Defusing the Population Bomb: a Response to Paul Collins

Aug 2, 2020

Paul Collins’s alarm about the environmental challenges facing the planet leads him to overlook the refugee issue I wrote about (“Prospects for Refugees and Migrants if Population Bomb goes Bust”, 23/7/2020), and line me up with all those he opposes: who think the world needs more people, or “more of the same” economic growth, or who don’t care about climate change or the ongoing loss of species.

I never joined this group, wouldn’t want to, and expressed none of these views in my submission to P&I. Perhaps he also misunderstands my suggestion for the future. I’m not saying that Australia resettle tens of millions of refugees, although we could do much more with little discomfort. My suggestion is, that if the toxic nativism in many countries can be neutralised by greater awareness of their enlightened self-interest, global resettlement programs in more countries can take up some of the room created by their forecasted population declines.

There were two simple goals for my previous article – one positive and one normative. First, I reported on the new IHME study published in a reputable journal, and made some broad comparisons with other studies. The studies are scientific not ideological, although there may be some input from national governments which reflect population policies. They showed a growing professional consensus that the global population peak would occur between 2050-64, with declines of 40-60% in many middle and upper-income countries by the year 2100. In some major countries, the IHME says the peak has already passed (Japan, much of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia) or will occur in the coming decade (China, Taiwan, Thailand). The current population for these two groups of countries amount to 1,957 million people, with the estimate for 2100 being 898 million, if the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals targets (for education and contraceptive met need) are met. That’s over a billion less people than now. If the SDG targets are met globally, the world’s population is forecast by the IHME to be 6.29 billion, or 8.79 billion if not met. (The Reference Scenario figures are higher, but this shows that the SDG attainments are a major driver of lower population outcomes. See the Report. )

My second point was normative – because the ageing of the population is inevitable in these countries, it provides a chance to mitigate one of the great moral challenges of our time, namely to get better life opportunities for the globe’s forcibly displaced people, a figure which hovered around 40 million from 1990 to 2012, then rose steadily to 80 million at end 2019. Population movements are part of human history and frequent in the 20th century but, in Europe for example, the period since Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 one-off welcome has seen no significant humanitarian response from the national leaderships of destination countries. COVID19, and the exclusionary response to it, has not increased the empathy for refugees. The virus threat has probably reinforced a “go home” mindset generally, and moral appeals will have a more limited effect (which is not to say they should be dropped, but supplemented by other perspectives.)

Based on the ageing demographics of these countries, many of the newcomers could fill the inevitable workforce gaps and find a valued place in a new society. Instead, President Orban of Hungary has offered financial incentives to boost local fertility, and other European leaders want to do the same. We have a new rationale for addressing the refugee crisis, but how do we persuade decisionmakers to design and implement a policy?

Paul makes no comment on the here and now situation of those many millions unwanted and disrespected, despite their humanity. So can I bring him back to the theme of the piece I wrote. He makes opaque references to the role of the state in determining family size, so would he agree with me to support the integration of refugees and displaced persons instead of government birth drives based on xenophobia? Does he support the SDGs based on female education attainment and access to contraception? Does Paul accept that Australia has a capacity and humanitarian obligation to accept more refugees now, and not “stop the boats” in future when our region produces climate refugees? And that they should be preferenced over migrants driven by less compelling reasons? Concerning his priorities, and some are critically important to me too, how can he imagine or plan a desirable future without an interest in real world empirics and “baked in” population trends? The report I focused on shows there is good news there, which provides guidance for a practical response.


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