In March of this year, we humans hit a remarkable milestone. We crossed the 7 billion mark for global population.
Before getting to the real nut of this essay — the plateau-ing and decline of population in some developed countries — I want to pause and reflect on just how astounding that is.
In the early 1800s, when America was still a fledgling, experimental enterprise, there were just a billion of us wandering around on the planet. It took a 125 years or so to grow ourselves to that second billion.
But in the decades since, population growth has accelerated dramatically. In the last thirteen years alone, we added around 76 million additional people per year, every year.
That’s about one new New York City every month, month after month. Wow.
What’s fascinating about this reality is that so many people are wringing their hands over the opposite phenomenon, the baby drought that’s developed in selective pockets of the world.
Japan is drawing the most attention. In the latest Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last points out that by the end of this century, that country could lose a third of its population. The remaining citizens will be starkly older.
This trend is a preoccupation of conservatives. Ross Douthat wrote a much-talked about column for the New York Times entitled “More Babies, Please,” urging American women to, well, get busy.
“For the first time in recent memory,” he wrote, “Americans are having fewer babies than the French or the British.”
These aren’t inconsequential matters.
From urban China to the rural North Country, it matters profoundly how many kids are (or rather, aren’t) in our schools and how many young people there are to drive the economy.
But the problem isn’t a lack of babies. It’s a lack of fresh ideas for how to manage a stable, sustainable society.
For most of human history, the prosperity and success of communities has been measured in growth, in expansion. And it’s no surprise.
In demographic terms, having a lot of young people around is wonderful. We love babies — most of us do, anyway — and we also benefit from having more and more people around who produce and buy things.
And they can take care of us dodderers when we get old. Everybody wins, right?
But anyone with a whit of common sense can see that in a finite world, you can’t have infinite growth.
Right now, we’re operating a sort of planet-wide ponzi scheme, with a global economy built on the idea of the next, ever-bigger generation always picking up the tab.
In fact, the crisis we face in the modern world isn’t too few babies, but far, far too many.
If we were to keep adding a billion people every 10-20 years or so (our current pace) the results would be catastrophic.
So rather than view America or China or Japan or Russia as demographic basket cases, doomed to geriatric decline, we need to think in new ways about what a stable or micro-growth society might look like.
How do we avoid the kind of stagnation and rigidity that now plagues Japan? How do we prevent the loss of community and key infrastructure that some towns and villages are experiencing here in the North Country?
Pioneering new approaches that don’t require constant growth makes sense, in part, because so far no one’s found a way to actually recreate the conditions that spark baby booms.
It turns out that young couples in modern society just aren’t interested in big families anymore — and that’s a set of values that exists from Tokyo to the Bronx.
Ultimately, it’s a good thing, if we can manage the trend wisely.
If the world as a whole were to follow Japan’s lead and gradually lose a third of its population, we’d be back where we were in the late 1980s.
That wouldn’t be an easy transition to make. But it’s not like the 1980s were an era of apocalyptic depopulation.
In the end, this feels to me like another step in the slow, clumsy journey toward being a mature, global population, a species that thinks more intelligently about things like climate, non-renewable resources, sustainability and fair trade.
If we manage the change well, we might actually end up with a world where those babies that are born — and there will still be billions and billions of us — will live better, richer, and healthier lives.