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WILL THERE BE A “POPULATION BUST”?
by Dr. Jay Lehr & Tom Harris, ©2020
(Feb. 28, 2020) — For thousands of years philosophers have wrung their hands because of fears about the supposed negative impacts of population growth on life as they knew it. In the 5th century BC Confucius argued that population increases would reduce the quality of life. In Ancient Greece both Plato and Aristotle maintained that a growing population was not sustainable for their resources. In the second century AD Christian philosopher Tertullian, worried that Carthage, with its “teeming population,” was becoming unsustainably “burdensome to the world”.
But none of the warnings had much impact on modern society until Dr. Paul Ehrlich, formerly a butterfly biologist at Stanford University, successfully scared the world with his 1968 book The Population Bomb. In it, he attempted to convince readers that the English economist, Thomas Malthus, was right in predicting the end of the world back in 1798.
As a result of his highly inaccurate publication, Ehrlich was awarded a MacArthur Genius Award. This gave him prominent platforms from which to give annual predictions of doom and gloom, 100% of which proved false. Now 87, Ehrlich maintains he has been right all along, just off in the timing. It reminds one of global warming activists who brush aside their numerous errors by claiming that only their timing is off.
Now it is the turn of the population alarmists led by the United Nations with their prediction of 11 billion by the end of this century, who are about to have egg on their faces. The demographers, who study population trends, are now certain that, not only will we not reach that number, but instead predict the world’s population will begin to decline before we reach 9 billion.
In the near term, a decline in population is a benefit, relieving pressure on the environment and the Earth’s resources. However, the economic models of our future will require a total rebuild. We need to prepare not for the consequences of a population boom, but a population bust. Market economics failed to topple Chinese communism, but the potential halving of its population by the end of the century just might. Their 30-year program of allowing no more than two children per family actually resulted in a lowering of the average birth rate to less than one child per family. When accounting for single-child families, multi-child families and the no-child families, who decided life was easier without any children, the birth rate in China is now actually 0.7 per family. The UK-based newspaper, The Independent, reports:
“In January, a government-affiliated think tank warned that the population in the world’s second-biggest economy could start to shrink as soon as 2027.”
The following graph illustrates what is happening in China:
Even in Africa, there is encouraging evidence of population decline, where Kenya, for example, has halved its birth rate in recent decades. Women are marrying later, getting an education and then entering the work force. As a result of these three factors, not a single country in the developed world even has a replacement birth rate (2.1 children per woman, according to the UN Population Division) any longer. The United States will continue to grow a little as a result of immigration. India’s rapidly growing population has finally slowed and may one day stabilize.
Economically, we can expect countries to struggle with fewer young workers and taxpayers. Automation will help but robots don’t buy refrigerators or smart clothes for the office party. Consumption is the bedrock of any economy. Growth in every way has carried economics and industries forward for generations. Job growth will eventually stop and staying much longer in one job will very likely become common.
Happily, we likely have as much as three decades before the effects of declining birth rates will be evident on the size of most countries’ populations. Many nations will have experienced stability long enough for governments to study how they have managed their economies. It is clearly going to be a new world for economics but likely something societies can deal with.
Dr. Jay Lehr is Senior Policy Advisor with the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition. Tom Harris is Executive Director of ICSC.