Shrinking populations should be welcomed by economists

Human beings and their livestock now account for 96% of mammals on the planet

On the day I was born, in 1933, I joined some two billion members of Homo sapiens, the planet's dominant and fastest-proliferating mammal. That figure had doubled since 1804 – little longer than a century. To reach that first billion, on the other hand, had taken more than 200,000 years.

As of May 2018, the world’s population was put at 7.8 billion and demographers project that, even with some decline in fertility, there will be 9.8 billion of us by 2050.

The unique genius of humankind in resisting disease and repairing injury has reduced the planet’s natural controls on such population explosions, though adaptations in some bacteria are now straining human defences. The result has been a steady decline in living space for almost every non-human species on Earth.

Followers of this column over the past few decades will not be at all surprised by the trend in the loss of species, though they might be by this month’s news of its shocking acceleration – a 60 per cent collapse since 1970.


If everyone was to live like the average US citizen, we would need five planets

The World Wide Fund's Living Planet Report 2018, so devastating in scope and detail, confronts the impact of human activity on the rest of the natural world. As half the planet's people are herding into cities, their demands on land for food crops and meat supplies is spreading into the last wild reserves of forest, wetland and grassland habitats. Human beings and their livestock now account for 96 per cent of the mammals living on Earth.

‘Ecological footprint’

The demands of consumption in developed countries has spread far beyond their own natural resources: the “ecological footprint” of individual nations. If everyone was to live like the average US citizen, we would need five planets. Even Ireland’s footprint works out at 4.8 global hectares per person.

Central to such demands in capitalist economies is the obsession with pursuit of economic growth and the relentless consumption of novel products to create employment – as wealth for the very few. Their need for labour at the cheapest price has produced great global inequalities and demand for youthful populations.

As for growth's demand on Earth's resources, naturalist David Attenborough sums it up well: "Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist."

At least 32 countries have decreasing populations and some are urgently seeking a new demographic and economic balance

At 92, Attenborough has been a bold champion of population control, terming the unstoppable surge of people as "a plague upon the Earth". Yet in so many urgent contexts, control of human births remains the unspoken topic. Pope Francis, in an otherwise admirable encyclical on population, Laudato si', deplored the human domination of Earth without acknowledging overpopulation as the driver of its degradation. The Catholic Church has resisted increased access to contraception in Africa where the natural plague of Aids makes an unrivalled case for the use of condoms.

The WWF analysis is powerful on the impacts of human spread and activity, but seeks remedies in more sustainable action, rather than a reduction of population. This offers, perhaps, the most immediately applicable response.

Nature conservation

Perhaps the strongest impetus to nature conservation has been awarding of economic value to the “ecosystem services” the natural world provides to humankind, in everything from medicines, foods and materials to flood control.

As an economic case for smaller human populations, it is also worth exploring a new paper in the journal Ecology and Evolution. It is the work of three young academics: ecologist Frank Götmark in Sweden, philosopher Philip Cafaro in the US, and population economist Jane O'Sullivan in Australia.

Their study, Aging Human Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Earth, challenges the idea that the costs and problems of longer lives should be offset by rekindling a higher birth rate. These are, it sets out, more than compensated by the social, economic and environmental benefits of stable or declining populations. Small families with long-lived members, active and contributing well into old age as paid workers and caregivers, should be the international goal.

At least 32 countries have decreasing populations and some are urgently seeking a new demographic and economic balance. This is one reason Germany has welcomed so many young migrants. Japan is considering doing the same. Russia wants to push up its long-declining birthrate.

The new study admits that ageing and shrinking populations present challenges in healthcare costs and pension funding. But it holds that the trend is inevitable and should be welcomed as the way to a more sustainable balance between humankind and the rest of the natural world and its resources.

Well, at 85, I would say that, wouldn't I? I'm old enough, too, to remember and relish the words of September Song as sung by Walter Huston. I've just enjoyed a black-and-white reverie with his performance preserved on YouTube.

The days do indeed grow short as you reach November (and the glorious sunsets of my drawing). But change that makes the most of “these vintage years” has to be the way to go.