California, America's Golden State, suffered its first ever annual population fall. It reflects a worldwide trend of population declines. Overall, the number of babies born in the country in 2020 dropped to the lowest level in more than four decades.
Japan marked Children’s Day by announcing that the number of under-14s in the country had fallen for the 40th consecutive year to a record low.
Last year, Italy, the population of Europe’s fourth biggest economy dropped by the equivalent of a city the size of Florence. Since the “baby boom” years of the 1960s, the annual number of births in Europe’s fourth biggest economy has fallen by more than half. The decline gathered pace in 2010 and then, last year, Covid-19 struck, contributing to new records for low births.
Paul Ehrlich author of The Population Bomb (1968), predicted imminent mass starvation due to overpopulation, but this overly-pessimistic view has failed to happen although many still adhere to the idea, strangely enough even within the environmentalist movement which prides itself in following the science. Despite projections suggesting otherwise, the over-populationists maintain that there will be too many people for the planet's resources to sustain the numbers.
The UN thinks that population growth will peak at the end of this century, but others think it will peak sooner. Researchers at the University of Washington predicted last year that it would hit a maximum of close to 10 billion around 2064, then slightly decrease to around 9 billion by 2100.
The discrepancy of two billion people by century’s end between the two predictions is explained by the latter's assumption that there will better access to contraceptives and female education in Africa. And that is bearing out for many African nations (albeit not every one) where family sizes are already dropping.
Previous declines in the number of humans on the planet have been through disease or disaster. This would be the first time that it is reduced by low birthrate, after cheap and widely available contraception allowed women to control the size and timing of their families. But there is a threat to women’s rights, when governments that have failed to encourage more people to voluntarily have more children try to force up birthrates by limiting access to birth control and abortion.
The end to global population growth could indeed relieve pressure on the environment, particularly because the decline is centred on carbon-emitting wealthier nations.
It may also help a shift in hostile attitudes to migration, as countries which currently have anti-immigration policies start competing to attract newcomers to bolster the workforce and care for the elderly.