Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Coming Population Crash

When was the last time you heard good news about world population? Have you ever? If you are anywhere near my age (which I’ll let you guess at), you have spent most of your life with the understanding that the human population was, sooner or later, going to overwhelm the earth’s resources with catastrophic consequences. For many, like me, the alarm was sounded quite loudly in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the bestselling book, The Population Bomb. I also became aware of a new movement that intended to deal with this dire threat called Zero Population Growth, which I took to heart. I believed in its central tenet: that we as individuals needed to limit our children to the replacement level of two per couple.

And then…, well, life went on.

I went to college; I got a job; I got married; I had my two children; and, although I never forgot the idea, it dawned on me at some point in the last 30 years that I wasn’t hearing anything anymore about population. Environmental crises came and went, like the hole in the ozone layer. Some came and stayed, like global warming. Species of animals continued to expire at accelerating rates. And I kept wondering why population wasn’t part of the conversation anymore. Was it just me?

Well, along comes Fred Pearce, who has written a new book called The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. It’s the best, and most optimistic, book about the environment that I’ve read in a very long time. According to Pearce, who makes a very compelling case indeed, a lot of people around the globe took Ehrlich’s warning very seriously indeed, including our own government. While China’s infamous and draconian one child policy has gotten plenty of press, I hadn’t known how successfully the world had downshifted from its twentieth century population surge until I read this book. And I’ve been paying attention.

It turns out that population control policies and programs that lacked the publicity of China’s were instituted all over the world. Pearce pegs the current fertility rate at 2.6 per woman, which is down about half from 1968 levels. And in many places in the world, especially Europe, the rate is much lower—below replacement levels. But one of the most interesting stories in a book full of interesting stories is the one about why this is happening. It’s not because of any government policies or non-profit organization’s programs. It’s about free choice. Women—individuals—have turned the tide.

We are not out of the woods. Pearce predicts that human numbers will continue to grow until approximately 2040 and peak a bit over 8 billion before starting to decline. The situation is, of course, much more complex than these simple statistics, since in some parts of the world population, in terms of new births, is already declining while in others it continues to climb. The obvious solution to this—migration—is already causing political discomfort, not only in the U.S. but many other places. That’s a chapter that deserves an entire book of its own.

Although on balance I think this book is excellent and important, I do have two bones to pick. His thesis and analysis are both entirely anthropocentric. All of his fascinating stories are about the human population, its past, present, and probably future. He ignores the still dwindling numbers of other species and the effect that our species is having on others while all this demographic upheaval is taking place. This may be a deliberate oversight, due to a desire for brevity.

My other concern is more significant, I think, because it may undermine his optimism: he ignores, unwisely in my opinion, the dominant economic paradigm of our global culture, which is market capitalism based on growth. How can the world economy continue to grow if the population begins to decline? I am personally skeptical about this model. I don’t think an economy based on growth is any more sustainable than population growth. Endless growth requires resource exploitation and avoids the consequential environmental costs whenever possible. I would like to see Pearce include an economic argument that justifies his optimism about the future decline in population.

But I quibble. Read the book! I’ve left out his delightful conclusion about why it’s a good thing that world population will soon be made up of proportionately more old people than young ones for the first time in the history of the world.

You can buy the book from its publisher, Beacon Press, by clicking here.


  1. Hi Eddee -- the book sounds fascinating, though your critiques make me wonder how valid his analysis is. But I appreciate the recommendation and the publisher (of course!)

  2. Thank you for making those two points - the very same points that occured to me also. Sure population may begin to eventually decline, but that relies on more and more of the worlds population reaching the same standard of living that I enjoy in Australia where I can afford to decide not to have children.

    Unfortunately for everyone to share my standard of living we'd need at least FOUR planets. To sustain this lifestyle we are borrowing from the planet already, by the time population start naturally declining the earth will be long past the point where it can sustain anything like 8 billion.

    And of course the economic basis for our civilisation requires continual growth and that requires a continual increase in population.

    These two facts make the chance of a soft landing highly unlikely. I still think that 'crash' is the more likely scenario.

  3. We can wish for all of us to have a good standard of living, but that isn't governing the population change.

    The ultra-poor of Bangladesh are reducing the size of their families. You see women with twenty-something siblings having three, two, sometimes no children.

  4. I agree. Beyond the Have-Nots' quest for better living standards, the imperative for growth that flows from the Haves' debt-based economy today makes it difficult to visualize a reduced consumption, use of energy and other resources, even when world population levels off.