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  1. For most of human history, the world\u2019s population grew so slowly that for
  2. most people alive, it would have felt static. Between the year 1 and 1700,
  3. the human population went from about 200 million to about 600 million; by
  4. 1800, it had barely hit one billion. Then, the population exploded, first in
  5. the United Kingdom and the United States, next in much of the rest of Europe,
  6. and eventually in Asia. By the late 1920s, it had hit two billion. It reached
  7. three billion around 1960 and then four billion around 1975. It has nearly
  8. doubled since then. There are now some 7.6 billion people living on the
  9. planet.
  11. Just as much of the world has come to see rapid population growth as normal
  12. and expected, the trends are shifting again, this time into reverse. Most
  13. parts of the world are witnessing sharp and sudden contractions in either
  14. birthrates or absolute population. The only thing preventing the population
  15. in many countries from shrinking more quickly is that death rates are also
  16. falling, because people everywhere are living longer. These oscillations are
  17. not easy for any society to manage. \u201cRapid population acceleration and
  18. deceleration send shockwaves around the world wherever they occur and have
  19. shaped history in ways that are rarely appreciated,\u201d the demographer Paul
  20. Morland writes in The Human Tide, his new history of demographics. Morland
  21. does not quite believe that demography is destiny, as the old adage
  22. mistakenly attributed to the French philosopher Auguste Comte would have it.
  23. Nor do Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, the authors of Empty Planet, a new
  24. book on the rapidly shifting demographics of the twenty-first century. But
  25. demographics are clearly part of destiny. If their role first in the rise of
  26. the West and now in the rise of the rest has been underappreciated, the
  27. potential consequences of plateauing and then shrinking populations in the
  28. decades ahead are almost wholly ignored.\u00a0\n\nThe mismatch between expectations of a rapidly growing global population (and \nall the attendant effects on climate, capitalism, and geopolitics) and the
  29. reality of both slowing growth rates and absolute contraction is so great
  30. that it will pose a considerable threat in the decades ahead. Governments
  31. worldwide have evolved to meet the challenge of managing more people, not
  32. fewer and not older. Capitalism as a system is particularly vulnerable to a
  33. world of less population expansion; a significant portion of the economic
  34. growth that has driven capitalism over the past several centuries may have
  35. been simply a derivative of more people and younger people consuming more
  36. stuff. If the world ahead has fewer people, will there be any real economic
  37. growth? We are not only unprepared to answer that question; we are not even
  38. starting to ask it.
  40. At the heart of The Human Tide and Empty Planet, as well as demography in
  41. general, is the odd yet compelling work of the eighteenth-century British
  42. scholar Thomas Malthus. Malthus\u2019 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population
  43. argued that growing numbers of people were a looming threat to social and
  44. political stability. He was convinced that humans were destined to produce
  45. more people than the world could feed, dooming most of society to suffer from
  46. food scarcity while the very rich made sure their needs were met. In
  47. Malthus dire view, that would lead to starvation, privation, and war,
  48. which would eventually lead to population contraction, and then the
  49. depressing cycle would begin again.
  51. Yet just as Malthus reached his conclusions, the world changed. Increased
  52. crop yields, improvements in sanitation, and accelerated urbanization led not
  53. to an endless cycle of impoverishment and contraction but to an explosion of
  54. global population in the nineteenth century. Morland provides a rigorous and
  55. detailed account of how, in the nineteenth century, global population reached
  56. its breakout from millennia of prior human history, during which the
  57. population had been stagnant, contracting, or inching forward. He starts with
  58. the observation that the population begins to grow rapidly when infant
  59. mortality declines. Eventually, fertility falls in response to lower infant
  60. mortality but there is a considerable lag, which explains why societies in
  61. the modern world can experience such sharp and extreme surges in population.
