Population decline isn’t happening fast enough to save planet

Feb 10, 2022
Pollution is a byproduct of China's extraordinary economic growth. (Image: ABC News: Zhang Qian)

By 2050 we will consume three earths per year. Degradation of land and the oceans, biodiversity loss and global warming are the direct results.

In a recent survey of Asian media in Pearls and Irritations, David Armstrong highlighted the fact that China’s fertility rate, that is average number of children per woman, has dropped to 1.3. In 1970 it was 6.3. With a current population of 1.4 billion, China’s median age is 38.4.

China abandoned its one-child policy in 2015. While the government is now encouraging couples to have three children, many are still having only one child or none. Increasing educational standards and growing prosperity, balanced by the high cost of urban living, means young people are putting off marriage until they’re in their 30s and delaying having children.

With the world’s second highest population, India’s fertility rate is 2.0 according to The Bangkok Post. In 1960 it was 5.9 with a population of 450,000,000 and a median age of 22. Its current population is 1.38 billion with a median age of 28.

While we’re seeing some decreases in population numbers, Armstrong quotes the Jakarta Post warning: “The developing world runs on fossil fuels, from huge traffic jams in Bangkok and Jakarta, to coal-fired plants in Sri Lanka and India, to gas and charcoal stoves for cooking and heating throughout Asia to the vast oil exports of Nigeria, Malaysia and Iraq.”

In fact, these modest declines in fertility are making no difference to environmental sustainability, let alone global warming because, at 7.9 billion people, population numbers are already so far beyond earth’s carrying capacity. With a world population increase of 80 million people a year, lower fertility rates are a mere drop in the ocean.

Singapore’s Straits Times tells us that the drop in fertility rates concerns the Chinese authorities because it means that China won’t have enough able-bodied, working people paying tax to support a bulging group of older people. Japan, South Korea and Singapore face a similar bulge.

However, this ignores the fact that this is a short-term problem because as population numbers decrease the temporary bulge in retirees and older people will even out, allowing a new equilibrium to be reached as the smaller numbers pass through the life cycle and stabilise.

A stable population replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman. Many Asian countries are now below that: Japan’s fertility rate is 1.4, South Korea’s 1.1, Vietnam’s 2.1, Thailand’s 1.5, and Muslim majority Bangladesh 2.1. Bangladesh has an effective family planning program, giving the lie to the assumption that mainstream Islam is not interested in population limitation.

Fertility figures such as these lead pro-growth economists and demographers to panic because neo-liberal dogma is posited on the assumption of unlimited, eternal growth on a finite earth. True to form, The Japan Times says that “Economists warn that China’s plan to become a rich and powerful country by 2049 … is imperilled” by its falling fertility rate and Forbes magazine thinks we need many more people and talks of “death spiral demographics” as fertility rates drop.

Yet the impact on the earth of our present population of 7.9 billion is horrendous. At present we are chewing-up one and a half earths per annum as we exploit the world’s reserves. For instance, on July 29, 2019 we had already consumed all the natural resources available for that year and for the next five months we lived on credit. At this rate by 2050 we will consume three earths per year. Degradation of land and the oceans, biodiversity loss and global warming are the direct results of this level of exploitation.

All sorts of panaceas are suggested to solve these problems: technology, bio-engineering, artificial intelligence, genetically engineered food, to name a few. It’s significant that all these processes involve major interference in nature. We humans are incurably obsessed with manipulating our surroundings.

Underlying our denials and completely stymieing us is our deeply held anthropocentrism, our conviction that humankind alone constitutes the essential purpose and meaning of the world, re-enforcing the assumption that we come first before every other species. The underlying, usually unconscious presumption is that we must prioritise the needs of humanity first over all other species and the natural world.

The extraordinary irony is that given we make-up just 0.01 per cent of all living things and that the oldest Homo sapiens so far discovered lived about 300,000 years ago. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, so the anthropocentric assumption that we somehow constitute the entire meaning of the world is extraordinarily presumptuous. And that’s not counting the 13.7 billion years since the origin of the cosmos.

What’s needed is a moral revolution, a radical shift of emphasis from anthropocentrism to biocentrism and ecocentrism. Even Pope Francis says that “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.” The word “anthropocentrism” regularly occurs in his encyclical Laudato si’ (2015) in a negative context; he says that “nowadays, we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures … [Rather] this implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”

But moral revolutions are particularly hard to achieve in a post-modern, social media-driven, subjectivist world besotted with the pathos of the human. Even getting intelligent people to think about or even acknowledge over-population is difficult, let alone focusing on moral underpinnings.

We are very good at what sociologist Kari Norgaard calls “socially organised denial,” narratives that help us deflect the implications of threatening problems. She says that that there is strong pressure to avoid such issues altogether in social interactions. So, over-population is relegated to the unmentionable, or the too-hard basket.

But if our children and grandchildren are to have any future, we need to talk about population now. And that includes Australia, where a discussion of the continent’s carrying capacity has been swept under the carpet for too long.

Finally, a  self-interested free advertisement: I have tried to mount a discussion of these issues in my new book The Depopulation Imperative (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly, November 2021).


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