The root of the
current population boom is not so much an increase in fertility as a
decrease in mortality rates. The vast advances we saw in medicine
and health in the 20th century resulted, especially in
developing countries, in a dramatic increase in the survival rate of
infants and young children, which, in turn, produced a population
explosion in the second half of the century. As such, some have
argued that we should really be talking about a health boom.
In the words of
Nicholas Eberstadt (Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research), the
reason for the 20th century's population explosion “was
not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits—rather,
it was because they finally stopped dying like flies.... The
population explosion, in other words, was really a health explosion”
Population control has
many ins and outs. Firstly, there are ethical issues. The coercive
One-Child Policy in China has raised many questions. There are also
economic concerns. A smaller labor force would have to support a
larger portion of the population in retirement. As well, potential
incentive and information programs would require funding which can
be afforded by developed countries but not so easily by developing
ones. Following is a closer look at depopulation issues.
The United Nations and the International
First off, as already
mentioned, depopulation efforts have to occur across national
boundaries and economic regions. No country, rich or poor, is
immune to the problem in terms of environmental footprint and
resource use. The fact that there can be a significant lag—decades
in countries with high birth rates—between the time when a country
begins implementing policies—even coercive ones like those in
China—and the time at which a population levels off and starts
decreasing makes the matter urgent for that reason alone.
has to become a buzz word at the United Nations level. Although the
UN has done a lot of work on the issue, the message has not gotten
through, and neither has the sense of immediacy.
In the absence of
depopulation strategies, short-term measures targeting immediate
needs will continue to fail as they have so far—the one billion
people going hungry today being evidence of that—and turn out to
be destructive. They will also accelerate us towards the Depletion
Wall, which will add to the problems of hunger, resource shortages,
and increasing prices. Food provision initiatives need to continue
but will only be constructive and meaningful within the context of a
Part of the
difficulty in addressing the issue is that developed countries do
not see themselves as having a problem. Yet, they do as their per
capita impact on the environment is several times that of developing
countries. The situation is made worse by countries—like the US
and Canada—that promote high levels of immigration in order to
increase the size of their consumer markets. North America saw its
population almost double since 1960.
Another problem is
obviously developing countries' high rates of population growth,
regardless of the lower per capita consumption level that
individuals may have. Overall, they have a significant
environmental and resource-depletion impact. Large-scale
deforestation in India and Nepal is but an example of it.
The United Nations has
warned about the problem but to little avail so far. Resolutions
have to be brought to the fore, and population reduction targets for
all countries must be set just like we are attempting to do with
greenhouse gases. Short of this, the issue will remain at the
wishful-thinking level, and nothing will be done just as has been
the case so far. The concept of depopulationhas to become
part of the everyday language just like global warming is today.
How Far Do We Have to Go?
Paul R. Ehrlich and
Anne H. Ehrlich, authors of the best-selling book, The Population
Bomb, studied the issue of population growth and consumption.
One of the things that they point out is that economic research
supports the idea that standards of living cannot be maintained
under a scenario of continued population growth.
They (2004) argue
that consumerism is another issue that needs to be addressed if we
want to avert disaster. Under current conditions, consumption would
still keep growing even with a leveling off of the planet's
population. People in the developed world want more and more, and
developing countries will likely follow their example (p. 183).
In trying to estimate
an optional population size, Ehrlich and Ehrlich considered many
factors. Among others were the ability to provide everyone with the
necessities for decent living, basic social and human rights, and
intellectual, creative, and artistic activities. Maintaining a
certain amount of cultural diversity, preserving the environment,
and survival of the species in case of disaster were other factors
considered. Based on the current availability of resources and the
demands made on them, they (2004) came up with a number, two billion
people, or roughly what the world population was in the 1930s
(Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2004, p. 185).
By any means, trying
to estimate the world's optimal population size is a very arbitrary
process. In their 2004 work, One With Nineveh: Politics,
Consumption, and the Human Future, there are very few references
made to non-renewable resources (our capital stocks) or the
fundamental difference between them and other types of assets, such
as fisheries, that can be sustained indefinitely if properly
managed. In light of this, two billion people might not be an
appropriate long-term world population target. Under those
circumstances, an enormous amount of non-renewable resources would
still be consumed.
According to the
United Nations' classification of more developed countries
and less developed countries, the wealthier part of the world
comprises only about 1.2 of the total 6.9 billion people on the
planet (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
2010). In theory, cutting down the global population to two
billion people could reduce consumption to fairly low levels.
However, that would only be true for a standard of living based on a
world average, not for one based on North American or Western
calculations from statistics provided by the International Monetary
Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (2010, October), the
estimate of the gross domestic product based on
purchasing-power-parity (PPP) per capita GDP (current
international dollars) for 2010 was $36,430 in advanced economies
(top 33 countries). The same figure for the developing world (150
countries) was $8,485. The average for all was $13,580. In
comparison, the US and Canada were listed respectively at $47,132
and $39,034, for a North American average of $43,083.
