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Back in 2015, I published a book, Conversations, containing a series of weekly discussions over a period of five months between 22-year-old sexually-experienced social-sciences student, Abigail Scott, and 58-year-old divorcé and beekeeper Gerry Hawkins. Abi is looking for someone to bounce opinions off whereas Gerry is happy to have someone to converse with while drinking coffee in the High Street coffee house. One of the topics up for discussion was Society and Population Explosion and the two protagonists explored the pros and cons of population growth, or shrinkage, over two consecutive weekly meetings and concluded that, indeed, the world’s population was slowing down and would, eventually, start to decline.

Recently, there have been several reports from reputable sources stating that many countries—Japan, Bulgaria, Russia, Italy,…—are already experiencing a fall in population and that after peaking in 2064 at 9.7 billion, the world’s population will be back to 8.8 billion by the year 2100 and will continue to fall thereafter. Almost every country in the world will experience this fall.

Is this good news, or bad?

To try and answer this question, I revisited the conversation between Abi and Gerry in 2015. Virtually nothing has changed in their findings and conclusions and I thought you might like to read what they said. Here is the discussion, extracted from the book and updated in the light of more recent predictions.

Extract from Conversations, J C Pascoe, Atheos Books, 2015

First week

‘First, let’s lay some facts on the table, Gerry,’ said Abi. ‘At the moment, 2015, the world contains around 7.39 billion people and the population is expanding at a rate of around 52 million per year; that’s 89 million births minus 37 million deaths per year. It doesn’t take much to figure out we’ll be close to 8 billion in five years’ time, 2020, and heading towards 10 billion by the 2050s. (2021 update. Approaching 7.9 billion as I type) That’s crazy, Gerry. The world cannot nurture and support that number of people. We’re already seeing the impact of such a large population. Look, it is estimated that there were only 1 billion people in the 1880s and 2.53 billion in the 1950s. The population has almost trebled in the last sixty-odd years.’

‘Yes, I agree with your figures, Abi. Well, not me, but I found the same figures on various websites: Wikipedia and Worldometers for example. I also found some other predictions but let’s carry on for a while and examine the causes and impact of this so-called expanding population. I’m sure this has been aired on your course.’

‘Yes, indeed, and it makes for grim reading, Gerry. But, to the causes first. In 1798, an English Church of England priest and part-time economist named Robert Thomas Malthus devised a General Law of Population. He claimed the world’s population would grow faster than the ability to grow food. He said the population would double per generation cycle—1, 2, 4, 8, 16… — whereas food production would only increase linearly—1, 2, 3, 4, 5… —in the same period of time. Thus, he said, people would starve, there would be wars and pestilence, and the whole world would ground to a halt. His solution, by the way, was for people, young men in particular, to exercise what he called moral constraint and delay marriage until much later than was usual in those days, the assumption being that young men and women would not have procreative sex until they were married, a false assumption as it turned out,’ said Abi with a laugh.

‘Yes, the Malthusians were doom and gloom merchants in more ways than one,’ chipped in Gerry. ‘His religion forbad him endorsing any natural form of birth control—coitus interruptus, rhythm techniques, non-penetrative sex—and he did not endorse the use of the newly-developed rubber condoms. His solution was cold showers and abstinence. It didn’t work then and it certainly wouldn’t work today!’

‘No,’ agreed Abi, ‘but his predictions were not upheld. There were massive advances in agricultural productivity with the development of pesticides, higher-yield seeds, fertilisers and better irrigation. Food productivity kept pace with population growth and, as we know, was accompanied by significant advances in medical science that improved fertility rates, reduced infant mortality and prolonged life expectancy for many. So, we can put Malthus to bed, so to speak, but his General Law of Population was a wakeup call to what might happen if we sleepwalked into a constantly expanding population.’

‘But, there were only 1 billion people in existence around the time of Malthus. What about today with over 7 billion people, Abi?  What do you see as the impact?’

‘The impact is skewed by migration and climate change, Gerry, but here’s what I see. First, even though the Arctic cap and glaciers are said to be melting, water tables are dropping and it’s becoming harder to supply everyone with fresh clean water for drinking, cooking and cleaning purposes. We’ve all seen the ads on television pleading for money to supply water to doe-eyed soulful looking children.’

