Population plunge: what if the past is not prologue, and the models lie?
February 7, 2019 1:52 PM   Subscribe

The UN's World Population Prospects has a ton of data, including a number of forecasts for world population*, with the median coming in around 11 billion in 2100. Back in 2013, Gapminder (previously) presented an optimistic look at that figure, titled Don’t Panic – The Facts About Population, which presents in a simple, graphical way how we've reached (or will reach) "peak child" (Our World in Data) yet population keeps growing, if more slowly. But what if those projections are wrong, and in roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline (Megna Molteni for Wired) according to a global look at population trends by journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker, and presented in their book Empty Planet (Goodreads; Amazon).

* The WPP forecasts have forecasts by country, region and world, but defaults to an alphabetical list by country, with Afghanistan at the top of the list. You'll have to scroll way down after Zimbabwe to see WORLD.

The population slowdown and potential decline in "more developed regions" (WPP term) is known and much discussed, and in the reverse, the growth of Asia and Africa are also assumed to grow (jump to 26 minutes into Hans Rosling's "Don't Panic" video to see him talk about this), but John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker, in their review of on-the-ground trends and statistics, from increased urbanization (World Bank, 2014) to increased public education (Our World in Data, previously), and specifically education for girls and women (Project Drawdown, previously), believe the UN forecasts to ignore more recent patterns around the world.

For an example of the importance of educating young women: Slowdown in African fertility rate linked to disruption of girls' education (Bob Yirka, Phys.org report, February 5, 2019)
The researchers began their research by noting that fertility rates ceased declining in several African countries in the early 2000s. To find out why, they obtained data from surveys conducted every few years in the countries under study. More specifically, they looked at data covering the years 1950 to 1995. The data included family size and also information regarding access to education for the children in each household.

The researchers found that 20 years prior, during the 1980s, educational opportunities for children were reduced due to a variety of factors. Young girls, they found, who were denied access to education wound up having more children as adults than did girls in other countries who continued to go to school. They further suggest that had the girls been given the opportunity to attend school, the areas under study would have seen 13 million fewer births.

The researchers claim their findings highlight the need for funding of educational resources in underdeveloped regions as a means for slowing population growth.
But looking for downward trends, see where China's population will tank sooner than later, by intention (1984 NCBI Pub Med publication; 2011 publication on China's Demographic History and Future Challenges) and China Is Now Regretting Its Brutal One Child Policy (Western Journal Op. Ed. by Jorge Carrasco, October 27, 2018).
China’s aging society problem appears to be worsening every year, and the latest official statistics reveal that both its birth and marriage rates have dropped significantly. Several factors have led to this situation. On the one hand, there is the growth in life expectancy of the average Chinese, which in the last half-century has gone from 57.6 years to 76.7, according to World Bank data. According to the firm Statista, by the year 2020, it is estimated that there will be 250 million people over 60 years of age, but that figure will soar within two decades to 426 million (30 percent of the total population).
The myth of India’s population explosion (Rema Nagarajan for Times of India, June 22, 2016)
India’s total fertility rate — a measure of the number of children born to a woman during her lifetime — was down from 5.9 in 1951 to 2.3 in 2011. A fertility rate of about 2.1 is a ballpark figure for ensuring a broadly stable population. India is expected to reach replacement level fertility of 2.1 by 2020, just four years away, much faster than was expected. So, India is actually close to stabilizing its population and far from exploding, and this has been achieved without a draconian one-child policy or coercive contraception.

Incidentally, the fertility rate in urban India is 1.8, close to the European Union’s 1.6. True, the urban population is less than a third of the total, but a third is still about 400 million people. The rural fertility rate is 2.5, not great, but not too bad either.
And a more general trend: More women in poor countries use contraception, says report (by Ignatius Ssuuna and Rodney Muhumuza for MedicalXpress, Nov. 12, 2018)
More women and girls in poor countries are using modern contraception, signifying progress in efforts to involve women in family planning, according to a report released [Nov. 12, 2018].

The number of women and girls using contraceptives in 69 of the world's poorest countries surpassed 317 million in 2018, representing 46 million more users than in 2012, said the report by Family Planning 2020, a U.N.-backed global advocacy group working to promote rights-based family planning.
Looking around the world at Death Spiral Demographics: The Countries Shrinking The Fastest (Joel Kotkin for Forbes, Feb 1, 2017), talking about Europe, and more specifically Japan, China, Thailand and South Korea.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great post. Should be noted that the "developing world" (i.e., the Global South) uses 1/20th the resources per capita than a person living in an advanced economy like the U.S. or Canada.

Reducing consumption in the North, rather than population in the South, is key.
posted by JamesBay at 1:59 PM on February 7 [16 favorites]


3 decades until a population decline? I'm not sure the ecosystem, as we know it, will survive that long. A return to mid to late 20th century levels would be nice.
posted by Gwynarra at 2:00 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]


Should be noted that the "developing world" (i.e., the Global South) uses 1/20th the resources per capita than a person living in an advanced economy like the U.S. or Canada.