Those numbers have
serious implications in terms of determining an optimal population
target for the world. What is a decent standard of living? Suppose
that the planet's total population dropped to two billion people—or
29% of what it is now—and that this resulted in an equivalent
decrease in resource use. Based on a world average per capita GDP
of $13,580, the consumption of metals and other materials would
generally drop to about 29% of current levels.
However, if decent
living is interpreted as the North American average, $43,083—or
3.2 times the world average—then our consumption of resources
would only drop by about 8% (29% X 3.2, minus 1). This is minimal
and would not make any significant difference in terms of
non-renewable resource use.
If decent living is
interpreted as the average for advanced countries, $36,430—or 2.7
times the world average—then our consumption of resources would
still only drop by about 22% (29% X 2.7 minus 1) with a
two-billion-people population size. That would be better but a long
way from being enough as far as long-term sustainability is
Even if decent living
were interpreted as 50% of the North American average, or $21,542—a
shocking and totally unrealistic expectation for most—our
consumption of resources would drop by about 54%. If it happened
overnight, it would double our years of supply of reserves and
subeconomic stocks of minerals, but that would still mean only about
a century before these are exhausted. Clearly, a two-billion
population size is not a possibility for the long term.
circumstances, a reduction of the total number of people on the
planet to two billion could take over a century even with aggressive
population control measures in place. By that time, all current
economic and sub-economic stocks of non-renewable resources will
long have been depleted. At least, this is what the latest numbers
Just too horrible to
contemplate? This is exactly what a Malthusian crisis is. Once
wolves had passed the point of sustainable balance and started
digging into the breeding stock of rabbits, the process of depletion
was quick to accelerate and all that was left for them to do was to
die. Humanity is in the midst of a Malthusian crisis, and we are
totally impotent to stop it. The time to take measures to prevent
it was in 1972 when the Club of Rome made the call for action. Now,
the best thing we can hope for is to mitigate the worst of the
crisis. Alternatively, we can let nature take its course and see
how it brings the system back in equilibrium.
Assuming that we are
able to transition through the resource crisis ahead, the standards
of living currently existing in advanced countries would have to
drop dramatically. A range of 500 to 750 million is likely to be
much more realistic in terms of world population for the future.
Even then, society would need to rely extensively on new
technologies and materials as well as implement very stringent
Consuming Like North Americans
A useful benchmark to
look at in terms of sustainability is the world consumption based on
North American lifestyles. Those are probably what a lot of people
around the planet aspire to and might be interpreted by many as the
basis for improved standards of living across the board.
What if we won the
fight against poverty and everyone consumed at the average level for
advanced countries? That would more than double (268%) the world's
consumption of resources as well as our speed towards the Depletion
Wall. The same figure based on US and Canadian standards is 317%.
This clearly shows that poverty cannot be eliminated through
economic growth. It just cannot. Depopulation is the only hope of
averting disaster and bettering standards of living for the poor in
the medium and long term.
The total number of
people in developed countries—where most of the advances in
technology and industrial production take place—was about 800
millions in 1950 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social
Affairs, 2010). The 1950s may also be closer to what we can expect
as far as medium-term consumption levels are concerned. Of course,
these are broad measures, but they provide a strong indication that
a small world population is very feasible.
In the last few
decades alone, we have gained a lot of medical, scientific, and
technological knowledge which would make today's life much better
even if we still only had the financial means that countries did in
the 1950s. For example, television and radio sets were available in
those years, but their quality has dramatically increased since
then. Today's models use less materials and are actually much
cheaper in terms of percentage of income than they were decades ago.
The amount of entertainment available (channels, movie rentals,
etc.) has also vastly increased. Having a television or a radio set
today has a very different meaning than it did in the 1950s.
Our children will
build their world with a large preexisting amount of science that we
did not ourselves have. This will mean a higher standard of living
even if it does not translate into larger dollar or GDP figures. As
well, today's mass markets will not be as important for them as they
have been during the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age
because of this preexisting knowledge. On the contrary, rather than
making goods more affordable, large-scale consumerism would
accelerate resource depletion and price increases as well as the
potential crises associated with them. A smaller economy is not
only feasible but also an option with greater prospects for better
standards of living.
We do not need to use
all available farmland or occupy every square inch of the planet.
By doing so, we decrease the potential for better standards of
living instead of increasing it. In a world with less than a
billion people, most major cities would likely remain but shrink in
size. Many villages and small towns would disappear. Large areas
of land (especially those less fertile and drought-prone) would be
abandoned to be reclaimed by nature.
and globalization will be part of the solution. Electronic
communications would remain a fundamental aspect of societies as
they reduce the need for transportation. With plenty of land and
more resources per capita, there would be fewer reasons to wage
wars. We would be better able to establish a world government with
the same rules and similar standards of living for everybody.
