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.