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The Empty Cradle: global population decline
June 6, 2004 2:56 PM   Subscribe

The Empty Cradle. Our everyday personal experiences with traffic, sprawl and other irritants of modern life tell us there are too many people in the world and the problem is getting worse. However in truth world population growth peaked 40 years ago in 1963 and has been trending downward since. Demographers predict that absolute human population will peak at 9 billion by 2070 and then contract. Long before then, many nations will shrink in absolute size and the average age of the world's citizens will shoot up dramatically, including the fastest aging part of the world: developing countries, where for example Iraq is aging 2.5 times faster than the USA and Mexico 5 times as fast. Having averted the danger of overpopulation, the world now faces the opposite problem: an aging and declining population.
posted by stbalbach (28 comments total)

 
"If global fertility rates converge with those seen today in Europe or among native-born Americans, by 2200 world population could shrink to half of what it is today even without any major wars or pandemics, according to U.N. projections. The only precedent we have for such a decline in population is the period of late antiquity, when falling birthrates helped bring about the collapse of the Roman Empire. Global aging is better than its alternative, but to borrow a phrase from my late grandmother, it's not for sissies."
posted by stbalbach at 3:03 PM on June 6, 2004


Global rates of interest but is specific rates in regions that present dangerous reality: if country A has huge spurts in growth, and country B has none, then overly crowded A will see people moving out so they can sustain life elsewhere...and that leads to problems or "issues."
posted by Postroad at 3:14 PM on June 6, 2004


Global population: Where the second derivative matters.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:16 PM on June 6, 2004


I sincerely doubt that the decline in absolute population size is a bad thing. Developed countries must shrink their population if they wish to sustain the level of resource consumption and quality of life that they enjoy now.

I know about the inherent problems of population decrease and aging; I find those problems minor and correctable by not restricting migration too much. The other extreme - uncontrolled, unsustainable, unsupported population growth which can result in a humanitarian catastrophe - frightens me much more.

I laugh at the statements that developed countries will lose their competitive advantage when their population shrinks or their culture will suffer when diluted by immigrants. It reeks of arrogance and an implicit ungrounded assumption that one's nation is better and more entitled than others. One problem I see, though, is an undereducated population that is too old and conservative (in the general sense) to adapt quickly enough. In that case, they really are at a competitive disadvantage.
posted by azazello at 3:48 PM on June 6, 2004


"It reeks of arrogance and an implicit ungrounded assumption that one's nation is better and more entitled than others." I may be young and naive, but even I know that this is a primary factor in world politics. Population decline is not as bad as it seems: Less people, better jobs for everyone, more room.
posted by Keyser Soze at 3:56 PM on June 6, 2004


The biggest problem with population erosion is not a nation's virility, it's pensions. Most western pension systems pay for the benefits of the currently retired using the deductions from the salaries of the currently employed. Between population contraction and expansion of benefits, most countries face a ticking social time-bomb, and none of the options look good: cut down benefits to already entitled soon-to-be retirees, deduct more from salaries (slowing down their economies) or increase the retiring age --or really a little bit of everything.

Immigration is only a partial answer to the problem: most immigrants are either illegal (i.e. no deductions from their salaries) or low-paid.

So, yes, population shrinkage can become a huge issue in the coming decades. The Economist has done a series of articles on the problem; here's a sample.
posted by costas at 4:18 PM on June 6, 2004


"Population decline is not as bad as it seems: Less people, better jobs for everyone, more room."

The 'better jobs' statement is based on a logical fallacy - it assumes that the number and type of jobs are constant and independent of population size, while in reality jobs are created by demand - good jobs exist because there are people willing to purchase the goods or services produced by the job. No people, no jobs.
posted by spazzm at 4:29 PM on June 6, 2004


The population growth of the past 150 years makes clear that impact of our burgeoning population is severe -- millions have died of starvation in recent years, while the yield of our food production has dropped more and more in the past few decades. Estimates of the sustainable global carrying capacity vary, with some estimates as low as 1B and some as high as 15B. Evidence of recent years shows that our carrying capacity may be rather somewhat lower than our current population of 6.3B, in which case a reduction in population (as opposed to a mere reduction in growth) would prove quite a blessing. While there would be some brief (1-2 generations) economic problems, the alternative appears considerably less desirable.
posted by waldo at 6:44 PM on June 6, 2004


good jobs exist because there are people willing to purchase the goods or services produced by the job. No people, no jobs.