A small human
population on a small planet makes perfect sense. It is our best
shot at surviving the looming resource crisis and at maintaining
good standards of living for everybody. In fact, it is our only
In light of the
latest research and resource numbers, it is becoming clear that the
planet cannot support an increase in consumption levels in either
developed or developing countries. Attempting to improve conditions
for seven billion people through standard economic growth will only
lead us faster to the end of the Easter Island road, to the
We have to reduce the
planet's population as fast as we can, not only to avoid crashing
into the Depletion Wall—which would spell disaster especially for
poorer countries—but also to raise standards of living in the
developing world. We could debate the question of an optimal world
population size for years, but there is just no time for it. The
world did get by very well with three billion people as was the case
in the 1960s. For now, this is all we need to know, and we should
get started down the depopulation road and do so urgently. It will
take decades to get back to the population level of the 1960s; that
would leave us plenty of time for debate on the issue of long-term
Speed of Depopulation
We have to change the
way we think and take our heads out of the sand. Global warming,
the contamination of major ocean fish species, and the depletion of
capital resources are all symptoms of the same disease. Many are in
denial and refuse to look at reality primarily over fears of what
that may mean for their standards of living.
What we know is that
we have to drastically reduce the world population and that all
countries must be involved. The process will occur over time, but
what we want to do is start quickly and set a reasonable and
sustainable speed of depopulation.
We do not want to
create chaos or undue hardships, but we have to keep in mind that we
are no longer in the 1970s—when the World3 model was released and
the total number of people on the planet was only about 3.5 billion.
As the early simulations suggested, options are increasingly
becoming limited and ineffective, and all choices may at this point
involve some hardships... simply because we did not take action when
the first alarm bells were sounded.
There are economic
issues relating to depopulating. If we go too fast, we will have
too few working-age people to pay for the financial and health costs
related to an aging population. If we go too slowly, we will
unnecessarily deplete capital resources and keep going down the
Easter Island road. This is the essence of the population debate.
Replacement Rate Issues
depends on many factors: birth rates, childhood survival, death
rates, lifespans, etc. These vary in different parts of the world.
For that reason, it is impossible to determine exactly what an
optimal birth rate would be for the entire planet.
As such, it would be
more useful here to look at benchmarks than try to determine exact
optimal reproduction rates. A replacement rate is
the number of offsprings per couple or person that enables a
population to maintain itself indefinitely, neither growing nor
shrinking. If all countries around the world kept themselves at
that rate, the global population would remain the same year after
The first thing that
comes to mind in terms of replacement rate is the number two. Two
parents giving birth to two children would ensure that numbers are
sustained indefinitely. Reality is somewhat more complicated. The
actual replacement rate is affected by a number of variables. For
example, any death before the age of parenthood would decrease the
number of newborns. As such, the number of children per family
needed to maintain a population stable is usually somewhat above
two. As well, giving birth at an earlier age tends to amplify
population growth. Doing so later on in life has the opposite
A significant aspect
of the population growth problem is that progression is geometric
above the replacement rate. Just one more child per family can have
a huge impact on a country's total number of people over time.
For example, suppose
that a population renews itself every 80 years. At replacement
rate, the total number of people in a country would be 100% after
the first 80-year period and every other one after that. In
contrast, a scenario where couples would have one child above the
replacement rate would result in a sizable 50% population increase
after the first 80-year period (100% X 1.5) and compound after that:
another 80 years would yield an increase of 75% on top of the 150%
for the first period, for a total of 225% (150% X 1.5) of the
In the same way,
progression is also geometric for birthrates below replacement. As
such, depopulating countries would have to adjust their policies so
as to produce a constant rate of decrease, for instance 5% a decade,
and prevent an acceleration of the process. This may involve, for
instance, stronger incentives at the beginning and progressively
weaker ones after that.
A Few Benchmarks for Reduction Targets
currently have a high birth rate and a fast growing population will
not likely see any net decrease in number of people for decades even
under fairly stringent measures. What would happen at first is that
annual growth would only slow down rather than drop below zero.
This is what is currently happening in China. Despite having had a
one-child policy for decades, its population continues to grow. On
the other hand, developed countries—most of which have birth rates
already around or below replacement—would see immediate drops.
There would be no lag time as is the case with China.
How far and how fast
would 5% a decade take us? Over the next 90 years, countries
currently at the point of balance would be looking at a real drop of
about 37% (negatively compounded). Those above it would achieve
less, with many continuing to grow for some time before actually
seeing a decrease.
The world would have
to reduce its population by 71% in order to achieve the optimal size
of two billion people advocated by Ehrlich and Ehrlich. To reach
this level would take about 244 years at a net 5% per decade rate of
decrease, i.e. after the number of people on the planet has stopped
growing and has reached its point of balance. The growth rate for
approximately the last doubling of the world population was 14% per
decade (1970-2010). That is, it would take us about three decades
just to reach equilibrium assuming a 5% annual reduction rate.