‘Second, food production is still being improved but we’re over-working what little topsoil we have. Fertilisers have to come from somewhere and what enriches one surface depletes another plus there are some surfaces—deserts, mountains—where food will never grow.’

‘Third, natural food stocks are diminishing, fish particularly. Have you seen the price of cod and chips lately?  What used to be a cheap meal is now considered gourmet in restaurants and it’s not unusual to pay over £10 for a regular cod, chips and mushy peas. We’ve almost fished the cod out of existence.’

(2021 update. Cod stocks in the Baltic and North Sea, for example, are still decreasing, blamed by some on over-fishing; others on changes to the marine ecosystem caused by climate change.)

‘Natural fuels are other resources that are fast disappearing, not only oil of which we’re always hearing about but also wood and coal. In fact, coal mining has almost stopped in most countries that used to mine it. China still mines a lot, as does the United States, but we, the UK, are way way down the list these days. The Welsh miners may still sing but they certainly don’t mine like they used to.’

(2021 update. Although the proposal to create a new coal mine in Whitehaven, Cumbria, bucks against the trend and, if approved, will raise a song or two among the Cumbrian miners.)

‘Fifth, I think it is, is the disappearance of our tropical rainforests. We need forests like the Amazon rainforest. They absorb carbon dioxide, thus reducing the effects of global warming. They are the home of many different forms of plants and animals, also certain primitive human tribes. They protect against flood, drought and erosion. They provide medicines and food. Cut ’em down and the impact on all these things is immense. I should be wearing a SAVE THE RAINFOREST T-shirt.’

(2021 update. President Jair Bolsonaro’s policy of continued deforestation is causing major concerns around the world and looks to continue unabated unless there is a major change of Brazilian governmental policy and political leadership.)

‘On top of all this, we see continuous wars all over the planet, the causes of which are complex but always include control of natural resources, and we see the rapid spread of modern diseases and infections such as HIV, Ebola, SARS, Asian bird flu, and so on. If the world was not so densely populated, maybe these viruses would not spread so rapidly.’

(2021 update. These were prophetic words in 2015. The Covid-19 pandemic was waiting in the wings ready to add to the death toll.)

‘A lower population didn’t stop the spread of typhoid, cholera and the Black Death plague in the past, Abi,’ commented Gerry, ‘but I agree that over-population works against any containment strategy when these diseases strike. We had a hard job containing the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.’

‘And there’s more,’ added Abi. ‘We need to look at the social implications of all these things. Advances in medical science means we now have a larger non-productive older population, especially in the more affluent countries such as West Europe and the USA. These people contribute nothing to society, earn no money, and pay no taxes. They are merely consumers, drawing on the world’s resources.’

‘Whoa, that’s a bit harsh, Abi. They do pay taxes on pensions they have created during their working years. They may be consumers but consumers need suppliers so they support the economy by creating the need for goods and services. And, in some cases, they do earn money on part time jobs or indirectly by acting as unpaid babysitters for grandchildren. I’m not quite an old-age pensioner but when the time comes, I hope to continue contributing to society in many different ways, including the making and selling of honey and entertaining attractive young ladies!’

Abi laughed. ‘I thought that would get you going, Gerry. There is a lot of hogwash talked about the ageing population and, as it turns out, I’m on your side. But, to continue…’

‘I am concerned about the impact of population growth on animal and plant species. It started with the dodo and the Galapagos tortoises. They are no more. These days, we hear talk about dwindling numbers of cross river gorilla, black rhino, Amur leopards, the red-headed vulture, European mink, even the humble bumble bee. There’s a huge list of critically-endangered animals, birds and plants and some may already be extinct. Think of that Gerry. There are, or were, animals you may have seen in the wild but I will never see except through photographs and videos. The thought that we have wiped out certain animals for food or because we destroyed their natural habitat or because some stupid Chinaman thought that a ground-up rhinoceros’ horn would give him a hard-on stops me in my tracks. We cannot get back that which we have lost.’

‘Rhino horns are not considered to be an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Abi. That’s a fallacy. TCM uses the powdered down horn to treat problems such as fever, rheumatism and gout but not “to get a hard-on”, as you so delicately put it. There’s no medical evidence that rhino horn works for any of these ailments but it’s the age-old thing; if you think it’s gonna work, it may so do, the placebo effect. That’s why people risk their lives poaching the rhinos.’

