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The Underpopulation Problem?

While many argue that the decrease in human population will damage the world's economy, a noted scientist counts it a blessing.
 
 
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There is a group in North America - I am not joking - whose motto is "Back to the Pleistocene." Its followers would like human society to revert not just to a pre-industrial past, but to a pre-agricultural one. Humans would subsist on the untended fruits of nature, hunting the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the air, gathering roots and berries from the derelict cityscapes reclaimed by the wild.

It all sounds rather splendid, if you are young, fit, perfectly sighted, and don't mind dying before you reach 40. But there's another small problem: that without farming, the earth could support not the 6 billion people who are alive today, but just a few hundred thousand. The vision of the members of North American EarthFirst (the folk who put the mental into environmentalism) is achievable only with the annihilation of almost all of mankind. One might have expected them, therefore, to volunteer themselves as the first ecological suicide corps. But, like all such people, they picture themselves as the survivors, not the victims, of humanity's great extinction.

We scoff, and yet ... which of us can honestly say that we do not in some measure share this impulse? The middle classes take their holidays as far away from the mass of humanity as they can. The industrialists who make their money by mobilising human labour use it to escape from the people who have enriched them, creating their own private Edens, within which they hunt the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the air. EarthFirst's scary fantasy scarcely differs from the aristocratic idyll to which all British people aspire.

One of the most popular books ever written - The Lord of the Rings - tells the story of a pre-industrial civilisation taking on an industrial one and winning. And what a marvellous story that is! For who, though cognisant of all the benefits industrialisation has brought us, can truly say that he loves industry? Who, though aware that he would probably not be alive without them, has not pictured himself a happier man in a world bereft of factories and roads and the vast sprawling suburbs in which our great population must live? Which of us has not resented the very existence of that mass of people, sustained as it is by the products of industry? Which commuter hasn't imagined what a wonderful world this would be if only there were fewer cars on the road or fewer bodies stuffed into the Underground?

And we know too that the planet can indefinitely support only a limited number of people. Already certain resources - paradoxically the renewable ones such as freshwater, soil, fisheries and forests - are running out; others will soon follow. Some oil geologists are predicting that global demand will exceed supply within the next ten or fifteen years. The consequences of consuming fossil fuels can no longer be denied, even by the Spectator. As the (British) government's chief scientist observed in March, "the scientific community has reached a consensus": Climate change is real and man-made. Ecologists estimate the earth's carrying capacity -- the number of people it can sustain without ecological collapse -- at between two and four billion.

For all these reasons, we could be expected to welcome the extraordinary news that, for the first time in history, without the help of plagues, wars or famines, the human population is expected soon to start declining. Demographers now predict that our numbers will peak at about nine billion in 2070, and then begin to fall. Most of the richer nations will top out long before then. Russia's population is already dwindling; if it weren't for immigration, Italy would be in the same position. Japan will start to shrink from next year onwards; Britain won't be far behind. Europe's population will fall 4% by 2025. The US will keep growing for a little longer, then follow the rest of us. The real surprise is that the poorer nations are likely to go the same way. Countries like China, Mexico, Algeria and Iran are ageing even faster than we are. Even so, because we are so much older already, it is the rich nations which will shrink first.

Why is this happening? Partly because women now have better options than squeezing out as many babies as they can before they collapse into a premature old age. Partly because urbanisation means that children are no longer required to work in the fields. And partly because, in the rich world, they cost a fortune to bring up: a report published ten days ago suggested that British children cost an average of pounds 164,000. So as we age more we sprog less, and the result will be a smaller and older world.

And this, surely, is what all those who want some lebensraum without the reich have been waiting for: an unforced, gentle decline of the seething masses, which will leave the survivors with more ecological and social space. Well the writer Philip Longman isn't among them. His forthcoming book, The Empty Cradle, which he summarises in this month's Foreign Affairs, proposes that demographic decline is a disaster.

