by Gary Peters
If the animal kingdom were a democracy, Homo sapiens would have been voted off the planet long ago, when it first became apparent that human survival would not bode well for most others. There was no vote, of course, and our numbers over the last couple of centuries have grown at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Nature is no game show! Now there are signs that the demographic tables are starting to turn, that in some of the rich nations birth rates have dropped below death rates as numerous females have chosen consumption over reproduction.
As several rich nations begin to experience depopulation, numerous writers are lamenting the problems those declines will create for maintaining economic growth, the very process that is dragging us ever closer to the abyss. Maybe population decline in the rich countries is the best thing that could happen to our troubled planet right now. For long enough we’ve let the counsel of neoclassical economists urge us on to ever more economic (and demographic) growth, regardless of the consequences. We should have listened instead to writers closer to the real world in which we must live. Naturalists, ecologists, biologists and others, including most classical economists, have been much closer to the truth about humans, but modern economists have managed to be more seductive, playing the consumption card and promising eternal progress.
In 1988 Edward Abbey wrote, in One Life at a Time, Please, “[W]e can see that the religion of endless growth — like any religion based on blind faith rather than reason — is a kind of mania, a form of lunacy, indeed a disease.” He added that “[T]he one disease to which the growth mania bears an exact analogical resemblance is cancer. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Though economists deny this analogy, our natural world provides solemn witness to its veracity.
Right now unrest swirls across the landscapes of North Africa and the Middle East, regions little understood by most Americans. Our strategic interest there comes down to a single word, a single commodity, our nation’s great unhidden but underappreciated addiction: Oil. Without enough of it, at low enough prices, the economies of the U.S. and the world would unravel. That would be good for the planet but hard on our bloated world population, pumped up by cheap oil like an athlete on steroids. Many Americans sense that something is askew, but they remain assured by our leaders that all is well, that what we need is more economic growth and more of the stuff that Americans fill their baskets with every day at Wal-Mart. Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke continue to promise growth, but even casual observers can see the hollowness of those promises. As Rheinhold Niebuhr commented, in Beyond Tragedy, “One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.” Neither America nor the rest of the rich world will let go of their dreams of sustained economic growth, no matter how oxymoronic it is, until catastrophe ends the illusion.
In The Origin of Species Charles Darwin wrote:
He who believes in the struggle for existence and in the principle of natural selection, will acknowledge that every organic being is constantly endeavouring to increase in numbers; and that if any one being varies ever so little, either in habits or structure, and thus gains an advantage over some other inhabitant of the same country, it will seize on the place of that inhabitant, however different that may be from its own place.
He also wrote:
Owing to the high geometrical rate of increase of all organic beings, each area is already fully stocked with inhabitants; and it follows from this, that as the favoured forms increase in number, so, generally will the less favoured decrease and become rare. Rarity, as geologists tell us, is the precursor to extinction.
When The Origin of Species was published in 1859, the world’s human population was over one billion and Malthus had already warned about the tendency of population growth to outstrip the food supply. What Darwin added to that warning may never have been stated explicitly by him, but it can be inferred from his statements above: The incredible success and inexorable growth of the human population must come at the expense of other species of plants and animals on our finite planet. Those who tell us today that Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong have forgotten about Cassandra. Put another way, timing is the key to success for a rain dance. Malthus and Ehrlich were not wrong, they were just premature.
As Darwin wrote, he could not have imagined the continued and relentless growth of human populations and their economies; our success as a species is without precedent. However, he was right to suggest that the success of any one species and its diffusion into new territories would bring about a concomitant decline in other species, as is apparent in the graph below (from the Center for Biological Diversity).
