The Downside of Declining Population Numbers

By David L. Brown

The root of most of the environmental problems we presently face — and many of the social, political and health dangers as well — lies in the fact that the world’s population has been allowed to grow too fast and too far. In fact, it is becoming clear even to the most stubborn naysayers that the Earth cannot much long sustain the number of humans presently alive. (For example, see my essay “Humanity’s Heavy Footprint on Mother Earth,” posted October 23.)

It is fine and even noble to seek solutions to growing environmental problems through expedients such as reducing carbon emissions, developing alternative fuels, preserving the rain forests, and all the many other ideas that have been presented. However, unless population numbers are reduced through one means or another, none of the other scenarios have much chance of succeeding.

We have written before about this problem and the fact that in some developed nations population numbers already are falling through the fact that adults are deciding to have fewer children. This effect is particularly apparent in Europe, where nations such as Italy, Spain, France and Germany are experiencing birthrates below the threshold necessary to sustain their populations of native peoples. (That this has led to inflows of non-Italian, non-Spanish, non-French and non-German immigrants is not the subject of this essay although that fact bodes ill for the future of the national cultures of those nations. For more on that subject, see my essay “Are White Europeans an Endangered Species?” posted on May 7.)

But it is not only Europe that faces this difficult transition — less developed nations are, or certainly will in the not-so-distant future, be presented with the challenge of surviving in a period during which the world population will peak and begin to decline. As a show-and-tell item on this subject, here is an interesting graph that shows the population profile of Iran, a nation whose birthrate has been in decline for several decades, as it stood last year and as it will be in 2050 according to United Nations projections:


What makes this graph interesting is the almost mirror image of the two curves. The recent population numbers indicate a large percentage of young people in the 19 to 34 year age range. Numbers for children and teenagers are significantly lower, indicating the decline in birth rates. When we look at the solid graph for 2050, we see that the profile is substantially different, with the largest number of individuals in the range of 64 to 74 years. The numbers of children, teenagers and adults up to about age 50 are estimated to be substantially lower than today. There is an interesting correlation between the number of Iranian youth in the 9- to 19-year-old bracket today and the dip in the future curve that bottoms out at the 59-year level, which exactly reflects the present 14-year-old cohort projected 45 years into the future.

We can conclude from this that the peak in the 2050 curve is also a projection 45 years into the future of the present population, in this instance the cohorts for 19- to 34-year-olds who will in 2050 be 64- to 79-year-olds.

[I should mention that I borrowed this graph from an essay by “Spengler” (not the political philosopher Oswald Spengler, but the pen name of a present day columnist) that appeared on the Asia Times Online web site on November 21 (here). Spengler was not making the same points that I am — his argument was that Iran is experiencing a population implosion because its people feel defeated and have lost the collective will to survive as a culture — but the graph used to illustrate his column struck me as an interesting jumping off point for a discussion of how future changes in population will challenge humanity.]

Looking at this graph leads me to several points. First, the assumption that expected human lifespans will continue at their present level for the next 45 years underlies the curve drawn by the United Nations. As the world enters a dangerous period of climate change, impending food shortages, and economic decline resulting from the slippery slope of the back side of the Oil Peak, it is possible if not likely that even as birth rates decline, death rates will rise. Assuming that to be the case, it is possible that the 2050 population profile projected for Iran 44 years from now could actually be quite a bit different.

Like all nations that depend to an inordinate degree on income earned from the sale of petroleum, Iran is in a particularly precarious position as future events unwind. Almost any scenario you care to name could and likely would result in a catastrophic decline in oil revenues for the Persian nation. Take the happy scenario that posits the development of alternative fuels, increased conservation, and dramatically reduced reliance on fossil fuels in the developed countries. Result: Big trouble for Iran in the face of a technological pendulum that would be swinging further and further away from the Age of Oil.

Take the far less sunny scenario of a worldwide economic collapse due to climate change, social disruption and famine. Result: Even bigger trouble for Iran, Saudi Arabia and most of the other Persian Gulf states which have extremely marginal resources for agricultural production and have become increasingly dependent upon food purchased with petro dollars. In such a world, food will be scarce and its value will rise. When given the choice between food for the table or a bag of gold, the starving individual will generally opt to fill his stomach rather than his purse. As food becomes increasingly scarce and its value rises, Iran and its presently oil-rich neighbors will find it increasingly difficult to feed their existing populations.

There is another side of declining population numbers that is often raised, and that is the fact that fewer and fewer people of working age will be burdened with a growing number of older people. There are several answers to this and let me address these points as I did above by looking at a positive scenario, and then at a worst-case one. In both cases the outlook for nations such as Iran that rest on the uneasy foundation of oil resources is not good.

First let’s look at a relatively sunny scenario in which over the next few decades the developed nations free themselves of fossil fuel energy dependence and the worst predictions of climate change are averted. Should population continue to decline in places such as Japan and Western Europe (if it can avoid being overrun by Third World immigrants) and perhaps the United States if we choose to secure our borders against climate refugees, the concept of “retirement” will go back into the dustbin of history. Retirement is an unnatural concept that was developed fairly recently to provide jobs for growing numbers of young people as population numbers soared. The idea was to dump older workers while making them think that sinking into pointless and non-productive lives could be a kind of reward for their working careers. To see the fallacy of this, one only has to ask whether those fortunate individuals who are immune to forced retirement through the possession of wealth, talent or positions of control generally bring their lives to a screeching halt upon reaching age 65?

If you need evidence upon which to base your answer to that question, look for example at the Senate of the United States and see how many serving legislators are in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Ask Sen. Robert Byrd, who was born in 1917 when he plans to retire. Ask the surviving Rockefeller brothers how much attraction a state of “retirement” has for them. Count the number of performing artists who hang up their instruments and quit just because they are “too old.” It is not unusual for concert directors and soloists to continue to ply their arts well beyond the so-called “retirement age.” The same applies across the board, from the Rolling Stones to industrialists who continue to manage their companies as long as their health allows them to.

No, retirement is no reward, but rather a convenient way for a society to get rid of excess workers through periods of population explosion. During the coming population bust, those older workers will regain their value and find themselves in demand. Many will choose to continue to be productive members of society for as long as they are able. So in our sunny scenario, at least in the developed nations, a declining population might create a happier and better balanced life trajectory for all, with opportunity for active and meaningful participation by people of all ages. In fact, there is already ample evidence that this trend has already begun.

In places such as Iran, the outcome for this scenario will be somewhat different, for the reasons alluded to above. Without petrodollars, Iran will find itself between Iraq and a hard place. In fact, the whole sandy desert Mideast will be in a very difficult position when oil no longer rules and food becomes the currency of choice.

And of course the less sunny scenario has also been addressed above with the possibility that death rates may increase beyond presently expected levels should environmental catastrophe come to pass. As has been so clearly understood since the days of Malthus, there are two factors affecting population: birth rates and death rates. In the decades that lie ahead, it is quite possible that both these factors will be on the rise everywhere in the world, and thus the concern that vast numbers of “useless old people” will become a heavy burden on society might never come to pass. Again, this scenario is most likely to impact on places such as Iran, not to mention even less fortunate places such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Rapid growth of human numbers has gotten us into an unsustainable position vis a vis our environment. That overshoot will have be be adjusted, and soon. It will take place with or without human planning and effort, because if we don’t do the job Mother Nature surely will (and is). Meanwhile, we need to give thought to how to manage the transition from a world groaning under the weight of more “uninvited guests” that it can entertain, to a possible future time in which a sustainable balance has been reached between humanity and its only home, the Earth.

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