There are many ideas and predictions that have fallen into disrepute over the decades, and one of the more dire predictions was the canard of the vast overpopulation of the earth. Overpopulation, I should note, of people. The idea of a growing human population coming into conflict with limited resources is not new, but the idea was propagated widely by a Stanford professor named Paul Ehrlich who wrote a popular book called The Population Bomb in 1968. Ehrlich and his wife predicted that unless drastic measures were taken to coerce limits on the bearing of children, vast starvation would overtake humanity in the subsequent decades.
There has been occasional famines since then but not on the scale predicted by the Ehrlichs. Instead, what has grown on a massive scale is global obesity. Nevertheless, Ehrlich has doubled down on his predictions, and he still calls for governments to take action to limit the number of humans. The Chinese government took him at his word and enacted a ‘one child per couple’ policy in 1979. (Ehrlich and his wife had one child.) The Chinese abandoned this policy after 36 year and it appears to have been successful in that it limited the population growth of China. However, it did so by creating an incentive to abort female babies or lacking that, merely abandon them after birth, or sell them to childless Westerners.
Available evidence indicates that population growth has slowed or even reversed, all over the world without coercive policies, and if that is indeed true and the trend continues, the human population will peak in the near future. People alive today will live through the peak of human presence on earth and live on as depopulation becomes a factor.
So, what does that mean?
It means the average age of the population of the earth is rising. As long as the population was growing, there were, by necessity, more young than old, but now, the trend is reversing. Older people are wealthier, but they are also substantially far more risk averse. Expect to see an eventual decline in BASE jumping, and less radical innovation in fashion and music. Youth will still drive innovation but the older generations will outnumber them and crowd out the marketplace for new products.
Speaking of new products, expect to see a rise in medical innovation as the older population drives demand for medical services. Aging is not a disease with a cure; it’s a collection of diseases that attack an older and more vulnerable person and as the population ages, disease follows. Treating older people will be one of the few, and perhaps largest, growth industries on earth.
Where fewer people meets increased industrial supply there will be more consumption of goods and many services, but eventually, consumption will slow. This will be unique in modern history as the industrial revolutions were built during an age of population growth. Falling demand for a product may well mean that the product doesn’t get built at all. What if the world becomes like a giant Cuba, maintaining its rusty machinery because it’s just not worth it to make new stuff anymore?
Archeologists have made entire careers out of exploring abandoned cities. Mexico has cities that were inhabited as recently as 1000 years ago and had 40,000 citizens, and now, the entire site has been rendered invisible because it’s been reclaimed by the jungle. More recently, once-teeming cities like Detroit were growing. That city now has an estimated 70,000 abandoned commercial and residential properties there for the taking, but there are no people to take them. There are similar tales in Spain, in the part of Italy that was once the heart of the Roman Empire, and along the steppes of Russia. When people flee or have far fewer children, the buildings empty out, and the graveyards fill, and then they too are reclaimed by nature.
The forests will grow. Animal life will flourish. The oceans will teem with fish again. Nature has shown over and over that it is regenerative in the extreme. The human impact on the environment will be felt for thousands of years, but nature works on geological time and will reclaim anything humans ignore, even for a geological moment.
One hopes that the biggest change is that scarcity will drive the individual value of a human life up. For centuries, immigrants have shaped the earth in positive and negative ways and immigration has been the subject of continuous political debate. But in a world of falling populations, people will be a scare resource. Even if robots continue to overtake human work, it will still be people that make a city or society. Youth will still be prized, and there will be competition for citizenship in places that want to grow in a shrinking environment.
When families were huge, the value of any particular child was not high. That has changed in most Western societies already and will shape the future everywhere. Where there are children, they are highly prized and lavishly funded. Wars with high casualty rates in young men are not tolerated. It’s hard to imagine anyone using weapons of mass death when the earths’ population is falling.
What brought about this radical change in the path of humanity? Was it coercive governments or pandemics or predatory animals? No. What is widely credited is education for women, who, it turns out, want to invest in themselves, and not big families. Freedom, education, and equal rights for women are the primary drivers of the future of humanity, and not authoritarian men of ‘science,’ like Paul Ehrlich.
It could also be said that people don’t value large families like they once did. The world adopted a Chinese-style one child policy by default.
The UN has made predictions that are no better than most predictions of the future, but to the degree that any agency is able and responsible for making population predictions, the UN is the gold standard. Using their data and predictions, the world population will peak just past the year 2050 (only 30 years away) and might not get passed 10 billion people. After that, leaving aside anything entirely unforeseen, every continent will follow Europe into decline and the number of people will peak, level, and then slope off for the centuries that follow until humans are either a small contingent of advanced animals on this blue planet, or we move on and leave it completely. The age of insatiable human consumption will end, and the earth will strike its balance without us.
Here is Erhilch in 2011: