- A new study in the Lancet finds our global population may never reach 10 billion.
- A population slowdown will pose challenges, but it could also give us a better chance of avoiding ecological collapse.
- Population slowdown is not a reason for concern, but rather for celebration. Thank birth control and women’s education.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
While watching 2020 unfold has been like watching someone set themself on fire with a bucket of bacon grease and a firecracker, one morning I stumbled on something that made me smile, and then jump for joy: A new study found that the global human population might peak at just under 10 billion people in the 2060s before tapering off to 8.8 billion by 2100.
What miracle could achieve such a slowdown in human reproduction after a century of smack-yourself-in-the-face runaway growth? It’s not war, or nuclear holocaust, or plague (COVID-19, as tragic as its mishandling has been by certain governments, will do little to slow down population growth). It’s two things, both wonderfully non-violent: women’s education, and access to birth control.
The new findings, published in the medical journal The Lancet, differ from other population forecasts, most importantly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNPD) and the Wittgenstein Centre, by predicting that the global population will peak sooner than expected and fall quicker than anticipated (though still, by 2100, the Earth would house more humans than the 7.8 billion of us here today).
This was good news. No, no, this was freaking great news. Because if this research — which made some clever shifts in how it analyzed the data and predicted the future — could be believed, it could mean that Planet Earth, in all its ecological glory, might just survive our current devastating onslaught and begin to recover in the coming centuries. Assuming we, of course, actually deal with climate change. A big assumption.
However, no one else seemed to see it that way. Coverage of the paper’s findings looked more like Munch’s “The Scream.”
Perhaps the most ridiculous of these articles came from the BBC, which spent about 1,000 words freaking out over the idea that the human population won’t go on growing forever and societies might have to … adapt. Oh, no! Humans have never had to do that.
There is only a single mention of the environment in the BBC article.
“You might think this is great for the environment,” it reads. “A smaller population would reduce carbon emissions as well as deforestation for farmland.” But then the piece goes on to never finish the thought, which seems to suggest that fewer people is not great for the planet as a whole (huh?).
Of course, part of the problem is the scope of the paper itself. It pays lip service to environmental issues and climate change, but makes little mention beyond the fact that having fewer humans around might be beneficial in solving these problems. The connection between population and climate change is tenuous at best, but one thing is certain: a booming population is not going to make fighting climate change any easier.
Worse still, the paper makes zero mention of other ecological crises: the vast destruction of the world’s forests, the spiraling mass extinction, the overfishing of our seas, the decline of insects in at least some regions, the extensive use of pesticides and herbicides, the infiltration of the last wildernesses, and the destruction of Indigenous people and cultures. Crises, by the way, that threaten human health and society. Just ask Covid-19.
Instead, the research focuses almost solely on how fewer births will impact the economy — assuming that the only way forward is unending economic growth.
Will there be economic challenges? Sure. But I’d hazard the challenges posed by an aging population are going to be far easier to solve than those posed by a total breakdown of Earth’s ecological limits, something we’re already dangerously close to. When it comes to an older population, we already have potential solutions and examples to soften the impact, such as automation, robotics, policy shifts, new ideas like universal basic income, and evolving views around economics.
Maybe we don’t have to play the neoliberal capitalism game forever? Maybe we could increase funding for the care of the elderly instead of giving billionaires tax cuts or spending trillions on the military?
At one point, the study claims Japan will see its population shrink by half and then says Japan could still be the fourth-largest economy. Boohoo.
While the research clearly bemoans the challenges of a world where women have fewer children, the alternative is quite simply ludicrous. Is the human population — already tearing the seams of our planetary ecological limits — supposed to just go on growing forever? Perhaps 10 billion humans just isn’t enough and we should aim for 20, 40, why not 100 billion people?
How to feed, house and clothe us all? Oh, no worries, by then I’m sure we’ll have terraformed Mars — easily done on a planet we have never set foot on — and invented light-speed travel to bounce around the galaxy. Ha! Let’s get back to reality: if we can’t even take care of the planet that cradles us, what chance do we have of making good on others?
The only alternative to endless population growth is population decline. And the only alternative to wrecking our Earth is treating it differently. And this, of course, highlights the problem with our obsession with GDP and never-ending economic growth. As has been pointed out by many conservationists (originally by the economist Kenneth Boulding in the 1960s), “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth…on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”
We also seem to forget that the human species only hit 1 billion people around 1800. In other words, for more than 99.9% of our time on Earth, we did just fine at the things humans like to do — community, sex, art, religion, philosophy, war — with fewer than a billion people.
So, humans will be fine — if we avoid ecological catastrophe and total climate breakdown. And a slowing population allows us to have a bit of a better chance on both of those. I say “a bit” because human population is just one part of the equation. The other is consumption. We might miss the worst of the predicted population growth, but we still have to rein in our material consumption.
Just don’t tell the economists that.
Meanwhile, I’ll celebrate a little. Our incredible, nonviolent revolution of contraceptives, birth control, women’s rights, and education for girls might just prevent our species from destroying the world.
Header image: Fires burning in the Amazon on August 17 next to the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Labrea, Amazonas state. Photo by: Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Citation: Vollset, S. E., Goren, E., Yuan, C., Cao, J., Smith, A. E., Hsiao, T., … Murray, C. J. (2020). Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: A forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease study. The Lancet. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30677-2