Concerns with out-of-control or exponential population growth, and suggested efforts at population reduction, may be missing the mark altogether. It would seem that not only are we not expanding beyond control - the world population is actually declining significantly in the long-term

In the United States, the necessary fertility rate which ensures that the balance of those born and those dying (often called the replacement rate) is maintained, stands at 2.1. In other words, each adult man or woman must be replaced by 2.1 children, if we are to maintain the current world population total. The current fertility rate within the United States, however, which has been below the replacement rate for 25 years, currently stands at 2.0, and is projected to continue to decline.

This is not a trend endemic to the United States - it's actually far worse in other developed nations. The world as a whole has fallen beneath the global replacement rate, from a fertility rate of 5.0 only 30 years ago to 2.7. Within Germany, Italy, and Japan, where it's estimated that by 2050, those over 80 will outnumber those under 20, the rate is far lower. Even in China and Brazil, the replacement rate has fallen under 2.2. By 2030, it is estimated that the elderly will compose nearly 25% of the total population. In contrast, the elderly made up only about 9% of the population only forty years ago. The inevitable sociopolitical effects of this trend should be self-evident. The elderly, as the principal consumers of govermental health care services, will put an incredible demand upon social systems which will be funded by a correspondingly smaller base of taxpayers.

As an article in the November 2001 Economist points out, the combination of the disproportionately large number of elderly and the shrinking youth populations is a sociological statistic which hasn't occurred since the final days of the Roman Empire. This fact alone should be a cause for significant unease

Markets will change drastically as advertising efforts shift to the middle-aged and elderly, and the economic climate will alter in no less significant ways, since the growth of family structures, which have been the primary market-driving force to this point, will become far less of a motivating factor in commerce. The author of the article also stresses the importance that immigration will take on, especially among the highly educated knowledge workers - including most professionals, university professors, IT specialists, and business executives.

Particularly worrisome is the fact that existing social support mechanisms (like social security in the US) will need to be reformed, but that reform will take place in a political climate increasingly dominated by the interests of the elderly -- who are supported by the very systems that will need to be changed! Anyone familiar with issues in change management can understand that this places a very critical issue within democratic nations into one of the worst categories in terms of resistance to change, asking the people who are dependent upon a system - some for their very survival - to approve initiatives which would make wide-scale changes and re-engineerings of that very system.

This, of course, is not even taking into account the increasing longevity of the race, nor the possible revolutions in medical technology which could significantly affect health and longevity within the next 30-50 years, when we will actually be experiencing the effects of these fertility rates.

It's not necessary for us to consider the fall below the replacement rate, except in the extreme long-term, as a cause for the downfall of society or the surefire path to extinction of the human race! It's perfectly plausable to have a smaller world population - but on the basis of pure statistics, this is the political environment which we who reside in democratic, developed nations will have to overcome if we're to implement social policy which can effectively deal with these realities.

sources used:
Drucker, Peter, "The Next Society", The Economist, November 2001.

One spectre that has long haunted the environmental debate is that of population size. Partly, that controversy seems to derive from some of the extremely dodgy characters who have made it a top concern. Plenty of very ill-informed commentators have based doomsday scenarios around population growth figures. Still, there are reasonable people taking a similar line and it does seem intuitively obvious that fewer human beings would put less strain on limited resources, all else being equal. Particularly among those who want to 'make poverty history' (a noble goal, though only possible when poverty is measured in absolute terms), it seems clear that six billion people simply cannot live at the level of affluence of today's richest, barring some massive change in the way resources are acquired and transformed into goods.

The classic environmental liberal argument says that as people become richer, their family sizes start to fall. This may be because they are better educated and women gain both access to birth control and the knowledge and freedom to use it. It may be because people in relatively undeveloped economies use large families as a strategy to avoid poverty in old age. With the advent of banking, pensions, and the like, the need to do so diminishes. The evidence for slowing population growth is certainly strong, with the UN projecting that the human population will peak sometime around 2050.

For me, the absolute number of people on the planet is obviously far less important than the conditions under which they live. At one point in human history, after the Toba eruption, there may have been as few as 2000 human beings on the planet: living in conditions similar to those of a nuclear winter. Obviously, population size and quality of life are not perfectly correlated. By that metric, population can perhaps best be thought of in terms of the effect it has on people's lives: especially those of women and the poor. The Rawlsian strategy of focusing on the effect on the least advantaged does have an intuitive moral appeal to it.

The great appeal of the 'greater knowledge and empowerment leads to use of birth control and slowing population growth rates' argument is that it serves both the goal of reducing eventual population and the much more immediate goal of helping women to be in control of their reproductive lives, as well as their lives more generally. Given how a hugely disproportionate amount of injustice is directed towards women worldwide, and given the huge inherent dangers in childbirth, even in the rich world, this seems an almost universally appealing kind of development.

One last fallacy should be addressed, in closing, though it's one well covered enough already that I doubt it will be unfamiliar to anyone. It's not the countries that have hundreds of millions of poor people that are using the majority of available resources. Patterns of consumption are not only too high, when it comes to limited resources, but dramatically skewed towards the richest consumers. Each year, humanity as a whole uses as much oil as forms naturally in about 400 years. Taking a look at who is benefitting from that, it is unjust as well as unsustainable.

I suppose the safe, but less than entirely satisfying, conclusion is that we can't take an issue like population and make sweeping generalizations about it, without more cautious consideration of what the important aspects of the situation are and how they relate to moral judgments and non-moral facts. Still, it's not a thing we should shy away from discussing, just because some of the questions and implications are uncomfortable.

This article is also featured on my blog:

Information on the Toba eruption at:

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