A quick search for the term “population decline” in an articles database turns up 248 English-language results for the past two months. Of those entries, the majority are about the wild Atlantic salmon, migrating shorebirds, the California amphibian population, the eastern lowland gorilla and the northern spotted owl. Only about a dozen of the articles mention shrinking human birthrates worldwide and the ultimate result of that decline that many demographers are now predicting: a diminishing human population before the end of this century.
Absent plagues, famines or massive wars, for the first time in history human population is expected to begin contracting. The general consensus among demographers now is that the numbers will peak at about 9 billion people in 2070. And then they will begin to fall.
In much of the developed world we are seeing the foreshadowing of that ultimate decline. Russia is already losing population, and only immigration is keeping Italy from following suit. Japan is expected to begin its downward slide next year, and over the next 50 years to lose as much as one-third of its population — a drop equivalent, the Japanese demographer Hideo Ibe has noted, to the one caused by the plague in medieval Europe. And Britain is among those countries primed for a decline next. Europe as a whole is expected to lose 4 percent of its population by 2025, and the United States may not be far behind. Most surprising of all, many demographers are predicting that even the developing world, with places like Mexico and Bangladesh long the home of teeming masses, is likely to begin shrinking soon after the West does.
In his new book, The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman argues that shrinking birthrates will affect both domestic politics and U.S. power and influence in the world. He also takes a look back at the conventional wisdom of the past few decades that a human “population bomb” was ticking and would be a weapon of mass destruction set off against all life on earth.
During the 1970s, doomsday scientists were predicting mass famine, natural resource shortages, and various environmental catastrophes as the result of what they saw as human overpopulation. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, predicted that by the year 2000 Japan would run out of food and mobs of starving Chinese would overrun Russia. Of course, by 1990 the discredited Ehrlich had tweaked his thesis slightly, saying that, “Actually, the problem in the world is that there are much too many rich people…”
And as Longman shows in The Empty Cradle, the prescriptions of people like Ehrlich for reducing fertility over the past few decades have poised the world to collect massive negative dividends. For one example, Longman cites a London School of Economics study of entrepreneurialism worldwide. According to the economists, there exists an almost perfect correlation between countries that have large numbers of retirees to their work base and low rates of entrepreneurship. Japan and France are currently among the least entrepreneurial countries in the world, the study finds — and simultaneously the grayest.
BUT FIRST, IT IS USEFUL to take a look at how we got here. Population growth was slow for most of human history because, although families were considerably larger before the forces of modernization took hold, there was a significant death toll from disease and starvation. When food shortages, disease and unsanitary conditions were diminished, population began to soar. The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomberg in his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, noted that human numbers grew quickly with modernization “not because people started breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies.”
United Nations forecasts show that by 2070 world population growth is likely to peak. And then, demographers believe, there will be a decline, perhaps even a rapid one. And many are certain that this contraction, not overpopulation, is the real population crisis facing man. Human beings have been living with an expanding population throughout their time on earth. A permanently contracting population is part of a brave new world no one has ever seen.
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H/T to National Review Online