Longman makes the point, which can scarcely be denied, that as a population ages it becomes less capable of supporting itself. The US and Europe are already being sucked into the inevitable pensions crisis. In Germany the state now spends 14% of its GDP on pensions and healthcare for the elderly: this will grow to 24% by 2040. General Motors already has two and a half times as many pensioners as workers, and a pension shortfall of $19 billion. The IMF has warned the United States that the gap between its anticipated tax revenues and anticipated benefit payments amounts to five times its GDP.

Just as the costs of sustaining ourselves rises, our ability to generate wealth will fall. If Europe's population declines by 4%, its output per worker will need to increase by an extra 4% if it's to stay out of recession. Yet as we age we become less prepared to invest in the kind of entrepreneurship which would make that possible: Who wants to sink his pension into a risky speculation? Raising the retirement age won't solve the problem: American life expectancy is already peaking, while obesity and the diseases of affluence curtail our working lives. Immigration won't work either; the US would need to absorb 11 million migrants a year between now and 2050 to keep up. As other populations age, it's hard to see where they would come from.

So, having been urged for years to stop breeding for the sake of humanity, we are now being told to breed like coathangers for the same cause. Only if governments encourage us to start having babies again, Longman argues, will we avert an economic catastrophe.

At first sight, his argument looks persuasive. Those of us who haven't got there yet face a bleak old age of increasing needs and declining income. Young people will see us as a crippling and useless burden.

But there is a good side to all this, which Longman's article ignores. If people stop breeding when they become rich, then we have stumbled across the perfect, self-regulating solution to resource depletion and ecological collapse. For the first time in history we may have developed a mechanism which prevents us from wolfing our way to extinction.

Ever since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, population problems have been blamed on other people. Like the folk who expect to enjoy the fruits of a new Pleistocene, those who call for the population to be reduced tend to start by assuming that the numbers of everyone except people like themselves should diminish. Malthus, a gentleman cleric, insisted that the problems of the poor were caused by their irresponsible fecundity. Those who spent the 1970s and 1980s campaigning against overpopulation were lamenting not the evident surplus of white intellectuals, but the abundance of impoverished people with brown skins. The "population crisis" offered a convenient means of overlooking the real source of environmental disaster, as it was the only problem for which the poor could be blamed and the rich could not.

In truth, human wealth has long been a bigger environmental issue than human numbers. The citizens of the United States, for example, each use 88 times as much energy as the citizens of Bangladesh. We can huff and puff about the teeming Bangladeshis, but the planet can live with far more of them than of us. But now the problem is being solved at source: The people who are causing the most damage are the ones whose numbers will decline first.

Yes, there will be pain. A generation or two will be poorer than their predecessors. But Longman has surely overstated the problem; is a 4% increase in European productivity over 20 years really so hard to achieve? And surely a population which is 4% smaller requires 4% less economic activity to get by? Though an ageing world might be a more boring place, it is also likely to be a more considerate, less violent one. Longman complains that people with fewer children will be less prepared to let those children go to war. But this is surely a good thing. One has only to think of Europe in the Middle Ages, when teenage kings led their teenage troops into perpetual war, or of West Africa today, to see that a world dominated by clapped-out old relics would be a kinder one than a world dominated by raging youth. There will be less crime, less burning of rubber, more gardening, more time with grandchildren.

And, of course, the upside-down demographic pyramid won't stay that way for long. As the elderly die off, there will, as a result of lower birth rates today, be fewer grey heads to replace them, and we can then expect the human population to stabilise with a similar age structure to today's, but a smaller total number. As soon as you examine the alternative you see what good fortune this accident of human demographics has bestowed on us. To sustain the old, bottom-heavy, growth-dependent population of the kind Mr. Longman mourns requires an ever-greater consumption of finite resources, with the result that, sooner or later, the population will come down anyway, but with a swift and nasty bump.

So, though I won't be around to enjoy the results, I say roll on the partial extinction of the human species. It won't mean a return to the Pleistocene, but it's likely to lead to a more pleasant world than the one the enthusiasts for another population boom would have us inhabit.

George Monbiot's book The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order is now published in paperback.