As Shannon pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the shift from fears about global overpopulation to concern about population decline is starting to hit the mainstream media. While the UN Population Division’s predictions get the most press and are still foreseeing a global population expansion until the end of this century, they are not the only predictions floating around. Shannon mentioned a few of them in her blogpost and they generally predict a global population peak at a lower level than the UNPD, at an earlier time than the UNPD and then a continual decline from that peak into the future.
Last week a new book was released entitled “Empty Planet” which also challenges the assumption that overpopulation is the demographic danger in the future. It is written by a Canadian social scientist, Darrell Bricker and journalist John Ibbitson and it claims that:
“The great defining event of the twenty-first century,” they say, “will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end.”
If that’s right, then the demographic winter is coming. It’s about one generation away. And it won’t end anytime soon. Let’s just think take a moment about what such a world would look like, how it would feel like. Can we even do so? We have never experienced such a situation: a global population decline. Even living in an individual country where the population is declining is a fairly recent and new thing. Economically the picture is dire: slower economic growth, less entrepreneurship, rising inequality and unserviceable public debt. But harder to picture is the more amorphous reality – how will it feel to be in a world where we are no longer reproducing ourselves fully and when the world as a whole is growing smaller? What will this make us feel about our future, our lives and about the succeeding generations? Will it make us value the next generation more for its relative scarcity? Or will it entrench a selfish presentism of which refusing to have enough children to reproduce ourselves is a symptom?
But is the book’s claims accurate? Well, we won’t know until we get there of course, but the authors argue that fertility is falling faster than most experts can readily explain. One can see very large numbers of women in Brazil and China opting for permanent sterilization well before the end of their fertile years. One can see South Korean and Japanese women delay childbirth until their 30s and very many in those countries forego it altogether. While in the USA, the fertility rates among Hispanics has unexpectedly collapsed.
Unfortunately, too many policy analysts and pundits assume that the UNPD’s predictions are the gold standard and it isn’t predicting a population decline anytime soon. However, there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the UNDP’s predictions, simply because the data it is relying on is inaccurate. According to the book, the UNPD’s fertility estimates are out by 5-10 per cent for today let alone 50 years in the future. The data in China, India and Brazil is out of step with what the UNPD is using to predict the global fertility rates now and into the future. The review of Empty Planet in the Wall Street Journal notes a further example from another one of the most populous countries in the world. The current UNPD population forecasts suggest that the average US total fertility rate from 2015 to 2020 should be 1.9 children per woman. In reality, the US figures show that the average fertility rate in the USA from 2015-18 was 1.8 children and that the early indication for this year suggest that this will decline further.
The demographic story of only a few years ago is changing. More and more fearmongering about the population bomb and concerns about overpopulation are dropping from public sight. In their stead are concerns that actually we are heading towards a global demographic precipice. How long it will take for these concerns to enter the public consciousness and to influence public debates about population, migration and fertility rates is yet to be seen.