Review of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline: Guest Post from Simon Molloy

Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline could upend our thinking about our future of planet Earth with far reaching implications for policy on climate change, immigration and border control, defence, education, child care, and jobs, to name just a few.

In the face of Hollywood’s habitual dystopianism we have become inculcated with familiar mantras: we are facing a global population crisis, humans are a plague on the planet, we are poisoning the Earth and so on.

These population mantras are wrong. Not just wrong; diametrically wrong, according to the book’s Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, and journalist, John Ibbitson. They say, “We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but a population bust”.

Based on extensive research aimed at assessing the trajectory of global fertility rates, they argue that “one of the great defining events of human history will occur in three decades, give or take, when global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end”.

Even before the arrival of Bricker and Ibbitson’s new work, the population pessimists were overstating their claims. The UN forecasts that population will peak at around 11 billion in 2100 then settle into gentle decline.

But Bricker and Ibbitson assert that the UN has got it wrong. Their investigations suggest that fertility rates are falling much more rapidly around the globe than the UN thinks.

They point out that populations are already declining in two dozen countries – by 2050 it will be three dozen. Japan’s population is expected to fall from 127 million to 95 million by 2053! They say that global population will peak at about 9 billion or less between 2040 and 2060 – a lower and earlier peak than the UN predicts. They also say population post-peak will decline much more quickly that conventionally thought.

Their conclusions are based on published statistics and a series of interviews on every continent supplemented by recent survey data about planned family size.

It has long been known that increasing per capita incomes, economic development and urbanisation led to declining fertility. But in developing countries, fertility rate declines appear to be running well ahead of what could be expected on the basis of their stage of economic development. Why? The answer is female education and information technology. Female school enrolment is rising rapidly and access to information is exploding. Women are being better educated younger, both formally and informally, than ever before. As a result, they are choosing to have fewer babies.

Interviewing a group of women from a slum outside New Delhi, Bricker and Ibbitson report, “From time to time, the women reach under their robes and glance at a backlit screen. Even in the slums of Delhi, women can access a smartphone, a carrier plan, and a network. Even in the slums of Delhi, they hold the sum of human knowledge in their hands”.

The authors dismiss claims that religion and culture dominate other drivers of fertility rates. Claims that, for example, Muslim countries, have higher fertility rates than elsewhere due to religious factors can’t be sustained. The 2010-15 fertility rates for Iran, UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Bahrain and Kuwait are all at replacement (2.1) or below and are probably continuing the fall. Developed Muslim countries have low fertility rates just like non-Muslim developed countries. They also argue that immigrates adopt their new homes’ birth rates in one or, at most, two generations.

Economics and education trump religion. Remember when Catholics used to have big families? This is another reason to prioritise education, connectivity and economic development on the global agenda.

What does this mean for governments and policy in Australian and elsewhere in the world? It changes almost everything.

On climate change, other things remaining equal, falling population means we can be less worried. The costs associated with any set of carbon mitigation policies are less justified in the face of lower projected population. Bricker and Ibbitson point out that “if the UN’s low variant [population growth] model played out, relative emissions would decline by 10 percent by 2055 and 35 percent by 2100.”

Notwithstanding the tragedy and visibility for refugees fleeing war, the long-run trend of immigration is downwards. This is because of falling birth rates in developing countries but also because of rising incomes there – there will be fewer people with fewer reasons to leave. Immigrants will become scarcer and, as any economist will tell you, this means their value will rise. Countries will, in future, compete with each other to attract a diminishing supply of immigrants to shore up their falling populations. Countries will compete on the basis of their average incomes, quality of life, and the successfulness of immigrant integration.

Governments will, no doubt, attempt to raise domestic fertility rates. In other countries, the authors report, such efforts are very costly and only very marginally successful. As average incomes rise, the opportunity costs associated with having children do likewise. Perhaps one of the outcomes of population decline will be the emergence of a comprehensive accounting of the costs of child-rearing for parents. These costs include, not only all the usual expenses, but the enormous child-related detriments to career paths, borne mainly by women. A ‘baby bonus’ of, let’s say, $20,000 – per year – anyone? Maybe more.

Population decline is likely to lead to geopolitical instability. Bricker and Ibbitson says that, following its disastrous one child policy and its prohibition of immigration, China’s population could be, astonishingly, as low as 650 million by 2100 if its fertility rates fall in line with those in Hong Kong and Singapore at 1.0 or lower. The associated changes in economic and military power will redefine strategic priorities.

Economic growth will be slower. AI, rather than being a threat to jobs, may come just in time to complement a shrinking workforce. The economic and social consequences are too complex to predict.

And what of the collective psychological implications? It’s one thing to recite platitudes about the ‘human plague’ but it’s entirely another, and somewhat chilling, prospect to contemplate a shrinking human footprint on Earth with no end in sight.

