A large group of people walking in a city
the latest


Jun 03, 2021

Over the weekend of May 22 and 23, 2021, multiple people alerted PMC to an article in The New York Times titled “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications.” Given the negative connotations of the word “slide,” it was not hard to guess why people were so concerned. Indeed, wading into the lengthy essay we discovered a deeply embedded pro-growth bias, mostly manifested as scare-stories and allusions to global disaster vis a vis sub-replacement level fertility and the future end of population growth.

The bias was so egregious, and yet so hard to put one’s finger on, that we decided to “re-draft” the article rather than pointing out its multiple failures of imagination one by one. We shared the first part of this effort on May 27. Below is the rest of the “re-write.”


…The 20th century presented a very different challenge. The global population saw its greatest increase in known history, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000, as life spans lengthened and infant mortality declined. In some countries — representing about a third of the world’s people — those growth dynamics are still in play. By the end of the century, for example, Nigeria could surpass China in population; and, across sub-Saharan Africa, families are still having four or five children. Indeed, Africa is now home to 1.2 billion (up from just 477 million in 1980). The population of the African continent grew by an estimated 30 million this year. By the year 2050, annual increases are projected to exceed 42 million people per year and total population will have doubled to 2.4 billion. This works out to 3.5 million more people per month, or 80 additional people per minute.

From any big-picture perspective, these population dynamics will have a notable influence on global demography in the 21st century. Of the 2.37 billion increase in population expected worldwide by 2050, Africa alone will contribute 54%, and the average fertility of the continent is expected to be around 3.1 children per woman.

But nearly everywhere else, the era of higher fertility is ending. As women have gained more access to education and contraception, and as the economic and interpersonal sacrifices associated with having children continue to intensify, more parents are delaying pregnancy, and fewer babies are being born. Even in countries long associated with rapid growth, such as India and Mexico, birthrates are falling toward, or are already below, the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family.

The change may take decades, but once started, demographic meta-trends – whether decreases or increases – often behave with self-reinforcing feedback loops. With fewer overall births, a relatively smaller cohort of girls will be choosing to have children or not as women, and if they choose to have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — then the move towards a more sustainably sized human presence on the Earth could actually come at a fairly brisk pace.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have crafted immigration policies that, in combination with whatever additions total births contribute to national population size, add to these countries still expanding total populations. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has contributed, along with natural population decreases, to overall population decreases. In large parts of Asia, certain countries are in a situation where their life expectancy rates have increased and overall fertility rates have decreased. Some prognosticators refer to this as a so-called “demographic time bomb.” Others consider it as a vanguard demographic situation that helps define a successful pivot of human civilization in the turn towards a future state of ecological sustainability.

South Korea is a substantive example. Its fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 5 years, the total number of babies born in the country has been fewer than the previous month.

That decreasing birthrate, coupled with a rapid industrialization under the rules of neo-liberal capitalism has unsurprisingly pushed people from rural towns to big cities, and, like most under-regulated capitalist economies has created an inequitable, tiered society. While major metropolises like Seoul continue to expand their population, ecological footprints, and unsustainable inputs of natural resources, in regional towns it’s easy to find school buildings that are shut and not used, their playgrounds being reclaimed by nature, because of the new and smaller sized cohorts of children in those towns. The former situation is the actual challenge to global sustainability, while the latter is symbolic of an appropriate human downsizing that the whole world will eventually experience. It is worth noting that the purpose of built infrastructure like schools and playgrounds is not to mindlessly populate them to justify their continued existence, or allay human emotional fear of change, but rather to serve human aspirations and needs at specific points in history.

Because of a failure of government attention and policy, expectant mothers in many areas can no longer find obstetricians or postnatal care centers. Universities below the elite level, especially outside Seoul, find it increasingly hard to fill their ranks — the number of 18-year-olds in South Korea has fallen from about 900,000 in 1992 to 500,000 today. To attract students, some schools have offered scholarships and even iPhones. These short-term tactics may help at the margin, but clearly, the country needs to put its ingenuity to work, realizing that there is no need for as many schools and colleges as there was once.

In a myopic and futile effort to boost the birthrate, the government has tried handing out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women. Of course, one wonders why they never thought of these ideas before. As of now, these policies are clearly tawdry means to an end of trying to prop up an outdated economic paradigm predicated on the delusion of perpetual growth. Instead, government support for the beautiful human endeavor of bringing new life into the world should always be seen as an end to itself – children and families should be supported not to mechanically buttress an unsustainable economic paradigm, but because humans love their children.

This month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki finally admitted that the government (which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies) was not succeeding in its foolish efforts. Across the country, the shift feels cultural, permanent, and sensible.

“My grandparents had six children, and my parents five, because their generations believed in having multiple children,” said Kim Mi-kyung, 38, a stay-at-home parent. “I have only one child. To my and younger generations, all things considered, it just doesn’t pay to have many children.”

Thousands of miles away, in Italy, the sentiment is similar, with a different backdrop.

In Capracotta, a small town in southern Italy, a sign in red letters on an 18th-century stone building looking on to the Apennine Mountains reads “Home of School Kindergarten” — but today, the building is a nursing home.

Residents eat their evening broth on waxed tablecloths in the old theater room.

“There were so many families, so many children,” said Concetta D’Andrea, 93, who was a student and a teacher at the school and is now a resident of the nursing home. “Now there is no one.”

Ms. D’Andrea’s obvious exaggeration may be rooted in the fact she was born in the late 1920’s, when Earth’s human population was a relatively small 2 billion. Her formative experiences around population probably suggest to her that it is normal and healthy for human population to quadruple in a single human lifetime – though as any ecologist will tell you, it’s very much not normal, nor healthy.

