Year Global Population (M) Annual Growth Rate
1000 (est.) 268 .1%
1820 1,042 .2%
1950 2,524 .7%
2000 6,149 1.8%
2050 (proj.) 9,640 .9%
Malthus was concerned about the adequacy of food supplies and argued that our species’ proclivity to procreate would consistently outstrip our ability to produce food. Agricultural improvements, including the “green revolution” of the mid-20C more than outstripped those fears, even factoring in longer life expectancies that have come from better health and sanitation. However, recently, the anxiety has been based on our greater awareness of the impact on the environment and the various ways of looking at the planet’s “carrying capacity.”
Future projections of global population growth (as to which there is a wide variation) must contend with a couple of apparent trends: 1) declining birth rates associated with increased urbanization, wealth, and education, especially as relatively poor countries (often characterized by the suppression of women) become more “modern,” and 2) disturbingly high continued growth projections for sub-Saharan Africa.
If the latter concern can be resolved (perhaps by the former), then the chances of total exhaustion of global resources (especially in light of emerging technologies) appear to be receding. The caveat here is continued inequality of global wealth. Stated simply: poor people use less. Global GDP per capita is about $16,000; for the (relatively rich) OECD countries as a group, it’s about $40,000 (& $62,000 for the US). If everyone in the world started living at OECD rates (not at all likely), then the strain on the planet would be overwhelming. And the alternative of everyone moving to the global average of $16,000 is even more difficult to imagine.
So, let’s assume that current levels of income inequality are only slightly trimmed and turn back to the population growth story. If there really is something to the decline of birth rates with increased urbanization, wealth, and education, as is borne out by all the economically advanced countries (esp. Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy), then could we see a time at which the global population actually went down. Certainly, even by UN projections for later in the century, this is a real possibility.
I recently read a somewhat breathless and generally-mediocre treatment of this scenario (Bricker and Ibbitson, Empty Planet (2019)). There are some real concerns about its implications: labor-market adjustments, the burdens from a reduced number of workers supporting a relatively high number of retirees, and (according to a more recent and considerably more cogent economic analysis by Charles Jones) reduced innovation, and human knowledge.
I’m not going to critique either of these works, but I do have a problem with some of their implicit assumptions, particularly the widespread and deeply embedded belief that “growth is good.” First, traditional measures of economic growth, almost by definition, ignore/externalize environmental effects. So, the cost of global economic growth, especially since the industrial “revolution,” has assuredly been significantly understated.
Second, the case for growth is usually made by those who benefit from long-term economic inequality. It’s much easier to tamp down the political risks of poverty by holding out the possibility of “growing out of it” than by structuring a more equal society; in other words, the generic growth argument is premised in part on a version of “trickle-down” economics.
Third, much of the growth mantra (both economic and demographic) has come from national discourses which are based on inter-national competitiveness. France, for example, was seized in the later 19C with dread at “falling behind” Germany (it turned out that they were right about their fears, though its much less clear that another 10M Frenchmen in 1914 or 1940 would have changed the course of either war). This kind of competitive mind-set may be morphing as the concept of global democracy gains a bit of traction in the 21C (of which more next week).
Finally, while there is certainly something to be said for the benefits of innovation and technology, there is also something to be noted in terms of its costs, even beyond the environmental. Modernity is all about change and later modernity has been all about accelerating change. At the same time, we can look at the profound psychological and societal dislocations that have resulted (including well-established tropes about alienation, disconnection, ennui, loss of community/context). The balance is not so clear.
It would be interesting, at least as a thought exercise, to consider what the world would be like with a lot fewer people, slower economic growth (&greater income equality), even with some slowdown in the rate of technology development.
The recent spike in global population would take a while to work off and reverse, but what would a world with 2.5B people look like, even if it took another 100-150 years? That would take us back to the levels of 1950.
It’s hard to get our heads around that kind of scenario and guess what aspects would continue and what would be reversed. There was plenty of growth and optimism back in 1950; technology developed at a robust pace. What if we went back to a US with 150M people, but now most lived in cities (more ecologically efficient); with extensive renewable power systems (much less traffic), and in an economic context that didn’t demand greater soul-sucking productivity?
What if we took economic gains currently envisioned and deployed them to a more equitable distribution, both domestically and globally?
Our culture’s fixation on growth (for reasons noted above) is not the only way to live. Maybe a drop in global population could spur a very different type of thinking, who knows where we might end up….?