The population trap: why we need a new demographic transition

As humans, we are prisoners of the frames we use for bounding and understanding reality. Despite abundant evidence that we need to reconsider, the world’s obsession with economic growth continues. If our economies do not grow we are convinced they must, by definition, be declining. Even climate change has not taught us the importance of re-thinking the habits of mind that, whatever technologies we employ, underpin the operations of business and the institutions of the state.

If slow economic growth is unthinkable, demography is even more mixed up with parables of growth. Despite a super-abundance of humans, governments seem unconcerned about the prospect of even more. Thus, the world’s population is projected by the United Nations to be headed towards a figure of 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.4 billion by the end of the century. There are 8 billion of us already: another 2 billion over the next thirty years, particularly when accompanied by climate change, will bring already-stressed eco-systems to the point of collapse.

Astonishingly, these figures attract little concerned attention from policy elites, despite the fact that, as with all problems with long lead-times, the effects of current decisions are already restricting our collective future. Rather than expressing concern, many academics and behind the scenes, influential public servants, support continuing population growth. Young populations, they believe, are better than older ones. Growing populations are better than declining populations. The media highlights these views, while dissenters find it difficult to attract any attention.

The effect is particularly strong in the Australian press, where few journalists question the received wisdom. How often do we read that we need more young people in order to freshen up the age profile? Many of those making these claims know perfectly well that even very large numbers of young immigrants will have little long-term impact on the age profile of the population. If reproduction rates fall, as they invariably do in developed countries, this is regarded as a disaster, rather than as a natural occurrence to which further adaptation will occur.

How, the population boosters keep asking, are all the old people to be supported? It matters little that the financing of retirement has received, and will continue to receive, significant policy attention. Aged care is expensive and difficult to do well, but there is a darker side to this issue. We don’t like old people because they are seen as being unproductive, hoarders of resources and a burden on the health system. Older people are also wiser, more careful, and contribute to their families, but we don’t hear so much about that. Above all, old people are closer to death than younger ones, and as a society we don’t like to think about death.

If population needs to be at the centre of our policy thinking, how should we be approaching this most profound and delicate of questions? Clearly, we need the insights that demography provides. Demography fascinates because it measures and projects the effects of forces that are both elemental and social. Demographers base their population projections for cities, regions and countries on assumptions about fertility rates, that is, how many offspring will be produced by each woman in the course of her reproductive life. The age composition of the population, migration trends and, of course, death rates must also be factored into the mix.

The key question is: what causes people to decide to have children? This is clearly an individual (or a couple’s) decision but it is one that is taken in the context of prevailing social and economic conditions. The relationship between population and technology, both agricultural and medical, is well-known. The resulting demographic transition is still working its way through the world’s populations.

Because medical and agricultural technologies have reinforced each other, the world’s population has grown exponentially since the late 19th century, beginning in the United Kingdom. Between 1801 and 1901, the UK’s population grew, despite substantial out-migration, from 9 million to 41 million. Improved productivity and better medical care meant that more people survived to produce more people. As a result, family sizes in the then-developing world became huge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Ultimately, people responded to this change by having fewer children. Families in the UK and Australia in the 1920s were far smaller than those of a generation earlier. Much the same thing happened in other European countries – the first demographic transition. As public health has improved internationally, the same trends of rapid population growth followed by more moderate growth, have been observed in Asia, Latin America and more recently, in parts of Africa.

The problem we now have is environmental. We would not be without the technologies that have given us longer lives, but the combination of population growth and consumption growth has proved lethal for planetary ecosystems. For those of us who value the natural world for its own sake (and that is certainly not everyone) there is no need for argument – we should make room for other species. For those who do not care about other species, the reality is that without a more thoughtful approach to our own numbers, planetary systems will continue to break down.

There is a view, more wishful thinking than factual, that our technologies, and the systems of investment, innovation and production that support them, will save us. It is rapidly becoming clear that this is not the case. The continuing impasse in relation to energy shows us that without a managed transition to slower growth, we cannot meet targets for a sustainable climate. Wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and nuclear energy all have limitations as energy sources and impose their own environmental costs.

It is on the agricultural side, though, that real change is required. Producing more from the same areas of land and bringing more land into production comes at a cost. The much-praised green revolution that began in the 1960s was actually not green at all. High-input high-output farming is simply not sustainable, because it degrades soils, and heavy insecticide use plays havoc with bird populations. The big corporations keep coming up with new products that supposedly address the side-effects of those they replace, but the result is inevitably the same: more destruction. Changing what and how we eat offers little respite. Vegetarian diets are no less destructive than meat-based diets. Eating insects understandably arouses little enthusiasm.

Populations not only grow, they shift. There is a tendency in human geography to portray cities as places of excitement and innovation, no matter how polluted and gruesome they are. Certainly, an influx of population into a city, whether the result of push or pull factors, creates a certain impetus. But then the bills start coming in. Productive land is alienated for housing; many people are, and remain, poor. Collective technologies, such as governments, simply cannot keep up. If populations keep expanding, more and more resources must be put into what we now call, rather vaguely, ‘infrastructure’. This does not just mean pipes, wires and roads, but hospitals, schools, aged care facilities and so on.

Larger cities are not necessarily more innovative than smaller ones. Innovation and innovators need support, but whether or not these ingredients are present is not dependent upon population. Liverpool, a provincial city with a population of under a million in 1960, produced the Beatles, arguably one of the most creative pop groups of all time. Population growth may, or may not, be associated with innovation. Australia in 2022 has a much larger population than in 2002, but it remains overwhelmingly a country of technology consumers, rather than technology producers.

Part of the problem we now have is that the relief valves that were available to our ancestors when populations grew too large are no longer accessible. In the past, excess populations moved on to where the grass was greener. It has been the human way for centuries. People left Europe and Asia when they became over-crowded. They now want to leave Africa. This worked all right when there was room to receive them in developing countries elsewhere. But citizens of the now-developed world are becoming increasingly reluctant to take in all who want to move. This reluctance stems only partly from the politics of difference. It is also simply the politics of numbers.

We see this version of the tragedy of the commons repeated over and over again. Everyone wants to move to places that offer more opportunity. But it does not take long for the hosts to run out of patience with those who wish to join them. The point is soon reached where average well-being starts to fall. Even the best and most sensitive planning does not help much. At higher densities, more people means less landscape, native vegetation and habitat. Inevitably we destroy what we most wish to conserve.

So, what to do? If we assume that the earth’s population is going to reach more than 10 billion by the end of the century, that assumption, in itself, will not cause this number to be reached. But the type of thinking behind it means that we are sleepwalking our way into a nightmarish future when a better one is within our grasp.

A radical re-think of the global economy will be required to address climate change. The irony in relation to population growth is that, if we can move beyond unhelpful ideologies, the solution is already available. People are not stupid. And in particular, women are not stupid. Where women are given the choice, they restrict the number of children they have. This freedom is as basic a human right as you can get.

A much-needed new demographic transition could be underway right now, if only the population-boosters would allow it to happen. Humanity does not need to cover the earth with people. Those who urge greater rates of reproduction, whether they realise it or not, are serving only the short-term interests of developers, war-mongers and religious authorities for whom big societies mean more power for themselves.

It is a masculinist fantasy for which most women, and many men, have long been paying a huge price. It is time to move on. Women will show the way, if only we would let them.



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