World Population Implosion?

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, some of the world's best demographers have begun a dramatic reassessment of the world's demographic future. They are now seriously proposing the possibility that the world's population rather than continuing to increase will in our lifetimes peak, and then commence an indefinite decline in the generations immediately ahead. This demographic scenario is implicitly reflected in, among other places, the United Nations Population Division's biennial compendium, World Population Prospects - the oldest, largest, and most intensive of various contemporary attempts to envision and outline likely future demographic trends. The forthcoming edition of that volume, The 1996 Revision, will include "low variant" projections that anticipate zero population growth for the world as a whole by the year 2040, and negative growth - that is to say, depopulation - thereafter.

Like two alternative projections ("medium" and "high") also offered, this "low variant," as previous editions of the study have explained, is "thought to provide reasonable and plausible future trends." And the eventual global depopulation envisioned in these projections, one should emphasize, is not calamitous - it does not result from Malthusian, environmental, or any other variety of disaster. Just the contrary: This contemplated stabilization and ultimate decline of world population is assumed to occur under what World Population Prospects terms "conditions of orderly progress." The UN Population Division's method, in fact, specifically posits that "catastrophes such as wars, famines or new epidemics" will not take place "during the projection period."

The UN's new "low variant" projections do not, of course, provide a sure vision of the future. But they do offer a glimpse of one particular, and by no means fantastic, version of the future - a version, as yet, whose outlines have scarcely been described and whose ramifications have scarcely been pondered. At a time when all manner of potential "population problems" are regularly accorded official attention by national and international authorities, the neglect that has to date greeted the possibility of a long-term reduction of human numbers is all the more striking.

In the following pages, we will survey the demographic contours of a world in which population has ceased to increase and examine some of the political, economic, and social implications that might flow from a global "population implosion" a few decades from now. (The new UN "low variant" projections will be our backdrop.) Unaccustomed as we may be to thinking about such a world, its advent might not be that far off. The UN projections in question imagine an indefinite demographic descent commencing just over 40 years from now - a time at which most of the earth's current inhabitants will likely still be alive.

The limits of population forecasting

This is not, to be sure, the first time that population specialists or others have raised the prospect of long-term population decline. Some 60 years ago, expectations of an imminent depopulation were widespread in the Western world. In the 1930s, in fact, "the fear of population decline," to use Michael S. Teitelbaum and Jay M. Winter's phrase, was palpable in a number of European countries - or at least in their leading political and intellectual circles. We now know that those predictions of depopulation were far off the mark. Indeed, at the very time when they were supposed to be entering into permanent negative growth due to sub-replacement fertility - the decades of the 1950s and 1960s - Western countries actually turned out to be in the midst of a demographic surge driven by a post-war baby boom.

Thus a few general words of warning about demographic projections and forecasts are in order. The uninitiated sometimes invest unwarranted confidence in the capabilities of population sciences to chart accurately the demographic trends of tomorrow. …