For years we have been told by scientific elites and United Nations reports that a growing planetary population will soon overwhelm the earth’s resources. As the population grows, more and more lands are allocated for urbanization, taking up resources that could be used for agriculture. On top of this, the wastes and pollution resulting from human activity speed up the degradation and deterioration of resources.
The Global Footprint Network estimates that the current population requires resources equivalent to that of over 1.6 Earths. Moreover, the UN projects that our population may balloon to upwards of 8.5 billion by 2030.
However, a growing number of demographers are sounding a different kind of alarm. They argue the global population is headed for a steep decline.
Canadian social scientist Darrell Bricker and journalist John Ibbitson, the authors of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, make the provocative argument that, in roughly three decades, the global population will begin to decline, dramatically reshaping the social, political, and economic landscape. Once that decline begins, it will never end.
Amidst warnings of overpopulation, such a trend might seem like a good thing, especially for the environment. However, they argue that declining population will also lead to massive economic upheaval, with fewer people available each year to buy houses and cars and baby strollers, and fewer taxpayers available to support the health-care needs of an aging population.
For most of history, population decline has been the result of catastrophe — environmental events, famine or disease. Now, however, fertility rates are falling for a different reason: people are choosing to have fewer children.
Bricker and Ibbitson argue that the planet faces not a population bomb, but a population bust.
“We polled 26 countries asking women how many kids they want and, no matter where you go, the answer tends to be around two,” Ibbitson said in a new interview with Wired. “The external forces that used to dictate people having bigger families are disappearing everywhere. Also, that is happening fastest in developing countries.”
They also address that a smaller global population will bring with it many benefits: fewer workers will command higher wages, the environment will improve, the risk of famine will wane and falling birthrates in the developing world will bring greater affluence and autonomy for women.
However, enormous disruption lies ahead, too.
“We can already see the effects in Europe and parts of Asia, as aging populations and worker shortages weaken the economy and impose crippling demands on health care and social security, they explained. “The United States and Canada are well-positioned to navigate these coming demographic shifts successfully – that is, unless growing isolationism leads us to close ourselves off, just as openness becomes more critical to our survival than ever,”
Bricker and Ibbitson also assert that, to combat depopulation, nations must embrace both values, though the first is difficult and the second, for some, may prove impossible.
On the other hand, Harvard University Graduate School of Design research professor Richard Forman and professor of sustainability science at Arizona State University Jianguo Wu wrote a call for global and regional urban planning approaches. They say that existing communities are built in the wrong places; that those places should have been allocated for nature and agriculture. Most settlements began on good agricultural soil near a body of fresh water and natural vegetation, they wrote in Nature.
Regardless of which side people take on the issue — whether we are headed for overpopulation of Earth or a declining population that will produce its own upheavals — more research and consultation will be needed in the years to come. The future of the planet will depend on it.