So chances are, if you’re in a dinner party and you bring up the subject of the world’s population, your fellow guests are likely to default to worries about too many people.
A couple of recent publications have reinforced this. One is a comprehensive, well-researched piece published Tuesday by the left-leaning vox.com, titled, “We’ve worried about overpopulation for centuries. And we’ve always been wrong.”
Staff writer Kelsey Piper examines the data, trends and predictions. Even the United Nations, whose population predictions have been reliable through the years, predicts a decline beginning in 2100, when global population peaks at 11.2 billion.
Others see the problem coming much sooner, such as the Norwegian academic Jorgan Randers, who predicts the drop will begin in 2040, with a peak of only 8 billion. If you watch his TedxMaastricht talk on Youtube, you’ll see him using trends, especially the world’s declining fertility rate, to make his case. Even the Third World’s fertility rates are trending downward.
“Everyone now agrees that without any totalitarian or coercive measures, populations will start declining; the big disagreement is simply when,” Piper writes, adding later that, “It’s a reality that hasn’t quite penetrated public consciousness yet. Public conversations are often still consumed by fear that the population is spiraling beyond what the world can support.”
The other publications are recently published books: “The human tide: How population shaped the modern world,” by Paul Morland; and “Empty planet: The shock of global population decline,” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Zachary Karabell reviews both and warns that capitalism as we know it — the drive to maximize outputs, goods and services to more people through competition — might be in big trouble.
If you’re on the left side of the spectrum, as is Randers from Norway, you view this as a good thing. People should work to speed the trend by limiting themselves to only one child, if any. Rather than spending money on children in the future, we could spend it on taking care of the elderly, because, proportionately, there will be a lot of them. Meanwhile, fewer people translates into more room for other species and less need for natural resources.
But if you’re on the other end of the spectrum, you see impending doom.
Frankly, I see a lot more evidence of doom than joy. For one thing, I can’t seem to find satisfying answers to some vexing questions.
For example, the United States has a national debt that now tops $22.5 trillion and is rapidly growing. Even if the nation liberalizes its immigration policies, that would be only a temporary fix. Eventually, the population begins to fall, and then how will the remaining people ever hope to tackle that debt?
How would the military remain strong with a shrinking population? Conflicts, after all, are not all tied to struggles over limited resources. How do we keep universities vibrant with ever-shrinking enrollments? How will the economy keep innovating when supply chains are disrupted and businesses close?
“If global population stops expanding and then contracts, capitalism — a system implicitly predicated on ever-burgeoning numbers of people — will likely not be able to thrive in its current form,” Karabell writes.
I happen to view that as a bad thing.
Piper clearly lays out the reasons demographers give for the decline. Technological advances in the last century reduced the death rates for children at the same time as increased educational opportunities, emerging women’s rights and increasing wealth made children less of an economic asset.
But no one knows for sure what happens next, and it’s even less certain how the trend could be reversed. Denmark, Singapore and other nations have tried various ways to encourage couples to procreate, with little success.
The only thing we know for sure is that the population bust is coming. It’s time we started talking about it — at the highest levels of government as well as at dinner parties.