It’s been 70 years since 1950
April 27th 2021
Back in 1974, when the average number of births per woman was 3.65, Phillip José Farmer wrote a novella, “70 Years of DecPop”. The premise was that a mad scientist released an aerosol that rendered 99.999% of all humans sterile (world population was about 4.5 billion at that time) and from there studied the devastating effects the immense drop in population would have over the ensuring 70 years.
It was a bit of a gloomy read. Humans didn’t react well to forced sterilization, and few economies were equipped to deal with shrinking markets and less demand on resources.
At that point, the birthrate had already declined significantly from its peak in 1964, when it was at 4.65. Much of the decrease was credited to a decline in religious oppression, the increased availability of birth control, and in a rebuke to Malthus, improved living conditions with greater food and shelter security. People in poor nations no longer had 12 children in hopes that one of them might live to take care of them when they got old.
At that time, sociologists expected the birth rate to climb back up, and there was even a book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, that forecast widespread famine and war as a result of population outstripping resources such as food and clean water.
Didn’t happen. Food production soared, outpacing population growth. And the Ehrlichs hadn’t realized that most famines aren’t the result of actual food shortages, but of politics. The rich stockpile and the poor starve. Nearly all famines were easily avoidable back then. They still are.
And the birth rate continued to decline, against all expectations. By 1993 it had dropped below 3.0. By 1997 it was at 2.5.
This year it’s expected to reach a magic number: 2.1 Two point one is the birthrate at which population stops growing, known as Zero Population Growth, or ZPG.
Many developed nations had already reached that mark in the 1990s and first decade of this millennium. Almost all of western Europe, Japan, and Canada had native birthrates below 2.1. Population growth came solely from immigration.
In the United States, immigration drove population growth until 2015, but since then immigration has dropped below the level of the birthrate, which means that the next decennial census might show a population drop for the first time in American history.
The preliminary results of the 2020 census show the second smallest rate of growth in American history, with only the 1930s being (slightly) lower. For ten years, population growth was just 7.4%.
A lot of reasons have been given for this. Trump and the Republicans actively messed with the census, hoping to undercount the poor, minorities and anyone else who might be a threat to Republican power. While there’s no doubt that they tried, it’s not clear that they were particularly effective at sabotaging the census. A 2017 projection claimed the 2020 census would show 332,639,000, The actual census was 331,500,00, a shortfall of 1.16 million. Further, the growth rate drop was part of a trend, 7.4 in the ‘10s from 9.7 in the noughts, and from 12.34 in the nineties. Republican buggery had an effect, but a relatively small one. Independent surveys show that the growth rate was under 0.6% for the past three years.
Sorry for all the numbers, but they make a case. Population growth has not only slowed, it has stopped. Even in the US, where population growth came mostly from immigration, is seeing a dramatic decline in immigration, despite the fearmongering from the Nazis on the far right. It’s well under half what it was twenty years ago, and the percentage of non-native-born in the general population has leveled off at 14%.
And it’s the same world wide. Japan is in the early stages of a population crash that may see their population drop by 60% by 2100. Russia had a massive population drop following the collapse of the USSR, brought about by initial chaos and followed by an Ayn Rand gangrape of the country by western corporations during the Yeltsin years. Then Putin came along and turned Russia into an autocratic and repressive nightmare. Russia’s population is down nearly 40% from 1990.
According to the BBC: “Japan’s population is projected to fall from a peak of 128 million in 2017 to less than 53 million by the end of the century. Italy is expected to see an equally dramatic population crash from 61 million to 28 million over the same timeframe. They are two of 23 countries – which also include Spain, Portugal, Thailand and South Korea – expected to see their population more than halve.”
It’s only a matter of time before capitalists, who depend endless unsustainable growth, will realize that their consumer base is both shrinking and aging. (One of the darker elements of that DecPop story is the small number of young people trying to cope with the billions of elders who outnumber them by hundreds to one). Capitalism is ill-equipped for this coming change.
Climate change, disease and war will accelerate the drop in population. Some people believe the population drop is propelled by pollutants—forever chemicals, micro plastics, and the like. If true, that could be an existential threat to humanity.
Remember, this census doesn’t even include the nearly 600,000 dead in America from Covid, and it’s becoming clear that this pandemic will have over 10 million dead before it runs its course world wide.
Population drop is a good thing—the Earth is able to sustain perhaps three billion people comfortably, assuming those billions aren’t as wasteful and foolish as we have been. But the economic and political repercussions led by people unwilling to take a hit in profits, also make it a risky time for humans. We normally spend all our efforts fighting greed and corruption, but capitalism celebrates greed and corruption, and is very willing to be very destructive in preserving such.
Our numbers will drop, but we’ll ensure that it won’t be pretty.