Biologists speak now of a “sixth extinction.” As Jeff Corwin pointed out in The Los Angeles Times (Nov. 30, 2009), in “The sixth extinction”, “The causes of this mass die-off are many: overpopulation, loss of habitat, global warming, species exploitation (the black market for rare animal parts is the third-largest illegal trade in the world, outranked only by weapons and drugs). The list goes on, but it all points to us.” TO US! Pogo was right. As demographer John Weeks wrote, “We are in the midst of a global Ponzi scheme right now, with each successively aging country looking for cheaper labor elsewhere. That pool will eventually run out, and then what?” We could add fossil fuels in because they have allowed the economic/demographic Ponzi scheme to reach enormous proportions, but now oil is close to, if not beyond, its peak. As Bernie Madoff discovered, all Ponzi schemes must end; most end tragically. This one looks to be no exception — it is the mother of all Ponzi schemes.
It is paradoxical that the “fifth extinction,” which occurred about 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, opened the evolutionary door to the rise of mammals, including us. To show our gratitude we are now causing the “sixth extinction.” Not only do most humans seem oblivious to what we’re doing, most who know seem not to care, as if humans were exceptions to all the rules of nature. Somewhere on Earth another animal species goes extinct about every 20 minutes; that’s three an hour, 72 a day, 26,280 a year. By contrast, we continue to add more than 80 million humans each year, along with expanding our supply of domestic animals, squeezing more land into use for food (and fuel) production, and removing forests to make way for more of us.
The figure below shows countries where total fertility rates (TFR) have fallen to their lowest points. It takes a TFR of around 2.1 to replace a population, so all of these countries face declining populations in the future unless either their TFRs rise or immigration is sufficient to make up for the difference. These are not the only good news stories, however, nor are they the most populous countries with TFRs below replacement level, so I will focus attention on a few other examples.
Though the TFR is an excellent measure of fertility, it alone does not tell us whether a population is currently stable, increasing, or declining. For that we need to look at crude birth and death rates along with net migration rates. I’m going to consider three countries — Japan, Russia, and Germany — because of their sizable populations. These are populous countries that have considerable impacts on the global economy, on the use of resources (including fossil fuels) that drive that economy, and on the environment (from resource depletion and environmental degradation to climate change).
Each of these countries is going to face difficulties ahead and all are on demographic paths that will create problems never faced before by modern societies. I know pressure for maintaining economic growth in these countries will be tremendous, that aging populations will be great burdens on societies that will have fewer workers and more dependents, and that getting through the decades ahead will test humans in ways not known before. That said, however, I would argue that this decline of rich humans, with their massive demands on the environment, will be beneficial to nature. Like all other species, humans must come to grips with living in numbers that are in balance with the natural world. When any other species overshoots Earth’s carrying capacity, it ultimately pays a price: population decline, even a crash. Humans are no different.
Before looking more closely at these three countries, however, I want to return one last time to economics and introduce two very different views of population growth. First, because it has become the overwhelmingly dominant view today, I am reintroducing neoclassical economics (or what we might call Ponzinomics). As an example of this view, I call upon Tim Harford, author of The Logic of Life, published in 2008. This book contains more than a few illogical features. At the end of his book, with the cool hubris so characteristic of modern economists, Harford wrote that “[O]ur rational behavior can also produce wonders. The more of us there are in the world, living our logical lives, the better our chances of seeing out the next million years.” Don’t try to worry about how few other species there might be by then, just consider how many humans there might be. If you need an additional image, consider all the cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens there will be in order to provide all those humans with enough food to keep them healthy, wealthy, and wise. Harford provides no hint of how many more of us he’d like to see, so let’s consider a couple of simple examples.
In round figures the world is growing at 1.2 percent annually, which would, if continued, give it a doubling time of 58 years. That growth rate is gradually slowing, so to provide our first example let’s start by slowing the doubling time to 100 years. If we round the current world population off to 7 billion, which it will reach this year if strife in the Middle East or some other unforeseen event doesn’t lead to catastrophe, then we can make some simple calculations. By 2111 there would be 14 billion humans; by 3011, a thousand years from now, the population would be up to 7.168 trillion. Is there an economist in the world who wants to argue that Earth can handle that many people? What if we assume a much slower growth rate, so that our numbers double only every 1,000 years? Then it would take ten thousand years for our numbers to reach 7.168 trillion, still far short of the next million years. Keep in mind that Homo sapiens have already been around for about 200,000 years and we’re struggling to provide 7 billion of us with sufficient food, clothing, and shelter to lead decent lives. Ponzinomics makes no sense on a finite planet! It can work only in an era of cheap energy and only for a limited period of time.
