Surprising, global population growth is set to slow, because of changes to birth rates that have already occurred. Clearly families are not the size they were even 50 years ago. So why have we not already seen a change in growth? Is growth really going to slow down?
The answer is that we have not seen the impact of the change in the size of families because of a lag, but yes, growth really will slow down. In some place population growth has already halted or the population even started to contract. The impact is actually being felt already and we are not coping right in the places where the slow down is happening!
The key point here is that we need a rethink of our whole economic system, or it risks huge recessions and collapse as the system is currently effectively a Ponzi scheme. All Ponzi schemes collapse when growth halts.
A look at any graph of human population shows a flat line, flat line, flat line and then WHAM, population takes off around the year 1700. Most of us are aware of the huge recent growth, but what most are not aware of is that the engine driving that growth has already been stopped and unless it is restarted this population growth ship will come to a halt. As an individual there is little we can do to influence this, but the implications of this abrupt (in the scale of time 40 years is quite abrupt) halt will affect much of our life including economic decisions, education decisions and even where we and our children should live. Not just which country, but where in that country. The halt will also affect which occupations are the best choice for our children, and also provides a key insight into what investments are sound. Difficult to believe? Read more.This page is an introduction to a series of posts investigation future population from all aspects: economic, environmental, ethical.
The Surprise finding.
I started on the population topic in response to hearing the economist point of view that ‘a prosperous future can only built on continual population growth’. Can we really grow forever or is there a limit? This is a complex question but we cannot grow at recent rates forever. The big surprise came when I learnt that decline in family sizes needed to stop growth has already occurred for most of the world. Families across the globe are simply much much smaller than they were 100 or even 50 years ago.
So where is the ‘halt’ if population has not already dropped?
We do not see this reflected in total population levels yet because of a natural lag and a ‘catch 22’ effect that delays the impact. The first impact of a drop in birth rates is an ageing population and a lower number of young people occurs before overall population drops. Look at Japan with a 25% drop of 0-14 year olds going back 20 years before any overall population halt was revealed in total population.
However the same ‘catch 22’ (discussed in another population post) where immigration can hide underlying population halt means that means that the impact of this drop in birth rates may be delayed even further in some countries, but hit even more dramatically, depending on government policies.
What is the uncertainty of the prediction of an end to the population explosion? Every prediction has assumptions, and in this case the only real assumption is no medical breakthrough to prolong life indefinitely. However, the engine driving growth has been largely switch off, but the ship has not yet stopped. We still have some population growth to live with before this ships stops, and many see that growth as a huge problem.
If a medical breakthrough tomorrow, enabling an end to age related deaths occurred then, of course the drop in birth rates would do little to ease population growth.
Population growth would also resume if birth rates could overnight return to the levels of around 1900, but that would still take around 50 years to have an impact, so we would at least temporarily, still have a halt to the population explosion. The important point here is any thing that effects only one age group, takes a long time to ripple through the entire population. Birth rates affect only the number of 0-5 year olds immediately. Disease or war can kill people of all ages, but a change in birth rates can only affect the very young immediately. So barring something causes people of all ages to die, the number of people on earth for the next 30 or 40 years is relatively easy to predict. The number of 40 years olds in 40 years can only come from the number of people born today. So a pause in growth is locked in by the already lower population of 0-14 years olds in most countries. No other possible outcome.
What will be the response? There are economists and others who argue that we must do what ever we to keep the population growing for economic reasons. The same people will seek steps to reverse the birth decline and resume growth. Surprisingly, there are pockets where the slow down is already being felt and is actually creating significant economic problems for an economic system designed around population growth .
Does this mean that population growth will stop globally? : Slow yes, but stop? Maybe no, maybe yes. Whilst developed nations with education women no longer are growing their own populations, there are still countries remaining with internal population growth, and emigrants from these countries can still grow the population as immigrants to other countries. An actual ‘stop’ requires the trend from developed nations to spread further.
Environmental outlook: From an environmental outlook the planet has overreached in population already and while news of imminent cessation of rapid population growth will be welcome, it cannot possibly come soon enough. Any possible steps to further limit maximum population should be taken.
Overall: There is little that people have ever by plan to significantly impact birth rates other than the rather totalitarian ‘one child policy’. More palatable steps to alter population appear to have been largely ineffective so far. But the levelling of population is inevitable until civilisation can find and reach new territories to colonise on a real scale. It is most fortunate that the levelling has started, but we need to embrace this levelling and focus on adjusting rather than resisting.
The Future. Our economy has evolved and adapted to an environment of rapid population growth over the last 300 years. Population growth driven by a birth rate that has already dropped to levels ensuring the end of the rapid growth phase for all of the developed world. Economists argue that we need to undo the drop in birth rates, but it is actually too late all that could possible be achieved is to stall the inevitable. The alternative is to look at how and why our economy is linked to population growth. The dependency on population growth suggest perhaps we are in the short term rewarding the wrong outcomes and the system is inherently unstable anyway. Environmentalist would argue that the destruction of the natural environment is unsustainable in any event. In fact we have already passed the level of human impact on the Earth that is sustainable. If any steps are taken they should be to assist the countries who birth rates are still high to join the rest of the world sooner. Where we stall the decline in growth or assist it. This decline in growth is already in motion and in truth necessary for the planet. Steps to fight the decline so far have largely failed and they may be little we can do to bring forward or delay a change we did not intentionally commence. But we do need a new economic system. The current system gives high grades to countries countering naturally falling domestic populations through immigration like Australia, Canada and the USA whilst automatically declaring a failure and economy already dealing with population decline like Japan or the USA. Economists recognise that a stable or declining population leads to poor economic indicators under our current system. This article in Forbes magazine ‘What’s Really Behind Europe’s Decline? It’s The Birth Rates, Stupid’ reflects this. What author misses is the birth rate in the USA is also below replacement level, and it is immigration that improves the results of the economy of the USA. It should read ‘it is the immigration rates, stupid’. But of course every country cannot be supported by immigration, because someone has to supply the immigrants. Which is part of why the whole system breaks down. If the GFC looked bad, just wait until the unravelling spreads if we do not quickly rewrite the rules.