For much of the last half-century we have been living, even cowering, under the threat posed by what Paul Ehrlich in 1968 called the “population bomb.” In Ehrlich’s scenario, widely adopted by the environmental movement and its corporate supporters, ever-increasing numbers would overwhelm the resource base and the food supply and would cause dystopian mayhem across the planet.
Yet it turns out that the “explosion” is heading toward an implosion, as data reported by the World Bank indicates. Rather than being doomed by a surfeit of humans we may be experiencing, certainly in the West and in East Asia, dangerously low fertility rates that threaten to slow world economic growth and innovation.
This also reflects a dangerous shift in civilizational values, with more focus on the self and abstractions and less on the basic relations upon which all civilizations have been built. Conversely when fertility rates drop—for example in imperial Rome, renaissance Venice and early modern Amsterdam—it’s a sure signal of societal decline.
As world poverty has eased, the world fertility rate has plummeted. When Ehrlich published his alarm, the average woman had 4.92 births in her life (total fertility rate). By 2018, the fertility rate had dropped by more than one half, to 2.41. Perhaps the best indication of this is fast-growing, poor Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, which has seen its fertility rate drop by more than two-thirds, from 6.94 in the 1960s to a 2018 figure of 2.03, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1. Many of Ehrlich’s other predictions turned out to be at best exaggerations, as resources did not wear out as predicted and mass starvation has been reduced dramatically since his book was published.
This is not to say that lower population numbers, particularly in developing countries, are an unwelcome sight. But the decline could prove troublesome for the world economy. China’s expanding workforce—by 350 million between 1980 and 2012, according to the China Yearbook—drove a world-shattering economic boom. Now, the National Bureau of Statistics indicates that from 2017 to 2018, the birth rate in China dropped more than 10 percent, despite the repeal of the one-child policy. It stands at a historic low, down more than one half since the early 1980s. Over time, we will see the already shrinking workforce accelerate and drop 20 percent by 2050.
The situation is even more dire in two of the world’s most affluent regions: East Asia and Europe. Japan had long been leading this trend, with the oldest population of any major country, and decades of a stagnant economy. Similar challenges are emerging elsewhere in East Asia: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, which has the lowest birthrate of any society on Earth, one third below that of Japan, according to the World Bank. Europe too has experienced plummeting birthrates. And the United Nations projects population losses of one-third in Southern Europe, one-quarter in Eastern Europe, and just a few percentage points in Western Europe, mostly due to immigration, between now and 2050.
Until recently, North America—the United States and Canada—faced a healthier demographic outlook, posed by both a less dense population (almost everywhere high-density areas have low birthrates) and rising immigration. Migrants accounted for 14 percent of the population in the United States and 22 percent in Canada.
But more recently legal immigration has declined, and prospects for more newcomers has declined with the pandemic-era economy. The latest wave seen at the U.S. southern border is made up largely of poor and destitute people from south of the border. This situation seems rife with instability, as even Latino Democrats have raised alarms about the new influx, particularly in the light of high COVID rates in Central America.
Read the rest of this piece at the Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Photo: Ahmet Demirel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.