Wednesday, July 22, 2020

There is no population time bomb

Popular wisdom has it that the world population numbers are exploding. Recent projections show just how wrong that is – we are actually in a time of a population slowdown. It has been obvious for some time that the human population slowdown began many decades ago, but just how rapid that slowdown is has been apparent only very recently.

 In 2013 the United Nations upped its estimate of the future 2100 global human population total from 10 billion to 11 billion. And again in 2015 the UN said the global population would reach 11.2 billion by 2100, and then in 2017 it repeated exactly the same number. The UN methodology  had ignored a baby boom. Their models did not take into account the fact that birth rates between 2011 and 2019 were high because these were the great-grandchildren of so many people born worldwide shortly after the Second World War – the original peak was simply working its way through the generations. The UN also failed to recognize what had made fertility so high in African countries in recent years (on which more below) or that the world was still experiencing a huge cultural shift regarding the rights of, and respect for, women.

Jørgen Randers, a Norwegian academic in 1972  predicted a sharp rise to an unsustainable world population of 15 billion people by 2030. Darrell Bricker,and John Ibbitson in their book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline’ now believe  that because fertility rates suggest that: ‘The world population will never reach nine billion people… . It will peak at eight billion in 2040, and then decline.’

Wolfgang Lutz, a well-respected demographer, along with his colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, also expect that the global human population will stabilize by 2050 and then begin to fall. In 2018 Lutz and his colleagues stated that they forecast the world population peak to occur shortly after 2070. Their projection would mean between two billion and three billion fewer humans by 2100 than the UN currently estimates.

 A recent Deutsche Bank report by Sanjeev Sanyal that suggests the peak in human numbers on Earth will be reached at just 8.7 billion in 2055, and decline to 8 billion by 2100.

Danny Dorling in 2013 wrote a book titled Population 10 Billion’ proposes that most likely at the time was that we would see a maximum of 9.3 billion around the year 2060, dipping perhaps to 7.4 billion by 2100.

When you can trust that society will look after you, then you can more happily choose to have no babies, or just one. You do not need the insurance policy of having children to look after you in the future – or a great number of children (which people have when their children’s individual chances of survival are poor). And when women are able to make their own choices about whether to have a child and how many to have, then – everything changes. Population growth was enormous worldwide in the 1940s, 1950s, and at the start of the 1960s: the growth rate itself was growing! But then, quite suddenly, but also remarkably smoothly, the rate of growth began to slow. Between 1980 and today, global human population growth rates became stable at around 80 million more people being added per year.

This stable growth is attributable to a combination of fewer births and, crucially, growth mainly because the people alive at that time were living longer. Next, because there are limits to the amount that life expectancy can increase, from 2020 onward that rate of worldwide population growth is itself projected to fall. The UN thinks that it will fall very steadily, to 70 million a year being added in 2030, 60 million in 2040, 50 million in 2050, 40 million in 2060, just over 30 million being added each year in 2070s, and then a little slowdown itself in the rate of slowdown. Why? Because the UN demographers currently believe that the whole world will move toward a two-child norm. However, that key assumption has no historical or scientific basis. Everything has changed so much that choosing to have no children, or just one child, is for the majority of women worldwide now just as easy as – if not easier than – choosing to have two.


China’s population is now expected to peak in 2030 at 1.44 billion and then drop to below 1.4 billion in 2044, dip below 1.3 billion by 2060, below 1.2 billion just after 2070, below 1.1 billion in 2086, and fall below 1 billion around the year 2104 – but only if current projections turn out to be accurate. It could drop faster, since the relaxation of the one-child policy has not resulted in a substantial rise in births. Cultural attitudes to family size have changed in a way that would now be hard to reverse. China’s birth rate is currently dropping far more quickly than either the UN or official Chinese projections had envisaged.