‘I would string the poachers up by that part of the body they hold most dear and let them suffer a long lingering and very painful death,’ said Abi. ‘But, let me continue with some observations about overcrowding.’

‘The population of London is currently around 8.63 million people. That’s 13.6% of the 63.49 million people who live in the UK. Over one tenth of the people who live here are concentrated in the metropolis we call London, an area of 1,572 square kilometres according to Wikipedia. That equates to 5,490 people per square kilometre or, if you prefer, a little under 55 people per 100 square metres. In other words, we each have around 182 square metres of space in London. That’s a square measuring 13.5 metres by 13.5 metres, Gerry. Not much space.’

Abi continued. ‘That doesn’t sound too bad but it begs a number of questions. Does “London” mean inner and outer?  Where did the figure of 8.63 million people come from?  Does this number include people who live in London, or who live outside London but work in London?  What about tourists, those staying for a few nights but not resident?  It’s very confusing and is what leads to all the misinformation. I mean, if I walk down Oxford Street or watch the crowds in Trafalgar Square, I don’t feel as if I’m 13.5 metres away from my neighbour. Although, I probably would if I was in Hyde Park at two o’clock in the morning if it wasn’t for all the migrants sleeping rough. And what about those who live one on top of another in tower blocks and skyscrapers?’

(2021 update. The population of London is now stated as being somewhere between 8.98 and 9.30 million people depending on which source you believe and what is meant by ‘London’. My figures above need slight adjustment but the conclusions remain the same.)

‘Yes, overcrowding in general represents a huge loss of personal freedom,’ added Gerry. ‘We like open spaces free from air and noise pollution caused by motorised transport. Also, overcrowding puts all sorts of pressure on schooling, hospitals and other health services, recreation, public transport, parking, affordable housing and the general quality of our living space. Slums have always been with us and, as we know, become breeding grounds for all sorts of criminal activities: drugs, burglaries and other thefts, domestic violence, even rape and murder. Look at what happens in certain parts of Los Angeles, New York, the East End of London, and pretty much any major city in the poorer countries of the world. It’s grim reading.’

‘Overcrowding on the roads is also no fun,’ said Abi. ‘My dad gets mad when he has to sit in queues of traffic for hours and my mum never drives anywhere before nine o’clock in term time. The roads are clogged up with people going to work and parents taking their kids to school. Did you know that, on average, Americans spend 26 minutes a day commuting to work, and another 26 minutes returning home?  That’s roughly one hour per day, five days a week. Over 48 working weeks, that amounts to ten full days sitting in a car.’

‘Yes, I’m on the WNYC public radio station website, Abi, and in the more crowded areas of the United States, the average commute time is a lot higher: 42 minutes in parts of New York, 38 minutes in Dallas, and up to 109 minutes in a certain part of West Virginia and that’s only one way. Imagine that; stuck in your car for nearly four hours every day. You’d need food, drink, music and portable toilet facilities!’

‘I bet it’s caused by a river with very few bridges,’ said Abi. ‘In the poorer countries, overcrowding also leads to malnourishment caused by food shortages and the lack of plentiful fresh water causes all sorts of diseases. Did you know that an estimated one in seven people is malnourished?  That 25,000 people, mostly young children below the age of five, who die each day simply because they don’t get enough to eat and they go down with nutrition-related medical problems?  In some countries, Thomas Malthus’s prediction has come true.’

‘Wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense,’ said Gerry. ‘Earlier you said there are 37 million deaths per year. 25,000 deaths per day works out at around 9 million per year. Oh, wait, I get it. 9 million of the 37 million deaths are caused by malnutrition. The rest, presumably, by war, disease or old age. Okay, carry on.’

(2021 update. It’s difficult to obtain a single agreed figure for how many people are malnourished, and even what ‘malnourished’ means. Figures for 2020/2021 range from 690 million (one in eleven people) to 820 million (one in nine people) but there would appear to be a reduction in the number of people worldwide who are malnourished.)

