The Road To 10 Billion: Where Is Global Population Actually Headed?
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Ten billion people on earth by 2050. But what if that prediction is … all wrong? A pair of researchers argues the population is headed for a steep decline, and bring with it a whole new set of challenges.
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John Ibbitson, political journalist, columnist and author. Co-author of “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,” among other books. Writer at large for The Globe and Mail. (@JohnIbbitson)
Darrell Bricker, CEO of IPSOS Public Affairs, a global market research and consulting firm. Co-author of “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,” among other books. (@darrellbricker)
John Bongaarts, demographer. Vice president and distinguished scholar at the Population Council. (@Pop_Council)
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Empty Planet” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
It was a girl.
On Sunday, October 30, 2011, just before midnight, Danica May Camacho entered the world in a crowded Manila hospital, bringing the human population of our planet to seven billion. Actually, the scales could have tipped a few hours later, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the arrival of Nargis Kumar. Or it might have been a boy, Pyotr Nikolayeva, born in Kaliningrad, Russia.
Of course, it was none of them. The birth that took us to seven billion people was attended by no cameras and ceremonial speeches because we can never know where or when the event occurred. We can only know that, according to the United Nations’ best estimates, we reached sevenbillion sometime around October 31 of that year. Different countries designated certain births to symbolize this landmark in history, and Danica, Nargis, and Pyotr were among those chosen.
For many, there was no reason to celebrate. Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad declared that a global population of seven billion was “not a matter of great joy, but a great worry For us a matter of joy will be when the population stabilizes.” Many share Azad’s gloom. They warn of a global population crisis. Homo sapiens is reproducing unchecked, straining our ability to feed, house, and clothe the 130 million or more new babies that UNICEF estimates arrive each year. As humans crowd the planet, forests disappear, species become extinct, the atmosphere warms.
Unless humankind defuses this population bomb, these prophets proclaim, we face a future of increasing poverty, food shortages, conflict, and environmental degradation. As one modern Malthus put it, “Barring a dramatic decline in population growth, a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, or a global outbreak of vegetarianism—all of which are trending in the opposite direction at the moment— we’re facing nothing less than the end of plenty for the majority of the earth’s people.”
All of this is completely, utterly wrong.
The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
If you find this news shocking, that’s not surprising. The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from seven billion to eleven billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around nine billion sometime between 2040 and 2060, and then start to decline, perhaps prompting the UN to designate a symbolic death to mark the occasion. By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now, and steadily growing fewer.
Populations are already declining in about two dozen states around the world; by 2050 the number will have climbed to three dozen. Some of the richest places on earth are shedding people every year: Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Eastern Europe. “We are a dying country,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, lamented in 2015.
But this isn’t the big news. The big news is that the largest developing nations are also about to grow smaller, as their own fertility rates come down. China will begin losing people in a few years. By the middle of this century, Brazil and Indonesia will follow suit. Even India, soon to become the most populous nation on earth, will see its numbers stabilize in about a generation and then start to decline. Fertility rates remain sky-high in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Even here, though, things are changing as young women obtain access to education and birth control. Africa is likely to end its unchecked baby boom much sooner than the
UN’s demographers think.
Some of the indications of an accelerating decline in fertility can be found in scholarly research and government reports; others can only be found by talking to people on the street. And so we did. To gather research for this book, we traveled to cities on six continents: to Brussels and Seoul, Nairobi and São Paulo, Mumbai and Beijing, Palm Springs and Canberra and Vienna. There were other stops as well. We talked to academics and public officials, but more important, we talked to young people: on university campuses and at research institutes and in favelas and slums. We wanted to know what they were thinking about the most important decision they will ever make: whether and when to have a baby.
Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for health care and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children.
But we won’t have to wait thirty or forty years to feel the impact of population decline. We’re feeling it today, in developed nations from Japan to Bulgaria that struggle to grow their economies even as the cohort of young workers and consumers diminishes, making it harder to provide social services or sell refrigerators. We see it in urbanizing Latin America and even Africa, where women are increasingly taking charge of their own destinies. We see it in every household where the children take longer to move out because they’re in no rush to settle down and haven’t the slightest intention of having a baby before they’re thirty. And we’re seeing it, tragically, in roiling Mediterranean seas, where refugees from wretched places press against the borders of a Europe that is already starting to empty out.
We may see it, very soon, influencing the global contest for power. Population decline will shape the nature of war and peace in the decades ahead, as some nations grapple with the fallout of their shrinking, aging societies while others remain able to sustain themselves. The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating and containing an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.
Some of those who fear the fallout of a diminishing population advocate government policies to increase the number of children couples have. But the evidence suggests this is futile. The “low-fertility trap” ensures that, once having one of two children becomes the norm, it stays the norm. Couples no longer see having children as a duty they must perform to satisfy their obligation to their families or their god. Rather, they choose to raise a child as an act of personal fulfillment. And they are quickly fulfilled.
One solution to the challenge of a declining population is to import replacements. That’s why two Canadians wrote this book. For decades now, Canada has brought in more people, on a per capita basis, than any other major developed nation, with little of the ethnic tensions, ghettos, and fierce debate that other countries face. That’s because the country views immigration as an economic policy— under the merit-based points system, immigrants to Canada are typically better educated, on average, than the native-born—and because it embraces multiculturalism: the shared right to celebrate your native culture within the Canadian mosaic, which has produced a peaceful, prosperous, polyglot society, among the most fortunate on earth.
