By Anders Lorenzen
By 2050 the world population will, by many estimates, have surged past nine billion people.
That is a lot of people on a planet with finite resources, where the world’s middle classes are increasing in number and causing added pressure on natural resources and land. One reason for this is that the demand for meat is growing as more countries get an appetite for it, which results in humanity claiming ever more land from animals and plants. Many conservationists are warning that we are right now experiencing the planets sixth extinction.
In addition, a lot of the progress made in installing renewable energy capacity is cancelled by an increasing population needing more energy, and therefore it becomes that much harder to reduce emissions.
Adding to that, a large part of the global workforce is experiencing rapid and disruptive automation. The increased numbers of humans on the planet, where available jobs are already declining and will continue to do so, will mean more social unrest and probably a resurgence in nationalism which we are already seeing in many countries.
A rapid decline in fertility rates
As a result, anyone worrying about the climate crisis and the loss of species should feel jubilant that new research shows fertility rates are dropping faster than anticipated. When talking about population growth a fertility rate number of 2.1 really is the magic number, the so-called replacement rate. Above 2.1 the population increases and below it decreases.
Some amazing progress has been made in reducing the fertility rate and, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in 2017 the global fertility rate was 2.4 and they projected that by 2100 it would have fallen below 1.7. World population would peak in 2064 with an estimated population of 9.73 billion – this figure is even so still a considerable increase on the current world population. Today the global population is estimated at 7.8 billion.
This means that if we take this study at face value, we would still add 2 billion people to a world which is already under stress. It is also worth putting in context how fast our population has grown in the past decades. In 1950 the world population was just 2.5 billion.
The doubters are wrong
Some experts have argued that this drop is of concern and one that the world is ill-prepared for. They argue that the world economy could not handle this decrease together with an increase of an ageing population. There are also some valid concerns that the changes in the population are not evenly distributed across the world. But this is not a new thing. Just compare China, Russia and India. Russia has the world’s largest landmass but just 142 million inhabitants, while China, with half the landmass of Russia, has 1.3 billion. China will soon be overtaken by India as the world’s most populous country with a landmass not even half the size.
A decrease in population will not happen for a long time
But to be honest, the world population could still increase further before it starts to decline, so at least in the short term, there is no risk whatsoever that the global workforce will run out of workers. At least not if you take a fully global approach to the issue rather than a nationalist view. If a country sees the risk of decreasing numbers of a native workforce all they have to do is to balance it out with increasing immigration levels. It might be that this could actually deal with one of society’s biggest problems today which sees immigration as a negative thing. In the future, it could be something a country desires in order to protect its economic well-being. Additionally, it could bridge the gap in creating a truly global world where borders become less important.
But even then, these worries are based on the idea that our societies and economies will not evolve in the next fifty years. Let’s look at that crucial year of 2064, and let’s imagine that due to automation the required global workforce is half of that needed today. Then the playing field becomes somewhat different. This could just be a natural evolution in how people live and work and it need not be a problem.
For instance, by 2064 much of our food might be produced in labs and automatised factories. This will mean that fewer people work in the agriculture sector even if the food yield required is higher. That is just the natural evolution of the human ability to get more out of less with technological innovation, and it has happened throughout human civilization.
As people live longer, the growing ageing population is something society will need to discuss and confront. But it would be a mistake to frame it as a problem. Let’s again imagine in 2064 when people are required to work less, and would, therefore, have more time to look after their own elderly and not require them to be looked after in institutions.
Furthermore, people are becoming healthier and medical scientific breakthroughs continue to happen. This means they would be able to work to a greater age, especially if we have a more balanced and flexible working week with an emphasis on health. And if we manage to balance the economy right and bridge the gap between the very rich and the very poor who is to say we would not have the money to pay for an ageing population where extra investments are needed. In today’s world, a lack of capital is not the problem, but capital is disproportionately in the hands of very few individuals.
A positive vision
Then there are the really interesting goals we could achieve in a world with a declining population, such as giving more land back to nature, increasing forest cover and biodiversity and starting to heal our planet. With out-of-control population growth that becomes so much harder to achieve. Everywhere you look on our planet, the land, our seas and atmosphere are all under stress from human activity. It is time for humans to started to give back.
Fundamentally we need to stop framing a decrease in population growth as a negative thing, It is an absolutely essential step towards continuing to have a habitable planet.
I would like you (us) to think about population numbers, and imagine a future world where the population continues to increase or where it decreases. Which world do you think is most scary, and which world would you and your kids most like to live in?