The population in Capracotta has dramatically aged and contracted — from about 5,000 people to 800. This is a decrease of 84%, and is incomparable to the global situation, where humanity still adds over 200,000 people net growth each day. Assuming you still want to call an 800-person community a “town,” it comes as no surprise the town’s boutiques and specialized businesses have contracted along with such a dramatic decrease. Meanwhile, the organizers of a soccer tournament struggled to form even one team, though they could have thought out of the box and chosen a different sport – perhaps badminton doubles tennis, or even bowling.

About a half-hour away, in the town of Agnone, the maternity ward closed a decade ago because it had fewer than 500 births a year, the national minimum to stay open. This again calls into question the competence of government policy in supporting its citizens’ needs. This year, for example, six beautiful babies were born in Agnone. Did they not deserve a maternity ward?

“Once you could hear the babies in the nursery cry, and it was like music,” said Enrica Sciullo, a nurse who used to help with births there and now mostly takes care of older patients. In an apparent bout of ageism, or perhaps gerontophobia, Sciullo also issued an apparent insult to his patients by saying, “Now there is silence and a feeling of emptiness.”

In a speech last Friday during a conference dedicated to Italy’s “birthrate crisis,” Pope Francis, leader of the anti-contraception Catholic Church, with a centuries-old religious mandate to increase the number of their believers, unsurprisingly parroted all previous Popes and patriarchal church doctrine, saying “demographic winter” was still “cold and dark.”

More people in more countries may soon be searching for their own metaphors. Birth projections often shift based on how governments and families respond, but according to projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100. Ecologists and global sustainability advocates are ecstatic about this possibility, though cautioning an enormous amount of work remains. Specifically, they note ongoing needs to help people understand the personal benefits in health and welfare for them and their children of fewer, spaced births; dispelling myths and misinformation about the safety and efficacy of modern contraception; and role modeling small family norms and making them even more popular around the world.

The Lancet model shows an especially noticeable decrease for China, with its population expected to fall from 1.41 billion now to about 730 million in 2100. Given China’s attempts to raise the standard of living for its citizens, which requires more resources, this is especially good news for the global environment. If it happens, the population pyramid would essentially flip. Instead of a base of young workers supporting a narrower band of retirees, China would have as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.

China’s rust belt, in the northeast, saw its population drop by 1.2 percent in the past decade, according to census figures released on Tuesday. In 2016, Heilongjiang Province became the first in the country to have its pension system run out of money, demonstrating the pension system was not designed to be particularly resilient nor adaptive to substantive change. In Hegang, a so-called “ghost city” in the province that has lost almost 10 percent of its population since 2010, homes cost so little that people compare them to cute little cabbages.

Thankfully, many countries are beginning to accept the need to adapt, not just futilely resist the inevitable. South Korea is pushing universities to merge. In Japan, where adult diapers now outsell ones for babies, municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have logically shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being offered the possibility to keep working into their later years. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

If the goal is a stable population sized at a level that can live prosperously on the sustainable yield of the planet’s renewable resources, we know many decades of global sub-replacement level fertility will be in order. But, ideas about catastrophic fertility traps, where humans go extinct because they do not procreate enough after attaining a smaller presence on the planet, are totally belied by looking at a country like Germany. There, after expanding access to affordable childcare and paid parental leave, Germany’s fertility rate recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was decreasing in size, is now prospering again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions, and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

As Professor Gietel Basten says, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges of constructing a soft-landing for humanity, including keeping the best parts of human civilization and discarding the worst, all while stewarding a substantial decrease in human population size, will be like any challenge — requiring a spirit of curiosity, applied science, and good will towards all. No country with a slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished, nor should they be trying. Some reports indicate there is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, but on the other hand, Japan’s GDP per capita in 2019 was the same as it was in 1994, and has risen significantly in the last 5 years.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment. As we already know, even 2 billion people living at Americans’ average consumption level and treating the Earth as a discount dollar-store of “natural resources” would not be able to maximize biodiversity or achieve sustainability. A smaller population only guarantees the inherent scale of the human enterprise is smaller, and, ceteris paribus, the demands humanity makes on the planet can only be smaller than a larger population would make. This is especially true if the goal is global equity in access to resources for all people everywhere. If we aspire to an equal global society in wealth, health, and longevity, then from an environmental perspective smaller is better.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make their civilization more capable of achieving a sustainable living scenario between themselves and the Earth. How can humanity evolve to help each other build families that will bring them satisfaction and contentment — without inviting a continued state of catastrophic ecological overshoot?

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles. On the other hand, many other younger people are part of a new generational perspective that understands personal reproductive choices do make a difference when it comes to climate, biodiversity, and overall ecological health. As new adults factor in the ecological emergency humankind has created on the planet, the decision to have a family, and how large to make it, is becoming increasingly poignant.

Anna Parolini tells one sort of story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold. She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family. In US dollars, Ms. Parolini’s monthly salary is equal to $2445, suggesting that at a 40 hour work week, she is making about $15 per hour, before taxes. Her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.” It is not clear if her boyfriend makes any money, or would be willing to help raise a child.

Blythe Pepino, who founded a group called BirthStrike at the end of 2018, reportedly has a different story. She has indicated that the group is pushing governments and corporations to lower emissions drastically — and to do a better job of ensuring support to would-be mothers. While BirthStrike’s goal is not demographically focused, they do aim to mobilize people around climate by focusing on the deeply personal choice of procreation. A majority of the organization’s members intend to be childfree