By 2020 Africa’s population will have grown to 1.35 billion people, which means it will still be less than that of China at 1.42 billion. However, very soon after 2020, as China slows down, and as most African countries are expected to continue to experience population acceleration, the continent as a whole is projected to far outstrip China in population. This will be the first time in many thousands of years that there will be more people living in Africa than in China. Recent years, 2000-15, had seen unusually high population growth across Africa. It is the projection forward of that unusual and very recent high rate of growth that drove the UN projection model published in 2017. The projected future rise of the population of so many African states relies on a demographic model that is beginning to look very questionable. It is certainly true that Africa is home to many of the countries that currently have the highest fertility rates in the world. But the supposition that birth rates across Africa will in future slow down only slightly is dubious. It assumes that what is going on in the rest of the world will have little effect on the continent. With much of the rest of the world approaching a population shortage, out-migration from Africa may well rise in future in response to the growing need for younger people around the rest of the planet. This would further dampen the rate of acceleration of population growth across Africa below that which is currently predicted by the UN. With higher adult out-migration from Africa, fewer children would be born within Africa.

Furthermore, migrants who leave countries of high fertility tend to have fewer children over the course of their lives than those who remain. This, of course, also assumes that removal (by emigration) of some fraction of a peer group has no effect on the pace of fertility decline among those remaining. But what if conditions for those remaining also improve, access to secondary and tertiary education improves, and the reasons so many people had for leaving are reduced?

There is growing evidence that the most recent years in Africa have been an aberration. In February 2019, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was widely reported around the world. The researchers found that it was most likely a disruption in access to decent education in many African countries in the 1980s, especially for girls, that led to young women having more children, producing this recent (and very possibly temporary) aberration in what had previously been a faster rate of slowdown.

In the past 20 years, access to education for girls across Africa has improved markedly. None of this is taken into account in the UN’s models. The disruption to education in the 1980s was during the worst recorded period of economic decline that the countries of Africa had ever collectively suffered, a decline that occurred under the structural adjustment policies introduced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Girls who couldn’t attend school in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to structural adjustment became women who on average had children earlier and more children overall. Poverty, despair and ignorance increase fertility. The damage wreaked on the continent by those structural adjustment programmes was devastating.


Improved infant survival chances after Indian independence meant that the population of the new state of India grew by more than 20 per cent every decade from 1951 onwards, right through until 2001-11, when growth slowed to just under 20 per cent in the final 10 years for which we have an accurate count. The population of Pakistan grew by just as much but slowed to 20.1 per cent growth between 2001 and 2011, and it has been estimated to be decelerating throughout the most recent years. Most important, Bangladesh has slowed down the fastest, with its population growing by only 16.9 per cent between 2001 and 2011, mostly due to people living longer, rather than more births, and with its rate of population growth also falling each year within that period due to the decline in births.

The period of acceleration of the population growth of the Indian sub-continent as a whole ended in 1995, when 24 million people were added in just one year. The slowdown has already begun. It started a quarter of a century ago in India, but it is currently projected to be a slow slowdown, with growth falling below the addition of 20 million people a year in 2020, below 10 million a year in 2043, and reaching zero growth – peak Indian subcontinent population – in 2063 (or 2059, according to the 2019 UN estimates). After that, the 2017 UN projections suggest the population will shrink by more than seven million people a year for the first time in 2094, when the total is still above two billion people, one billion having been reached in 1987. However, there are very good reasons to believe that the slowdown could be quicker than that, with the very recent falls in fertility being the most obvious sign that the UN’s projections, those made in both 2017 and 2019, overestimated future population in its ‘most probable’ outcome. But the stories of other countries are telling, too. We can learn much from the recent past of other countries – as long as we look.


Migration into the US that had taken place between 1990 and 2017 came from neighbouring Mexico (12.7 million people). This resulted in Central America and the Caribbean accounting for just over 47 per cent (22.4 million) of the total migration to the United States in that period. Mexico was followed by China, India and the Philippines in importance, each contributing over two million people to the in-migration count. Six other countries contributed more than one million people to the US’s immigration numbers: Puerto Rico, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, South Korea and the Dominican Republic.

US politicians reacted to this acceleration with sanctions. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) was signed into law in September 1996. Deportation from the United States went from being a rare phenomenon to a relatively common one. More immigration enforcement is one big reason why there are so many unauthorized immigrants in the US today. People were actually more likely to remain in the United States because of the difficulty they encountered going back and forth to their country of origin, and obtaining legal status became much more problematic.
Unlike the rest of the Americas, in 2100 the US is still predicted to be growing in population size.  UN projections are especially over-optimistic as far as the United States is concerned and its population will actually fall at some point during this coming century.

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