The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A declining world population isn’t a looming catastrophe. It could actually bring some good.

Children play in the Hutong neighborhood of Beijing on May 31. (Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Kim Stanley Robinson, a science-fiction writer who lives in Davis, Calif., is the author, most recently, of “The Ministry for the Future.”

Thanks to scientific advances in medicine and public health, humanity’s population shot from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.7 billion today. People on average are staying healthier and living longer. Over the past six months, the United States has seen the inauguration of the oldest president ever, a Super Bowl victory by the oldest quarterback ever and a major golf title captured by the oldest winner ever.

I myself am like a lot of older people: I would have died some years back without modern medicine, but thanks to medical interventions I’m currently in good health.

Now, though, this steep population increase is not only slowing, demographers say, it may well start reversing over the coming decades as fertility rates around the world decline. On Monday, news came that China — apparently frightened by the portents — is raising its family-size limit, allowing women to bear three children instead of two.

President Xi Jinping isn’t the only one fretting. The vision of a dwindling global population is widely depicted as a looming catastrophe.

“The world is ill-prepared for the global crash in children being born which is set to have a ‘jaw-dropping’ impact on societies,” the BBC reported last summer. This media staple got a boost a couple of weeks ago from a New York Times article headlined “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications.” While trying to find some bright spots (lower demand on resources!), the article mostly focused on the “hard to fathom” negative implications.

I’d prefer to fathom the good stuff. And that goes well beyond a reduction in the demand on resources — welcome as that would be. No matter how clean our technological systems and lifeways, fewer humans would mean fewer demands on the biosphere.

As for the alarm about too many old people and not enough young, that reads like a weird science-fiction story — the old need caring for, and young people can’t take care of them while doing all the other jobs that need doing. Crisis!

It sounds like full employment to me.

Note that full employment as a concept carries political weight, because economists tend to say there is a “natural” unemployment rate of around 5 percent, and if this rate goes lower, it’s bad for … profits, basically. If unemployment dips below 5 percent, the thinking goes, the labor market tightens and the stock market gets depressed, because there is more competition for workers, and higher wages need to be offered to grab available workers, so profits drop, and inflation might occur, etc.

In other words, the precarity and immiseration of the unemployed would disappear as everyone had access to work that gave them an income and dignity and meaning (one new career category: restoring and repairing wildlands and habitat corridors for our cousin species), but this would still be a bad thing for the economy. The economy, measured by profit, being the most important thing. More important than people.

Consider this rise in individual health, and drop in population growth, from the utopian angle, which is my usual take. A hundred years ago there were only about 2 billion people, and civilization was troubled but lively; there could be fewer of us in the future, and civilization would still be troubled but lively.

How many humans would be right? This is not a question that can be answered. As I recall, estimates of Earth’s “carrying capacity” for humans range from 100 million (deep ecologists) to 12 trillion (techno-optimists), which is a sign the question itself is wrong. Right now, we need to make a just and sustainable world for about 8 billion people. Start there, and let the question about the “right” number rest perpetually unanswered.

As for declining birthrates, why has that happened? No doubt there are negative reasons — despair, inequality and, in the past year, the pandemic. But one positive reason outweighs all the rest: women’s empowerment. The more power women have, the lower the birthrate.

Many developed nations have birthrates well below the replacement rate of about 2.1 children per woman. The highest birthrates are in countries where women’s lives are made difficult in multiple ways, mostly by stupid patriarchy. So here we see a twinned good: The moral imperative of women’s empowerment yields a practical benefit of reduced demands on the biosphere.

The 20th century’s immense surge in human population would age out and die off (sob), and a smaller population would then find its way in a healthier world. To make this work, their economic system might have to change — oh my God! But they will probably be up to that mind-boggling task.

I am declaring this a non-problem. The world is faced with too many real problems that need addressing. The generations to come will cope just fine.

Read more:

Leslie Root: Why we shouldn’t worry about falling birthrates

Catherine Rampell: The baby bust won’t end without government action

The Post’s View: The 2020 Census offers a powerful argument for immigration

Rahul Gupta: Expect a baby bust, not a boom, from the coronavirus pandemic

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