Are there too many people?

Without immigration, most developed countries would face massive depopulation. In fact, half the population of the Earth lives in countries with sub-replacement fertility.

The threshold for a sustained population is a fertility rate of 2.1. Taiwan South Korean and Singapore are at 1.2, Japan and Germany are at 1.5, the whole European Union and Canada are at 1.6, Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA are at 1.8.

Yet Earth’s population is still growing. Where is the population growth? Niger, Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Uganda, Congo, Afghanistan… Or, to put it another way, in the poor countries.

If the current trends are maintained, by 2050, Japan will count about 100 million inhabitants or over 25 million fewer than the current count. By then, there will be many more Japanese in their seventies than in any other 10-year age group.

In Europe, Germany is currently the largest countries with 80 million inhabitants. If the current trend continues, by 2050, it should count no more than 75 million people. Germany is going to need millions of people over the next two decades just to sustain its population.

What about China? They stand at 1.4 billion people. By 2050, they should have fallen to 1.3 billion people… It is no wonder that China recently dropped its one-child policy.

Of course, countries like the USA, Canada and France are still growing… but that’s largely because of immigration, often from countries where people reproduce more readily.

Won’t better health and longevity lead to renewed population growth in the rich countries? No. Excluding immigration, population growth is almost entirely determined by fertility. That is, what matters is how soon and how many children women have. Even if Japan’s bet on regenerative medicine delivers exceptional benefits, it won’t make much of a dent on the population curve. If you could, somehow, multiply your lifespan without having any more children, you’d only add “1” to the population count. And improved health and medicine decrease your effective fertility. Healthier women who receive great medical care for themselves and their children tend to have children later, if at all, and tend to have fewer of them.

You’d think that being few in a rich country is not a major problem. But depopulation means closing down rural towns. It means fewer scientists, fewer nurses… And because we have not yet a handle on age-related diseases, it means more retirees needing help with fewer working individual per capita. Worried about imminent depopulation, Italy recently launched an ad campaign reminding ladies to hurry up and have babies. In Denmark, they teach pupils about the need to have more children.

It is true that a child is a mouth to feed. But a child might grow up to build new technology, to care for the sick, and so forth.

At least as far as the richest third of humanity is concerned, there are not too many people, and there might be too few.

16 thoughts on “Are there too many people?”

  1. Now you have stepped into a social minefield. 🙂

    My kids are a bit older than yours. This gives me a view.

    Young women want to have kids. Very much so – and naturally.

    Our present economy punishes those who have kids, when young.

    The problem is our economic model. In reality, we can easily support these young women and their children. In practice … we do not know how to organize an economy with unprecedented massive improvements in productivity.

    This is one dimension of our confusion.

    Do we need as many humans in the world? No. Much of the work once done by humans is now or shortly will be done by machines. This is the theme of at least the last century. (The more I read of history, the further back I suspect are the roots.)

    We are having trouble coming up with a new economic model.

    Do existing more-advanced countries need as many humans? How many are needed? (Keep in mind, we can have as many as we want, if we simply allow young folk to follow their nature.)

    If the more-advanced countries successful adopt a working model that allows a much smaller population, where does that leave the rising countries with massive population?

    War is a useful distraction for existing governments.

    If work requires greater intelligence, we could limit reproduction to humans of that sort. Or can we wait for a shift in values to accomplish the same?

    I believe the longer term future can be wonderful.

    I suspect that in the shorter term, we are headed into war.

    1. Young women want to have kids. Very much so – and naturally.

      Countries offering very generous incentives to have children, like Sweden (fertility rate of 1.9 as of 2015), have slightly higher fertility rates than other countries, but they still fall short of the replacement fertility rate.

      Do we need as many humans in the world? No. Much of the work once done by humans is now or shortly will be done by machines. This is the theme of at least the last century. (The more I read of history, the further back I suspect are the roots.) (…) We are having trouble coming up with a new economic model.

      Yes.

      If the more-advanced countries successful adopt a working model that allows a much smaller population, where does that leave the rising countries with massive population? (…) I believe the longer term future can be wonderful. I suspect that in the shorter term, we are headed into war.

      With worldwide integrated trade, I think that traditional wars are obsolete. They have been obsolete for some time. Can you imagine shipping millions of young people by train or boat to a remote shore in 2016? What we get is more like anti-terrorism.

  2. This is a drum I have been beating for some time. There is a “movement” afoot with all the popular fervour of libertarianism or atheism, which decries having children because of limited world resources (and is more than a little moralistic about it).

    We need to “renew” our population. Even (as your post says) if we extend life substantially, we will still have the same old (pun intended) people – who will tend to make the same old decisions following the same models. Would we have the the Internet, electric cars (that can go at 300 km/h), votes for women (and non-whites) if instead of having children, people lived 200 years (so the mindset of the 1800s would still be ascendent)?

