Great concern is being expressed about declining populations. Most recently we have read that even China, the most populous nation on Earth, now experiences a declining population, joining Japan, South Korea, Russia, Italy and others. More countries would be in their company if it wasn’t for immigration, including Canada. Our fertility rate has fallen to 1.4 children per woman, the lowest in history and well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Countries have tried various means to boost fertility rates from cash incentives for having babies to generous parental leave to tax forgiveness to free or subsidized child care. They have limited success.

As populations shrink they also age, and this causes great hand-wringing. A shrinking work force will be unable to support increasing demands on social services. A smaller, younger generation will be unable or unwilling to bear the burden of caring for a larger, older one. So go the predictions of doom and gloom.

I would suggest these predictions are totally unwarranted.

To begin with we might remind ourselves that population decline comes in large part from improved living standards, from gains in health, education and income. It is, in other words, a happy story of greater longevity and freedom.

And there are many ways to deal with decline. First is immigration. The average world fertility rate is 2.4 so there are lots of people ready to fill the spaces (at least until all countries’ populations decline below 2.1). With a dropping birthrate, there are more women to join the work force, thereby easing labour concerns and increasing productivity. People could retire later thus maintaining the work force and reducing the dependency. And then there’s advances in technology which since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution have made for more production from less labour.

We should also keep in mind that there are two dependent populations, the very young and the very old. An aging population will mean more of the latter but also less of the former. And aging people tend to use fewer consumer goods. In my seniors’ independent living apartment complex there are 78 suites but only 10 parking spaces. Most of us no longer drive. If we were young or middle-aged, we would need at least 78 parking spaces.

Our biggest error in thinking about population decline is that it’s a bad thing. It is not. It is a good and necessary thing if we are to live sustainably on our planet.

The logic of unending population growth is as insane as the logic of unending economic growth. We must end the madness. The planet and its resources are finite. We have to recognize limits, both of population and of the economy. We are exploiting our resources beyond sustainability. We are sucking the planet dry. Ultimately growth, economic and population, must cease and decline to sustainable levels.

Fewer people reduces both humanity’s ecological footprint and competition, including war, for finite resources. And if rich countries maintained their populations more with immigration from poorer countries, the world’s prosperity would be more equitably shared.

Our worries are misdirected. We should be worrying about exhausting our planet, not imposing more demands on it. If humanity is to prosper into the future, global population must decline. We need to embrace that reality and adapt.

2 thoughts on “Population decline is a boon, not a bust”

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