In 1995 I wrote Exploding Population Myths. At the book launch in Johannesburg I explained I was less an author and more a translator. I took academic material filled with statistics and numbers and explained it to readers who didn't have time to wade through those tomes.
My book argued we were already heading toward a leveling off in population, to be followed by decline. At the time most people agreed with a religious leader who said, "The world is already full, and the population is too large for the soil." Saint Jerome uttered that fearful statement in 200 AD when the world’s population was 100 million. In other words, panic about population has been our constant companion even as population grew and famine declined.
I wrote there are three stages of population dynamics.
Stage One is when human ability to produce is limited due to a lack of knowledge about how to use resources, along with opposition to free trade with other peoples. At this point there is high birth rates matched by equally high death rates.
Stage Two is when people learn how to produce and grasp the virtues of market exchanges; deaths begin to decline while birth rates remain high. This temporary stage means rapid population growth driven by reduced death rates.
Stage Three takes place when, as Herman Kahn put it, "parents began to have fewer and fewer children, prompted by the reduced value of children as economic assets combined with the increased cost of rearing …"
I argued, "In an industrialized economy, raising a child is expensive, and the higher the income of the family, the greater the costs. If the woman works, she will have to forego her usual income during the later stages of pregnancy and often during the first few years of the child's life. At the same time, with retirement plans, pensions, and so on, few people in developed countries look to their children for support in their old age."
I predicted economic development, more than family planning and other such measures, would bring population decline in the developing world.
Now, according to the UN, the World Bank, and a host of official number crunchers, that is largely what we’ve seen since 1995. Poor nations have see strong economic growth and following prosperity a decline in birth rates.
I was criticized for saying this. The academics whose works I relied upon were often ridiculed. Activists of various stripes damned anyone who argued a population panic wasn’t warranted. When I wrote my little book, the average woman in the world had 2.86 children over a lifetime, down from 5.03 in 1965. Today it is 2.4.
Now the BBC is promoting another population panic with the dramatic headline, "Fertility Rate: 'Jaw-dropping' global crash in children being born."
As a result, the researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling down to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.
"That's a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline," researcher Prof Christopher Murray told the BBC.
"I think it's incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it's extraordinary, we'll have to reorganise societies."
In 1995 the panic was about too many people, now it's too few. For decades various academics have been arguing this was precisely what was going to happen. They were ridiculed for doing so, and my book was panned for saying the same thing.
That was a quarter century ago, and I wasn't the first by any means. There has been plenty of time to prepare for population declines, but driven by Green panic promoters and politicians, governments the world over assumed a population explosion would destroy us. Now they suddenly realize the opposite is the problem.
Western political planning was based on the dire themes of panic mongers. There would be a growing world filled with young people and small numbers of seniors embedded in a welfare system, based on the assumption more people would be paying in than collecting.
As the BBC notes: "Who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work?"
Those of us who warned this inverted age structure meant the welfare system would become less and less stable were ignored. It was a recipe for eventual disaster, especially for well-off European welfare states.
The BBC says one "solution" is using "migration to boost their population and compensate for falling fertility rates."
Professor Christopher Murray is quoted by the BBC proposing one policy supported by free market advocates; easier or open migration. Murray said, “We will go from the period where it's a choice to open borders, or not, to frank competition for migrants, as there won't be enough."
In particular he is talking about migration from Africa. "We will have many more people of African descent in many more countries as we go through this.”
There is the irony in it all. The West ignored the "optimists" about the population explosion petering out and never prepared. Now they want to rely on African labour to sustain Western welfare states. The real question is whether Africans want to prop up welfare for the elderly Europeans? What if the West opened its doors and no one came?
It seems they should have listened to those free market cranks decades ago instead of panicking at the last minute.This article was first published on City Press on 6 August 2020