Should We Worry About Population Decline?

By Robert Kunzig, ENVIRONMENT Executive Editor, NATGEO
…from their weekly PLANET POSSIBLE newsletter

Yang Bo

Which are you more worried about, population growth or population decline? Or do you prefer to freak out about both at the same time?

The recent Census Bureau report that the U.S. population grew in the last decade at the slowest pace since the Great Depression triggered a slew of concerned stories. China, the world’s most populous country for now, just reported even slower growth than the U.S. All this and more (including decades of low fertility in Europe, South Korea, and Japan) caused the New York Times to make the looming social and economic dangers of population decline its lead story on Sunday—even though global population is likely to keep growing into the second half of this century, maxing out somewhere around 10 billion.

Since you’re reading a newsletter about the environment, chances are you’re more worried about that continued population growth. If so, the story we published this week by Glenn Hodges probably won’t reassure you. Hodges described a new analysis of fossil pollen (pictured above, in China) from more than a thousand sediment cores extracted from lakes and bogs worldwide. The cores record global vegetation changes since the end of the Ice Age 18,000 years ago, when a green wave of forests and grasslands advanced into the spaces vacated by receding ice sheets and glaciers.

What the researchers from Norway found in their pollen record is that a second wave of massive vegetation change began around 4,600 years ago. “We didn’t expect that the change in the last few thousand years would be even larger than what happened as the Ice Age ended,” Suzette Flantua of the University of Bergen told Hodges.

That second wave of species change was almost certainly launched by humans—by the spread of agriculture around the planet, and by the increasing use of fire by Indigenous peoples to manage forests and other landscapes. The change hasn’t abated, far from it, as our numbers and the power of our technology has grown—and with climate change we’re now delivering a “one-two punch” to forests, as Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Michigan told Hodges.

A decade ago, when there were just about to be seven billion humans on Earth—we’re closing in on eight billion now—I argued in National Geographic that global population growth was not a productive thing to worry about. Over the years this attitude has earned me a few letters from irate readers. But if the growth does turn out to be coming to an end sooner than we thought, I plan to celebrate for a while before I start worrying about ghost towns or the social security system. I’m guessing that the rich countries on the front lines of the population bust will find a way to adapt. And there will be more planet to go around for all of us.

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Not certain I’d be as glib as Mr.Kunzig about personal conclusions. Not that I disagree. I’ve long felt as he does about halting our never-ending expansion on this Earth. Just might lean towards a tad more diplomacy, Even readers of a science-based magazine [or the blogging of an old geezer who tries to maintain a lifelong science-based education] might feel the need. It’s why I preface discussions on philosophy with “I’ve been a philosophical materialist since I was 18” instead of “I knew sufficient science to become an atheist…when I was 13”. Both statements are true. 🙂