In sustainability circles, you hear a lot of concern over future baby-making and population growth. Well, now the data trends are clear: the world is headed toward a sustained population decline. Let’s explore three ways overpopulation is a myth.
In 2021, China saw its first population decline in 60 years. The United States notes similar data. Apart from Africa, every region on Earth now expects more deaths than births in the coming decades.
What are the implications of sustained population decline? Can it be prevented?
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The scoop: Overpopulation is a myth… because Jack Ma and Elon Musk said so. No but really, a population collapse is more likely than an overpopulated planet. And the world could never be overpopulated.
Some talking points for the dinner table:
- Overcrowded cities ≠ overcrowded planet. The entire world population can fit in the state of Texas with the same population density as Manhattan.
- Lopsided populations will inevitably occur in modern advanced nations. That means young workers will be unable to support aging populations, causing natural population declines.
- ‘Malthusian traps’ refer to inevitable food shortages as populations grow. Either Malthus was right and some of us go hungry (as in we don’t need to artificially halt population growth), or he’s wrong and the population keeps growing sustainably through innovation.
Bottom line: The Earth has plenty to offer for 9 billion mouths. And a sustained population decline (largely due to lower fertility rates) is already becoming a realistic outcome.
Dig deeper → 2 min
Overcrowded cities ≠ overcrowded planet
The world has overcrowded cities, not overcrowded countries. In the US for example, the West Coast and East Coast alone make up around a 1/3 of the total population.
New York City and LA County each have the same population size as 630,000+ square miles of land near Idaho and the Dakotas.
Meanwhile, if the entire world population lived in Texas, we would still be less crowded than New York City. Texas has over 6 billion plus square miles of land for a planet of 8 billion plus people.
At the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, billionaires Elon Musk and Jack Ma talked about population collapse, futurism and AI. You heard me right, population collapse, not overpopulation.
“Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view,” Musk said while on stage with Ma.
The two business moguls discussed how a population decline would affect advanced nations like China and the US. Every continent (with the exception Africa) expects population growth decline in the 21st century. After consensus data popped up in April 2021, that fear became a reality.
Experts warn about the emergence of lopsided populations… and the impact can be catastrophic.
Lopsided populations refer to the ability of a young working class to support a growing population of older people. In China, the rate of aging is growing much faster than the growth of new babies. Eventually, this can cause serious economic instability.
The emergence of AI will further deteriorate human population growth in rural areas as families start depending less on family size to maintain land.
Thomas Robert Malthus was an influential economist from the early 19th century. He believed that population growth would eventually be stifled by its inability to feed a growing population.
Eventually, diminishing returns will occur and the population falls back again. Modern economists call this catastrophe a “Malthusian trap”.
Malthus’ population theory had many critics in the industrial age, when technological advances in automation and production allowed humans to sustain populations well beyond prior human imagination.
For example, Henry George argued against Malthus by distinguishing humans from other creatures. As a population of jay-hawks grow, there are less chickens. As human populations grow, there are more chickens because we are able to artificially create more.
Therefore, how can we compare humans to natural ecosystems with limits to growth? Humans create artificial factors.
However, there are two possible scenarios:
- Malthus is right about overpopulation, and worst case the world population will decline on its own due to a shortage in food supply.
- Malthus is wrong, and the human population will continue to sustain its growth… regardless of population size.
So why are we colonizing Mars?
If we fear inhabitable land from climate change, why colonize Mars? Isn’t that land… like… inhabitable.
Let’s figure out a way to make Siberia livable for future cities. Let’s prevent harsh wildfires in California and Australia. Or find out how to disaster-proof Haiti and Taiwan. We don’t need Mars for climate change, we want it because it’s a cool technological achievement and it has natural resources.
Wealthy nations do not grow exponentially
The Earth can handle way more than 9 billion people. It’s just a matter of allocating resources properly. Overpopulation is a myth because the world is not overpopulated. Cities are overpopulated. Advanced societies are not well-balanced for long-term growth.
Public health policy through 2021 forced city-goers to reconsider the modern urban lifestyle. Hundreds of thousands scattered to the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest United States in hopes of a more laissez-faire existence.
In my opinion, this population shift was inevitable. One way or another, city populations would have reallocated themselves.
As much as the World Economic Forum wants it to be true, the modern mega-city is not sustainable. People like privacy. Humans crave companionship. At a certain level, population levels hit a diminishing return on human health and happiness.
This article originally published on December 28, 2020.