‘And don’t get me started on global warming,’ Abi continued. ‘I’m convinced governments and big businesses have pumped up the potential impact of global warming in order to raise yet more money through new taxes but there is no doubt the ozone layer is being depleted by greenhouse gases thus letting in more of the harmful rays of UV light. One report I read said that the depletion rate is currently 4% per decade. Too much UV light can and does damage our skin, can cause cancer, can produce cataracts and generally reduces our immune system.’…

Second Week

… ‘Ah yes. Population explosion. The good news. Right?’

‘Right,’ replied Gerry. ‘First, here’s a statement that seems always to be true all other factors considered. If 207 human females become pregnant and nine months later each gives birth to a single healthy baby, 107 will be male babies and 100 will be female babies.’

‘Why the imbalance Gerry?  Why don’t the women produce male and female babies in the same proportion?  Surely, statistically, there’s a fifty-fifty chance an egg at conception is fertilised to be either a male or a female: you know, the XY-male and YY-female chromosome thing.’

‘I agree, and nobody really knows why there are slightly more male babies than female but, apparently, the statement is true if you disregard influencing factors such as naturally aborted babies at the three-month stage, stillborn babies at birth and other in-the-womb infant mortality factors. One theory says that, indeed, male and female babies are fifty-fifty at the moment when the sperm fertilises the egg in the fallopian tubes and the XY chromosome selection is made but female foetuses are more prone to death during the nine-month pregnancy period than male foetuses. This is the conjecture of a very recent study carried out at Oxford university and I ain’t gonna argue with the researchers there.’

‘Of course, the male-female ratio may change after birth because of external factors such as female genocide caused by gender-selective abortion as has been seen in China when they operated a one-child-per-family policy and also in other countries, notably India where forced sterilisation of both men and women has had an effect on both the fertility rate and the male-female ratio. Additionally, many children die before the age of five simply because of malnutrition and associated diseases so, ultimately, the ratio of surviving males and females who reach reproductive maturity may be skewed away from the 107:100 ratio but this doesn’t alter the fact that, at birth, this is the ratio.’

‘Okay, let’s accept that. What’s your point, Gerry?’

‘For a population to remain static in size, each reproducing female must replace herself with a new reproducing female before she dies. Thus, each group of 100 females must produce between them 207 babies. 100 babies will be the next generation of reproducing females and 107 babies will be male who, presumably will become the fathers of the next generation when they are not off fighting wars, hunting animals, and demonstrating their prowess on horseback.’

‘Thus, each female must produce, on average, 2.07 babies to meet a static no-growth population requirement. This ratio is very important. It is called the Replacement Fertility Rate, the average rate at which the number of male and female births exactly equals the number of male and female deaths and thus the size of the population remains static.’

(2021 update. Be aware that the 2.07 Replacement Fertility Rate figure is often rounded up to 2.1 in articles about population growth. I’ve no idea why.)

‘Phew, this is heavy stuff, Gerry,’ said Abi looking up from the lounger, ‘but I can see where you’re going. What happens if the fertility rate is either higher or lower than the static replacement rate of 2.07?  What are the rates anyway?’

‘It’s very complex and actual per-country fertility rates are skewed by many factors as I said: selective female abortion, malnutrition and disease, war, famine, natural disasters, global epidemics, mass migration, and so on, but, in general, you can see if the fertility rate goes below the magic 2.07 rate, the population will decrease and if it goes above, the population will increase. So, now here is the good news. In many countries around the world, the fertility rate has dropped below the 2.07 figure. In fact, only in sub-Sahara Africa is the figure greater than 2.07. The world’s population will decrease over the next few generations, Abi. Your children, and particularly, your grandchildren will see a less crowded world than you and I see.’

‘Wow, you’ve made my evening, Gerry. Tell me more. What are the figures and why is the birth-rate dropping?’

‘Okay; first the figures. Take a look at this map of fertility rates around the world. I found it on the commons-dot-wikimedia website. The original figures come from the CIA’s World FactBook website and show the number of children being born in 2014.

(2021 update. I’ve left the following two paragraphs exactly as they were written in 2015. Further down, you will find an updated version of the world map showing the 2021 fertility rates. As you’ll see, very little has changed.)