  62. In other words, while infant mortality is high, women tend to give birth to
  63. many children, expecting at least some of them to die before reaching
  64. maturity. When infant mortality begins to drop, it takes several generations
  65. before fertility does, too. So a woman who gives birth to six children
  66. suddenly has six children who survive to adulthood instead of, say, three.
  67. Her daughters might also have six children each before the next generation of
  68. women adjusts, deciding to have smaller families.
  70. The burgeoning of global population in the past two centuries followed almost
  71. precisely the patterns of industrialization, modernization, and, crucially,
  72. urbanization. It started in the United Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth
  73. century (hence the concerns of Malthus), before spreading to the United
  74. States and then France and Germany. The trend next hit Japan, India, and
  75. China and made its way to Latin America. It finally arrived in sub-Saharan
  76. Africa, which has seen its population surge thanks to improvements in
  77. medicine and sanitation but has not yet enjoyed the full fruits of
  78. industrialization and a rapidly growing middle class.
  80. With the population explosion came a new wave of Malthusian fears, epitomized
  81. by the 1968 book The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at
  82. Stanford University. Ehrlich argued that plummeting death rates had created
  83. an untenable situation of too many people who could not be fed or housed.
  84. The battle to feed all of humanity is over, he wrote. In the
  85. 1970the world will undergo famines hundreds of millions of people are
  86. going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now.
  88. Ehrlich 2019s prophecy, of course, proved wrong, for reasons that Bricker and
  89. Ibbitson elegantly chart in Empty Planet. The green revolution, a series of
  90. innovations in agriculture that began in the early twentieth century,
  91. accelerated such that crop yields expanded to meet humankind 2019s needs.
  92. Moreover, governments around the world managed to remediate the worst effects
  93. of pollution and environmental degradation, at least in terms of daily living
  94. standards in multiple megacities, such as Beijing, Cairo, Mexico City, and
  95. New Delhi. These cities face acute challenges related to depleted water
  96. tables and industrial pollution, but there has been no crisis akin to what
  97. was anticipated.\u00a0\n\nYet visions of dystopic population bombs remain deeply entrenched, including
  98. at the center of global population calculations: in the forecasts routinely
  99. issued by the United Nations. Today, the UN predicts that global population
  100. will reach nearly ten billion by 2050. Judging from the evidence presented in
  101. Morland\u2019s and Bricker and Ibbitson\u2019s books, it seems likely that this
  102. estimate is too high, perhaps substantially. It\u2019s not that anyone is
  103. purposely inflating the numbers. Governmental and international statistical
  104. agencies do not turn on a dime; they use formulas and assumptions that took
  105. years to formalize and will take years to alter. Until very recently, the
  106. population assumptions built into most models accurately reflected what was
  107. happening. But the sudden ebb of both birthrates and absolute population
  108. growth has happened too quickly for the models to adjust in real time. As
  109. Bricker and Ibbitson explain, \u201cThe UN is employing a faulty model based on
  110. assumptions that worked in the past but that may not apply in the future.\
  112. Population expectations aren't merely of academic interest; they are a key
  113. element in how most societies and analysts think about the future of war and
  114. conflict. More acutely, they drive fears about climate change and
  115. environmental stability\u2014especially as an emerging middle class numbering in
  116. the billions demands electricity, food, and all the other accoutrements of
  117. modern life and therefore produces more emissions and places greater strain
  118. on farms with nutrient-depleted soil and evaporating aquifers. Combined with
  119. warming-induced droughts, storms, and shifting weather patterns, these trends
  120. would appear to line up for some truly bad times ahead.\n\nExcept, argue Bricker and Ibbitson, those numbers and all the doomsday \nscenarios associated with them are likely wrong. As they write,
  121. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust a relentless,
  122. generation-after-generation culling of the human herd.\u201d Already, the signs
  123. of the coming bust are clear, at least according to the data that Bricker and
  124. Ibbitson marshal. Almost every country in Europe now has a fertility rate
  125. below the 2.1 births per woman that is needed to maintain a static
  126. population. The UN notes that in some European countries, the birthrate has
  127. increased in the past decade. But that has merely pushed the overall European
  128. birthrate up from 1.5 to 1.6, which means that the population of Europe will
  129. still grow older in the coming decades and contract as new births fail to
  130. compensate for deaths. That trend is well under way in Japan, whose
  131. population has already crested, and in Russia, where the same trends, plus
  132. high mortality rates for men, have led to a decline in the population.