Yeah, I didn't even get into that aspect, that's definitely worth it's own discussion. As someone who is not a statistician or world demographics expert in the least, the "Don't Panic" video is good for an overview of global demographics trends in broad terms, which sets up Empty Planet to debate those assumptions on future growth.

But "Don't Panic" runs an hour long, and around the 52 minute mark, Hans Rosling comes back to climate change to note that the richest billion account for half of the coal, oil and natural gas used worldwide in a given year. And then he says something that's ... tough. "Mozambique has huge coal reserves and if it and the other poorest countries build affordable new power-stations burning coal for electricity and industry I don’t think anyone who emits more carbon should interfere."

The "developed" world had its Industrial Revolution, a filthy period in their histories that facilitated the population boom. Now to say that the countries that are increasing in prosperity can't have their own industrial revolutions with cheap, dirty energy is a pretty harsh message, coming from the richest billion who are currently accounting for half of the current pollution put out into the world. Advancing countries can leverage the current, cleaner technologies, but how much of that would be locally sourced, versus bought from an outside source, likely multi-national companies, is a bigger topic for another time.

Reducing consumption in the North, rather than population in the South, is key.

Well put. In fact, Rosling suggests that advanced farming techniques could boost agricultural productivity in African nations, allowing the forecasted population doubling to happen without straining the continental food-production capacity.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:13 PM on February 7 [12 favorites]


Impressive post!
This is why we need immigration, to even out the differences in population growth/decline and share the ressources more fairly.
posted by mumimor at 2:14 PM on February 7 [8 favorites]


Actually, if you look at the countries with the highest population density and the sharpest growth curves, they probably have lessons about consumption for us. The problem is us in the Global North, not the future unborn people in the Global South.

We should fix our own societies first (the relative slowing down and decline of population growth in Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea will have little impact on our per capita consumption of resources) before fretting about rising populations.

And we need to tell our governments to do more to share resources that we hoard.

Another iPhone, anyone? A nice big juicy burger once a week as a treat?

Get rid of consumption, not population.
posted by JamesBay at 2:14 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


"Mozambique has huge coal reserves and if it and the other poorest countries build affordable new power-stations burning coal for electricity and industry I don’t think anyone who emits more carbon should interfere."

I think we absolutely should interfere because pollution isn't a local problem (and on the flip side I think places like the Maldives should have a right to reparations from polluter countries).

However, that interference should take the form of investment and grants to allow countries like Mozambique to build renewable power infrastructure and skip the dirty power phase entirely. Investment and grants for local companies and local workers, of course, not schemes to create monopoly power companies owned by foreign corporations.
posted by jedicus at 2:36 PM on February 7 [6 favorites]


I often rant about ... well, lots of things ... but one of my pet ideas was that the movie Children of Men, and the book it was based on, was upside down in its understanding of economics. If you're suddenly not making more people, then connections between people become more important, not less, and therefore this dystopian vision was less a sci-fi morality plan and really just an off-base presumption.

Instead of xenophobia, in a population decline scenario, you'd see more things like cities and states giving away free land to attract immigrants instead of a dwindling population trying to hoard what was left. And a lot of programs like Do It for Denmark.

I suppose if population does actually decline worldwide, we'll find out if I was right. :-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:40 PM on February 7 [15 favorites]


Get rid of consumption, not population.
That consumption is strongly correlated with the middle class lifestyle that appears to cut birthrate most effectively.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 2:54 PM on February 7 [5 favorites]


Reducing consumption in the North, rather than population in the South, is key.

CO2 emissions aren't the only way our species is damaging the ecosystem. Deforestation, topsoil loss, overharvesting of different species, overuse and pollution of water... just in general turning more land into farms and more people taking more stuff from "wild" areas is very damaging to the systems that keep us all alive.

I'm not disputing that overconsumption in the North is the main driver of our ongoing collapse, but large populations cause damage even without high industrial consumption.
posted by 3urypteris at 3:06 PM on February 7 [7 favorites]


A deeply religious acquaintance once told me that while of course it was up to God what actually happens, his guess was that before humans reached a critical state of overpopulation we would lose the urge to keep creating so many children and the population would stabilize. It's good to see science catching up. :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:06 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


Our local NPR outdoors/nature podcast did a two-part episode recently on overpopulation and the environment; link here, and about how and why environmental groups stopped talking about it for awhile and have since shifted their language, because as it turns out, when you start talking about population control, the neo-Nazis start to like the cut of your jib and try to take over the Sierra Club. The focus on educating women and girls is basically the way around this.
posted by damayanti at 3:42 PM on February 7 [16 favorites]


Just came here to say that the solution for aging populations is...immigration. Everywhere. We (Earthlings) have gotta make it easier to shuffle people across borders instead of clinging so damn tight to ensuring that this or that group keeps having babies. It's ludicrous.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:21 PM on February 7 [13 favorites]


All these analyses of population changes are based on studies of economics and politics as if humans exist in a world of their own creation quite separate from the constraints that limit every other animal population on the planet (food, space, disease, competition, habitat loss etc.). Doesn't matter a damn if you're rich or poor, educated or not, a consumer or ascetic when ecosystems collapse and food and water become unavailable for whatever reason. There's a real world outside the cities and think-tanks.
posted by binturong at 5:01 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Reducing consumption in the North, rather than population in the South, is key.