Bricker and Ibbitson’s ideas are a huge reset on thinking about the future, presenting a radical vision of the most important parameter that there is – the number of us that there are.

Simon Molloy is an Australian economist who consults on telecommunications and technology in Australia and the developing world. He is Managing Director of consultancy, System Knowledge Concepts Pty Ltd.

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18 Responses to Review of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline: Guest Post from Simon Molloy

  1. paul frijters says:

    few comments:

    – apocalyptic thinking is a staple of internationalist organisations without soldiers. The Catholic church relied on it for centuries, and now pretty much all weak internationist groups employ the same trick. So too, in fact, this book that promises another apocalypse: the dying out of the human race. Sigh. Not every change is another road to hell. But authors just cant help themselves.
    – 9-10 billion is still a huge footprint that only very slowly reduces because people keep living longer. So I wouldnt stop worrying about the environment just yet. It is clear that the pressures on the planet will keep increasing at current technology. Though I am not so worried about it getting a bit warmer, there is lots of other environmental damage that is worrying, including over-fishing, loss of habitat, and loss of diversity.
    – yes, its about education because long education reduces the benefit of kids to parents. It just makes them costly and then uncontrollable because you cant take knowledge away from them once you have given it to them, unlike land or other natural resources.
    – one should not make the mistake of thinking that the same pressures will keep applying. The reason why education is growing so much is due to the high economic returns to education. Its perfectly conceivable that technology will reduce those returns, or that the returns will reduce in certain areas or for people with certain other skills. Then we’re back to explosive population growth for those groups.

    Hence nice to see such forward thinking and some new calculations, but the authors could do so much more with the basic trends than what they have done. Its a very formulaic production. All their efforts seem to go into arguing the basic point that populations will peak at current trends, but they pay less attention to thinking about the underlying drivers and their dynamics, or the question what comes next.

  2. John Goss says:

    The ‘news’ about fertility rates being below replacement in most of the world is old hat. But it takes a long time to turn the population ship around. And the African fertility rates are taking longer than expected to decline. On current trends African fertility may not be below replacement even by 2050, and momentum will increase African population for many decades after that. Of course there’s still a lot of uncertainty round the African numbers, so hopefully Africa will be below replacement well before 2050, but we really don’t know.
    I would be overjoyed if we could get population down to 4 or 5 billion by 2100. It would make many problems much easier. But I’m not holding my breath.
    (By the way, if people do start living forever, you only need to get the fertility rate down to 1 in order for the total population to eventually stabilise. The sum of the geometric series 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 etc)

    • paul frijters says:

      if by fertility rate you mean “number of off-spring producing females per off-spring producing female” then yes, any number under 1 gets you to an asymptotic population under conditions of immortality. If its exactly 1 or above it you’d still get an exploding series.

      agreed that the news is old hat and that Africa is the uncertain factor in current projections.

  3. John Goss says:

    I agree that anything above 1 gives you an exploding series, but exactly 1 gives you an infinite series which adds to 2 (as in example above 1+ 1/2+1/4+1/8 etc), so it stabilises.

    • paul frijters says:

      eh, no, because you then get 1+1+1+1….which explodes: every female gets another female who gets another females, etc., and they all live forever….

      if r<1 is the number of female producing offspring per offspring producing females, the series stabilises to 1/(1-r) times the original population. You can see that breaks down at 1.

  4. John Goss says:

    Ah. I see. I was thinking of the case of one child born per woman which is about 1/2 a female per woman, so in that case, under immortatility, the population at most doubles. But as you say, anything up to, but not including 2 children per woman where one of those children is female, also stabilises. It will be a large multiple of the starting population if the number of females producing offspring per offspring producing female is close to 1, but it will still stabilise.

  5. Peter WARWICK says:

    PF, thanks for another rational post. I spent two decades in Papua New Guinea, mostly in the Highlands. The women in tribes were considered baby machines often producing north of 7 children. Why ? Because children and adults were often lost along the way due to tribal fights, natural disasters, famine, disease and other causes.

    The tribe wanted a even number of males and females – males were the tribal warriors and hunters and gatherers, and females were the reproducers.

    Disabled children were disposed of (when it became apparent they were disabled). Why ? In village life its every man, woman and child to the pumps of survival. A disabled child cannot contribute productively to village life. It is a burden and embarrassment.

    It is very rare to see a Downs Syndrome child in PNG.

    Paul was right in saying the Catholic Church used catastrophe as their message. A couple of male friends of mine (who were practicing Catholics), when seeking advice from the priest concerning birth control, were told that vasectomy was a mortal sin, and the old flames at their feet trick was used as the punishment should they proceed with a vasectomy.