  134. What is striking is that the population bust is going global almost as
  135. quickly as the population boom did in the twentieth century. Fertility rates
  136. in China and India, which together account for nearly 40 percent of the
  137. world\u2019s people, are now at or below replacement levels. So, too, are
  138. fertility rates in other populous countries, such as Brazil, Malaysia,
  139. Mexico, and Thailand. Sub-Saharan Africa remains an outlier in terms of
  140. demographics, as do some countries in the Middle East and South Asia, such as
  141. Pakistan, but in those places, as well, it is only a matter of time before
  142. they catch up, given that more women are becoming educated, more children are
  143. surviving their early years, and more people are moving to cities.
  145. Morland, who, unlike Bricker and Ibbitson, is a demographer by training, is
  146. skeptical that humanity is on the cusp of a tectonic reversal in population
  147. trends. He agrees that the trends have changed, but he is less prone to the
  148. blanket certainty of Bricker and Ibbitson. This is not because he uses
  149. different data; he simply recognizes that population expectations have
  150. frequently been confounded in the past and that certainty about future trends
  151. is unreasonable. Morland rightly points out that even if fertility rates fall
  152. dramatically in Africa, there will be decades left of today\u2019s youth bulge
  153. there. Because he is more measured in his assessment of the ambiguities and
  154. uncertainties in the data, Morland tends to be more circumspect in drawing
  155. dramatic conclusions. He suggests, for instance, that China\u2019s population
  156. will peak short of 1.5 billion in 2030 and then stagnate, with an aging
  157. population and gradual absolute decline thereafter. Bricker and Ibbitson, on
  158. the other hand, warn that China\u2019s fertility rate, already in free fall,
  159. could actually get much worse based on the example of Japan, which would lead
  160. China to shrink to less than 700 million people in the second half of the
  161. century. Morland does agree with Bricker and Ibbitson on one important point:
  162. when it comes to global population, the only paradigm that anyone has known
  163. for two centuries is about to change.
  166. The implications of the coming population bust occupy a large portion of
  167. Bricker and Ibbitson\u2019s book, and they should occupy a much larger portion
  168. of the collective debate about the future and how to prepare for it. The
  169. underlying drivers of capitalism, the sense that resource competition and
  170. scarcity determine the nature of international relations and domestic
  171. tensions, and the fear that climate change and environmental degradation are
  172. almost at a doomsday point\u2014all have been shaped by the persistently
  173. ballooning population of the past two centuries. If the human population is
  174. about to decline as quickly as it increased, then all those systems and
  175. assumptions are in jeopardy.\n\nBoth books note that the demographic collapse could be a bright spot for
  176. climate change. Given that carbon emissions are a direct result of more
  177. people needing and demanding more stuff\u2014from food and water to cars and
  178. entertainment\u2014then it would follow that fewer people would need and demand
  179. less. What\u2019s more, larger proportions of the planet will be aging, and the
  180. experiences of Japan and the United States are showing that people consume
  181. less as they age. A smaller, older population spells some relief from the
  182. immense environmental strain of so many people living on one finite globe.