A net decrease in
world population would start occurring only around 2040. We would
therefore be looking at reaching the two- billion-people mark some
time after the year 2280. At a net 10% decrease, it would take
about 118 years to reach it after the world population has stopped
growing, placing the achievement of the optimal population level of
Ehrlich and Ehrlich around year 2160.
The above are
benchmarks that can help us understand the magnitude of the problem
and what needs to be done. We also have to remember that this alone
would not prevent us from hitting the Depletion Wall but only slow
down the process. It could have been enough had it been applied in
the early 1970s when the Club of Rome first warned us about the
problem of exponential growth and the world population was only half
of what it is now.
The Aging Baby Boomer Population
Many governments have
expressed concerns about the cost of supporting higher numbers of
retirees as baby boomers age. The current strategy in Canada and
some other countries is population growth. This is obviously
madness within the current state of resource depletion. But, just
how big is the age boom?
If you look, for
example, at Canada's population age distribution as of 2010
(Statistics Canada, 2010, September 29), you can see that the
youngest age group, 5-25 years old, comprises 24.4% of the total
population. The next one, ages 25-45, represents 27.5% of it, and
baby boomers, 45-65, account for 28.4% of the country's total number
of people. The same figures for the US (US Census Bureau, 2009) are
respectively from the lowest to the highest age group: 27.5%, 27.6%,
In a normal
population, you would expect to have fewer individuals in the middle
range than at the bottom as people die with age. The top tier
should also be significantly smaller than the other two for the same
reason, giving a population its typical pyramid shape. In the
current situation, people of working age will have to support a
bigger than normal elderly population as baby boomers age. This is
the essence of the problem and why some countries are considering
population growth as a strategy to alleviate the problem.
In the last few
decades, both the US and Canada have relied on very generous
immigration policies to increase the size of their markets. The
need for it, however, has significantly decreased since the signing
of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a general
liberalization of trade worldwide. With the aging baby boomer
problem looming ahead, the two countries are likely to extend these
policies into the future.
This raises several
concerns. From an environmental perspective, the US and Canada, the
two biggest polluters and wasters of resources on the planet, have
significantly increased their environmental footprint and resource
consumption on account of population growth alone.
10. Depopulation Economics
Given that all we have
known in the past is economic growth and population expansion, the
task of decreasing the total number of people on the planet or even
just considering the idea of lower consumption levels and economic
output is daunting. Yet, although it would not be easy, it can be
done given supporting policies and the right economics.
Setting Reasonable Goals
The whole point of
depopulating is to try to reduce our consumption of not only
non-renewable resources but also renewable ones as we are currently
unable to manage them in a sustainable way due to consumption and
economic pressures—which have already led to the collapse of many
fisheries, the loss of agricultural land through erosion, chronic
The developing world
needs to see an increase in standards of living simply because of
the sheer poverty currently existing in several countries. This can
actually be achieved under the growth-freeze strategy outlined
further down. Such an approach would see a country's total gross
domestic product remain the same while the per capita GDP increases
from the total production being divided among fewer people. The
concurrent implementation of the Green Economic Environment strategy
could make developing economies greener and achieve some gains with
respect to resources and the environment at the same time.
countries—which are better off and whose environmental footprints
per capita are dramatically higher—would have to opt for a more
aggressive growth-reduction strategy in which total GDP would
decrease but standards of living could be maintained (per capita
GDP) depending on the chosen reduction targets.
The approach would
result in additional leisure time for workers (shorter work weeks,
more holidays, etc.). Combined with a GEE implementation, the
strategy could provide a strong framework for resource conservation
and environmental protection.
The two approaches are
outlined further down, but first is a closer look at the economic
principles underlying them.
The Myth of Larger Markets
One of today's most
mind-boggling economic misconceptions is that increasing a country's
population results in a larger market which, in turn, promotes
economic growth. The assumption is that more people means more
This can be seen, for
example, when economists and politicians talk about gaining access
to the huge Asian market, often regarded as the mother lode of all
consumer markets, dwarfing the entire market of the North American
Free Trade Agreement, which includes the US, Canada, and Mexico.
The problem is,
people do not buy goods, money does. The total amount of
consumption in a country does not depend on its population but on
its wealth or how much is spent. In economic terms, people are only
as good as the size of their wallets.
One person spending a
million dollars a day is exactly the same 'market size' as a million
people spending a dollar each. In both cases, the total consumption
or purchase of goods is exactly the same. The difference between
the two markets would be that spending would occur mostly on luxury
goods in the first instance and only on food and basic necessities
in the second one.
The US GDP (a rough
estimate of a country's total production) in 2010 was about
$14,624.184 billion (US dollars) or 2.55 times larger than that of
China, which stood at $5,745.133 billion. Yet, the US population
that year was only about 317 million compared to China's 1.354
billion people. As such, the US market is far bigger than that of
China despite having less than a quarter of its population. It even
dwarfs the Indian market—which has a total gross domestic product
of $1,430.020 billion—by 10.23 times (International Monetary Fund,
2010, October, World economic outlook database, October 2010).
having a population of only about 34 million people in 2010, had a
bigger GDP ($1,563.664 billion) than India whose total number of
people exceeded 1,214 million (International Monetary Fund, 2010,
October, World economic outlook database, October 2010 ). As
such, Canada is a bigger market to the US than India is despite
appearances suggesting the opposite.
