Over the weekend of May 22 and 23, 2021, multiple people alerted PMC to an article in The New York Times titled "Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications." Given the negative connotations of the word "slide," it was not hard to guess why people were so concerned. Indeed, wading into the lengthy essay we discovered a deeply embedded pro-growth bias, mostly manifested as scare-stories and allusions to global disaster vis a vis sub-replacement level fertility and the future end of population growth.
The bias was so egregious, and yet so hard to put one's finger on, that we decided to "re-draft" the article rather than pointing out its multiple failures of imagination one by one. We share the first part of this effort below, and will continue the project in subsequent posts. Admittedly, it is a combination of tongue-in-cheek panning and a re-framing of the original writing — we hope you enjoy it.
AS THE WELCOME END WORLD POPULATION GROWTH FINALLY APPEARS ON THE DISTANT HORIZON, THERE ARE PLENTY OF POSITIVE RAMIFICATIONS
Some developed countries are now in natural decrease, though overall global growth will continue for multiple decades, at least. There will be about 600 million births every five years into the 2060’s, according to the UN. Still, any homes that become unnecessary can be repurposed or deconstructed, with the lots returned to nature. Toward the middle of this century, as deaths possibly start to exceed births, changes could come that are both hard to fathom and yet very welcome.
All over the world, countries are welcoming the end of population growth, which is finally in sight for many. Or at least a few. With most women now living in countries with an improved level of gender equality, and modern health care systems that provide access to and agency to use modern contraception, human fertility has moved ever-closer to global replacement level – 2.1 children per woman.
Though still 14% above replacement level (currently 2.4), this is a profound and welcome reversal from the global rate of about five children per women in 1950 – and we can now look forward to the prospects of a more sustainable human population size on planet Earth eventually coming to pass.
This move towards sustainable population would be unmatched in recorded history. It will make first-birthday parties an even more precious and beloved event, while the many, many funerals each year will remind us of just how un-naturally large the human presence on the planet had once become. The re-use industry will be vibrant as they carefully deconstruct buildings and homes, selling salvaged materials into the strong re-use market, and recycling everything else possible. Empty homes, instead of an eyesore, will be seen as opportunities both economically and environmentally, as “empty” lots of land are purposefully landscaped to promote maximum local biodiversity.
Like a gentle rolling wave breaking on the beach, the demographic forces that once pushed an unsustainable imbalance between births and death will now naturally lose momentum – yielding to the benign force of gravity as it seeps peacefully back into the sea.
To be clear, many countries will continue to see their populations grow naturally for the time being, with many more births than deaths, and in the case of many African countries, this growth remains dramatic. Still, some demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century, or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time in human history. This will be able to happen because still elevated fertility in Africa and a few Asian countries, such as Pakistan, will be balanced by sub-replacement fertility in the majority of the world’s nations.
A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. The census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to exciting challenges for human ingenuity.
The gift of longer lives and low fertility — itself always a sign of women’s progress and good infant health — is correcting the previously unsustainable global population pyramid. Gradually, the pyramid is taking a shape that is no longer bottom heavy, but instead is turning inverted and therefore larger at the top. Pleasingly, the world will be awash in highly experienced elders, wise with lifetimes of learnings.
Intergenerational population decreases are yet another reason to reimagine how societies are organized. We can finally get rid of the 20th century delusion that perpetual population growth was either possible or desirable. Maybe more to the point, we can stop kicking the can down the road and foisting onto future generations the burden of having to figure out economic and social models that are not reliant on population growth — and growth of natural resource consumption — to work properly.
Though the word decline is a value-laden term, and decrease is more neutral and factual, we can still appreciate the following quote:
“A paradigm shift is necessary,” said Frank Swiaczny, a German demographer who was the chief of population trends and analysis for the United Nations until last year. “Countries need to learn to live with and adapt to decline.”
The ramifications and responses have already begun to appear, especially in East Asia and Europe. From Hungary to China, from Sweden to Japan, governments are struggling to balance the needs of an older cohort that is sized relatively largely, with the needs of the smaller, somewhat more sustainably sized cohort of young people. These younger cohorts' most intimate decisions about childbearing are being shaped by factors both positive and negative. On the positive side, there are more work opportunities for women, a generational realization that perpetual population growth is a seriously stupid idea, and deep concern for a planet in an environmental crisis. On the negative side, there is persistent gender inequality that sticks women with unfair and uncompensated burdens when raising children, high living costs, and extreme time deficits for both fathers and mothers that make raising children grievously stressful and often not even optimal for the children’s development.
TO BE CONTINUED...