  184. That is the plus side of the demographic deflation. Whether the concomitant
  185. greening of the world will happen quickly enough to offset the worst-case
  186. climate scenarios is an open question\u2014although current trends suggest that
  187. if humanity can get through the next 20 to 30 years without irreversibly
  188. damaging the ecosystem, the second half of the twenty-first century might be
  189. considerably brighter than most now assume. The downside is that a sudden
  190. population contraction will place substantial strain on the global economic
  191. system. Capitalism is, essentially, a system that maximizes more\u2014more
  192. output, more goods, and more services. That makes sense, given that it
  193. evolved coincidentally with a population surge. The success of capitalism in
  194. providing more to more people is undeniable, as are its evident defects in
  195. providing every individual with enough. If global population stops expanding
  196. and then contracts, capitalism\u2014a system implicitly predicated on
  197. ever-burgeoning numbers of people\u2014will likely not be able to thrive in its
  198. current form. An aging population will consume more of certain goods, such as
  199. health care, but on the whole aging and then decreasing populations will
  200. consume less. So much of consumption occurs early in life, as people have
  201. children and buy homes, cars, and white goods. That is true not just in the
  202. more affluent parts of the world but also in any country that is seeing a
  203. middle-class surge.
  205. But what happens when these trends halt or reverse? Think about the future
  206. cost of capital and assumptions of inflation. No capitalist economic system
  207. operates on the presumption that there will be zero or negative growth. No
  208. one deploys investment capital or loans expecting less tomorrow than today.
  209. But in a world of graying and shrinking populations, that is the most likely
  210. scenario, as Japan\u2019s aging, graying, and shrinking absolute population now
  211. demonstrates. A world of zero to negative population growth is likely to be a
  212. world of zero to negative economic growth, because fewer and older people
  213. consume less. There is nothing inherently problematic about that, except for
  214. the fact that it will completely upend existing financial and economic
  215. systems. The future world may be one of enough food and abundant material
  216. goods relative to the population; it may also be one in which capitalism at
  217. best frays and at worst breaks down completely.
  219. The global financial system is already exceedingly fragile, as evidenced by
  220. the 2008 financial crisis. A world with negative economic growth, industrial
  221. capacity in excess of what is needed, and trillions of dollars expecting
  222. returns when none is forthcoming could spell a series of financial crises. It
  223. could even spell the death of capitalism as we know it. As growth grinds to a
  224. halt, people may well start demanding a new and different economic system.
  225. Add in the effects of automation and artificial intelligence, which are
  226. already making millions of jobs redundant, and the result is likely a future
  227. in which capitalism is increasingly pass.
  229. If population contraction were acknowledged as the most likely future, one
  230. could imagine policies that might preserve and even invigorate the basic
  231. contours of capitalism by setting much lower expectations of future returns
  232. and focusing society on reducing costs (which technology is already doing)
  233. rather than maximizing output. But those policies would likely be met in the
  234. short term by furious opposition from business interests, policymakers, and
  235. governments, all of whom would claim that such attitudes are defeatist and
  236. could spell an end not just to growth but to prosperity and high standards of
  237. living, too. In the absence of such policies, the danger of the coming shift
  238. will be compounded by a complete failure to plan for it.
  240. Different countries will reach the breaking point at different times. Right
  241. now, the demographic deflation is happening in rich societies that are able
  242. to bear the costs of slower or negative growth using the accumulated store of
  243. wealth that has been built up over generations. Some societies, such as the
  244. United States and Canada, are able to temporarily offset declining population
  245. with immigration, although soon, there won't be enough immigrants left. As
  246. for the billions of people in the developing world, the hope is that they
  247. become rich before they become old. The alternative is not likely to be
  248. pretty: without sufficient per capita affluence, it will be extremely
  249. difficult for developing countries to support aging populations.
  251. So the demographic future could end up being a glass half full, by
  252. ameliorating the worst effects of climate change and resource depletion, or a
  253. glass half empty, by ending capitalism as we know it. Either way, the
  254. reversal of population trends is a paradigm shift of the first order and one
  255. that is almost completely unrecognized. We are vaguely prepared for a world
  256. of more people; we are utterly unprepared for a world of fewer. That is our
  257. future, and we are heading there fast.
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