The corporate sector
as a whole does not generally have a vested interest in larger
national populations. What should matter to them is spending, but
they often seem to confuse the two. Some companies do benefit from
certain types of markets while others are penalized by them. For
example, while exporters strongly gain from expansion into the Far
East markets, local industries often cannot compete with cheaper
imports and go bankrupt.
Market size does
reduce the cost of goods, mainly by spreading development expenses
and capital outlays over a large number of items. What most
politicians and business people fail to understand is that this too
is not a function of population size but one of spending or money.
It does not matter how many people there are. What is important is
how many dollars circulate in the economy.
planet's population from three to almost seven billion people as we
did in the last five decades did not in itself increase the size of
markets. It has not added one dollar to the world economy. It has
only spread the wealth available more thinly, decreasing incomes on
average by 50% of what they would otherwise have grown to.
The Changing Meaning of Market Scales
There is some truth to
economies of scale making goods cheaper. In large part, the
phenomenon was brought about by industrialization which made
possible the mass production of consumer goods.
In most cases, the
environmental costs of a large world population in terms of
pollution, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc. are rising
rapidly. These are rarely, if ever, factored into the benefit
equation of economies of scale. Trying to increase a country's
population in order to achieve larger markets—if that were what
actually happened—no longer makes sense for that reason alone.
Society does derive
benefits from market scales, but that can better be achieved through
trade expansion, for instance by joining trading blocks and removing
trade barriers. The European Union (EU) and NAFTA are examples of
that. In this way, the benefits of market scales can be enjoyed
without having to increase a country's population and share wealth
among more people.
Although decried by
the political left, the globalization of the world economy has
greatly expanded trade opportunities for all countries and will
enable them to continue to achieve efficiencies of market scale in
the future as the world depopulates.
Of course, there is a
cost associated with increased trade: physical goods have to travel
longer distances to markets than they would otherwise do if they
were produced locally. However, energy will increasingly come from
renewable and clean sources in the future and at reasonable prices.
As such, long-distance transportation is likely to become a lesser
evil than increasing the world population given the current state of
reserves of non-renewable resources.
Note that bulky
low-value items have always tended to be produced locally as the
cost of their transportation generally outweighs any possibility of
profitability. In contrast, high-value, small, and light items can
easily be exported to other countries and remain profitable. For a
few cents per unit, tiny computer chips worth hundreds of dollars
can be shipped worldwide. In comparison, a ton of cement worth $75
cannot be transported very far before costs exceed profits. As
such, both local and for export goods will remain in the picture for
As the price of
energy increases, markets will sort out what is profitable to ship
over long distances and what is better produced at home. More and
more, services, software, communications, and information represent
a larger share of many countries' GDP and are not generally affected
by transportation issues. This trend is expected to continue into
Improving Standards of Living: The Basic
To the economy, we are
just meat. The only thing that matters is money. As expressed
earlier, market size is a function of cash spent, not of the number
of people spending it. From this, we can draw two conclusions.
The first one is that
spending (what creates jobs and economic activity) remains exactly
the same regardless of population growth. The second one is that if
the number of people in a country grows, money is only spread more
thinly among them. That is, the real income or wealth per person
decreases. While a country's total GDP may remain the same,
individuals are poorer than they were before. In other words, a
growing population does not in itself result in economic growth but
forces us to share a limited amount of wealth between more people,
In line with the
market scale discussion in the previous section, the argument is
often made that a larger national population means a bigger market,
more people needing to buy cars and houses, etc. This is simply not
true. Money is only spread more thinly, meaning that while spending
on food and basics increases, it goes down for more expensive items.
Cars are bought less often, people rent lodgings instead of buying,
the size of houses and condominiums decreases, and individuals
increasingly resort to credit (which has to be repaid later and
shrinks back economies at that point in time) to finance their
Many also mistakenly
believe that population growth forces governments to spend more to
support society (for example, increased welfare and various child
and family allowances), hence promoting economic activity. Guess
where the money for this comes from? Your wallet! Taxes are higher
than they would otherwise be to make up for this. Again, money is
just shifted around without any real rise in total consumption.
If governments borrow
the money (increase the national debt) instead—as baby boomers
have been doing—then taxes can remain the same temporarily but
eventually the time comes when payments on the national debt have to
be made and consumption shrinks accordingly at that point.
The economic growth we saw in the last century occurred as a result
of what economists call monetary expansion or the addition of money
into the system (various forms of credit, both personal and
governmental). While it looks like population increases are
responsible for the growth in world GDP of the last few decades,
these really have nothing to do with it. It is actually chronic
government indebtedness and increased use of credit at the personal
level that have driven economic expansion over that period of time.
