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Baby bust: End of population growth may be in sight

September 20, 2016

If the “population bomb” drives your environmental anxiety, relax. The fuse has been clipped.

The global fertility rate – the average number of babies born to women of child-bearing age – has dropped from 4.45 in 1970 to about 2.3 today, a break-even number when infant mortality and other factors are considered. If the rate keeps falling, world population may begin to recede before the end of the century.

“A majority of countries now report fertility rates below replacement – that is, more countries are shrinking rather than growing,” says Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins, a social geographer. “We’re approaching a global ‘baby bust.’”

Robbins coauthored an article on this demographic shift with Sara Smith of the University of North Carolina, published in March in the journal Progress in Human Geography.

baby on a beach
The "baby bust" will force us to think differently about
resources, people, politics and growth, Robbins says.

To be clear, world population is still growing, driven by the momentum of the “baby boom” and its descendants. The global median age is approximately 30; a lot of young people have yet to move through their childbearing years. The number of humans will grow from today’s 7.4 billion and top out between nine and 12 billion, according to the United Nations, placing enormous additional demands on the planet’s capacities.

But the rates of growth and global fertility have steadily fallen since their peak in 1963. The end of overpopulation may finally be in sight.


History of worry

Robbins argues that the image of a teeming planet stripped of its natural resources – a fixture in both environmentalism, dystopian literature and films such as Soylent Green – developed during what he calls a “brief historical anomaly”: 200 years of rapid population growth that began in the 18th century. That burst in human numbers, driven by improvements in sanitation, advances in medicine, and other life-extending factors, prompted the English cleric Thomas Malthus to write his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, in which he warned that unchecked population growth would lead to worldwide famine – that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

More recent and familiar variants of that argument are found in decades of widely read books and reports, including William Catton’s Overshoot, the seminal 1972 computer modeling study The Limits to Growth, and more recent volumes like The Long Emergency by
James Howard Kunstler.

These and countless other works argue that humans will exceed the carrying capacity of the planet with catastrophic results. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich even predicted mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. While such forecasts have failed to materialize, the underlying idea – that overpopulation will bring global resource shortages, famine and conflict – has become conventional wisdom and serves as a pillar of modern environmentalism.

“These fears remain embedded in our economics, ecology and politics, despite the fact that predictions of the apocalypse fail to account for social and technological changes and other dynamic factors. These predictions have proven false time and time again,” says Robbins.

This form of futurism is not without harm. In an essay recently published in The Breakthrough Journal, Robbins writes that “Malthusian thinking has been consistently insistent on predicting economic and ecological disasters that never arrived, even while it was used to bolster barbaric and authoritarian actions against women and the poor.” He cites China’s strict one-child policy and India’s sterilization camps during Indira Gandhi’s reign as examples of national efforts to contain population growth.

paper dolls



Ironically, India – which had a fertility rate of 5.9 in the early 1950s, quadrupling its population to 1.3 billion since then – is rapidly approaching that break-even number of 2.3 children. And while the country is expected to become the world’s most populous by 2020 due to momentum, India already provides object lessons in some of the effects of having fewer people.

In the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, for example, owners of coffee and rubber plantations are facing worker shortages. A number of factors are to blame, including urbanization and outmigration. But the core reason for the shortage, according to Robbins, is the falling fertility rate, now below replacement in the region.

As a result, some of these forested plantations – which provide critical habitat for endangered frogs, birds and other wildlife, a subject of Robbins’s research – are being converted to mechanized row cropping, he explains.

“The local population is shrinking, influencing wages, farming practices, and habitat,” he says. “Zero population growth has arrived in southern India.”

“After two centuries of
rapid population growth,
a whole new reality is

Northern India is also facing the effects of a falling birth rate, raising sectarian tension in the Ladakh region. Representatives of the Buddhist faith have accused Muslims of waging a “Love Jihad,” allegedly luring Buddhist girls into marriage to boost the local Islamic population.

Tensions between generations could also arise as a result of the demographic shift. As the median age rises and fewer babies are born, the burden of caring for a growing proportion of the elderly will fall on fewer people. Robbins says the “potential support ratio” – the number of 15-to-64-year-olds for every person over 65 – will fall to four by the year 2050, down from 12 a century earlier.

Robbins poses a number of even larger economic questions in his Breakthrough essay: What will the growth-based global economy do without a growing population? Will a shrinking labor pool gain political and economic power, or lose it even further? And can prosperity be decoupled from population growth in a way that is just, equitable and good for the planet?

“After two centuries of rapid population growth, a whole new reality is emerging,” says Robbins,“and the ‘baby bust’ is going to force us to think differently about resources, people and politics in the Anthropocene. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to strain our ingenuity to deal with a large global human population, perhaps as many as 12 billion people. But it does mean we need to rethink the inevitability of growth, and the crusade to spend our limited resources on containing it.”


Seeking sustainable urban habitat for tomorrow’s ‘metro sapiens’

By the end of the century, 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities (compared to half today), placing humans and communities at a unique and pivotal point in time.

“The majority of urban development that could exist in 100 years hasn’t even taken place yet,” notes Jason Vargo, an assistant scientist with the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and the Global Health Institute. “That scale of urban growth is unprecedented and could be a giant opportunity.”

Vargo studies the future of urbanization and the idea that, with the right planning, moving into cities could be a strategy toward a more sustainable future.

“Maybe the existence
of our species is going
to depend on really
embracing this urban

He found inspiration for this area of study from spending time around the world after college. Living in places like San Francisco and Ho Chi Minh City, he noticed urban arrangements and lifestyles different than anything he had seen growing up outside of Detroit. Around the same time,Vargo began learning more about public health, and wondering how urban spaces could promote and improve health locally and globally.

Vargo uses the term “metro sapien” to characterize city dwellers of the future and he has published research on the idea in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“Maybe the existence of our species is going to depend on really embracing this urban character,” he says. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are there ways the city structure could be supportive of the natural environment?’”

Composting is an easily relatable example of this because it takes an output of the city – waste – and turns it into an input for the environment: fertilizer for future food production.

View a TEDx UW-Madison talk from Vargo on this topic.

-Melanie Ginsburg