Contrary to the fears of doomsayers and natalists, a shrinking global population has real benefits for humanity. It means less war, more power for labor, and environmental recovery.
Although we can’t predict the future in detail, there are large-scale trends that make me hopeful. The blossoming of renewable energy is one of these. Let’s discuss another.
Overpopulation is a common fear among those who predict catastrophe. They point to the exponential growth of humanity in the 20th century, from 1.6 billion people to 6 billion, the most rapid increase in the history of our species. They say that the world is too crowded already, that it can’t sustain any more population growth, and that disaster is looming if we continue to multiply at this rate.
It’s true that this is a problem we can’t innovate our way out of. If the population increases without bound, that will overwhelm any efficiency gains from renewable energy or better technology.
However, the nightmare future of overpopulation isn’t the scenario we face.
World population is flattening
As the world becomes wealthier and more educated, as women gain autonomy and contraception becomes more widely available, people naturally choose to have fewer children. This transition has happened in every society, regardless of race or religion. The global fertility rate is the lowest it’s ever been, and still falling. By 2100, the world population is predicted to peak at around 11 billion and level off.
Of course, this average swallows up a lot of regional variation. According to demographic projections, most future population growth will be in Africa, while many developed nations will see their populations shrink. China may already have peaked, while India’s population will likely grow to surpass China’s and then decline. The United States is projected to continue growing, but very slowly, and that only because of immigration.
The future won’t be a dystopia like Children of Men, where children are vanishingly rare and schools and nurseries are abandoned ruins. Children will still be born every day; people will still have families. The only change is that deaths will outnumber births until the population reaches a steady state.
Politicians and commentators, especially conservatives, have decried that shrinking population as a catastrophe. But they rarely attempt to explain why it’s bad. Some, like Pope Francis, resort to religious natalism: the doctrine that it’s a woman’s duty to have children, regardless of desire or ability to care for them, because God said so. Like all religious explanations, this appeal to mysticism excuses them from having to present any actual reasons.
Other explanations tend to be worse. One of the more common ones is that a shrinking population means “white genocide,” the racist notion that white people and their supposedly superior genes are being outbred into extinction by lesser races. Suffice to say, the people who argue for this position are always poor examples of their self-proclaimed genetic superiority.
The benefits of contraction
If people aren’t having kids but want to, that’s a tragedy on an individual level. However, contraction on a population level doesn’t harm anyone. On the contrary, it has some significant benefits.
A shrinking population creates a demographic dividend. When parents have fewer children, they can afford to put more care into the children they do have. Those children will be more loved, wanted and cherished and will benefit from better nutrition and education. It also gives women autonomy from endless child-bearing, which means freedom to get an education or to enter the workforce.
All of this, in turn, causes faster economic growth and more prosperity for society as a whole. This demographic dividend has happened in many societies with falling birth rates.
A shrinking population reduces inequality. Any robber baron will tell you that a large pool of desperate, readily replaceable laborers is what he likes best. He can pay them peanuts, force them to accept harsh or dangerous working conditions, and fire them if they complain, because there are always replacements waiting in the wings.
When workers are scarce, the balance of power flips. Individuals have more power to demand better pay, to turn down bad jobs, and to organize, and owners of capital have no choice but to accommodate their wishes. We’re seeing this now in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, as a labor shortage is pushing up wages and leading to a string of successes for unionization drives.
A shrinking population makes war more unthinkable. In ages of war and conquest, monarchs and tsars who ruled over huge populations of peasants could treat them as cannon fodder. To chase their dreams of imperial glory, they could throw their subjects into the maw of war. Who cares if a million die in battle, when more are born every day to replace them?
Rapidly growing populations are, themselves, an incentive to war. They strain society at the seams, putting pressure on its land and water, creating a hunger for more territory and more resources. More than one ruler has contemplated war merely as a safety valve to let off this steam.
However, in a depopulating world, war is even more suicidally irrational than it was already. Because war is costly even for the winners, a depopulating nation will find that waging war will leave them weaker and more impoverished than they were, whether they win or lose. Russia is discovering this now, to its sorrow.
A shrinking population allows environmental recovery. A world with more and more people puts ever greater pressure on natural resources that are already overtaxed. It means more deforestation, more pollution, more habitat loss, more extinction, more global warming, and the resource wars and mass migrations that inevitably follow.
By contrast, a world with fewer people gives nature a chance to recover—and it can, if we just get out of the way. This is especially true as a greater percentage of humanity moves into dense cities and rural areas empty out.
The shift to lower birth rates and smaller populations will be a source of economic strain, especially in the short term for countries that have more retirees than working-age people. We may have to raise the retirement age, cut pensions, or make other unpopular changes. But in the long run, it’s inevitable.
Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Everyone, religious or secular, has to admit that. We have to navigate the transition to a steady-state world, to a circular economy not premised on the fantasy of endless increase. We should look at the arrival of depopulation not as a disaster, but a valuable opportunity to correct the errors of the past and rebuild civilization on a more sustainable foundation.