One Finite Planet

The population ‘catch 22’

Abstract: There is a population ‘catch 22’ in that some countries with underlying  population reduction continue to grow their population through immigration because these same countries are most attractive to potential immigrants. This hides the underlying population reduction, and produces an illusion that populations always grow. If you read this, chances are you live in a country that is reversing an underlying population reduction through immigration. The population growth through immigration hides the fact that outside, more and more countries are also moving underlying population reduction, which will in turn turn off the net supply of immigrants, and require a dramatic rethink to managing population numbers.

What countries have an underlying population reduction?

In the examination of the feasibility of achieving population decrease I discussed how many countries have birth rates below level needed to sustain current population levels and currently are only growing if at all through immigration.

There are several sources of data on birth rates, for example the CIA fact-book (was most up to date, but data now in a strange form) and woldbank.org (most comprehensive).  Levels below around 2.1 would see a drop in population if not for other factors such as immigration.

The data here is the underlying growth before immigration.  So this data determine underlying population growth.

Data from locations from all of Europe overall shows levels below the sustain level. For example simply looking at locations and finding figures at random yields: United Kingdom (1.7), France(1.9), Germany(1.43),  Italy(1.42), Spain(1.48), Sweden(1.88).

Note: Figures below for USA and Mexico updated with Feb 2021 data.

In North America, the USA is reducing at 2.01 1.7, as is Canada at 1.59 and while Mexico at 2.29 2.1 is marginally growing in underlying population.  In south America, Brazil is contracting at 1.79 but whether other countries are increasing population is still is open to opinion.  The birth rate data I have says they still should be growing, but I read reports of declining populations.  Emigration? Possibly, so I will leave it as the rest of Latin America still in positive natural growth.

Japan (1.40) and China (1.55) have been at low levels for some time while Indonesia (2.18) and India (2.51) are still growing.

Why do we not have population contraction already?
I have already covered ‘lag’ in the ‘population growth lag’ post, but it takes a life-time of lower birth-rates to result in contraction, which means there could be another 50 years until peak population.  Population contraction first shows in the younger age groups, and we do already have population reductions in younger age groups in key countries.  Well before total population figures reveal the impact, there is already significant reduction. Look at a graph of global population growth, and the now all graphs already reveal the exponential growth has slowed. There are countries where birth rates peaked earlier, and these countries provide a glimpse of the global future.   I will use China and Japan as key examples.

China has had births below replacement rate for 25 years now and very low rates since the mid 90s.  So how come the population is still growing and projected  to keep growing until around 2030?  Japan has had an even lower birth rate, and a low rate since before the 1970s, but was rising in total population until 2005 and relatively was flat until 2010. Only now is the Japan total population falling, and only slightly.

Neither of these countries is a significant destination for immigration.  The discrepancy between birth rate and actual population is all due to lag.

China may still be growing in total, but consider the figures for the 0..14 age group.  From a peak of 356 million in the mid 1970s, to 261 million in 2010.  A drop of over 25%. (Source data and graph).  Japan shows an even more dramatic decline with a 25% drop in the 20 years to 2010 alone. Both Japan and China will see this drop reflected in their total population as this 0-14 group becomes adult.  The drop is already locked in and the decline in Japan born Japanese and China born Chinese in inevitable now.

So there is typically  40 years in advance signal before the overall population starts to fall.  The effect is like a time bomb and every one knows the timing and how to freeze the timer on the bomb.  If you have the means and the desire to freeze the timer on the bomb, there is plenty of time.

The impact of immigration.
The technique to freeze the clock on the bomb is immigration.  Using people ‘prepared earlier’ means that the fix is far quicker than the flow through from low birth rates.  The means even with the natural population growth engine switched off, the population can grow beyond the lag period.   Significant immigration requires a lot of people to want to immigrate.  As there is some correlation between living standards and low birth rates, almost all countries facing low birth rates have the means to delay  population reductions should they wish.

Economically, almost all countries do wish to avoid population reduction at this time, so given almost all have the means as well, expect actual to population reduction to be very rare while immigration is still a viable solution.  Therefore the global population to continue to climb. ‘Catch 22’.

But also expect the sources of immigration run out.  The most significant destinations for immigration, Australia Canada and the USA, have still been gaining most immigrants from counties just now starting to feel the impact of the ‘lag’ period reaching the end of the lag.  And when immigration sources  run out, then the timer on the bomb resumes.  For everyone. So the real ‘Catch 22’ is that the problem is delayed until all face it at the same time and on a massive scale.  If the remaining time is all used focused on slowing the timer, then countries will be unprepared.   The economic shock from the bomb going off will be very significant unless radical steps are taken to adjust.   The world can be a much better place after this adjustment.  I just hope that is how it plays out.

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