’ve heard often and loudly that world population growth is a perilous and perhaps unavoidable threat to our future as a species. But population decline is a very familiar concept in the rest of the developed world, where fertility has long since fallen far below the 2.1 live births per woman required to maintain population equilibrium. In Germany, the birthrate has sunk to just 1.36, worse even than its low-fertility neighbors Spain (1.48) and Italy (1.4). The way things are going, Western Europe as a whole will most likely shrink from 460 million to just 350 million by the end of the century. That’s not so bad compared with Russia and China, each of whose populations could fall by half. As you may not be surprised to learn, the Germans have coined a polysyllabic word for this quandary: Schrumpf-Gessellschaft, or “shrinking society.”
Moreover, the poor, highly fertile countries that once churned out immigrants by the boatload are now experiencing birthrate declines of their own. From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s. This change in developing countries will affect not only the U.S. population, of course, but eventually the world’s.
Why is this happening? Scientists who study population dynamics point to a phenomenon called “demographic transition.”
“For hundreds of thousands of years,” explains Warren Sanderson, a professor of economics at Stony Brook University, “in order for humanity to survive things like epidemics and wars and famine, birthrates had to be very high.” Eventually, thanks to technology, death rates started to fall in Europe and in North America, and the population size soared. In time, though, birthrates fell as well, and the population leveled out. The same pattern has repeated in countries around the world. Demographic transition, Sanderson says, “is a shift between two very different long-run states: from high death rates and high birthrates to low death rates and low birthrates.” Not only is the pattern well-documented, it’s well under way: Already, more than half the world’s population is reproducing at below the replacement rate.
If the Germany of today is the rest of the world tomorrow, then the future is going to look a lot different than we thought. Instead of skyrocketing toward uncountable Malthusian multitudes, researchers at Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis foresee the global population maxing out at 9 billion some time around 2070. On the bright side, the long-dreaded resource shortage may turn out not to be a problem at all. On the not-so-bright side, the demographic shift toward more retirees and fewer workers could throw the rest of the world into the kind of interminable economic stagnation that Japan is experiencing right now.
And in the long term—on the order of centuries—we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity.
[This is where the author swings to the other extreme and starts raising the spectre of a Mayan-like population collapse and extinction]
That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.
We know how to dampen excessive population growth—just educate girls. The other problem has proved much more intractable: No one’s figured out how to boost fertility in countries where it has imploded. Singapore has been encouraging parenthood for nearly 30 years, with cash incentives of up to $18,000 per child. Its birthrate? A gasping-for-air 1.2. When Sweden started offering parents generous support, the birthrate soared but then fell back again, and after years of fluctuating, it now stands at 1.9—very high for Europe but still below replacement level.
If humanity is going to sustain itself, then the number of couples deciding to have three or four kids will consistently have to exceed the number opting to raise one or zero. The 2.0 that my wife and I have settled for is a decent effort, but we’re not quite pulling our weight. Are we being selfish? Or merely rational? Our decision is one that I’m sure future generations will judge us on. Assuming there are any.
The reply or eventual middle ground between the Malthusian nightmare and Mayan collapse, is Population Homeostasis.
The reason why researchers seem to be either Malthusian overpopulation alarmists or gloomy Mayan collapse prophets, is probably because in this grand ecosystem of ‘Humans on the planet Earth’, we have yet to reach the point where total human population is pushing at the boundaries of what the earth can support, even at our current 7 billion. A rather sacrilegious statement to make, I know, in view of the current ‘orthodox religion’ of the politically correct Green Movement and Environmentalism; but I believe that Gaia has not really start pushing back at humans…yet.
So, in this current Game of Life simulation run, at the global ecosystem scale of things, at 7 billion we have only just reached the first rising inflection point of our population growth curve where the second derivative changes sign (or where the curvature or concavity changes sign from plus to minus, ie. global population growth is slowing for the first time ever), and where the local maxima (or the point where the global population will top out) is still ahead of us, not to mention the eventual falling inflection point and ultimately, the homeostasis or stable attractor state which the global population will settle into.
We are still rather far off from the end-game of this particular run and the human race has not experienced a homeostasis state on a global or continental or even regional cross-national geographic scale, which is probably why the opposing camps, while straining to peer into their murky crystal balls, take the expedient options of simply calling out their respective extreme apocalyptic scenarios.
But whether Gaia will have a serious fit and start pushing back vehemently against humans before the projected demographic maxima of 9 billion by 2070…now that is a more interesting question to ponder upon.