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Jen Gerson: We are probably doomed, though
But not for the reasons you think.
By: Jen Gerson
I'm going to start this column with one of those big, bold claims that is likely to get me into some trouble: Elon Musk is right. The biggest existential risk facing humanity today isn't climate change.
It's demographic collapse.
Hold on. Hold on. Take a deep breath. Stay with me.
I'm not saying that climate change is not a serious problem. It absolutely is, and we should do everything we can to solve it while we can. But the things that you think are going to get you are rarely the things that actually get you. We learned that lesson during the pandemic. We spend a lot of time worrying about pandemics, natural disasters, nuclear war, the dying of the sun — the big, dramatic, apocalyptic events depicted by Hollywood. We picture ourselves surviving the End Times accompanied by James Cameron-scripted action sequences and sweeping symphonic scores.
That's not how it plays out in reality. What no one expects is the slow decline, the steadily draining drip-drip of change for the worse. It's going crazy stuck in the house watching Netflix. It's wondering why labour shortages have grown so chronic over time. It's going for a walk and realizing the schools seem half empty and the playgrounds never have kids in them.
That's demographic collapse. And I suspect you're going to be hearing about it a lot more in the next 20 or so years. Because the world is running low on babies, and there's probably nothing we can do to fix it.
Of course, we've all heard about Canada's low replacement rate. Our fertility rate dropped below 1.4 babies per woman. A record low matched only by the record low of the year before. And before that. It takes a 2.1-per-woman birth rate to simply keep the current population stable. That means that all women, on average, have to produce 2.1 children to maintain current numbers.
Canada, as a peaceful and prosperous Western nation, has smoothed over the gap through immigration. Attracting newcomers is absolutely crucial toward maintaining a growing population and a healthy economy. Consider me rabidly pro-immigration. Get everyone who wants to come here through the vetting process and settled in as quickly as possible. We'd be sunk without the inward flow. Which no doubt accounts for recent government plans to dramatically increase our quotas of newcomers as a terrifying mass of Baby Boomers age into retirement and health-care needs that we need more people to pay for and service.
So no problem, right?
Not so much.
Wealthy, high-demand Western countries can fill out their ranks from poorer nations with healthier birth rates. For now. Pretty soon that's going to stop.
Because the demographic collapse isn't just hitting the rich world. Go look at the birth rates in Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, even parts of Africa and you're going to see a terrifying similarity. They're all falling. Countries like South Korea, Thailand, Russia, China and Brazil are already well below replacement.
Meanwhile India and much of the Middle East are sitting at just above two births per mother — right where we were back in the 1970s. The only exceptions to the global demographic collapse are countries in Central Africa, but even there, the trend lines are starkly downward.
Pretty soon the developing world will join the rest of us staring imminent population decline right in the face.
What happens to Canada's immigration policy when our traditional sources of immigrants can't sustain their own populations? How do other baby-starved wealthy nations react to this? This point is crucial, especially for policymakers: We can set whatever immigration quotas we want. Sometime in the future — the near future, at that — global population growth will stall. And then reverse itself. After that, all of us wealthy countries are going to be competing more fiercely for a declining pool of new citizens.
Worse, there's no obvious way to reverse the trend. Over the past 70-odd years, we have seen profound and remarkable improvements on just about every metric of wealth, health and happiness. As quality of life improves, that life becomes more expensive, and the economic utility of additional children declines. Add in a touch of female empowerment and education, the birth control pill, improvements in child mortality, and voila. All of the sudden pumping out a dozen babies while scraping together a meal of potatoes and oats on a farm doesn't look so hot.
The very things that help humans flourish in the short term ensures fewer actual humans in the long term. Irony!
We’ve seen this trend repeat itself over and over again across the globe. If anything, the demographic collapse in much of the developing world appears to be happening even faster than the developed one. China's population was last at replacement in the 1990s. Its overall fertility now sits at an astonishing 1.18 births per woman.
That's right: Canada has a higher fertility rate than China.
To give you a sense of what that looks like in real terms: The population of China now sits at approximately 1.4 billion people. The most pessimistic projection in this Pew Research report puts China's population at 488 million by 2100. That means China's population could be a third of its current size within 80 years. It could be half in only 60.
What does Shanghai look like in that scenario? Or Beijing? How does China maintain its current quality of life and economic growth? Our entire way of life is now predicated on cheap labour in Asia. How is that sustained when the population collapses and wage pressures increase? Who works in the factories that build basically everything we now buy? How do we maintain our current globalized economic environment with a third the current workforce?
To put it bluntly: who makes our stuff? How do we recruit enough police and firemen to keep our houses safe and, uh, unburned? Who pays the taxes that support our welfare systems?
As the Effective Altruists have succinctly put it: "The economic systems of virtually all developed countries are predicated on an assumption of constant growth, which means that a decline in the working population has a high probability of leading to system-level collapse."
It doesn’t necessarily take a bomb to make all of the comforts of modern life disappear. Sometimes, all that stuff just fades away.
What would any country look like if, within the span of one human lifetime, half the population disappeared? Not by pandemic or war nor any freak of nature. But rather by the slow drip-drip loss of ordinary old age and disease. What if it disappeared because it was never born?
That's what we're facing.
Yet very few people seem to be conscious of this problem. A birthrate can collapse even as the population continues to grow, which will hide the bug — for a time. Further, many of us have been weaned on Malthusian fears of overpopulation. We, humans, are a stain on unblemished nature. Our decadent, Western lifestyles, if allowed to grow apace, threaten the climate and ecosystem, according to this neo-Puritan ideology. Fewer children is, thus, an unmitigated moral good. Demographic collapse may actually be one of the accidental solutions to our climate crisis.
And perhaps if we could manage this decline in a measured and gradual way, this argument may have some merit.
The problem is that we cannot.
If we do notice the birth rate, we usually make the error of assuming that the problem is logarithmic. We think of gradual peaks and declines over long stretches of time.
Demographic collapse is an exponential problem. If all the women in a population have one child instead of two, within 20 years, there will be half as many women available to have babies and so on and so on and so on. The human population has grown exponentially since the 17th century, with the fastest rates of growth occurring at the peak. Depopulation will hit us just as hard on the back end.
South Korea boasts the lowest fertility rate in the world at 0.8 babies per woman. That does get us into proper Walking Dead territory — complete with abandoned cities — within my lifetime.
And the really bad news is that the math is now baked in. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, we probably passed the threshold of demographic no return 10 years ago. Set up all the daycare programs and baby bonuses you want —Michelle Rempel-Garner recently got into the weeds on that here — there's virtually nothing we're going to do to get modern families from fewer than two children to three or four any time soon. I mean, I’m sure as hell not going be part of the solution. I’m almost 40. I’ve had two children and I’m tired. (So tired.) Even if all of our child-bearing-age women went on a proper apocalyptic bangin’ spree tomorrow, it probably wouldn't be enough.
We simply have to ride this particular monster to the ground and hope for the best. Robots and artificial intelligence may be able to replace workers, ameliorating labour shortages. Maybe we re-adjust our expectations of constant growth. Or maybe economic growth can shift from the physical to the virtual.
I don't know. I also don't know what the long-term societal impacts are of no or negative real growth. Everything we've enjoyed about this, the dying days of our golden age, has come about in an era of dramatic population growth. This has brought unprecedented social mobility, democracy, innovation and productivity. The more people we have, the more wealth we can marshal to support social safety nets. The more likely we are to invent things and solve problems — like, say, how to reduce carbon emissions.
We can always print more money, but we can't replace people. We are the most valuable resource that we have. We're going to learn that the hard way.
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