    Already boomers are looking increasingly anachronistic, holding on to outdated moral stands on social issues such as gay marriage, multiculturalism, religion, workplace rules. Without young people displacing them, we would never have genuine progress.

    There is an old saying: how do you convert someone from liberal to conservative? Wait 40 years.

    1. We need to “renew” our population. Even (as your post says) if we extend life substantially, we will still have the same old (pun intended) people – who will tend to make the same old decisions following the same models. Would we have the the Internet, electric cars (that can go at 300 km/h), votes for women (and non-whites) if instead of having children, people lived 200 years (so the mindset of the 1800s would still be ascendent)?
      (…)
      Already boomers are looking increasingly anachronistic, holding on to outdated moral stands on social issues such as gay marriage, multiculturalism, religion, workplace rules. Without young people displacing them, we would never have genuine progress.
      (…)
      There is an old saying: how do you convert someone from liberal to conservative? Wait 40 years.

      As people get to live longer while remaining younger, we need to adapt. I think it is an interesting problem. But we also have other closely related issues like changing technology… so it is not simple. For example, if we get massive technological unemployment, then, as you can imagine, the whole issue of job tenure and youth unemployment takes a whole different turn.

      This is a drum I have been beating for some time. There is a “movement” afoot with all the popular fervour of libertarianism or atheism, which decries having children because of limited world resources (and is more than a little moralistic about it).

      To my knowledge, the only country to impose drastic restrictions on childbearing is China, a communist country as far as you can get to being libertarian.

  3. If our current economy depends on a constant increase in the population, then we must change the economy.

    If we need people to do some jobs, maybe robots can help. We will probably need none or few drivers in the future. That’s a lot of people that can become nurses and whatnot. Current unemployment tells me that we do not need more people.

    We need to match people with jobs, jobs with salary, salary with business models, and business models with the common good for society.

    Currently, it may be more profitable walling some good (e.g. scientific publications) than creating the greater common good of open access. Same for open source software, patents, books, movies, and most important patents (again) of drugs that can save lives.

    In the past, the economy was based on material goods. Currently, it is in a large extent based on knowledge. You cannot copy and paste a ton of corn, but you can copy and paste in an email a formula for a drug.

    The new economy has adapted to old outdated models through apparatuses like patents. Unfortunately, I cannot propose new reliable models. But the less than optimal situation should be clear.

    Furthermore. Due to protection of intellectual property and secrecy, there are people solving the same problems simultaneously, and then again. For example, open source could solve some of those problems, but then would that create more jobs or destroy the duplicated ones?

    Finally, many problems need to be solved, but oftentimes it is not profitable. Many brilliant people are solving more simple problems because it is more profitable (I know, I moved from academia to industry, my job is now easier and better paid). At the same time, not so brilliant people are unemployed. And simultaneously, many hard important problems cannot be addressed because there is some academic trying to get funding to research them.

    We don’t need more people, less people, more jobs, less jobs, more problems, less problems (that last one would be good, though). What we really need is a better system, a design, a plan to achieve it, possibly a leader, and luck among other ingredients.

    In the end it is about intelligence per capita to match the requirements and needs of society, the (mostly economic) rewards, the available (especially human) resources and use everything efficiently for the common good. Not an easy problem at all, especially without alienating voters.

  4. Nigeria for instance is not considered a poor country, and it seems it will assume an explosive growth of population.

    From what you say, I do not see any argument against a lowering population.
    For instance you tell us that it is causing depopulation of the rural area.
    Closing of rural towns does not come from depopulation, but from rural exodus in Europe. Technology in every sense just rendered unnecessary a large amount of people to cultivate the land. In France the farmers just uncouciously abandoned the populations and the territories they had in charge with their demand.
    Local jobs began to be rare, so everyone went to the cities to get a job and a future.

    Another argument : take for instance sub saharian african countries rural exodus was parallel to population explosive growth. It was the appeal of a city life with all the goods it proposed that depopulated the rural areas there.

    Population growth can also create lots of problems and insurmontable ones :
    Sub saharian Africa in its great autonomous days, when not colonised, counted at most 100 millions of people. The favourable climate and soils meant multiple harvest each year with very few caring of the land (thus not many people) necessary.

    When the colonisation from european countries, the forced peace keeping between tribes, coming of values of christian religion and above all the medical technology brought an explosive growth of populationwhich is causing sustained political unrest, and difficulties to feed and content an overgrowing population.
    Now sub saharian Africa is facing more than 1 billion inhabitants (and 2 billions in 2050 according to the current projections) with no social response to the overcrowding. The universal modern occidental expression of nation state does not fit their culture and geography.

    We have created a time bomb by telling these people the way they should live and take care of others. The UN is pursuing the explosive agenda of surpopulation, with no answer at all.

