In recent decades the conventional narrative of global population has been one of continued growth and the stresses that this will place on the planet’s resources. This narrative has been facilitated by consistent studies from the United Nations that predict that the world’s population will rise from its present 7.7 billion to 11.2 billion by 2100. However a new book by the Globe and Mail’s writer-at-large, John Ibbitson, and social researcher Darrell Bricker has questioned this narrative and the UN modeling that produced its global population boom forecasts. Instead, they argue, the world’s population will top out just before reaching 9 billion people, before beginning to decline.
The book — Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline — argues that the UN’s model for predicting birthrates is too conservative, focusing only on the traditional factors of fertility, mobility, and mortality. These are factors have worked well for forecasts in the past, but fail to account for current trends that are producing a significant decline in birth rates worldwide.
Bricker and Ibbitson argue that the UN is missing two current revolutions that are taking place across the world. The first is the rapid rise of urbanization, both in developed and developing countries. Life in urban areas is becoming increasingly advantageous and this phenomenon is exponential. The more people move to urban areas the more advantageous it is for others to do likewise. This has a considerable effect on population — in rural areas children are an important extra set of hands, but in urban areas children are more an extra mouth to feed, therefore reducing the incentive to have too many.
The other phenomenon (which is facilitated by the first) is the increase in female education and female social power. In the book, the authors note that everywhere they visited for their research — whether it was wealthy Western cities, poor rural areas, or urban slums in developing countries — when they asked women how many children they would prefer to have if given the choice, the response was overwhelmingly only one or two. And across the world the ability for women to make this choice for themselves is becoming a new (and long overdue) social norm. This phenomenon is not only driven by access to formal education, but the informal education derived from urban social networks and the now ubiquitous access to smartphones that provide insights and aspirations for women beyond their local environments.
Confirming the authors’ thesis, a report by medical journal The Lancet from November 2018 (a study published after their book was written) has demonstrated that there is now a significant decline in global birth rates. While the UN’s recent data for India states that it has a current birth rate of 2.4 children per woman, The Lancet puts India’s birth rate at 2.1. For a population the size of India that discrepancy is a considerable number of people (or lack thereof). India is now at the replacement level, and is joined there by other large countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Brazil, and the Philippines. These countries are predicted to soon move to being below replacement level, which is where most of the developed countries in the West find themselves. Most significantly, this is also where China finds itself. The authors predict China could halve its population by the end of the century, becoming older and smaller before it reaches the wealth of the West, with considerable geopolitical ramifications.
If the analysis of the book proves correct, then this presents an enormous opportunity for an immigrant accepting country like Australia. With Europe turning inward, and the United States potentially doing the same, the number of countries that are actively seeking to enhance their numbers through immigration are actually very few. Rather than see its relative power decline in relation to more populous countries in its neighborhood as has been predicted, Australia should be able to enhance its current economic, defense, and cultural capabilities to either preserve its influence, or even considerably increase it — as long as it is able to maintain (or boost) its current levels of immigration, and generate public acceptance of its migration program.
Yet unlike a comparable country such as Canada, Australia doesn’t have a strong public narrative advocating and explaining the benefits of immigration. The political class simply enacted a policy of substantial rates of immigration and then sat back and hoped that the public would adjust on its own. Barring a few loud and boorish voices, this strategy (or lack of strategy) has worked extremely well. Australia is an incredible peaceful, prosperous, and cooperative country of great (and increasing) human diversity. But this feels like a positive result achieved via luck rather than by design.
However, a declining global population will undoubtedly make the maintenance of Australia’s immigration program the country’s primary strategic asset. Therefore, finding a way to counter the more agitated and insular narratives of other countries that seep into local debates may require the government to establish a more active policy of public education, although increasingly levels of distrust in governments will make this difficult.
One way to counter this distrust would be for governments at all levels in Australia to start taking urbanization seriously. Both the federal and state governments have been slow to internalize this megatrend, and as a result the country’s cities (and the individuals living within them) are currently unable to fully take advantage of their increasing populations, and the opportunities this should bring. Whether Australia has the foresight to facilitate, rather than impede, its urban growth will now be the true test of its overall national strategy, and the country’s ability to adapt to — and harness — the major phenomena that will reshape the global landscape.