    Both have left the church with two children in hand.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    We need to propagate a disaster myth at Troppo.

    The world is running out of worms I tell you.

    Do you realise how important worms are? Worms were the oil of the pre-human age.

    If Data is the new oil, then worms were the old oil. And they still could be.

    But we have to become more holistic in our treatment of the worm issue. People have been linear with worms and where has that got us?

    Crashing worm populations everywhere – and trust me – crashing worms is not a pretty sight.

    We need to bring worms into the circular economy.

    We need to do more with less (less worms that is – please pay attention).


  7. Albert Jay Knock says:

    I don’t think its wealth leads to less children leads to population decline. I think that wealth leads to usury-parasitism, leads to less children, leads to population decline. Its really about the usurers extorting wealth and resources in such a way as to discourage large families. When you need to have a house to be middle class, and the house prices skyrocket to the moon, then people will put kids on the back-burner.

  8. hc says:

    Population decline is a boon not a bane and countries should endorse it as a long-term objective not as something to be avoided. Pressures on all aspects of our environment will otherwise intensify in a major way as currently poor countries attain wealthy country status as they are, outside parts of Africa, currently doing.

    A major transitional element in wealthy countries will be the secular decline in new housing demands that will be deflationary because of the significant role of housing in total private investment – Brinley Thomas and others have traced the dependence of the trade cycle on housing demands. If properly managed this could again, however, be a boon for living standards that could parallel the impact of major technological innovations. Imagine the life of most families if they did not have to spend half their lives paying off a mortgage. More education, more cultural activity, better quality housing and far more leisure.

    Of course too with less financial pressures there will be some rebound effect of increased fertility. But we will not disappear as a species. We will just live in more healthy sync with other forms of life. Total species happiness will increase.

  9. Albert Jay Knock says:

    Yes hc its not really bad news at all is it. Because its global. If it was just my group and my group alone, well thats a local problem. But if its a global problem then thats no problem at all. I would want population to fall slowly for many hundreds of years until its maybe 2 billion. But it would be nice if pretty much everyone within that 2 billion still had some representation. I think I might have to take what hc has said here, cut and paste it, and pretend its my own. Really rather good.

  10. Peter WARWICK says:

    As I see it, the broad economy depends on a stable or increasing population. Coca Cola depends entirely on the Coca Cola consumers increasing in number or increased daily consumption or both. The aluminium producers rely on Coca Cola consumption to keep the aluminium soft drink can factories operating. Same with the oil people and their plastic bottles.

    Imagine if Coca Cola consumption dropped to zero. Shareholders would be jumping off buildings, the dole queue would lengthen, and the aluminium and oil people would have to go without their six months leave twice a year arrangement.

    I suspect the family of two children will remain stable for a long time, simply because the “need” for further children will not exist.

  11. Simon Molloy says:

    Responses to comments on Empty Planet’ review.

    In general, I am surprised at the extent to which Club Troppo readers have not commented on the enormous implications of the new book I reviewed, ‘Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline’. Actually, I don’t think ‘enormous’ is a big enough word.

    In response to the comments:

    1. This new book is not an example of ‘apocryphal thinking’. The authors, at no point, argue that this is an end-of-the-world scenario. If one had to reduce the book to one sentence it is: ‘fertility rates are lower than is widely thought, are falling faster and will get much lower sooner than the vast majority think – including politicians, economics, bureaucrats, environmentalists and even, apparently, the majority of demographers – to nominate a few key groups’.
    2. Yes, it’s ‘old news’ that fertility rates are below replacement in many countries. The new news is that: that club is growing more rapidly than thought; the falls, after below replacement levels are reached, are continuing, and; falls in developing countries are suddenly getting ahead of the economic development curve. Again, to reduce the book’s story to one short sentence: ‘fertility rates are lower than you think’ – to which some big say ‘big deal’ and they’re right but in the non-sarcastic sense.
    3. Yes, obviously Africa will be the population growth hold-out of the future but less so than we previously thought – and the book had the word ‘global’ in the title – that’s the focus.
    4. Immortality? I’d say that’s one bridge we can think about how to cross when we get to it. Not a public policy input at this point.
    5. Personally, I tend to agree with the ‘Population decline is a boon, not a bane ‘sentiment. The authors, however, were careful to emphasise, the neither-bad-nor-good-just-is line
    6. In relation to ‘worms’, I must defer to Nicholas’ obviously in-depth knowledge.

