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The New Old World Part 2

“The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone.” Vaclav Smil

“We are in a bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption that could push half of Earth’s species to extinction in this century.” E.O. Wilson 

“Overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the well-being of many people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet of ours.”  Albert Einstein

The great defining event of the twenty-first century — one of the great defining events in human history — will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust — a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker, “Empty Planet

I am not normally a “Debbie Downer” when it comes to writing the More than Meets the Eye Digest each week. As an analyst, I am trained to look at trends, patterns, and probabilities, and I strive to share my insights objectively for the edification of my readers. But this week I am going to discuss some things that, as I look at them, seem depressingly inevitable, unless something happens as a result of God’s intervention. In continuation of last week’s look at the aging of humanity, this week we will explore the potential global ramifications of depopulation.

As you opened this week’s article, you may have noticed the disparate nature of the featured quotes. There is a well-established tradition in the social sciences and, more generally, in the popular media to worry about the harmful impacts of excessive population growth. Demographers indicate that to maintain a constant population, we need to have a total fertility rate of 2.1. Almost half of the world’s population now lives in countries with fertility rates (or otherwise known as replacement rates) below 2.1. The clear implication is that instead of worrying about excessive population growth, we ought to be concerned about global shrinkage.


So the operative questions for this issue of More than Meets the Eye are these: “Is humanity approaching a population boom or a population bust?”, and “What are the looming ramifications we as humans are facing?”These are significant questions, indeed, and the implications of not seeing it could be staggering.

According to the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), the world population has increased from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion today. The world population growth rate declined from 2.2% per year 60 years ago to 1.05% per year. That, in a two-sentence nutshell, is the dilemma. It is this dilemma that we need to unpack to fully understand the significance of what is happening, and what future awaits humanity as a result.

My thesis in this study is that while the human population on earth has been steadily growing for thousands of years. and will continue to do so for another 30 years, mankind is rapidly approaching a precipice of negative growth (also known as decay) that will define the foreseeable future. Over the last 6 decades, human population growth has already decreased from a 2.2% annual growth rate to a number less than half of that to 1.05%, a relatively brief period of time when placed within the context of human history.

When one follows the graph, one can quickly recognize that it will take less than 50 years to half our growth rate again, at which point humanity will begin its decline into a negative growth rate (a rate that could eventually lead to zero humans remaining on earth). Please note that I am speaking only statistically here and not necessarily from a position of conviction, as I believe there are a host of other possibilities which could lead to an apocalyptic conclusion.

For many, this will seem like a huge blessing. There are many voices that, for years, have been opining that the human population is too large and is depleting the earth’s resources at an exponential rate. I won’t argue with that. Without getting into the details of how scientists arrive at what is called an “optimum human population” number, a study conducted in 1994 by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (Stanford University) and Gretchen (University of California-Berkeley) identified the optimum human population lies in the vicinity of 1.5 billion to 2 billion people, less than a third of the present number of human occupants. I am going to leave it at that, but click the citation above and you can read the Executive summary of the study.

So, even as I write this article, one can easily see that population shrinkage seems like a good thing. There are a host of reasons, however, why this may not be the nirvanic solution that one might suspect.

So what does the data look like? I want to remind us once again. Global population growth reached a peak in 1962 and 1963 with an annual growth rate of 2.2%; but since then, world population growth has halved. For more than half of the last century we have lived in a world where the population growth rate has been declining, and the UN projects that this decline will continue in the coming decades.

According to the United Nations, we are on the way to a new balance. The big global demographic transition that the world entered more than two centuries ago is then coming to an end: This new equilibrium is different from the one in the past when it was the very high mortality that kept population growth in check. In the new balance, it will be low fertility that keeps population changes small. In this edition of More than Meets the Eyewe will see how “dwindling populations create their own inexorable logic.

What are some of the ramifications of this “demographic transition” transition?

  1. The number of children will barely increase and then start to decline. The fertility rate is the parameter that matters most for population changes – it is the strongest determinant. As a country gets richer (or ‘more developed’), fertility rates tend to fall.
  2. The number of people of working age and old age will substantially increase.
  3. As global health is improving and mortality is falling, the people alive today are expected to live longer than any generation before us.
  4. No matter how hard the citizens work, if they do not have an adequate number of children to replace them, countries will sink into a workforce crisis.
  5. If current trends continue, Japan’s existing 126 million-strong population will reduce to 53 million by 2050 as Italy’s 60 million population will decrease to less than 30 million, according to the study’s predictions.
  6. At the end of the 21st century, China’s population could diminish to 732 million, which is almost half of its current population, leaving Beijing to face a severe shortage of workforce, much needed for both global and national demand.
  7. In 2020, experts said that the Russian population of 146.7 million decreased by 700,000, amounting to a drop of nearly 0.5 percent. According to the UN, the Russian population might decline to nearly 84 million at the end of the 21st century.
  8. Economic growth ultimately comes from new ideas, and the discovery of new ideas depends on the number of people researching them. If populations begin to decline at the global level, it would mean ever fewer people devoted to research and thus ever slower progress, at a time when new technologies already seem to have become harder to find.
  9. As the populations are getting older, Global health care costs will rise.
  10. With fewer people in the workforce, tax collections will decline.
  11. Houses will become empty.
  12. Schools will close.
  13. The need for roads, bridges, dams, and airports will decline.
  14. How will governments cope with declining revenues as tax bases no longer increase and new short-term expenses supplant capital expenses?

When growth and expansion are no longer automatic when populations are all growing older, and whenever larger numbers of us are no longer productive but instead need constant care, what happens to the social structures and the economic theory, and the well-being of societies as a whole?


 In 1937, John Maynard Keynes gave a lecture on “Some Economic Consequences of a Declining Population”. Many at the time felt the world was overpopulated and fewer people could only be a good thing, a view that Keynes himself shared. But the purpose of his lecture was to issue a warning: declining populations come with nasty economic side effects.

Depopulation is a major problem that the world in general, and its wealthier countries in particular, are failing even to discuss, much less address. In any given year, in any given country, a shrinking population may not be much of an issue, and it may even be welcomed. But make no mistake: Over time, collectively, we are choosing a very different future for humanity.

In this week’s article, I have not attempted to solve any problems. What I hope I have done is to wave a flag of warning. So many of us are living in a world where we believe that one of our most significant problems is ”overpopulation.” What I hope I have done is at least whetted your appetite to look deeper into this matter. It is almost impossible to be a part of a solution to a problem if your understanding of the problem is the opposite of reality.


The reality of negative human population growth is one that ought to get people talking. It may not happen tomorrow or next year, but the trends and patterns are sufficient enough to indicate some veracity that needs to be further explored. Why does this matter? It matters for the world that we will leave to our children, our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children. The evidence is too substantial to just assume that it will sort itself out without a lot of thinking and preparation.

Check out the data. Look at my sources. I want you to know based on your reading what is accurate and what is not. If I am wrong, show me and I will happily recant what I have written. I welcome the correction.

The follow-up.

Understanding Israel’s Destruction of Hamas’ “Metro”…

Prey: Immigration, Islam and the Erosion of Women’s Rights …

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


World Bank (2016) Global Monitoring Report 2015/2016: Development Goals in an Era of Demographic Change.


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