    In history, the asian continent endured many cruel and bloody wars (much more bloody than Europe) due to the explosive growth of population.
    Through a long process (and after many masacres of war) they adapted themselves through creation of social political values which permitted everyone to have a decent life in crowded societies.
    Africa is very far from it, and Europe and North America do not have the faintest clue, even in their own history, to diffuse this time bomb, as they have never endured what they have created there just to make the Good.
    😉

    1. Nigeria for instance is not considered a poor country, and it seems it will assume an explosive growth of population.

      What is your definition of a poor country? “The National Bureau of Statistics said 60.9% of Nigerians in 2010 were living in “absolute poverty” – this figure had risen from 54.7% in 2004.”

      1. Because you are citing Niger and other countries of Africa, which do not stand comparison to Nigeria, which, apart from a failed state that cannot keep its promises in front of population explosion, is a world emergent economy.

        Reading Wikipedia never hurts :
        “Nigeria is a middle income, mixed economy and emerging market, with expanding financial, service, communications, technology and entertainment sectors. It is ranked as the 21st largest economy in the world in terms of nominal GDP, and the 20th largest in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. It is the largest economy in Africa; its re-emergent, though currently underperforming, manufacturing sector is the third-largest on the continent, and produces a large proportion of goods and services for the West African subregion. Nigeria recently changed its economic analysis to account for rapidly growing contributors to its GDP, such as telecommunications, banking, and its film industry”

        This is not what I believe is a poor country. When we speak of Africa which what we called mainly in the 70’s the third world, is another reality now from what we have known in many areas such as Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, etc.
        We just cannot continue to see today’s Africa with the marxist eyes of the 70’s.

        Now, the rosy picture depicted of Africa by hte World Bank is untrue also, because not many things is done to improve common social justice or decency in the societies (we share the same aspiring global elite also today in Europe that is killing our societies too).
        But concerning the economy, many countries are better off and seems to have a future.

  5. I found comments like this from your original post to be suspect-
    “Germany is going to need millions of people over the next two decades just to sustain its population.” You also mentioned other developed countries that would have a deficit.

    I can’t understand how you can come to those conclusions based upon global trends and assumptions (and I speak as someone obviously from a developed nation)-

    – life expectancy, through healthcare technology, will certainly rise around the world
    – technology will continue to push productivity up. And this is even true in developing countries as they ‘plug in’ to technology.
    – if 60% of a countries’ population can produce all the goods and services a country needs, what does that do to our work model (and by ‘work model’, I mean a limited portion of the population that produces all the products and services needed)? Some may think this is limited thinking…that we always find something else to do when technology takes jobs away, but that’s an older concept that’s not panning out to be true.
    – as long as there’s resistance to a switch over to non-fossil fuel based energy platforms (ie alternative energy), what impact does that have globally to finite resources? After all, developing countries want their fossil fuel energy too.
    – perhaps the most important point though is that our planet is finite. I didn’t notice any mention of our planet’s environment issues and limitations in your post (I may have missed it, if I did, I’m sorry). Our planet is finite. It’s vast, but it is finite. Is there anything in your algorithms that consider finite resources and whether we’re eating them up or not? Even at a globally stabilized population, are we not still eating up our resources…perhaps past the Earth’s ability to replenish them?

    You speak of a better system. But political systems are real. Just wanting mature capitalistic systems to change to supply resources elsewhere (redistribution) doesn’t mean it will happen. And even if they did, most people, who read things like this, would just keep on having more and more
    children that the economic system will be limited to sustain. That is, I think a redistribution would simply kick the can down the road without a global awareness that ‘hey there’s a problem’. I obviously am on the side for everyone to be more cautious about having children that they used to be (ie. not a good idea to have many, no matter where you live). I can’t understand how a model could come to another conclusion. But I’m still open minded about it and willing to hear other opinions 🙂

    I’ve enjoyed reading all of the opinions so far. Thanks.

    1. – life expectancy, through healthcare technology, will certainly rise around the world

      Life expectancy has a small (linear) effect on the size of the population. How many kids you have when you are young has a large (exponential) effect.

      Consider. Fruit flies live for a few hours. Their life expectancy is low. But if you have a very large mass of decaying fruits, you can easily get thousands of flies in no time. That’s because the fruit flies have many babies. Increasing the longevity of the flies would only have a comparatively small effect.

      – technology will continue to push productivity up. And this is even true in developing countries as they ‘plug in’ to technology.

      True, though productivity gains tend to be uneven. For example, do we see huge productivity gains in the arts, in health, in education…?

      – if 60% of a countries’ population can produce all the goods and services a country needs, what does that do to our work model (and by ‘work model’, I mean a limited portion of the population that produces all the products and services needed)? Some may think this is limited thinking… that we always find something else to do when technology takes jobs away, but that’s an older concept that’s not panning out to be true.