Population growth itself has only served to impoverish us.
Society does derive
benefits from economies of scale but these cannot be achieved by
The Ultimate Proof
The ultimate proof
that population growth impoverishes us can easily be found in
historical gross domestic product (GDP) figures. These give an
approximation of total wealth at any one point in time, and
estimates are available for individual countries.
One of the issues
that escape most people's attention when discussing economic
expansion is the difference between per capita and total growth. A
country's GDP may increase, but that does not necessarily mean
anything to the ordinary person. The benefits from it may not
accrue to someone for a number of reasons, one of them being
While this issue
might not be a major concern in Europe where most countries do not
see significant increases in their total number of people, it is not
the case for North America. Both the US and Canada have seen a
tremendous amount of population growth in the last few decades,
respectively 48% and 57% from 1970 to 2010. Governments are quick
to boast about positive gross domestic product figures when they
come out. However, do these really add up to more wealth and better
standards of living for regular people?
Let us look at some
statistics. From 1970 to 2010, the world's GDP grew from $15,622
billion to $50,159 billion (in inflation adjusted 2005 dollars) or
by 221% (United States Department of Agriculture, GDP, 2010).
However, personal income or GDP per capita grew during the same
period from $4,218 to $7,350 or by only 74% (United States
Department of Agriculture, GDP Per Capita, 2010) instead of 221%.
There lies the
problem with population growth. While the total wealth around the
world more than tripled, individual income did not even double over
the same period of time primarily because wealth had to be shared
among almost twice as many people as before. Let us take a closer
If you made $30,000
dollars in 1970, your income would have been around $52,000 (in
inflation adjusted 2005 dollars) in 2010 based on a 74% increase but
would have otherwise grown to $96,300 had the world population not
increased. That is how much richer we could be today. Bye, bye
poverty! On account of population expansion alone, the North
American economy has channeled two-thirds of the growth it saw
between 1970 and 2010 to feeding new mouths (persons) as opposed to
increasing standards of living.
In the same way, if
you lived in a developing country in 1970 and your family went
hungry because your total income was $2,500 instead of the $5,000
you needed, your 2010 income would have been $4,350 based on a 74%
increase (still not enough as is the case with a billion people
today despite more than a tripling of world GDP since 1970) but
could have been $8,025 (over $3,000 or 60% more than what you
needed) had the world's population not increased.
What would the world
look like today if average incomes had tripled? Could poverty have
been wiped out? Would the problem of hunger have been solved
instead of there being one billion people going hungry today? The
short answer is, we are able to feed about 6 billion people today
and the world population in 1970 was about 3.7 billion, i.e. we
would have massive food surpluses.
North American Immigration Policies
A lot of the
population growth that occurred in North America in the last few
decades resulted from immigration rather than higher birth rates.
Although an increase in population size does not in itself create
additional economic growth in the host country, the new capital that
often comes with people when they resettle does add to the size of
its market and wealth. It is, however, a contentious way of
creating economic growth as that capital (not only in financial
assets but also in the form of skills and education) is essentially
stolen from other countries.
The problem arises
when rich countries like the US and Canada import through
immigration the best minds (a phenomenon referred to as brain
drain) and huge amounts of savings from developing countries.
It is a form of reverse foreign aid that takes from the poor
in order to give to the rich.
productivity increases have had the effect of pushing unemployment
up. Whether through mechanization, technology, or the streamlining
of procedures and practices, society has increasingly become able to
do more with fewer people. Typically, workers are laid off and
replaced by machines or computers that can do a given task at lower
eventually eliminate unemployment by reducing the size of the labor
force? Probably not if a business-as-usual scenario is assumed.
Productivity would keep creating unemployment through more efficient
technologies as it has in the past. Governments would presumably
also keep promoting economic growth through various forms of
monetary expansion as they have been doing in the last few decades.
Take, for example,
the US and Canada. Since the 1970s, the North American population
has grown by about 50%. Over the same period, unemployment rates
hovered between 5% and 10% in both countries and still do so today.
This suggests that economic growth—which creates employment—has
generated enough new work to offset not only the 50% rise in
population but also the jobs lost on account of productivity
In 1970, the North
American GDP per capita was $20,616 (in 2005 real US dollars). By
2010 it had risen to $42,078, or by about 104% (United States
Department of Agriculture, GDP per capita, 2010). This suggests
that Canada and the US are able to produce today over twice as much
goods and services per person as they were able to in 1970. As
such, only about half of the people would be needed today to produce
the total amount of goods generated in 1970. This can be viewed as
productivity having created a little over 50 percentage points of
unemployment over four decades.
As such, in a
business-as-usual scenario, unemployment would likely continue to
exist as we depopulate. We should have no fear of labor shortages,
especially since the process is controllable: reduction targets can
be adjusted, governments can take measures so as to promote
increased productivity, etc. Economic growth would continue as it
is not a function of the number of people in existence but of the
total amount of money circulating in an economy: half of the people
spending twice as much would add up to the same total consumption.