So then, logically, to get a good job, you need to figure out what you can enjoy doing well enough that either:

(1) has a wide and growing customer base in a population base that's growing

(2) has enough appeal to a smaller number of people who have lots and lots of money

Anybody want to help me out here?
posted by namespan at 6:49 PM on June 6, 2004


Oh, and to correct the author:

Our everyday personal experiences with traffic, sprawl and other irritants of modern life tell us there are too many people in the world and the problem is getting worse. However in truth world population growth peaked 40 years ago in 1963 and has been trending downward since.

The data referred to by the BBC supports the notion that the problem is, indeed, getting worse. Whether we're adding 90M people a year or 20M, growth is occurring in either case and thus, by definition, the problem is getting worse. We, the frog, are being boiled more slowly, rather than rapidly, as we have been in the past centuryish.
posted by waldo at 6:49 PM on June 6, 2004


Waldo's right--this is not the time to boast about "having averted the danger of overpopulation." For a sobering perspective, I highly recommend Thom Hartmann's The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.
posted by muckster at 7:22 PM on June 6, 2004


Let me try that again: The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
posted by muckster at 7:25 PM on June 6, 2004


The extreme danger here is not in the future, it is happening right now. And, it is not in world-wide population growth, but in "micro-demographics."

That is, for example, between India and China, there are pockets (states) that combined are *soon* to have 25 MILLION more males than females.

Picture 25 Million men with no hope for jobs, or to be married, or even to have sex *once* (you need money for prostitutes, even in China or India), and you have a very, very dangerous situation.

25 Million idle men. What do they do?
posted by kablam at 8:19 PM on June 6, 2004


The only precedent we have for such a decline in population is the period of late antiquity, when falling birthrates helped bring about the collapse of the Roman Empire.

After which humanity entered the suckiest period of all time: The Middle Evil Age! Your epoch could be next, so screw for the future!

Won't someone please think of the Romans?
posted by ahughey at 8:52 PM on June 6, 2004


25 Million idle men. What do they do?

Send them to war, most likely. (Not a snark. The Crusades were inspired, in part, as an outlet for idle armies. Outsourcing agression, in a fashion.)

Our biology is against us. Other than working and fighting, what are men good for, anyway?
posted by SPrintF at 9:11 PM on June 6, 2004


sitting on the couch and drinking beer? sounds good to me.
posted by chrisroberts at 9:21 PM on June 6, 2004


If global fertility rates converge with those seen today in Europe or among native-born Americans, by 2200 world population could shrink to half of what it is today even without any major wars or pandemics

Lord, let us hope so.

Picture 25 Million men with no hope for jobs, or to be married, or even to have sex *once* (you need money for prostitutes, even in China or India), and you have a very, very dangerous situation.

Women—the great pacifiers.
posted by rushmc at 5:35 AM on June 7, 2004


The rate of growth in World population has slowed considerably, yes.

But I find the argument that this represents a problem to be, frankly, absurd.

Fishing fleets now chase down and vacuum up shrinking fisheries around the world's oceans - which are rapidly being scoured of most life. Giant dead zones, from vast pollution driven algal blooms which consume all available oxygen and so kill all other ocean life within that zone of hypoxia, emerge yearly in Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere around the globe.

Tropical rainforests, at current rates of logging and degradation, will be mostly gone in a few decades. Coral Reefs are being destroyed at similar rates.

Declining biological diversity, increasing soil erosion, fresh water depletion, growing climatic instability......I could go on.

I can't see how an increased human population would do anything but accelerate all of these already rapid, disastrous trends.

Those of us who do not belong to the Flat Earth Society have to live on, and deal with the consequences of a finite planet.

"A 3% to 3.5% growth rate is not only an achievable national objective: it is an economic and social necessity. A spherical earth is finite. The pro-growth people say that perpetual growth on this earth is possible. If the pro-growth people are correct, what kind of an earth are we living on?

THE SOLUTION

A spherical earth is finite and hence is forever unappealing to the devotees of perpetual growth. In contrast, a flat earth can accomodate growth forever, because a flat earth can be infinite in the two horizontal dimensions and also in the vertical downward direction. The infinite horizontal dimensions forever remove any fear of crowding as population grows, and the infinite downward dimension assures humans of an unlimited supply of all of the mineral raw materials that will be needed by a human population that continues to grow forever. The flat earth removes all the need for worry about limits.

