'Empty Planet': Is the threat of overpopulation a myth?

For decades, the United Nations has been sounding the alarm about the potentially catastrophic consequences of global population growth. Empty Planet co-author Darrell Bricker says the opposite is true.

'When the [population] decline starts, it's not going to stop for a long time,' says Darrell Bricker

The Canadian co-authors of Empty Planet say global human populations are headed for a decline, not a boom. (Norman Kuring, NASA's Ocean Color web)
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We've all heard the grim statistics before.

According to the UN, there will be 9.8 billion people on earth by 2050 — a number that could balloon to 11.2 billion by the end of the century.

Scientists and environmentalists have long warned of the dangers that could follow: environmental chaos, poverty and geopolitical conflict.

But a Canadian political scientist says the UN has it all wrong.

Darrell Bricker is the co-author of the new book Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Planet Decline.

It's one of the biggest issues facing us in this century, and almost nobody is talking about it.- Darrell Bricker, co-author of 'Empty Planet'

He says rapid urbanization and the rise of female education are reducing birth rates around the world — and that could have dramatic consequences for humanity and the planet.

Bricker spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the prospect of a global implosion in human population.

Here's part of that conversation:

In your book you predict that we are three decades away from "one of the great defining moments in human history." What exactly are you predicting for 2050?

Well, that the population is probably going to peak out somewhere between eight and nine billion people and that is going to start to decline, and when the decline starts, it's not going to stop for a long time.

Empty Planet co-authors Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue rapid urbanization could lead to major population decreases by 2050. (Penguin Random House Canada)

This is completely contradictory to the accepted idea that there would be a population bomb pushing us beyond 11 billion people sometime in the next hundred years.

What's interesting in this is that there's an appearance of settled science on what the demographic numbers are.

But the more you pick away at it, like John Ibbitson and I did, and you talk to demographers, you find out that there's an awful lot of debate about what the future is going to look like.

So, if the demographers are saying this is wrong, they must be looking at the countries that we consider [to be] the countries that are growing fastest: India, China, Brazil. What did you see when you looked at those places?

Most people know what's happening in the developed world which is that we are experiencing declining fertility. Some countries, probably close to 20, are already experiencing population decline.

But they always compensate with it when they look at the developing world. Well, John and I looked at the developing world and looked at the statistics and travelled to the developing world to look at what was going on — and [they're] not having as many babies as we think they are.

So, for example, India now — which everybody assumes has a huge fertility advantage over other countries — well, the Lancet just came up with a major demographic study that was published in November that showed it's [the birth rate] down to 2.1, just at replacement level.

A crowd swarms at a market area near a train station in Mumbai, India in July 2012. The UN says India's population is expected to surpass China's in 2028. (Rajanish Kakade/Associated Pres)

China, as we already know, is at 1.5, but there's other demographers that say it's probably even lower than that.

So that's 40 per cent of the world's population. If kids aren't being born at the rate you need them to be to replace the population in those two places, it's not going to get to 11.2 billion. It's impossible for it to happen.

What is the social change that's happening inside China and India that's causing people to produce less?

Urbanization. So what happens is, on the farm, kids are an asset: a bunch of hands that you can use to do what you need to do in your family to produce your income.

When you move them to the city they become an expense; they're another mouth to feed, and people make a rational economic decision which is if I'm going to live in the city I'm going to have a smaller family.

The other thing that happens is the lives of women change when they move from rural areas and they move to the city.

Girls attend school in Pakistan, where two thirds of the current population are under age 30 after years of exponential growth and high fertility. Bricker says even countries with booming populations will see birth rates slow in the future. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

They get access to education, they get together with other women and they realize that maybe there's another way forward that's different than their grandmother and their mother had. And they may want to go into the work world.

When you make all of those decisions, you automatically start reducing the number of kids that you decide to have in your life, just like people in the developed world do so.

So ... this rapid urbanization is happening in the developing world — even more rapidly than it's happening here now — and the lives of women are being affected in a very major way. And the big decision that they're making is "you know what, I'm happy after two [kids]."

By ... the end of the century, the United States and China are going to have almost approximate populations.- Darrell Bricker, co-author of 'Empty Planet'

Globally, how many people do you think we'll be living in cities by 2050?

We don't even have to guess about that. The UN tells us that's going to be 68 per cent.

So if we know urbanization is a big cause of population decline, if you adjust that, then it's only a matter of time before you adjust your population.