Why not both? Given the state of things right now, it's probable that nothing will be enough, no matter what we do. We should be striving to consume less overall, to consume in more sustainable and less environmentally-damaging ways, and to reduce the global population, simultaneously. All three prongs are critical.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:10 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]


Can you fuckin' imagine if the world could have free birth control available to all women of childbearing age?

Shit, insurance in the great US won't even partially cover birth control! But Viagra, now that's important stuff--it's covered.

My bet is the idea of free birth control won't have a chance before the world goes to pot in a myriad of ways.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:06 PM on February 7 [12 favorites]


upside down in its understanding of economics. If you're suddenly not making more people, then connections between people become more important, not less

But more important than the structural relationships between policy and labor supply is the obvious, proven and easily anticipated reality that if such a shock to the normal assumptions of growth occurred...then...humans...would...LOSE...THEIR...SHIT

[that's an economic term of art, btw, lose-their-shit]

So it's anyone's guess how long the re-equilibrium period would be, right? The great depression basically stayed fuckd for a decade+ before they changed the game with a World War. I'd garner that Children of Men (one of my favorite films) is about right.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:51 PM on February 7


This is so interesting to me! What happens if the world's population shrinks? Can capitalism deal with negative growth? Once we get through the bubble/crisis of older folks who were born before the population declines (ex: boomers, China's pre-one-child-policy generation,etc), what will society look like? Is a fertility rate of 2.1 the goal or should we be aiming for lower? What happens if the entire world is below replacement level? I'm sure it's better for the planet if there are less humans, but how will having less people effect progress in science and technologies? How many towns and cities and infrastructure will need to be abandoned because there's just not enough people in general anymore?

Is it helpful to look towards mass mortality events, like the bubonic plague, for insight?

Just came here to say that the solution for aging populations is...immigration. Everywhere. We (Earthlings) have gotta make it easier to shuffle people across borders instead of clinging so damn tight to ensuring that this or that group keeps having babies.

So right now that is a problem of non-uniform distribution of the fertility rate, in that some countries have lots of births and others have less. If we get to a place where all countries have less births, immigration is not going to change anything unless we are talking about encouraging Martians to settle here.
posted by LizBoBiz at 2:36 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Just came here to say that the solution for aging populations is...immigration. Everywhere. We (Earthlings) have gotta make it easier to shuffle people across borders instead of clinging so damn tight to ensuring that this or that group keeps having babies.

This is a really timely and interesting discussion, especially given that Spain's opposition leader just said that the solution to an aging population is to outlaw abortion. More babies, more people who will eventually be paying into the pension fund! Why invite those terrible immigrants into the country when you could just force Spanish women to have more children??? *sob*
posted by lollymccatburglar at 4:02 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]




So it's anyone's guess how long the re-equilibrium period would be, right? The great depression basically stayed fuckd for a decade+ before they changed the game with a World War.

Check out, however, comparative fertility of western European countries 1870-1940. Plummets because of the first war, but overshoots once war is over. Down again as the depression roles around, except, in Musso's Italy and more strikingly, Hitler's Germany. Make of that what you will.

What happens if the world's population shrinks? Can capitalism deal with negative growth?

Post Black Death Europe went from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance as wages went up. (One of the articles suggests that next time, business will just send jobs to cheaper workers overseas, which I suppose is true enough, but as they do that already....)

Given the sharp rise over the past two hundred years, a correction (to use Wall Street terms) might not be the worst thing in the world. Given the nature of crowd diseases, I can see it happening faster than one might expect.
posted by BWA at 7:01 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]


Post Black Death Europe went from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance as wages went up.

Yeah, it's hard to hire a skilled blacksmith when 30-60% of them are stone fucking dead.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:25 PM on February 8


I think we could maintain a fair amount of progress without a huge worldwide population. The pressures might be different. Certainly, investing in your one child would still be a priority, and extending and improving human lifespans would be more important.
posted by emjaybee at 9:50 PM on February 8


When I was a kid I remember there was still worry about the population growing exponentially. And it's true, back then it was. 11 billion would still be a tremendous challenge from a carbon and other environmental state, but it's certainly conceivable that it could work. But maybe we're not even getting to 11. Reading about Hungary planning to exempt mothers of 4 from taxes for life, due to a birth rate of 1.45 per woman (.73 per person) which is way below replacement, makes you realize how much things have changed. Maybe this is unfair or ignorant of me, but Hungary is below the EU average in GDP, they have authoritarian government, their education system is below average for Europe, and yet they have a "modern" birth rate.
posted by wnissen at 5:00 PM on February 12


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