Before neoclassical economics, there was classical economics, and its early adherents made much more sense than do most modern economists. As an example of this view, I call upon John Stuart Mill, author of Principles of Economics, published in 1848. Mill wrote:
There is room in the world, no doubt, and even in old countries, for a great increase of population, supposing the arts of life to go on improving, and capital to increase. But even if innocuous, I confess I see very little reason for desiring it. The density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages of cooperation and of social intercourse, has, in all the most populous countries, been attained. A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment.
It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world in which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal.
Presciently, he added that “If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.”
From either a human or an environmental perspective we would have been much better off had we remained with the classical economic model and rejected the neoclassical model, with its underlying assumption that growth can continue forever on our planet. What happened? Much of the answer is contained in two words: fossil fuels. We stumbled on ways to exploit the stored solar energy that had been created by natural forces over tens, sometimes even hundreds of millions of years of geological time. We’ve burned these fuels at ever faster rates, using them to finance a combined explosion of population and consumption. We’ve squandered them to pump up a population of humans that cannot be sustained, and now the bills are coming due. We cannot sustain our use of fossil fuels because their supply is finite.
I would like to think that depopulation in rich countries would decrease pressure on Earth’s environment and on natural resources, especially fossil fuels. Three populous countries will experience significant depopulation over the next four decades if population projections are correct.
Japan is Exhibit A. It is one of the world’s richest nations and a profligate importer of oil. The Population Reference Bureau projects that Japan’s population will decline from its current 127 million to 95 million by 2050. That decline will result from a combination of rising death rates, low fertility, and very low immigration. It will create internal problems, from how to keep the economy functioning to how to take care of all of those elderly. But a decline of 32 million people in one of the world’s richest countries would certainly decrease demand for numerous resources, including energy, and should place less pressure on Earth’s environment. From Earth’s perspective, it would be a good start. Though it remains the world’s third largest economy, that status is likely to decline.
Russia is another good example, in many ways a shadow of its former self but still a prominent player in the world economy, mainly as a supplier of oil and other natural resources. In 2006 Vladimir Putin told the Russian parliament that declining population is “The most acute problem of contemporary Russia.” He was right.
Nothing in the traditional demographic transition model could have predicted the course of demographic events in Russia in recent decades. Since 1991 the population has steadily declined and that decline shows no sign of abating. Not only has fertility dropped to a low level in recent years, Russia has also experienced a significant rise in mortality. With little immigration, and with birth rates below death rates for an extended period, the Russian population has already declined substantially. In 1991 Russia had around 148.7 million people; by 2010 that had declined to 141.9 million. The Population Reference Bureau projects a Russian population of 126.7 million by 2050.
Russia’s economy will experience a variety of difficulties in the years ahead, but its decline of more than 20 million people between 1991 and 2050 would probably bode well for the Russian environment, which sustained severe problems under the old Soviet Union regime.
Germany is one of the world’s leading economies today and is the driving force behind the European Union. However, like Japan and Russia, its demographic tide is shifting into the ebbing column. According to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office (2006):
In 2003, the size of Germany’s population began to decrease, because the birth deficit could no longer be offset by the falling migration balance in recent years. This trend will continue due to a further increase in the birth deficit in Germany. Although that does not rule out a possible growth of the population in some years, in the long run it will not be possible to compensate so high a death surplus by any migration balance of an imaginable size from today’s point of view.
Germany’s population was around 81.6 million in 2010; according to the Population Reference Bureau it will decline to 71.5 million in 2050. Germany’s Federal Statistics Office projected a 2050 population of 74 million, a bit more optimistic. In any case it looks as if Germany’s population may decline by somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million over the next four decades.
There is no reason to accept any of these projections. After all, we’re talking about four decades at a time of considerable uncertainty. Because per capita consumption is high in each of these countries, especially in Japan and Germany, a loss of more than 60 million people would seem to favor some release of pressure on environmental degradation, carbon dioxide emissions, and fossil fuels.