      True.

      – as long as there’s resistance to a switch over to non-fossil fuel based energy platforms (ie alternative energy), what impact does that have globally to finite resources? After all, developing countries want their fossil fuel energy too.

      I am not sure what resistance you allude to. Most of the 0.1% richest in developed countries can already afford to forgo fossil fuels with minimal effect on their lifestyle. The technology is there. However, the poorest people can’t afford it. This will change, of course.

      – perhaps the most important point though is that our planet is finite. I didn’t notice any mention of our planet’s environment issues and limitations in your post (I may have missed it, if I did, I’m sorry). Our planet is finite. It’s vast, but it is finite. Is there anything in your algorithms that consider finite resources and whether we’re eating them up or not? Even at a globally stabilized population, are we not still eating up our resources…perhaps past the Earth’s ability to replenish them?

      The planet is finite but out ingenuity is not. Back in 1960s, it was popular to predict massive famines by 2000. It did not come to pass. Not even close. We have obesity epidemic instead. Why? Because agriculture is much, much better than it was back then. In fact, in many countries, there is a lot more forest today than there were a century or two ago (this is true in many places in Europe).

      The model by which you are going, where we “consume resources” does not match what is actually happening. If your model were correct, people in 1900 would have had more room, more food, more fuel… the opposite is true. We live in bigger apartments, we have too much food and we have lots of cheap fuel.

      Technology is a powerful force. It should not be underestimated. It can be used to destroy but it can also be used to create.

      You speak of a better system. But political systems are real. Just wanting mature capitalistic systems to change to supply resources elsewhere (redistribution) doesn’t mean it will happen. And even if they did, most people, who read things like this, would just keep on having more and more
      children that the economic system will be limited to sustain. That is, I think a redistribution would simply kick the can down the road without a global awareness that ‘hey there’s a problem’. I obviously am on the side for everyone to be more cautious about having children that they used to be (ie. not a good idea to have many, no matter where you live). I can’t understand how a model could come to another conclusion. But I’m still open minded about it and willing to hear other opinions

      By and large, people choose to have fewer children when they reach a high level of wealth.

      Again, you talk of “redistribution” as if we had a finite pie to divide up. People in Uganda are not poor because people in Canada are rich. In fact, the opposite is true. If the people in Uganda were richer, the people in Canada would benefit.

      So why are so many people so poor in Africa? Many of them live with corrupt governments, with a culture of violence and corruption, and so forth. This is what is holding them back… this is why they are having so many children.

      1. ”So why are so many people so poor in Africa? Many of them live with corrupt governments, with a culture of violence and corruption, and so forth. This is what is holding them back… this is why they are having so many children.”

        I agree that in the west population is below sustaining levels and there is no harm that people there have more kids. But when it comes to developing countries the exact opposite is true. There are simply too many people. You said africa is poor because there is a culture of violence and corruption? Why is there a culture of violence? Because there are simply too many people fighting for fewer resources like fertile farmlands and jobs? Sure you can make farms more efficient but what about non farmers? Why is there corruption? Too many people are uneducated to sustain/vote out corrupt leaders. The caribbean countries that are even 99% african are actually fully developed with first world standards of development, law and order and transparency, because they have a low population density. And i am not just talking about those that depend on tourist dollars.

        1. You said africa is poor because there is a culture of violence and corruption? Why is there a culture of violence? Because there are simply too many people fighting for fewer resources like fertile farmlands and jobs?

          South Korea has a population density far in excess of most African countries. It was also devastated by war. Its sole neighbor is an aggressive tyranny (North Korea). Yet it is far richer than Africa. North Korea has less than half the population density of South Korea yet its people starve.

          The population density of Europe is more than twice that of Africa. The population density of Africa is only slightly higher than that of North America. North and South America have roughly the same population density (but North America is much richer).

          1. Other factors also play a role. South-korea is better off than north-korea due to US, finanical and technical, moral, political support after the war.

            South-korea doesnt have problems as compared to sub-sharan africa due to above reasons and also due to an ‘orderly’ growth in population after the war and until now. Pop growth was in tandem with economic growth. Also the spirit of enterprenership is high in south koreans. Korean companies like LG, samsung, daeweoo(formerly), hyundai etc are world level comglomerates. Because of all these it is doing well despite pop density.

            Same argument holds for europe. You can have any number of kids once you become rich and still be rich (europe,SK,NA). But when you are poor and trying to get rich too many kids will be a drag.

  6. Female point of view if you dont mind: not everything is economical, its also cultural thing where we tend to get married later, tend to break up more often, rely on partner less and hence be more careful with reproducing, when ‘fertile’ countries mentioned in post are more traditional-based, id say. European young women might want to reproduce but generally it takes two, and I dont think we have a good statistics of young couples lasting long enough

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