I am always amazed how so many people continue to believe that the world’s population is careening out of control. For decades there has been a mostly media-driven narrative that human population was growing so fast that it would cause a dystopian future of starvation, depletion of natural resources and a poisoned environment.
Part of the mindset is based on the fact that for last few centuries human population has been increasing exponentially. In the 20th century alone, the world’s population doubled twice. But we have known for some time that the population’s exponential growth began to reverse around 1960. That was the year that the population growth topped at about 2% annually. Since then, the growth rate has been cut in half and researchers have been projecting further declines in over the next century. The UN currently projects that the world’s population will peak at 10.5 billion in 2100 and than begin in a long-term decline.
Notwithstanding the widespread public misunderstanding about the future trajectory of global population growth, this is not news. I wrote about this in 2012 and 2018. Bill Gates has done several videos explaining the decline and its implications.
But this week we learned the decline is occurring even faster than researchers previously believed. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (you may recognize that name as the group which has been publishing one of the most widely followed COVID models) just published the results of a new study that the global population will peak in 2064 at 9.7 billion and then decline to 8.8 billion by 2100, a dramatic decline from the current projections.
Here are some of the study’s more intriguing conclusions:
- More economically advanced countries will see dramatic declines in population. The study predicts that by 2100 Japan and Spain will have half their 2017 population.
- India will replace China as the world’s most populous country.
- China will become the world’s largest economy by 2050, but the U.S. will retake the title by 2100.
Clearly, getting population growth under control is good news. The 20th century growth rate was unsustainable and would have led to an apocalypse. The environment simply would have collapsed. But now malnutrition is going to be a thing of the past. Energy demands will ease and emissions will decline. Endangered species and fisheries will come under less pressure. The list of benefits is endless.
However, as the study notes, the change will also come with many dislocations and other issues. The current sustainability issues with Social Security, Medicare and public pensions are harbingers of the kinds of issues with which our children and grandchildren will wrestle.
Also, as Bill Gates points out in one of his videos, the places in the world where the population is still growing relatively quickly are those with high poverty and low educational levels. More people in those countries will only exacerbate their current problems.
There will also likely be a sharp change in attitudes on immigration. As the populations of countries like Spain and Japan fall, they will be forced to increasingly rely on migrants to provide the labor needed to fuel their economies. One can imagine a world where countries would actually be competing for migrants by offering a wide variety of benefits. It would not be unprecedented. One of the grievances our Founders leveled against the King in our Declaration of Independence was his interference with the colonies’ attempted recruitment of migrates.1
For reasons not clear to me, we as humans tend to assume that existing trends will continue indefinitely into the future – something Hans Rosling called the “Straight Line Instinct” in his book, Factfulness. (By the way, you have not read Factfulness yet, you are really doing yourself a disservice.) But normally things in nature do not progress in straight lines. Indeed, nature tends to dampen extreme trends. At some point, the public will realize population is not careening about of control and instead there is a whole different set of issues on which we need to be focused.
1 “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” The 7 grievance against the King in the Declaration of Independence