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Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

David Goodhart, The Sunday Times

Market economics failed to topple Chinese communism, but perhaps the halving of its population by the end of the century will do the trick instead. Meanwhile the oceans are set to heal, the temperature will cool and Canada will become a global superpower.

All because of the next big thing, spelt out in this book: a sharply declining global population. This is a popular guide to modern demography, by two Canadian journalists, with a very strong point of view about the direction of travel. It is full of fascinating speculation and written with an energy that degenerates only occasionally into jauntiness.

Desolation row: the district of Kangbashi, in the Chinese city of Ordos, made headlines in 2010 as the poster city for the country’s waning population growth
Desolation row: the district of Kangbashi, in the Chinese city of Ordos, made headlines in 2010 as the poster city for the country’s waning population growth BLOOMBERG

It is also a case study in what one might call the “Canadian ideology”, the world view of the globe’s first “post-national” country, which is set to come into its own in the individualistic world of the low population, immigration-favouring future that the authors view as largely benign but many others might find less to their taste.

The basic claim that global population, now 7.5bn, will decline rapidly later this century after peaking at below 9bn — rather than the 11bn that is the UN’s central forecast — is hardly as new or controversial as the authors imply. More than 20 years ago I commissioned a cover story for Prospect magazine by Nicholas Eberstadt titled “Too few people?” that predicted global population peaking in 2040 and then starting a headlong dive. Fred Pearce made a similar argument nearly a decade ago in a book called Peoplequake.

But wielding a mix of data, argument and reportage, the authors do a decent job of explaining why this is probably going to happen. It can be summed up in one sentence. As societies urbanise, women become better educated (including about contraception) and more financially autonomous thanks to working outside the home, and this causes fertility rates to plummet, which is reinforced in most places by the weakening ties of family, clan and organised religion. […]

China is becoming Japan thanks to the one-child policy introduced in 1979 when the fertility rate was already down to 2.5. The rate is now just 1.2 and China’s population could halve to 600m by the end of the century, which would mean it was not far above the United States, which is likely to continue growing because of immigration.

Africa is the key continent for the decline thesis. The authors paint an optimistic picture from Kenya (where fertility has halved to 4 since 1975) of rising female education and empowerment. They also talk about growth prospects opened up by the Trans-West African Coastal Highway linking Lagos to Accra and Abidjan in Ivory Coast. This could be over-optimistic and Nigeria still has a fertility rate of 6 despite rapid urbanisation.

They might also underestimate the extent of the “goldilocks” option, of coming to rest at replacement levels, as Sri Lanka has been for the past 25 years and maybe India could be in the future. An Ipsos poll of almost 20,000 people in 26 countries found the ideal family size to be just over two.

In the short term, the authors imply, a faster than expected decline in population is mainly a benefit. Pressure on the environment is relieved, older populations are more pacific (although the 30m Chinese men without women might turn rough).

And one thing they don’t mention is how economic power is likely to swing back from capital to labour as the latter becomes scarce. This in turn is likely to reduce inequality; after all, one reason for inequality rising was the flooding of the labour market with all those cheap workers in India and China.

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