What would change is that personal income and standards of living
not, however, a scenario that we should be contemplating. The
problems of non-renewable resources and pollution would keep getting
worse from continued economic growth and, according to World3
simulations and recent data, would potentially lead to disaster.
The whole idea of depopulating is being raised here in an attempt to
address these issues in the first place. If we are going to make
progress, depopulation policies would have to be implemented as part
of a broader overall strategy.
This would involve,
for example, the implementation of a Green Economic Environment
(GEE) system in order to make consumption and economies greener. It
would provide additional gains in terms of pollution reduction and
conservation of non-renewable resources—which would be badly
needed given the massive size of the world population that is
expected in the foreseeable future.
It should be clear by
now that, at this point in time neither aggressive population
control measures nor a GEE strategy alone will be enough to prevent
us from crashing into the Depletion Wall. Both are sorely needed:
the massive seven-billion-people consumption machine would not
shrink fast enough to prevent the depletion of non-renewable
resources in time to avert a crisis, and a green economic
environment strategy would not be sufficient on its own to prevent
The Three-Pronged Growth-Freeze Strategy
The needs of developed
and developing countries are very different by nature. Realistic
depopulation strategies for poorer regions of the world would have
to involve some kind of improvement of standards of living. By the
same token, continued economic growth is not a possible solution for
either the developed or the developing world.
Growth-Freeze Strategy combining a frozen GDP, population
reduction policies, and a green economic environment could provide
in developing countries both an improvement of standards of living
and meaningful progress on environmental issues at the same time.
What would such a scenario look like in reality?
The growth freeze
would mean that countries would aim at stabilizing their GDP at
current levels, i.e. zero economic expansion for them in the future.
This, however, would normally mean that standards of living would
not improve, but if population reduction measures are implemented
concurrently, fewer people with the same total GDP would deliver a
higher GDP per capita or personal incomes. As such, standards of
living would be able to continue to improve for developing countries
under a Three-Pronged Growth-Freeze Strategy.
A freeze on growth,
however, would mean that no progress is made with respect to
resources and the environment as total output or consumption would
remain the same. This is where the implementation of a Green
Economic Environment would come into play. By making both
consumption and the production system greener, meaningful progress
could be made on environmental issues, assuming that GEE targets are
The strategy would
also have a very significant added benefit: depopulation within a
growth-freeze context would mean that the labor force would
progressively shrink (fewer people to produce the same output).
Hence, unemployment rates would go down, which would be a major
improvement for most countries. Not only would workers be more
easily able to find jobs, but countries would also save on the cost
of unemployment and social assistance programs.
Could labor shortages
eventually become a problem? Each time unemployment drops below 3%
or 4%, the business sector complains about difficulties in getting
qualified personnel and inflationary effects on wages and the price
of goods and services. Governments often react by raising interest
rates to slow down the economy and create unemployment to prevent
inflation from spiraling out of control as it did in the 1970s and
1980s. The issue is a complex one and is discussed further down.
The Three-Pronged Proportional-Growth-Reduction
Because of developed
countries' high levels of consumption per capita, a Three-Pronged
Proportional-Growth-Reduction Strategy would be called for in
their case. Such an approach would involve a decrease in GDP
proportional to a reduction in population, as well as the
implementation of a GEE system.
What would that mean
for standards of living? Obviously, there are various possible
degrees of reduction. Let us assume that governments opt for a 10%
decrease in population size over a given period of time. As this is
a proportional strategy, the target for GDP reduction would also be
10%. This would result in the per capita gross domestic product (or
personal income) remaining the same as a 10% smaller output would be
divided by a 10% smaller population.
Three-Pronged Proportional-Growth-Reduction Strategy, standards of
living would be maintained, and some gains would be made for the
environment on account of a lower total GDP. This would be a major
component of political viability and selling point for the strategy.
Anything involving a decrease in standards of living could yield
stronger environmental gains but would be less popular with voters.
The implementation of a GEE system would make production and
consumption greener and further decrease a country's environmental
If both economic
output and the labor force are reduced at the same time, there would
not be significant changes in unemployment, at least initially. The
same amount of goods would be produced per person although total GDP
The Three-Pronged Aggressive-Growth-Reduction
Aggressive-Growth-Reduction Strategy would involve a decrease in
GDP greater than a concurrent reduction in population alongside the
implementation of a GEE system and would have different
implications. For example, in a situation where GDP is decreased by
20% and population reduced by 10%, a country would see per capita
income go down by about 11% (80% output divided by 90% population).
Much more significant gains would be made for the environment, but
standards of living would go down, at least in terms of consumption
of physical goods.
A larger labor force
(90%) for a smaller amount of work (80%) would mean that
unemployment would grow over time. This, along with productivity
increases, would force governments to address the issue. Under
a Three-Pronged Aggressive-Growth-
countries would not be able to create more work in the traditional
way, i.e. through economic growth. Governments would then have to
turn to spreading jobs around as a means of addressing the problem.