    Why are fertility rates falling the way they are? I didn’t have space in the review to represent the authors’ arguments on this. There are many reasons: as Peter mentioned with the Papua New Guinea example, in underdeveloped societies children are workers, retirement insurance, and fairly low cost to produce and deploy, and, moreover, infant and childhood mortality rates are very high – extra children are additional insurance. In developed countries, children are expensive, aren’t required (so much) for retirement support because of higher wealth and social security, and they are enormously expensive to raise. Also, with much higher real incomes the opportunity of time spent raising them is much higher and, the loss of career path continuity is a huge cost, mostly borne by women (we can expect that workforce feminisation has further to go in impacting fertility rates).

    The really interesting questions are to do with why fertility rate declines have gotten ahead of economic development in the developing world and what is the likely trajectory of this trend.

    I believe this is one of those stories where we have failed to think sufficiently holistically about the range of factors that impinge on a highly important social-economic parameter – in this case, fertility rates.

    Although higher education levels are probably a primary transmission mechanism from higher GDP per capita to lower fertility rates, I believe that education (formal and informal) per se, even in the absence of significant economic development, is exerting a direct and powerful downward influence on fertility rates. We haven’t been able to run this experiment previously because higher education levels have always been an outcome of, and mixed in with, higher levels of economic development.

    International aid efforts have been prioritising education, especially female education for many years now as well, of course, healthcare and especially reproductive health care. But I think the real wild card is the smartphone and networks combined with rising literacy.

    As an economist who specialises in telecommunications in the developing world, I have been astounded at the rate of penetration of smartphones in China, India and Africa. As well as the networks to support them (see, for example, the 2018 Ericson Mobility report). Africa is now heading into the really steep part of the adoption curve with a 17% CAGR 2017-23 forecast.

    I expect that the authors of ‘Empty Planet’ are probably right, and Africa will get to peak population much sooner than most people think.

    So, imagine we have a global population of 7 billion in 2100 rather than the commonly accepted 11 billion. The implications are immense! ‘Enormous’ just doesn’t cut it. Furthermore, the real ‘heat’ will come out of population growth within around 30 years. And 30 years is a timeframe in which we are making very large public policy decisions right now in areas such as infrastructure and environmental policy.

    My point is that, we should start reviewing the long term projections that are used for policy making in the light of this new research, not necessarily to base our decisions on this, but to consider the implication of a new case or scenario in which the human footprint on the planet is significantly different to what we have been assuming.

    • paul frijters says:

      “The authors, at no point, argue that this is an end-of-the-world scenario.”

      except in the title! “Empty Planet”?

      As to our lack of excitement: the demographers have been running population peak scenarios for over a decade now, overturning the 1970s Club of Rome scenarios of Doomsday growth. Compared to that new knowledge, saying the peak wont be in 2050 but in 2040 is not really a game changer anymore. Sorry that we cannot muster more surprise.

      • Simon Molloy says:

        Paul – fair enough. Caught, as ever, between the need to cut through and hyperbole. ‘Less populated than you might have thought planet’ just doesn’t flow quite as well.

        I understand ‘forecast fatigue’. Nonetheless, the UNs projections are long-standing and I get the sense that these authors have gotten out into the field and uncovered an important attitudinal/demographic shift and I maintain that the difference between 11 and 7 billion in 20100 is MASSIVE and has implications for right now.

        • paul frijters says:

          “gotten out into the field” and “uncovered a shift”

          I had to smile when reading that. Perhaps you have seen a few too many ted-talks about intrepid scientists roaming through the rainforests discovering ancient temples?

          These scientists will have done what most now do: remain in their room, download a whole lot of data collected by a vast array of statistical bodies around the world, and collated/analysed it further on their computers, pumping out a book. They probably haven’t seen a field for years, let alone discovered something in it!

  12. John Goss says:

    When you are referring to the difference between 7 and 11 billion at 2100 are you referring to the difference between the UN medium estimate of 11 billion and the UN low estimate of 7 billion? I would hardly describe the authors reporting on the UN low estimate as a discovery. When you are projecting out to 2100 the uncertainties are enormous, and experts will disagree, which is why the UN estimates come in low, medium and high versions.
    And the numbers that have implications for action now are the medium and high numbers, because those numbers would place serious strains on planetary resources, so when we see those numbers, its a signal to redouble our efforts with regard to population control programs, so that hopefully we can keep it down to about 7 billion.

  13. Ken Oliver says:

    As average incomes rise, the opportunity costs associated with having children do likewise.

    Yes, and so do the opportunity costs of having a dependent wife; it is this that drives the improving status of women. These changes in opportunity costs are a parsimonious explanation for what demographers call “the demographic transition”. In the long run economics drives social norms more than the other way around – which is perhaps the last remant of my youthful Marxism :-)
    It seems to me the book’s thesis is merely that transition happens slightly faster than the UN’s demographers think so it’s really a disagreement among forecasters about the value of a few key parameters. And I’m with Paul – it’s not enough to alter current policy much.

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