Demographics, Declining Populations and Our Environment

Occasionally I encounter an article that discusses the demographic catastrophe that is befalling one or more of the developed nations that has a declining population, such as Japan or Italy. These articles rightly point out the problems that a population with a growing number of elderly and a smaller number of young people encounter. The economic systems that have been developed in most developed countries were created in the context of a small elderly population and a large young population. As this changes, these economic systems cease to function properly.
Yesterday's Washington Post had a similar article. The New York Times ran a long article last year on this topic.

This Post one had an interesting twist, however. It reported on research that seems to indicate that some highly developed nations are reversing the trend that as a country becomes more developed the lower its birthrate. The journalist and those quoted in the article universally praise this as a positive: "Now, however, new research has produced the first glimmer of hope that economic prosperity may not be linked to an inexorable decline in fertility."

Never once have I read one of these articles that also looks at the big picture of how the long-term demographics affect our environment. They tend to focus entirely on economics. Yet this is absurd. Even if you do not believe that the 6.7 billion people on the planet are already straining our planet's sustainability, adding more and more indefinitely into the future just to support an unsustainable economic system is impossible. Even if we were to achieve the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman that sociologists and economists tout, our population would still grow from demographic inertia for a while. Then we'd end up with a permanent population of 7-9 billion people. That's just too many.

What we need to be doing instead of trying to reverse these demographic trends is to learn from them. The experience of Japan and Italy is the experience that the whole world is going to have sometime later in this century. The UN predicts that population as a whole will peak in about 2050 and then start declining. This is good for our planet, but doesn't work well with our economic systems. So, hello! Let's start figuring out how to transform our economic systems to work with a shrinking population rather than pushing on the population to match our economic systems.

Listen, the population we already have has reduced fish catch by 90% over the last 50 years. Fisheries worldwide are collapsing. We've destroyed our ozone layer for about 100 years (thankfully it's healing). We're reorganizing our climate to the detriment of hundreds of millions. We've created the 6th great extinction. We've acidified our oceans. Etc. All of these problems are either created by or exacerbated by more people.

So, we need to embrace the idea of shrinking population, not wring our hands over it. We can either be deliberate about planning our future here on earth or we can let crisis after crisis dictate what happens to us. I for one prefer the more deliberate and thoughtful approach.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with embracing the idea of a shrinking population is that the idea carries with it a horrific toll of human suffering. We humans were designed to have babies. The only sensible way forward is to reverse the current trend of population decline in rich, industrialized countries. But it may be too late.