Now It’s the Population Implosion

New Zealand Herald, July 23, 2003

Denis Dutton

There is a kind of inertia in human thinking to which we are all prone. Every new year it takes a while to remember to write the proper date on cheques. When old friends, or countries, such as the Soviet Union change their names, we stumble and have to remind ourselves.

So, too, with a dark, pessimistic and now obsolete notion we’ve grown up with — that the world is plunging toward disastrous overpopulation. The great proponent of that gloomy thesis was Paul Ehrlich, whose influential Population Bomb was published in 1968.

When I lived for two years in rural India in the 1960s as an American Peace Corps volunteer, I fully accepted Ehrlich’s famine scenario, as did my fellow aid workers.

Our cook back then was an elderly Christian widower named George. I’ll not forget waving goodbye to him from the window of a country train as I left to return to the United States. We were all in tears, and my head was full of forebodings for George and his four daughters. After all, India was heading toward the deaths of tens of millions of people 15 or 20 years in the future.

When I returned to India 20 years later, George was still going strong, and not living in the expected poverty. His days were now spent in his spacious house in the suburbs of Hyderabad. It was well equipped, I was astonished to find, with a refrigerator and a colour television set. George had gained weight. His daughters used their clerical skills in local electronic factories and had lively, healthy children of their own.

Indeed, not a single one of my old friends was living anything but a richer, healthier life than back in the 1960s.

One or two friends had become well-to-do even by Western standards. They were part of a burgeoning Indian middle class, enjoying many of the consumer goods we’ve grown up with in the West. All this has happened in a country that had been gaining a million people every month since the day I left.

India, the grand exemplar of overpopulation, now has more than one billion inhabitants but, as everywhere else, its rise in living standards has produced a fall in its birth rate. The magic number in population change in the developed world is 2.1 children a woman — the zero-growth replacement level (the two matches the couple who produce the child, the point-one is required to offset infant and childhood mortality).

India’s overall increase in population is now driven mostly by such northern states as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In the south it’s a different story, with the state of Kerala showing a replacement level of 1.8 children a woman, which means birth-generated population is declining. As its standard of living improves, India can expect to stop growing altogether by around 2030 or 2040, then to begin a population decline.

In Europe such declines are familiar fact, with birth rates so low that Germany, with a population of 80 million, could fall to 25 million by the end of this century. Spain and Italy, Catholic countries both, have close to the lowest birth rates in Europe, at 1.2 a woman.

These birth rates mean that supporting the elderly and their medical needs will become impossible. Already in Europe 100 workers support 35 pensioners. By the middle of this century that number will have grown to 75 pensioners for every 100 workers.

The Economist reports that in Spain and Italy the ratio will reach one-to-one. Compared to this, the prediction of “only” 43 elderly for 100 workers in New Zealand in 2050 looks positively rosy (it’s 20 to 100 today).

The tax regimes required to finance such worker/retiree ratios, coupled with projected low economic growth rates, will likely put paid to Europe’s hope to rival the United States as a superpower. As the French Institute of International Relations rather dramatically put it, the European Union can look forward to a “slow but inexorable exit from history.”

But for gloom nothing beats Russia, another country facing steep population decline. Russia had a population of about 148 million in the early 1990s; today that number is down to 145.5 million. At that rate Russia may sink below 100 million by the middle of the century.

The Rand Corporation, an American strategic think-tank, has studied the implications of this decline. Russia has the longest borders in the world to defend. Its military was built up in the Cold War to include the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

It will not have enough young Russians to create a military that can cope with defending its enormous land mass, including vast empty spaces bordering on China. Nor will it be able to support its industrial and agricultural infrastructure. The deterioration of Russia must be viewed as a security threat for the rest of the world.

The US presents a quite different picture. It has only lately fallen just below replacement level, although it is nowhere near European figures, and it continues to grow through immigration. We tend to forget that the US is more than just an economic, technological and military powerhouse: is it also the third-largest country in the world after China and India. Though it has but 4.5 per cent of the world population, this may rise to 10 per cent in the coming century.

The fizzing population bomb, although it is bad news for many countries, is good news for young people today who can master skills that will put them in demand. Countries will compete for young workers to make their economies tick over and support retirees. Unlike the population bomb, that’s no urban myth.

Neither, by the way, is the old idea that you could fit the entire population of the Earth shoulder-to-shoulder on Stewart Island. Each person would have a square of maybe 60cm on each side. Even more startling is the fact that, on the latest projections of a peak at under nine billion, the population of the Earth will never exceed the standing-room capacity of Stewart Island.

It’ll be a tight squeeze for sumo wrestlers, but they can be positioned next to tiny babies. This, however, is one Guinness Book of World Records experiment I’ll be opting out of: there will simply be no room for the portable toilets.