Progress on Population? A Lot But Not Nearly Enough

Article subtitle: 
The Population Bomb Detonates and (Some) Ecologists Sound the Alarm
Article author: 
Leon Kolankiewicz
Article publisher: 
Rewilding Earth
Article date: 
25 January 2022
Article category: 
Our American Future
Article Body: 

Half a century ago, the population bomb had detonated in an explosion of exuberance following the Second World War. In those first two decades after the most devastating and destructive conflict in human history, Homo sapiens bounced back with an unprecedented burst of babies which threatened to engulf not just wilderness and wildlife, but the ecosphere itself. Overpopulation also jeopardized the very survival of the industrialized, globalized civilization (aka “the human enterprise”) that triggered the population explosion in the first place.

Leading ecologists sounded the alarm. The University of California – Santa Barbara’s Garrett Hardin was one of them. In 1968, the journal Science published Hardin’s landmark essay about overpopulation– "The Tragedy of the Commons" – whose reverberations are still felt to this day. The abstract consisted of a single sentence: “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.” For an essay with such a short abstract, “Tragedy…” has had a very long reach.

When it comes to the fraught topic of population, only Thomas Robert Malthus’s 1798 "Essay on the Principle of Population" and Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb triggered firestorms as fierce as Hardin’s “Tragedy.” Like these other writings, Hardin’s provocative essay was both extolled as insightful and condemned as dangerous, dismal, racist, misanthropic, and of course, “Malthusian.” For several decades, the publisher of Science received more requests to reprint Hardin’s essay than it did any other of the thousands of papers published in that eminent journal.

“Tragedy…” was so influential, even in the criticism it elicited, that the late political economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for a career dedicated to examining, critiquing, and softening the stark implications of Hardin’s thesis.

In 1968, Hardin wrote that: “there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of zero.” And he was correct – back then, every single nation in the world, including both the more developed and the less developed countries, was undergoing rapid – even exponential – population growth and/or had fertility rates well in excess of replacement level (i.e., a Total Fertility Rate or TFR of 2.1).

The World Is Changed

Yet today, “the world is changed,” as Galadriel observed sagely in the prologue to Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is a different place from the one that alarmed Hardin and others 53 years ago. Overall, global birth rates have fallen by about half.

The countries of the world are now divided into radically different demographic camps facing distinct, even opposing, realities and dilemmas. These two camps have been dubbed the “bust” and the “boom” countries. The bust countries – approximately 90 nations worldwide – are not creating enough babies even to maintain their current populations, while about 105 nations are experiencing high birth rates and booming, unsustainable population growth.

Scores of countries in different continents now have TFR’s near, at, below, or even well below replacement level. According to the respected Population Reference Bureau (PRB) in Washington, D.C., the “more developed countries” of the world had a combined TFR of 1.5 in 2020, more than half a birth (0.6) below replacement level. Even Latin America, once dominated by the Catholic Church led by a Vatican still openly hostile to artificial contraception (a reality which hasn’t changed, unfortunately), had an aggregate TFR of 2.0 in 2020, just below replacement level. Brazil, the most populous Latin American country by far (213 million in 2021) had a 2020 TFR of 1.7.

On the other side of the globe, China, with a population of 1.4 billion, had a 2020 TFR of 1.3; Iran, governed by a theocratic Shiite Islamic regime, 1.9; and even India, the country adding more people annually than any other, had a TFR of 2.2, barely above replacement level. In December 2021, it was announced that India’s TFR had dropped below replacement level for the first time in its history.

As to Hardin’s point that in 1968 no prosperous country had halted population growth (i.e., zero population growth [ZPG], or a growth rate of zero) for some time, that is no longer the case either. The native populations of two of the most prosperous countries in the world, Germany and Japan, are essentially at zero growth right now, and on the cusp of seeing declining real numbers in the near future and for as far as demographic projections foresee.

Germany is increasing slightly at the moment only because of mass immigration and the 2015 refugee crisis. The PRB projects that its population in 2050, at 83 million, will be essentially the same as today’s. Because its TFR is only 1.3, far below replacement, and a “rate of natural increase” (births minus deaths) of -0.3%, Germany’s population would be declining already were it not for mass immigration.

Japan is another story – its TFR is also 1.3, but with essentially no immigration, and a rate of natural increase of -0.4%, its population is already declining year-on-year and is expected to fall from 125 million now to 110 million by 2050. In a crowded, mountainous country that needs to import many of its raw materials, a smaller Japanese population could be beneficial and far more environmentally sustainable if handled properly and if citizens could accept that smaller numbers don’t necessarily imply cultural extinction, impotence, or irrelevance on the world scene.

Many other “more developed” countries will soon be following in Germany’s and Japan’s footsteps. Even with annual net immigration of 1.2 million, the population of the European Union is projected to decrease from 510 million at present to less than 460 million by 2100. The PRB projects that the population of East Asia (including the prosperous countries of China, Japan, and Korea) will be 75 million smaller in 2050 than today.

Except for China’s now jettisoned one-child policy and India’s past occasional bouts of forced or incentivized sterilization, none of the scores of countries that have achieved or approached zero population growth (ZPG), or are headed in that direction through a sustained decline in fertility levels, had to resort to the kind of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” that Hardin thought would be necessary to achieve ZPG.

