Demographic Transition – Too Many People or Not Enough?

In the race to halt climate change, overpopulation was a common point of concern. The popular conception was that the human population would increase exponentially until we ran out of resources. The theory dates from the 1700’s, when Thomas Malthus pointed out that resources such as land area for crops are finite, while human populations can grow exponentially.

That had seemed to be the case for most people living in the second half of the 20th century; year after year, the world was experiencing unprecedented population growth in industrialising nations. To the average person, it must have seemed unstoppable as in most science fiction stories, the disaster of overpopulation was an always present detail when predicting the future.

But recently, the discussion has shifted in the complete opposite direction. For the past 20 years, several countries have seen a drastic decline in fertility rates, reaching well below replacement levels. According to the United Nations, population growth is expected to decrease further until stopping completely by 2100. The countries that are seeming to suffer the steepest declines are South Korea, China, and Japan. The US and most of Western Europe are withstanding mostly due to immigration.

According to research by the United Nations, China’s population will halve by the end of the century. Fertility in all European countries is now below the level required for full replacement of the population in the long run (around 2.1 children per woman), and in most cases, fertility has been below the replacement level for several decades. 

“But what’s the problem?”, you might be asking. “If the population is going to shrink, won’t this solve a lot of our problems? Less people mean more resources to go around, right?”

It’s a reasonable assumption. I thought the same when I saw people online panicking over this inexplicable decline.

I found out later that the truth is sadly not so simple. While the fertility rate decreases, population will still grow, though not as fast as predicted. According to a study, the population has a good few decades of “momentum” left that will carry it for a few more years; it is not going to be fast enough to solve our climate problem.

The real problem lies in the demographic transition that will occur. As fertility rates continue to decline, what will follow is a “top-heavy” society where the older generations will disproportionally outnumber the younger ones—a society dominated by seniors. This places immense pressure on the younger population to work to support the older one.

But a less obvious consequence of the demographic transition relates to climate change. As said before, life won’t immediately improve due to a lower population; what’s more important is the type of people who make up this lower population.

This is by no means the end of the world; it is merely a consequence of societies adjusting to increased life expectancy and changing economic conditions. What must be kept in mind, however, is that younger generations are the ones more engaged in directly participating in the struggle against climate change.

Focusing on long-term sustainability is imperative in easing future burdens; making electric vehicles cheaper and reliable will no doubt be the step needed to make this leap. And we better do it quickly; none of us are getting any younger here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stawie is a tech-loving young optimist, intrigued by the mysteries of what lies ahead.

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