The work week could be shortened, holidays, increased, and
retirement age, lowered to prevent unemployment from rising.
While the consumption
of physical goods would go down under this scenario, people would
benefit from more free time. While standards of living might
decrease in dollar terms, the quality of life itself could see a net
improvement. The Three-Pronged Aggressive-Growth-Reduction Strategy
would signal the beginning of a new era of leisure for the countries
that choose this approach.
A fourth approach
could also be meaningful in terms of achieving significant progress
for the environment and resource conservation. It would allow a
country to continue increasing standards of living if stiffer
population reduction targets are selected. Of course, it also
involves the implementation of a GEE system. The option may look
unlikely at the moment, but it might become the choice of many
countries as we get closer to the Depletion Wall and a sense of
panic sets in. As well, it has some significant benefits.
could involve, for example, reducing GDP by 15% while setting a 20%
reduction target for population. Again, a GEE strategy would be
implemented along with this. A 15% drop in GDP would then be shared
by a number of people 20% smaller, yielding a growth in income of
6.25% (85% divided by 80% minus 1) for a given period.
a betterment of standards of living would be a selling point and
increase the political viability of the strategy. As well, the
aggressive-population-reduction approach would also mean lower
unemployment, which would benefit job seekers and lower the cost of
support programs for society. As under the first strategy above,
labor shortages could eventually be a concern.
Unemployment and Productivity Management
It is doubtful that
unemployment rates would get to be excessively low under any version
of the strategy for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we will see in
the next chapter, there is a lot of slack in the system. While a
country's official unemployment rate might be only 5% to 10%, the
actual percentage of people that do not work is much higher. For
example, it ranged from 20% to 35% (depending on the criteria being
used) in Canada and the US in 2010. As well, there are a number of
labor-saving strategies that can be implemented to address the issue
(also discussed in the next chapter).
economic growth and depopulation both decrease unemployment,
productivity does the opposite: it pushes it up. It has also the
advantage of increasing individual wealth (per capita GDP) since
fewer people are able to produce the same output. That makes
productivity increases the best possible tool for addressing the
issue of low unemployment. Moreover, it does not have the
destructive impact on resources and the environment that economic
growth and population increases have.
notoriously low in developing countries and the cause of continued
poor wages and poverty. That makes it an ideal tool not only to
mitigate the potential for labor shortages of a Three-Pronged
Growth-Freeze Strategy in the developing world but also to increase
per capita income (more is done with fewer people). All a country
has to do is to promote mechanization and investment in technology.
productivity has traditionally been the cause of much suffering in
countries around the world as it increases unemployment by promoting
the replacement of workers by machines and new technologies.
However, within the context of a depopulating world, it would have
the opposite effect: addressing the potential problem of labor
shortages and increasing a country's output per capita, which
eventually trickles down to workers in the form of higher wages.
All of the above
strategies are simplified to some extent and do not take into
account the aging of population effect, which would mean that a
smaller workforce would have to support a larger-than-usual number
of retirees. There are solutions. Those are discussed in the next
chapter. With respect to the strategies outlined above, the aging
effect would likely mean that standards of living would be affected
to some extent, depending on several factors. Countries could
easily counter that effect by adjusting GDP targets accordingly.
The economics of
population growth do not add up. Increasing the number of people on
the planet does not add one cent to economies but does force us to
share national production among more individuals, making each and
everyone poorer. Given the current state of reserves of
non-renewable resources, economic expansion is not a possible avenue
for the future. Fortunately, there are a number of viable options,
and it was the purpose of this chapter to outline them.
Note that in two of
the four strategies, personal income would actually increase. The
other two approaches offer either the status quo in that respect or
an exchange of income for quality of life, in which case people
would live simpler and more leisurely lifestyles that would allow
for less stressful, perhaps longer and healthier, lives as well as
for more fulfilling ones by affording time for people to explore
their creative side or volunteering and helping others instead of
being the typical obsessive consumer—consumaton—of the
The Two-Pronged Aggressive GEE Strategy
approaches discussed so far allow us to better understand the
interplay of population size, total GDP, and per capita income as
well as their effect on standards of living and quality of life.
While those are solid and implementable strategies, many governments
will balk at the prospect of freezing or reducing GDP. So will the
growth could occur in a context of a Two-ProngedAggressive
GEE Strategy. Such an approach
would involve reducing a country's population together with the
implementation of a GEE system that would use much stronger
reduction targets than the strategies discussed earlier. This would
ensure that while economic growth continues, the use of resources
and countries' environmental footprint are minimized. The strategy
would have the advantage of avoiding the unpopularity of freezing or
very appealing, the approach presents several drawbacks. Most
governments would likely use the approach with watered-down GEE
targets while presenting it as an aggressive strategy and continue
current destructive growth patterns. As well, the approach would
lead to a progressively tighter labor force, which can be mitigated
as discussed earlier.