Instead, voluntary family planning and reproductive health programs, ready availability of contraceptives, reproductive choice, and most importantly, large-scale women’s empowerment through educational and economic opportunities, allowed much of the global population in very different cultures to freely choose to restrict and reduce their child-bearing.

It would have been virtually unthinkable at the time “Tragedy” was published, but so many countries now have TFR’s that are so low – some not much more than half of the replacement level – that they are pushing measures to encourage women to have more children rather than fewer. And these societies are being forced to consider socially unpalatable, untested, or problematic remedies such as raising retirement ages, increasing immigration, and embracing robotics as means of addressing projected worker shortages from ever more skewed, unfavorable dependency ratios (the ratio of working-age population to pensioners).

Where Populations Are Still Exploding

Unfortunately, the above, relatively optimistic demographic prognosis does not pertain to all the world’s people, but to the 1.3 billion who live in “more developed” nations (2020 TFR 1.5) and many but not all of the 6.6 billion who reside in “less developed nations” (2020 TFR of 2.4). The 1.1 billion residents of “least developed countries” (a subset of “less developed nations”) face a demographic reality much closer to what worried Hardin so much back in 1968. According to the PRB, in 2020 the “least developed countries” had a TFR of 4.0, at which they would double in size approximately every generation.

Most of the least developed countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa – famed for its beleaguered wildlife, and in particular its megafauna. Here, desired family sizes are still extremely high, and cultural or religious opposition to family planning and contraception has proved stronger than family planning advocates and development specialists once anticipated. According to the PRB, the 2020 TFR of sub-Saharan Africa was 4.7.

Because of this continuing, stubbornly high fertility, coupled with declining mortality rates due to Western humanitarian intervention (food and development aid, medicines, antibiotics, vaccines, etc.) the population of Africa is projected to quadruple from about 1 billion at present (an approximate three-fold increase from the time of “Tragedy”) to 4 billion or more by 2100.

Sub-Saharan Africa population projections 1950-2100 - UN

United Nations Population Growth and Projections for Sub-Saharan Africa, 1950 to 2100 (Source: U.N. Population Division)

Unless there is far greater commitment than shown thus far to family planning, reproductive health, and women’s educational and economic opportunities in Sub-Saharan African to prevent these projections from coming to pass, Africa alone will account for most of the world’s population growth in the 21st century.

The fate of some of the Earth’s most spectacular and charismatic megafauna – African elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, water buffalo, wildebeests, chimpanzees, gorillas, and many other species – is at stake, to say nothing of the wellbeing and prospects for Africans themselves.

Overall, the bottom line globally is that in spite of all our progress, every year, an already overpopulated planet adds more than 80 million new voracious human consumers and users of nature. Yet without the undeniable population progress made in the last half century, which has sharply dented the exponential growth trajectory, the situation would be far, far worse.

A Leading Demographer’s Take on "Population Collapse"

Unless the reader has been living under a rock or in a cabin off the grid for the past several years, he or she would have noticed that in both developed and developing countries an ecologically-ignorant hysteria has been building about an impending “population collapse” that is supposedly in the offing. (At a time when global population is still increasing by 80+ million annually!) Those sounding off include politicians, pundits, and even swashbuckling multibillionaire Elon Musk.

One of the most informed and outspoken critics of this burgeoning frenzy is leading demographer Dr. Joseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.

Chamie wrote recently in The Hill:

Some billionaires are ‘kvetching’ – or griping – again….Instead of focusing on critical issues such as climate change, they have the chutzpah to claim that the greatest risk – potentially – to the future of civilization is population collapse. ….To be clear, world population is not likely to collapse soon and the biggest problem the world faces in the coming two decades is certainly not population collapse.

He adds that in the 20th century, the human population underwent “extraordinary” population growth, nearly quadrupling from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.1 billion in 2000. Chamie endorses the view above that many countries are likely to have smaller populations in 2100 than at present (but by no means an apocalyptic “collapse”) and also that Africa is a sharp exception to that rule.

And what of the USA? Chamie writes:

A particularly noteworthy case of population growth for a developed country is the United States. America’s population, which nearly quadrupled during the 20th century, is expected to increase, largely by immigration, by more than 50 percent during the 21st century, from 282 million to 434 million.

In another recent piece, called “For America’s future population, how much is too much?”, for The Hill, Chamie concluded that:

…slower rates of U.S. population growth, with the goal of gradually moving to population stabilization, will make it far easier and less costly for America to deal with climate change and environmental degradation, as well as other major challenges facing the nation.

That makes a lot more sense than do the ecological ignoramuses who look at America’s remaining open spaces and see only places to pack in more people.


Reprinted with permission of the author.

Leon Kolankiewicz is Scientific Director of NumbersUSA and Vice-President of Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization. His career as a wildlife/fisheries biologist and environmental scientist spans more than 30 years, 40 states (including California and Alaska), and three countries. He has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department Fish and Game, Orange County (California) Environmental Management Agency, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, and as an environmental consultant to more than 10 federal agencies. He is also the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska’s Raincoast, which the New York Times’ outdoor columnist Nelson Bryant called “a celebration of wilderness.”