Empty Planet: Why shrinking population could be the next big threat to geopolitics

Believe it or not, human population is shrinking globally, and it could be the next big threat to geopolitics and economies

The authors believe populations will decline even in high fertility areas like India (Image: BLOOMBERG)
The authors believe populations will decline even in high fertility areas like India (Image: BLOOMBERG)

By Srinivas Goli

Globally, shrinking population is the next biggest threat to sustainable development, as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson put forward in their new book, Empty Planet. Travelling across six continents, the authors interview dozens of experts and government officials to offer a readable survey of the history of the human population. “Right now, economic, social and demographic forces are pulling at you in ways you scarcely notice,” they observe in the context of changing demographics and its developmental implications. By courageously putting an end to existing popular Malthusian and neo-Malthusian concerns around overpopulation during 1940 to 1990, the book starts with a brief history of the evolution of human civilisations and global population decline. The authors elaborately review scholarly works that documented the pre-war era of balance in birth and death rate and natural checks in population growth, referring to volcanic eruptions, diseases and other calamities.

The book also nicely documents the history of industrial and medical innovations that ultimately helped fight epidemics and disease, leading to mortality reduction and population growth. The rise in populations quickly rang alarm bells for global leaders as early as the late 1960s. Paul Ehrlich, Donella Meadows and others saw population growth as a human catastrophe that depletes resources and overburdens the earth, reviving Malthusian fears. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb warned of impending, extensive famines as a result of human overpopulation, and such advocacy led to an immediate initiation of population control measures. Since then, world population growth is slowing, but demographers are uncertain what peak numbers it will reach, and when that will come about.
Bricker and Ibbitson concur with Malthus and Ehrlich that humankind is indeed facing an impending population catastrophe—but the problem isn’t overpopulation.

The fundamental contention of the authors of Empty Planet is that the world population will peak far lower and sooner than the United Nations Population Prospects (UNPP), because of a quicker-than-assumed decline in reproductive rates, and not because of any devastating increase in mortality, as advanced by Malthus, Ehrlich and company. The UN medium projection of population is 9.77 billion by 2050, rising to 11.18 billion by 2100. The book claims that an “increasing number of demographers from around the world believe that the United Nations estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak around 9 billion sometime between 2040 and 2060. By the end of this century we could be back to where we are right now”, which would be 7.6 or 7.7 billion.

However, even though the fertility rate is decreasing globally, it is still high in Africa. In other developing countries, even though fertility levels have reached replacement level, population will continue to grow for sometime because of the population momentum effect. However, the authors claim that UNPP estimates for 2100 are far higher than expected. They argue that changes in socio-economic conditions, especially ideational changes related to childbearing and quality versus quantity trade-off, will not allow the world population to rise to 11.18 billion by 2100. Such arguments are not supported by evidence based on relevant scientific exercises; rather it appears to be a perilous generalisation based on a few selective discussions with people.

Empty Planet Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson Hachette Pp 304, Rs 599
Empty Planet
Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson
Pp 304, Rs 599

However, I agree with the authors’ narration of the story of rapid population decline occurring in several countries and about to occur in rest of the world and its adverse consequences. “The great defining event of the 21st century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population begins to decline,” they write. For instance, much of the narrative on Europe and the East Asian Tigers (especially South Korea and Japan) by the authors clearly brings out a fact that population control is easier to achieve than raising the population size—once population starts declining, the reversal of the trend is very difficult. The book cites three prominent distal predictors of fertility decline—rise in educational levels, women’s empowerment and urbanisation, which further has an effect on increasing age of marriage, reduction in teenage pregnancy and rise in divorce and separation. This evidence is largely drawn from the historical description of the population from Europe.

Although, at a point, the authors say population decline isn’t a “good thing or a bad thing, but a big thing”, the discussion is more inclined towards the negative than positive consequences. Decreasing population growth means an ageing society, and this means a drastic change in the “seniors’ dependency ratio”, the number of working-age people needed to support each retired person. Today, there are roughly six working-age people for every one retired person, and as Bricker and Ibbitson write: “This is a positive ratio, and the world will be in good shape if it holds up. But we already know that it won’t.” Thus, population in Europe is greying continuously, their pro-population growth measures are hardly working. Economy and care-giving in Europe mostly depends on pro-immigration policies.

The authors observe that similar fertility levels and downward trend in places such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and even in high fertility zones as India and sub-Saharan Africa will persist in the future. The main reason Bricker and Ibbitson cite for this certainty is that the floor of the world’s basic affluence is gradually rising. Two things happen as a result: more women in developing countries are educated, and have more control over reproduction, and an increasing number of couples are either postponing having children or having far fewer children than their ancestors did. Taking Kenya as an example, the authors observe that ideational changes are occurring in Africa as in the rest of the world. They say, “If Kenya is typical of the path that Africa is on, then expecting African parents to produce the babies that people in other part of the world aren’t having is unrealistic.”

Declining birth rates will lead inevitably to greater immigration, drastic shifts in national economies and perhaps even more international developments. According to the book, population decline will shape the nature of war and peace as some countries age faster than others and geopolitical imbalances get worse. The book even adds a frightening implication: “The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.” The book hints towards the possibility of Asian giants (China and India) getting old before getting rich. Not just China and India, South Korea, referred as one of the East Asian Tigers largely because of its economic miracle, is facing a serious population crisis now.

The book intriguingly exposes changing priorities within the household economies and shifting focus from children to older population needs. The city councils around the world might debate changing empty schools into senior centres and more counselling centres for the older population. The authors also foresee “the return of the extended family: three generations living under one roof”. The USA is withstanding the global population threat because of immigration. Discussing recent immigration policy changes under President Donald Trump, the authors opine: “If Americans out of senseless and fear reject their immigrant tradition, turning backs on the world, then USA too will decline, in numbers, power and wealth.”

At the outset, Empty Planet makes the case that population decline is not only foreseeable, but by now well underway, and that it will be enduring—humankind will just go into terminal decline, no asteroid or other global catastrophe is required.

However, as a demographer, my takeaway is that the book is methodologically too simplistic and makes doubtful arguments. Moreover, looking at India’s population growth from 1981 to 2011, which was more than what was predicted by population experts’ projections after every census, I believe that answers to questions on population growth need a much robust technical basis and multitude of assumptions. Previously such arguments were made by Ehrlich, who had to correct himself after seeing that he was wrong. So, how far Bricker and Ibbitson are correct can only be realised in one way or the other by the generations to come.

Srinivas Goli is assistant professor of population studies, Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, JNU

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First published on: 19-05-2019 at 00:21 IST