What are the potential implications of global depopulation?
The world population has been growing since antiquity, interrupted by wars, disasters, pandemics, and famine. But the global human population may soon hit an inflection point and enter a period of demographic contraction.
Population is already declining in many countries, including Japan, Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary.1 Many more are on the brink. If it were not for international immigration, both the United States and the EU would have declining populations today. The total population of the continent of Europe, including Russia and non-EU countries, peaked in the year 2000.
Many factors play a role in population decline, but the one that stands out is sub-replacement fertility (defined as any rate below 2.1 children per woman in developed countries). Over 40% of the world’s population lives in nations with sub-replacement fertility, a common feature among most prosperous countries. The potential causes of sub-replacement fertility include high costs of living and low job security, urbanization, contraception, changes in female social roles, government policies, decreased religiosity, postponement of family, and partnership instability. Despite sub-replacement fertility, some populations still expand through immigration, population momentum, and lengthening life expectancy.2 For now, many countries, especially the world’s poorest nations, are still growing to offset declines elsewhere. Extrapolating from current circumstances, however, it appears we are approaching a period of global depopulation.
The potential implications are enormous. Current assumptions about the increasing scarcity of natural resources could be turned upside down. Competition and demand for oil, minerals, land, and water could fade as human resources become the new scarcity. Commodity prices could collapse. Deflationary pressures could compound natural trends toward lower prices enabled by innovation. Real estate prices could decline everywhere other than the premium locations. Credit markets could decline due to debt deflation. Assets could deflate and could be held for yield rather than a speculative hope of a profitable sale to a growing pool of buyers. The current long-standing fiscal policy aimed at low-grade inflation could be revisited in the context of asset deflation and population decline.
Warring could fade as competition for natural resources fades. The scarcity of human resources could render senseless the idea of reducing each other’s population through war. As the average age of citizens gets higher, average testosterone levels could be lower, which could reduce the will for war and aggressive behaviors. Sexual politics could shift in favor of women as their fecundity becomes even more prized. As the elderly population increases relative to the under-40 group, healthcare consumption could become the majority of economic activity. On one hand, fewer young people could be bearing more per capita stress of funding the needs of an aging population. Pensions, social security, and other deferred entitlements as they exist today could become even more suspect as the gap between new contributions and liabilities increases. Currently, many of these programs rely indirectly on the Malthusian assumption of an expanding population base where the younger generation funds the aging population. On the other hand, a smaller base of young people will be inheriting wealth from their predecessors.
Stress on infrastructure and services could recede. One might imagine a declining population moving to urban centers and vacating rural areas. In reverse homesteading, large tracts of land could be abandoned and returned to open land. Natural habitats could reappear, along with fauna and flora. Many of today’s environmentalist concerns could self-resolve and be forgotten.
1 Retrieved at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_decline.
2 Retrieved at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility.
Originally published at The Journal of the Palo Alto Institute in Fall 2011.