This week’s talkfest at the Swiss ski resort Davos is peak virtue-signalling. “This year we’re sensing a real desire to take action and implement change on the critical issues facing the world,” gushes its website.

Everyone’s trying to make a good impression. On the train to Davos 2020, a writer for the New York Times spoke with a representative of Philip Morris. The tobacco company is “dedicated to a smoke-free future”, she told him, and it had “a duty” to millions of addicted smokers. Hmmmm.

Looking ahead to the coming decade, however, participants seemed overcome by pessimism. The key document published by the organiser of Davos, the World Economic Forum, is “The Global Risks Report 2020”. It lists the five most likely global risks – and for the first time, all of them relate to the environment: extreme weather, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and man-made environmental disasters.

No wonder Greta Thunberg, the crown princess of pessimism, was such a celebrity at Davos.

And no wonder US President Donald Trump seemed so out of place with his sunny summary of his achievements. “America's future has never been brighter,” he told his audience. “I am inviting all of you to become part of this incredible future we are building together.” Whether or not the details of his speech survived the scrutiny of media fact-checkers, it was his optimism which was out of tune.

In fact, pessimism about the environment is baked into the ethos of Davos. As long ago as 1973, runaway global population was regarded as a serious risk, if not the main risk. The highlight of that year’s meeting was basically a book launch of The Limits to Growth by the first president of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist. The book’s argument was that computer simulations showed that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of resource depletion. It went on to sell 30 million copies in more than 30 languages, making it the best-selling environmental book in history. It also inspired China’s one-child policy.

The founder of Davos, German management consultant and über-networker Klaus Schwab, defended his environmental credentials in a 1999 Newsweek interview by referring to Davos’s endorsement of The Limits to Growth.

Perhaps this is why the WEF’s risks have only mentioned population ageing once since 2007, in 2013. Its pessimism is misplaced.

Unlike climate change, the risks associated with a shrinking proportion of youth and a growing proportion of elderly are almost perfectly predictable.

Earlier this month a Stanford professor, Charles I. Jones, published a paper under the provocative headline “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population”. He draws on data that shows that “As countries get richer, fertility rates appear to decline to levels consistent, not with a constant population, but actually with a declining population.” 

A good outcome for the Davos crowd?

Maybe not.

Like climate change, depopulation is – or ought to be — frightening. Jones writes that in a world with declining fertility, “knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually vanishes”.

Jones’s study concludes that “the emergence of negative population growth in many countries and the fact that it has profound implications for the future of economic growth make this a topic worthy of further exploration.” In fact, there's little new in his paper. Others have been warning of a population implosion for years. But the prophets of a climate apocalypse have successfully drowned them out. 

The risks faced by countries like China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and both Western and Eastern Europe are dire. With more and more aged to support and fewer and fewer taxpayers, welfare services could become unsustainable. Rural areas will become depopulated. Military strength will diminish for lack of personnel. Immigration will become necessary to keep the lights on…

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once warned readers about demographic decline: “the chaining up of the one devil [of population growth] may, if we are careless, only serve to loose another still fiercer and more intractable.” Which is exactly what has happened — not that we heard anything about it at Davos.  

It costs companies between US$60,000 and $600,000 for their representatives to attend Davos “depending on the level of engagement” for its future-casting. They may have blown their money.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet    

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet