A future of fewer people?


Last updated 7/28/2023 at 3:06pm

The world is entering a new era. Human birthrates are falling below replacement levels. “For the first time possibly since the Black Death,” according to a recent article in The Economist newspaper, the number of people on the planet could shrink by the end of the century.

Demographic scientist Peter Zeihan is even more specific. Zeihan anticipates the collapse of China in about a decade due to depopulation and a realignment of the world order that has been in place for generations, since World War II. He sees this resulting in wealth and starvation unevenly spread around the world.

But the world’s depopulation appears (so far) to be a more gentle process than we anticipated: It is not through war (yet) or disease (yet) or starvation (yet) that there will be fewer of us in the future.

We’ve simply stopped having babies.

Most of the northern hemisphere is not replacing those who are dying. The southern hemisphere will soon follow. Zeihan says this is because children become an expensive luxury in an industrialized society, as opposed to necessary labor in an agrarian one: As standards of living increase, reproduction rates fall.

My take is that, in the past, having children was not a “choice.” Children resulted from overwhelming biological imperatives that genes must spread out into the future to test their success. Procreation was nature’s solution in a world that included starvation and disease and cataclysmic events.

Humans reduced those threats. Humans have no predators except other humans, and our science has provided nutritional resources difficult to imagine. Mobility makes cataclysms easier to avoid.

And now immediate biological imperatives can be met without the gene-spreading mechanism they evolved to promote: children.

The Economist warns of upheaval. Economies are built on a pyramid scheme. As populations became older and individuals “less productive,” those nearer the end are dependent on increasing numbers of the young to support them. Declining populations bring us closer to the tipping point where the young and vibrant can no longer support (or choose not to) the old and failing.

The Economist introduces another argument: The minds of older people are less flexible in creating new solutions to problems than the minds of young people grown in a different environment. Many oldsters have had the experience of failing to find a solution to a technical problem, not understanding the logic of the problem in the first place.

Humanity adapts to its technology, rather than the other way around. This may require youth. And a fascinating facet of alternative intelligence is that occasionally no one knows how the machines arrive at their conclusions. Machine “emergent behavior” finds solutions to problems for which they were never tasked.

Back to the point: Is a tragedy unfolding as populations decline across the planet?

The Economist filters probable outcomes through a screen of “anthropocentrism.” That humans have the highest intrinsic value. At least in this one article, the newspaper does not account for “shifted costs” in humanity’s ascension.

Our success as a species, and the capitalism that lends such energy to that success, has caused loss of protein from one of the greatest river systems in the world and from that once-great river of fish into the ocean; loss of vast forests across North America and Siberia, as well as the Amazon; strip-mining to bedrock by nets that waste tens of thousands of tons of life to create cat food; pollution of oceans with plastic and the earth with chemicals that last hundreds of years by companies that offer no compensation for the damage they cause or the lives they ruin.

There is more, much more, too much more for an inventory here. But all have a common root: too many people.

The Economist says the planet isn’t yet full. True. But the newspaper’s focus is on the plight of humanity and a belief in human advancement. We can’t ignore the “shifted costs” of overpopulation, how our individual, tribal, and genetic heritage damages the world in which they evolved and how our success could lead to our demise.

It is much better that we just stop reproducing.

We will find a better model for economic security than incessant population growth. There may be higher productivity as our machines become more sophisticated. We may discover that with fewer of us, there is actually more to go around. Capitalism could lead the way if opportunity is promoted.

It could even be that we adopt new values and (re)discover a better existence.

Erik Dolson is a freelance writer living in Sisters. Find more of his writing at https://erik dolson.substack.com.


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