You think that there will be implications, and they could be very dire, for China, having an aging population when they have been so programmed towards growth. Can you talk about that?

Well, disrupted empires are dangerous empires. And projections see China losing somewhere between 300 and 500 million people in this century. In fact, the UN's projections show a loss of 300 million people.

And if the United States continues on with its levels of growth, by the time we get to the end of the century, the United States and China are going to have almost approximate populations.

That's going to be a very different geopolitical circumstance from the one that we currently understand in which China has this huge number of people.

By the time we get to 2100, they're going to be a very old nation; they won't be having a lot of kids and they're going to be really struggling with the consequences of becoming old.

Newly born babies receive vaccines at a hospital in northwestern China. Author Darrell Bricker says China's population is headed for a major decline in the decades ahead. (Reuters)

What will happen when they perceive that they're in decline?

This is a country that's based on things, for example, like full employment. So, how do you deal with full employment in that kind of a circumstance, when everybody's old?

Then we're dealing with ... being able to continue to generate wealth through consumption and other things. Young people buy a lot more things than older people.

But the single biggest thing that we're going to have is a situation which you're going to have a lot of old people existing in a country which really doesn't have a social welfare system to take care of them.

The Economist [has] a great phrase for it: they basically say that China is going to get old before it's rich enough to be old.

An elderly woman uses nordic walking sticks as she walks through a park in Germany. Bricker says global population decline will put stress on social welfare systems. (Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images)

There is an upside to this, which is [that] fewer people on the globe might mean that we have a better environment. How could the environment benefit from this?

Well, I think a lot of the things that people are concerned about relative to the environment right now are going to be made better.

If you believe that humanity is the single biggest cause of the environmental degradation that we all fear, when there's less humanity, there's obviously going to be less degradation.

It's a lot more complicated than this simple artifact that we put up there and say, '11.2 billion — this is absolutely going to happen.' - Darrell Bricker, co-author of 'Empty Planet'

And add on to that that most of the people who are going to be on the face of the earth — two-thirds of us by 2050 — are all going to be in cities, and cities are much more efficient in terms of everything ... from the delivery of health care through to the size of the carbon footprint. It's all going to get better.

That doesn't mean that climate change isn't happening; that doesn't mean that we don't need to take action on climate change. But what it means is we need to factor this in to our estimates about the future.

We can't be, you know, constant millenarians, looking at the end of the earth ... you have to factor in the real data, and then you can project out into what the future is going to look like.

A cable car passes over the Alemao shanty town in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. The UN forecasts that Brazil could hit 87 percent urbanization by 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This is already happening in Canada too; urbanization has been a reality here. We're a vast country; what about the parts of the country that will empty out? What will happen to the infrastructure there? What will happen to the small towns and the small cities?

It's one of the biggest issues facing us in this century and almost nobody is talking about it.

For example, in Atlantic Canada today, there are more people dying every day than are born.

There are vast parts of this country that are small towns, small communities, that are basically in decline; and there's really no way of changing it around, because ... all the young people have decided that they want to have a good livelihood, and they find that good livelihood in the city.

This Nova Scotia elementary school was shuttered in 2015. Low birth rates, youth outmigration and an aging population have left many rural Atlantic Canada schools with an oversupply of space and shortage of kids. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

You identify American nativism — the America-first movement — as a suicide pact; as something that could really hurt that country. Why is that?

One of the big advantages in America is that they've done an incredibly good job over the space of the last couple of centuries [of] being the shining beacon on the horizon for some of the best and brightest who are living in places that they don't feel that they can succeed in.

To shut that off is going to create a very difficult situation for the United States because their birthrate today is 1.9.

They're below replacement rate. So they're going to go on the same path that everybody else is who can't deal with immigration, that at some point the population is going to start to shrink.

Demonstrators chant during an "America First" rally along the United States-Mexico border in San Ysidro, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2018. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images)

There are some countries that embrace that idea and say, "we're happy to be smaller, we're happy to be older, we're happy with all of those things: we'll work out a way of paying for all of that."

But a lot of other countries are really going to struggle with it, and America might be one of them.

In the title of your book, you describe global population decline as a "shock." What do you think is at stake if the world doesn't start planning for the future that you're predicting?

A shock. This is something that everybody knows: the world's population is going to explode ... And we're making public policy choices, we're thinking about our future on that basis.

It's a lot more complicated than this simple artifact that we put up there and say, "11.2 billion, this is absolutely going to happen." And we need to have a more credible conversation about that than we are right now. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Darrell Bricker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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