On November 15, 2022, something happened on our planet that has never happened before: the eight billionth person was born. What an unfathomably massive number. It’s really difficult to put your finger on what that number means, isn’t it? Well, let’s give that some perspective.
One million seconds is eleven days. One billion seconds, on the other hand, is thirty-two years. Quite a striking difference, isn’t it?
For most of my career in agriculture, there has been one constant we could always count on to provide demand for our food production: a growing population. All else being equal, more people equals more calories. While that is far from the only thing driving future growth in agriculture, it has been a reliable constant for a long, long time.
For most other people, a growing population is a reason for dread. Growing up, we all heard some version of the message that at some point, our rapidly growing population will outstrip our ability to feed it. As Thomas Malthus put it, an exponentially growing population cannot be reliably fed with linear increases in food production. This conclusion has survived in our consciousness ever since, with people like Paul Ehrlich giving it new life decades ago, and pop culture continuing to reinforce this message.
In Avengers Infinity War, the mad titan Thanos uses infinity stones to wipe out half of all life in the universe. As Thanos puts it, “It’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”
All of this is completely, totally, irredeemably wrong. And it always has been.
A Vicious Cycle of Demographic Collapse
Rather than top out at 10-11 billion by 2100, as the Unites Nations still projects, it now looks like human population may not reach much beyond 9 billion – if it even reaches that far. We are not far from the top, which will probably occur in 2050, but may occur a decade earlier. Yes, in just a couple decades or so, our population will start declining.
Once it starts, it may never stop.
A smaller number of mothers means less children, which means a smaller group of mothers, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle. What we face is not a terrifyingly over-populated planet wracked with famine, disease, and a devastated environment – no, instead, we will see a slow but relentless reduction in our numbers, as the old begin to outnumber the young. As far as we know in our history, nothing like this has ever happened before.
And, as much as some may celebrate the reduced toll on the environment, the truth of this problem is far more disturbing. How will anyone be able to retire in a world where there are as many retirees as workers? How will we maintain our pace of innovation with fewer and fewer brains every year? We haven’t yet fully grasped the true consequences of a birth rate that has so rapidly declined. It will be an environment we have not experienced as a species since the Dark Ages.
The disruption this event will have on the world cannot be overstated, but it’s also very complicated to parse out. Countries like China, Italy, Germany, and Singapore are in the worst shape, with birth rates so far below the required 2.1 per couple to maintain population levels that their populations will soon start rapidly declining. What will this mean for Germany’s manufacturing? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Can you imagine a China with a population of under 700 million? In fact, China and the US may end up at similar population levels by the end of the century. This will fuel enormous disruption to manufacturing and consumption.
On the other hand, countries with higher birth rates, like the US, several African countries, and Mexico stand to do much better. Countries like Canada, which have a low birth rate but bring in tremendous numbers of immigrants, will hold on, for awhile.
Demographics changes like this are a slow moving train. From year to year, not much changes. Over decades, the changes can be drastic. Detroit is probably the best-known example of a collapsing population.
From 1820 through the middle 1900’s, Detroit was a booming city, reaching 1.8 million people in 1950. It was the fourth largest city in the United States at that time. The reasons for it’s decline are myriad and I won’t go into them here, but today, its population is below 640,000 and still declining. Imagine living there over the last 60 years, watching store after store, house after house going vacant. Entire blocks became empty, discarded, lifeless areas. Year after year, the decline goes on. For those who live there, it must be very depressing.
Certain countries will see a decline like that in our own lifetimes. We’re seeing the problems on the horizon with collapsing birth rates in every single developed and developing nation. The problem is, for so many countries, we are already past the point of no return. It’s too late to fix it, not without a sudden return to massive families, which is exceedingly unlikely in the world we live in today. This is the case for countries like China, Japan, Italy, Germany, Thailand, and so many more.
Now, of course, demographics won’t cause the end of the world. Japan’s population has been declining for many years now, but it’s still a G7 economic power. Standards of living are still growing. But it will never return to its heights in the 1980’s and early 90’s.
I should mention too that the cause of the collapse in fertility rates is a truly positive story. The reason they’re falling is because of industrialization, women’s rights, and better health care. Women aren’t having huge families because they no longer need the farm labour, and they don’t expect that half of their children won’t see their fifth birthday. Every country that has industrialized has seen its fertility rate fall, rapidly, resulting in greater standards of living.
But did we need to drop so far so fast? For so long, we’ve been told that all these new mouths are consuming too much, ravaging the Earth, polluting our air and waters. We’ve been told to go get careers, go to university, and have children later. But for many, later never comes. Later becomes too late. For many childless families, this is their reality. And it’s tragic. Indeed, most of the decline in birth rates isn’t from smaller families per se, but more from childlessness.
Children are the light of our lives. Perhaps if we’d spend a little less time seeing tired parents complain about their kids on TV, a little less time listening to wildly incorrect environmentalists preaching about the end of the world due to Malthusian catastrophe, we would prioritize bringing children into this world. Yes, the world has problems. Yes, some of them are serious. But guess what? The world has always had problems. In fact, the world is a safer, healthier, happier place than ever. The data on that is clear.
Are Demographics Inevitable?
I don’t want to sound fatalistic – demographics are not guaranteed to remain the same. What we’re seeing now are based on current trends, and trends can change. There is time yet to start turning this ship around. Otherwise, our world will change in ways we can’t yet imagine. And an awful lot of us will be very lonely living alone in nursing homes.
Some countries are doing well on this front. The United States continues to hold a birth rate close to replacement rate. France does as well. In Hungary, where their population is falling by 32,000 people a year, the government released a plan that exempts women with four or more children from paying income tax – for the rest of their lives. They also pledged to create 21,000 nurseries, state support for seven-passenger vehicles, housing subsidies, and more. Will it work? It’s hard to say. We also have to be very careful not to interfere in people’s lives, in their most personal choices. People must be free to make their own decisions. But we can create incentives that work.
The point is, if we are going to try to solve this, we have to start thinking about demographics. We need to recognize the looming problem in front of us. We must start prioritizing the development of families. We need to stop villainizing our own species as a plaque on the planet.
It’s time for us, as a species, to grow up. We are not a plague, or a virus. We are not destroying our environment. Climate change is not going to kill us, or our children, or our grandchildren. We can both reduce our impact on the environment and improve our well-being. To do so, we need ideas. Lots of them. We need these ideas to meet, interact with each other, to build solutions. More of us means more solutions. Less of us will not solve our problems. It will make them worse.
Humanity is a source of good. It always has been. It’s time we start believing in ourselves. Demographics don’t have to be destiny – we can choose, and build, our own future.
Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
The End of the World is Just the Beginning, by Peter Zeihan