So, let us think of the "We're going to grow the limits!" people as the "New Flat Earth Society."
(by A.A. Bartlett, from the above link)
As a footnote, economic growth - and better products and services - need not be predicated upon increased resource consumption. Intelligent "growth" can even be restorative of the natural biological systems upon which human economies are based.

Julian Simon meets Paul Ehrlich.
posted by troutfishing at 5:40 AM on June 7, 2004


25 Million idle men. What do they do?

Have a gay old time?
posted by yesster at 5:41 AM on June 7, 2004


George Monbiot responds to Longman's "empty cradle" worries:
"It’s time to lighten up about falling birthrates."

Excerpt:
"And, of course, the upside-down demographic pyramid won’t stay that way for long. As the elderly die off, there will, as a result of lower birth rates today, be fewer grey heads to replace them, and we can then expect the human population to stabilise with a similar age structure to today’s, but a smaller total number. As soon as you examine the alternative you see what good fortune this accident of human demographics has bestowed on us. To sustain the old, bottom-heavy, growth-dependent population of the kind Mr Longman mourns requires an ever-greater consumption of finite resources, with the result that, sooner or later, the population will come down anyway, but with a swift and nasty bump."
posted by talos at 6:13 AM on June 7, 2004


Bumpity bump bump.

Down the funny stairs.
posted by troutfishing at 7:33 AM on June 7, 2004


You couldn't pay me enough to have kids. Not with the shape the planet is in, and the hard times it seems we're just starting to enter. I consider not reproducing the best possible gift I could give my unborn child. Shrinking, growing, it doesn't matter...the planet's got too many people as it is.

/end rant
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:25 AM on June 7, 2004


Talos, that is an interesting rebuttal to Longmans theories. I actually don't agree with it because Longman shows in his book the real-world consequences of aging nations based on real-world examples.. and not the fantasy world that this article portrays of everyone being a gardner instead of soldier in a less populated world. The truth is as people become poorer or have fewer opportunities it leads to increased violence and strife which leads to further breakdowns in social order which leads to increased abuses of resources.

He does make an interesting point that when we think of overpopulation we think of Bangladesh or Africa but the world could actually sustain those people a lot better than the people of America.. maybe the overpopulation problem is with the modern countries where we are sucking up resources at unsustainable levels.
posted by stbalbach at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2004


You people are weird. Kids are wonderful, there is plenty of room, and we will be able to affordably travel in space and terraform planets in the next 100 years.

Maybe you all spent too much of your childhoods in cities. Remember that zip code thing that was posted awhile back? Plenty of room. I think Mr. Card Cheat better move to Montana and start thinking about what he has to pass on the kid he'll be having.
posted by ewkpates at 10:28 AM on June 7, 2004


I truly hope you are right, and I am wrong, ewkpates.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:45 AM on June 7, 2004


That is, for example, between India and China, there are pockets (states) that combined are *soon* to have 25 MILLION more males than females.

Well, this wouldn't be happening if those dumbasses would stop killing their female infants because they'd rather have sons.

Think the pendulum might swing the other way, and female offspring become highly desirable because they are so rare?
posted by BobFrapples at 12:25 PM on June 7, 2004


25 Million idle men. What do they do?

Does the Hemlock Society have a missionary arm?
posted by Dreama at 12:41 PM on June 7, 2004


ewkpates - "You people are weird. Kids are wonderful, there is plenty of room"

All the humans living could be squished into a fairly small cube, but that's irrelevant.

Kids are wonderful, sure.

But "Room" is not the issue. The issue is the amount of biological life on Earth which each human is currently dependant on.

There's plenty of room out in space, too. But I wouldn't advise trying to breathe there.

Ever wonder where the atmosphere, and the Oxygen you breathe comes from ? Or, did you know that without this atmosphere's warming effect the Earth would be, on average and at sea level, approximately 60 degrees fahrenheight colder than it now is ?

Moving along, animal population booms and busts in nature - of deer, or whatever - happen in spite of plentiful "room", and for quite predictable reasons.
posted by troutfishing at 8:29 PM on June 7, 2004


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