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May 17, 2024

The World’s — and the Pacific Rim’s — Disastrous Population Implosion

“Sometime soon, the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant.”

Will the world be better off with fewer people? For years that has been a hypothetical question posed to suggest an affirmative answer. Fewer people, it was claimed, would mean less depredation of natural resources, less urban overcrowding, more room for other species to stretch their (actual or metaphorical) legs. Mankind was a parasite, a blight, and overpopulation a disease. Fewer people would mean a better Earth.

Not everyone has agreed. More people, argued the late economist Julian Simon, means more inventors, more innovators, more creators. Benjamin Franklin was the 15th of his father’s 17 children. Would America, and the world, have been better off if his father had stopped at 14?

More people also means more consumers and taxpayers. More consumers to pay for the goods and services of private-sector workers. More taxpayers to pay for, among other things, benefits for the elderly and infirm.

Whatever you think, whether the world be better off with fewer people is no longer a hypothetical or rhetorical question. It is, it seems, a question squarely presented, or just about to be presented, by reality.

“Sometime soon, the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant,” Greg Ip and Janet Adamy write in the Wall Street Journal. “It may have already happened.”

The global replacement rate, they point out, is 2.2 children per woman, with the .2 representing the children who do not grow into adulthood and the excess of boys over girls in countries where many parents abort female babies. Demographers have long noticed the world is heading toward 2.2 but expected it to take longer to get there. The United Nations pegged it at 2.5 in 2017. It fell to 2.3 in 2021, and incoming data suggest it’s declined significantly since then.

Previous traumatic events have produced higher birthrates, like America’s and eventually Europe’s post-World War II baby boom. But the COVID-19 pandemic, after an initial spike in births resembling ones occurring nine months after electricity blackouts, has produced even fewer births than pessimistic experts predicted.

Total world population won’t start falling immediately. One estimate is that world population, now about 8.1 billion, will peak at 9.6 billion in 2061. The fears that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation have proved unfounded, and population control efforts by the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation and Warren Buffett have petered out.

As technology historian Vaclav Smil points out, the discovery in 1908 of the Haber-Bosch process for producing synthetic ammonia has led to food production that can feed the world’s current billions and many more. Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 wrote that any population increase would result in famine and disease, is dead.

Today the negative effects of sub-replacement population growth are already being felt. Government pensions and elderly medical care are proving difficult to sustain in the United States and western Europe. Economic growth seldom rises to pre-2000 levels because the labor force is growing little, or even shrinking.

More striking effects are seen in East Asia, as set out by American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt for Foreign Affairs. Even as Japan, South Korea and China boomed economically, their fertility rates fell below replacement — Japan in the 1970s, Korea in the 1980s, China in the 1990s. Decades later, the result is that East Asia’s working-age cohort is now shrinking. By 2050, it will have more people over 80 than children under 15.

These countries, Eberstadt writes, “will find it harder to generate economic growth, accumulate investments, and build wealth; to fund their safety nets; and to mobilize their armed forces.” China may not be able to amass huge armies to overcome the U.S. and its allies as it did in Korea in 1950. But Japan and South Korea will not be able to raise troops in numbers they once did. And will China attack Taiwan before its cohort of military-age men shrinks further?

“The long-heralded ‘Asian century’ may never truly arrive,” Eberstadt writes. And on the other side of the Pacific Rim, between 2020 and 2023, California’s population fell by 538,000, or 1.4%. This is a reversal of more than 150 years of above-U.S.-average growth, and despite the state’s physical climate and beautiful scenery.

This astonishing trend owes much to dreadful public policies that have incentivized modest-income people with families, including immigrants, to move out, even though California still attracts highly skilled college graduates from “back East.” But how many children will they produce? Will a declining-in-fertility America produce enough offspring to replenish Silicon Valley and Hollywood?

Absent a horrific military clash, the Pacific Rim that has produced so much innovation seems about to settle into an increasingly uncomfortable, hardscrabble and uncreative old age, with no gaggles of nephews, nieces, grandchildren and cousins who give hope that things will keep improving. Not the paradise the population control people promised.


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