However, though population decline in these and other rich countries would be favorable from Earth’s viewpoint, these losses will be overwhelmed by population gains in the poor countries. The United Nations (2009) projected an increase in the world population from its current 6.9 billion or so to 9.15 billion (medium projection). No matter how you slice it, the loss of population in the rich countries, however advantageous they might be for the environment and for decreasing pressure on fossil fuels, will be drowned out by the addition of more than two billion people in the poor world, even though their per capita impacts will be far smaller.
According to the United Nations (2009):
Given the low fertility prevailing in developed countries, deaths are expected to exceed births over the foreseeable future. Consequently, the population of the more developed regions would be decreasing if the excess of deaths over births were not counterbalanced by a net migration gain. During 2010-2050, the net number of international migrants to more developed regions is projected to be 96 million, whereas the excess of deaths over births is 58 million, implying an overall growth of 38 million.
But the geography of demographic gains will be different than that of losses. For example, the U.S., already growing, is projected to receive about 40 million immigrants during the period. What we’ll do with them remains to be seen. If you’re wondering about where the U.S. population might be in 2050, the Population Reference Bureau projects 423 million, about 112 million more than we have today. Are you ready for that?
Both rich and poor nations will face increasingly difficult predicaments as the century wears on. Aging and the difficulty of caring for the elderly will be growing burdens in most rich countries; feeding rapidly growing populations will strain poor countries. Even as food prices are rising today, exacerbating hunger in poor countries and leading to food riots in various places, Americans are using about one-third of their corn crop to feed hungry SUVs and other vehicles, one of many indications that, as President George H. W. Bush said in Rio in 1992, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” At the same time, in rich countries that are facing population declines, most are searching for ways to encourage young women to have more children. Those that succeed will slow or even reverse those declines, adding their projected declines to the scrapheap of failed projections from the past.
Population decline in rich countries, though helpful for taking some pressure off resources, will in no way be sufficient to help us face the predicament that we’re in. If the loss of population in countries that are experiencing depopulation is small compared to the demographic gains that will occur overall, and if migration increases from poor to rich countries, as seems likely, then our population predicament will worsen. Further complicating our predicament will be what a growing number of people see as the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels. Though it saddens me to say it, because so much could be prevented if we tried, it looks like humans will not give up their current collision course with nature. Rather, we will let nature take its course, thinking all the time that we can escape its natural laws
Our decision to accept neoclassical economics as a blueprint for the care and maintenance of the world economy will prove to be a mistake. Like other members of the animal kingdom, humans cannot expand their numbers forever. Unlike other animals, we could have made decisions that might have prevented our current predicament, but we didn’t. We still could, but it seems unlikely. Choosing an economic system based on some of our worst characteristics, including greed and acquisitiveness, assured us that one day we would outgrow our planet. We have succeeded. We prefer competitiveness to cooperation, so realpolitik will be a major determinant of our future. Worldwide problems require worldwide solutions, and those could only come in an atmosphere of cooperation.
Physical growth is not sustainable, period. As John Michael Greer wrote recently, “Even the most elementary grasp of systems theory makes it instantly clear that there’s no meaningful sense of the adjective ‘sustainable’ that can cohabit with any meaningful sense of the noun ‘growth.’ In a system — any system, anywhere — growth is always unsustainable.” If we cannot control our numbers, nature will. The choice is ours.
No matter what we do to the Earth, it will survive. But to our planet, we are nothing, so if we meet the same fate as the Dodo we will not be missed. Traces of our ephemeral civilizations will remain, of course, but there will be no one to recognize or appreciate them.
Gary Peters received his Ph.D. in geography from Penn State in 1973, then spent most of his career teaching at California State University-Long Beach. In 1999, he took a position at Chico State University, from which he retired in 2001. Population geography is the primary focus of his career, and he co-authored the 1979 book Population Geography: Problems, Concepts, and Prospects (now in its ninth edition). Gary has long argued for control of the world’s population. We have added three billion people since he began teaching, suggesting his efforts have had no measurable impact.