By Anders Lorenzen
The world really has gone truly bonkers now. Really.
In the 1980s Big Tobacco spent huge sums of money running big PR campaigns to deny any links between smoking and cancer, and they lobbied heavily to prevent legislation that was on the way.
For a longer period, and even to some extent today, Big Oil has similarly spent huge sums denying any relationship between fossil fuel usage and climate change. The reason was quite frankly the harm that such a linkage would cause to Big Oils business model if we ever were to act on climate change.
For years, many on our planet have been worried about the impact of overpopulation. Finally, some good news has arrived which is that fertility rates are rapidly declining. This is surely a good thing. Our planet’s population can stabilize, and we might finally be able to move towards a society that is more in harmony with the planet. In terms of environmental protection and combating climate change bringing the population numbers into some kind of stability is good for many different reasons.
As more and more people move out of poverty (which surely is a good thing), there will be an increasing pressure and demand for food, energy and other resources. And therefore controlling the population is crucial. Throwing in climate change, which is already set to bring further intense pressure on these crucial elements, then stabilising and limiting further population growth is something we and governments around the world should celebrate.
Nationalistic population growth
But what is actually happening now is that people, governments and companies are starting to panic about this, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. The most probable explanation is that a nationalistic view is taken instead of a global worldview. Those who had argued that a population explosion should be controlled elsewhere might never have considered that their own countries` populations could shrink. Therefore when such a drop in local fertility rates happens, it seems that we must do everything possible to keep our own country’s population as it is, and thus prevent damage to the economy.
And as a result, we have seen countries across the world, either through governments or private companies, taking out adverts to encourage people to have more children. Some of the adverts are indeed very cringeworthy. They are designed to make people feel guilty for not having kids, implying it is their national duty and also suggesting they bring pain to their parents denying them the opportunity to become grandparents.
I have some sympathy for the countries impacted, such as South Korea. Their fertility rate has dropped to an all-time low of 0.96 (the lowest in the world) last year and which is not even half the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to sustain a stable population. So if this continues for a longer period of time, their population could literally halve. And so with fewer children being born, while people live longer, there will be a growing elderly population to support who are not working and contributing to the economy. There will be less tax paid into the welfare system, and there will be fewer workers to support the economy.
However, in the 21st-century globalised economy, there are a few arguments to suggest that these are not entirely valid concerns. There are actually some easy fixes, albeit some that might be unpopular.
The world has changed
It is important to understand, that we can no longer view the world and the economy in the way we have in the past. The need for workers today is not the same as it was, let’s say in the 1980s. There’s more money than ever before in the financial system. And you just have to change the way you tax in order to support the economy and welfare system, and you have to think differently about wealth creation. Jobs are changing, with many being lost to automation and efficiency.
If a country like South Korea did go ahead and boosted their fertility rates, how would they feel in 20 years time when all these new children reach maturity and are ready to start a working life but there aren`t jobs to support them. That would create social unrest on a massive scale.
So the simplest way to deal with a current situation of a worker shortage will be to increase immigration levels. That is the quickest and safest bet. And in terms of the growing elderly population, let’s have a more flexible view of retirement. As many people now live longer and healthier lives, they could well work long past today’s retirement age. The solution is to come up with a better and more flexible retirement system.
As I stated earlier the problem is that we look at these issues with very nationalistic eyes. But we should take a more globalised view of the situation that reflects the 21st century. There are skills and resources all over the place on our planet wherever we look, and we should not take a very small minded view and panic about the future which actually presents a positive achievement.
A big cause of our planetary crisis is rooted in overpopulation, and one of the key priorities should be to reduce population across the world, with progressive policies that encourage smaller families and adoption.
Yes, it is right that many of the countries across the world with huge populations have been stuck in poverty and have been late to industrialise and grow their economies. But that is all changing now and millions of people across the world are moving out of poverty as the late statistician Hans Rosling argued in Factfulness. This is very good news, but it does come with increased pressure on food, energy and other resources. Therefore curtailing population growth has got to be a key environmental and climate change policy and priority.
So countries around the world should embrace the halt in population growth as an overall positive achievement, though with some challenges that need dealing with. It’s an achievement that should be built upon as it is a crucial element in conserving a habitable planet for generations to come.