‘Any place coloured blue is way below the 2.07 rate and is already experiencing a decline in population. In fact, some governments are worried about this—Russia, Armenia and some Western European countries such as Germany, France and Poland have introduced pro-birth measures to bolster the declining fertility rate; measures such as family subsidies, media influence, immigration or incentives not to emigrate, better healthcare especially for the children and reproducer groups, and techniques for reducing death rates. Despite its bad image, immigration is a powerful way to increase population levels above that dictated by the indigenous fertility rate.’

 ‘Green on the map shows those countries whose fertility rate is between 2.0 and 3.0. Anything else—yellow, brown, red and mauve—is above the replacement rate. What you see is that with the exception of sub-Sahara Africa, most of the world is either below or marginally above the 2.07 rate. The Africans are having babies galore but the rest of the world is reducing its population. The average fertility rate in sub-Sahara Africa is 5.0, the brown and red zones, but this is offset by a higher-than-average infant mortality rate. Unfortunately, many small children in Africa die before they reach the age of five for the reasons we’ve talked about.’

(2021 update. Here is the updated world map.)

To continue…

‘Yes, I know. I’ve seen the ads on television and I understand the reasons, Gerry, but why is the rest of the world reducing its baby output?’

‘There are many theories, Abi. Some say it’s the natural result of urbanisation and overcrowding. Also, in countries that do not reward fecund mothers with generous social benefits per child, simply the cost of bringing up children becomes a natural limiting factor. Others say it’s due to the fact that in the more developed countries, such as West Europe and the North Americas, women are delaying having babies while they pursue a career or take their time in choosing a suitable mate: the result of emancipation and education, you might say. Birth control techniques have improved in leaps and bounds and even pubescent girls can now get the pill before they’ve left school so teenage pregnancies have reduced.’

‘Natural disasters and genocide also play a role. 800,000 people lost their lives in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and look at how many died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 230,000 lives lost, and in other tsunamis, particularly off the coast of Japan in 2011, the one that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In Bangladesh, each year, around 5,000 people die from the annual monsoon floods. 75% of Bangladesh is fewer than 10 metres above sea level and the Ganges Delta is fed from hundreds of tributaries. When the rains fall, the Delta floods. There’s virtually nothing the Bangladeshis can do to stop the floods and thus many die. Not only are people drowned or left homeless; top soil is washed away and crops are ruined. It’s no wonder Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world.’

(2021 update. To which we can now add the number of people who have died from Covid-19—almost 3.5 million by 22 May 2021.)

‘In addition, as mentioned, the one-child-per-family policy as implemented in China starting in 1979 reduced the fertility rate from 2.8 to 1.5 by 2010 but created a society in which the males outnumbered the females by more than the normal 107 to 100. In fact, the current rate is more like 117 to 100. Females have their pick in China, Abi, but the imbalance can and has led to social instability and so-called courtship-motivated emigration.’

(2021 update. Down to 105 males to 100 females according to this source.)

‘Here, in the UK, I’ve noticed the media encouraging a general distaste for those parents who have large families—more than five children, say—and those men who recklessly father many children through many female partners. Our attitude to large families has done a U-turn over the last 100 years. In the past, we saw large families as a necessity to produce sons to help till the fields and daughters to look after our personal needs as we grew old. Those reasons are no longer true in the developed world but could be why sub-Saharan families are still so big. But, as you can see from the map, if we can believe the CIA’s figures there is hope for the rest of the world. Many national populations have started declining. It’ll take a few years for the full effects of sub-replacement fertility rates to work their way through the current population but, all other things being equal, as they say, the writing is on the wall.’

Abi sat up.

‘This is different to the information we had on the course, Gerry. The lecturers concentrated on the effects of a growth in world population, what we talked about last week. Based on your analysis using the Replacement Fertility Rate, it would seem we need to start preparing for a drop in population levels. What will happen in a capitalist world if the size of the consumer market falls?  How can we redistribute surplus food from the producing nations to those who go hungry?  What will be the impact if fish and animal stocks start recovering?  There’re a million questions like this. It would make an interesting subject for my final year dissertation. I’ll have to think about all this. My dissertation topic has to be decided very shortly. We’re reaching the end of term. But first,…’ (Here the conversation about society and population explosion finished and Abi and Gerry move on to more personal activities. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happened next!)