Not every country is able to accept waves of newcomers with Canada’s aplomb. Many Koreans, Swedes, and Chileans have a very strong sense of what it means to be Korean, Swedish, or Chilean. France insists its immigrants embrace the idea of being French, even as many of the old stock deny such a thing is possible, leaving immigrant communities isolated in their banlieues, separate and not equal. The population of the United Kingdom is projected to continue growing, to about 82 million at the end of the century, from 66 million today, but only if the British continue to welcome robust levels of immigration. As the Brexit referendum revealed, many Brits want to turn the English Channel into a moat. To combat depopulation, nations must embrace both immigration and multiculturalism. The first is hard. The second, for some, may prove impossible.
Among great powers, the coming population decline uniquely advantages the United States. For centuries, America has welcomed new arrivals, first from across the Atlantic, then the Pacific as well, and today from across the Rio Grande. Millions have happily plunged into the melting pot—America’s version of multiculturalism—enriching both its economy and culture. Immigration made the twentieth century the American century, and continued immigration will define the twenty-first as American as well.
Unless. The suspicious, nativist, America First groundswell of recent years threatens to choke off the immigration tap that made America great by walling up the border between the United States and everywhere else. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government not only cracked down on illegal immigrants, it reduced legal admissions for skilled workers, a suicidal policy for the U.S. economy. If this change is permanent, if Americans out of senseless fear reject their immigrant tradition, turning their backs on the world, then the United States too will decline, in numbers and power and influence and wealth. This is the choice that every American must make: to support an open, inclusive, welcoming society, or to shut the door and wither in isolation.
The human herd has been culled in the past by famine or plague. This time, we are culling ourselves; we are choosing to become fewer. Will our choice be permanent? The answer is: probably yes. Though governments have sometimes been able to increase the number of children couples are willing to have through generous child care payments and other supports, they have never managed to bring fertility back up to the replacement level of, on average, 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain a population. Besides, such programs are extremely expensive and tend to be cut back during economic downturns. And it is arguably unethical for a government to try to convince a couple to have a child that they would otherwise not have had.
As we settle into a world growing smaller, will we celebrate or mourn our diminishing numbers? Will we struggle to preserve growth, or accept with grace a world in which people both thrive and strive less? We don’t know. But it may be a poet who observes that, for the first time in the history of our race, humanity feels old.
Reprinted from EMPTY PLANET: The Shock of Global Population Decline Copyright © 2019 by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Wall Street Journal: “‘Empty Planet’ Review: A Drop in Numbers” — “Is a dangerous population explosion imminent? For decades we’ve been told so by scientific elites, starting with the Club of Rome reports in the 1970s. But in their compelling book ‘Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,’ Canadian social scientist Darrell Bricker and journalist John Ibbitson lay out the opposite case: ‘The great defining event of the twenty-first century,’ they say, ‘will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end.’
“Their book is a vital warning to the world that the risks associated with population have been catastrophically misread: Governments and activists have spent decades fighting the specter of overpopulation, but now face the looming demographic calamity of global population collapse. Fewer people participating in the economy will mean slower economic growth, less entrepreneurship, rising inequality and calamitous government debt.
“Pulling examples from extensive on-the-ground research in settings as disparate as São Paulo favelas, Seoul universities and Nairobi businesses, the authors combine a mastery of social-science research with enough journalistic flair to convince fair-minded readers of a simple fact: Fertility is falling faster than most experts can readily explain, driven by persistent forces. In Brazil and China astonishing numbers of women opt for permanent sterilization well before the end of their fertile years (half of Chinese couples take this route). In South Korea and Japan women delay childbirth until their 30s or forgo it altogether. There even has been an unexpected collapse in fertility among Hispanics in the United States: They, like most of America’s other ethnic groups, now have below-replacement birth rates. The drivers of global fertility decline are here to stay.”
Inside Higher Ed: “Review: Is ‘Empty Planet’ Too Little Worried About the U.S.?” — “What do you worry about?
“Climate change? The concentration of wealth and growing inequality? Robots taking all the jobs? Our crumbling infrastructure? Public disinvestment from higher education?
“I worry about babies. A lack of babies. Too few babies.
“A few years ago my family visited South Korea. The total fertility rate (TFR) in South Korea is 1.3. That means that, on average, a South Korean woman will give birth to 1.3 babies in her lifetime.
“As replacement fertility requires a TFR of 2.1 – as both mom and dad need to be replaced – South Korea’s population (absent immigration or reunification) will eventually decline.
“By 2050 the South Korean population will have declined 51. 5 million today to under 40 million. Four-in-ten of the remaining South Koreans will be 65 and older.”
Wired: “The World Might Actually Run Out Of People” — “You know the story. Despite technologies, regulations, and policies to make humanity less of a strain on the earth, people just won’t stop reproducing. By 2050 there will be 9 billion carbon-burning, plastic-polluting, calorie-consuming people on the planet. By 2100, that number will balloon to 11 billion, pushing society into a Soylent Green scenario. Such dire population predictions aren’t the stuff of sci-fi; those numbers come from one of the most trusted world authorities, the United Nations.
“But what if they’re wrong? Not like, off by a rounding error, but like totally, completely goofed?
“That’s the conclusion Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker come to in their newest book, Empty Planet, due out February 5th. After painstakingly breaking down the numbers for themselves, the pair arrived at a drastically different prediction for the future of the human species. ‘In roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline,’ they write. ‘Once that decline begins, it will never end.’ ”
Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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