A leading environmental writer looks at the unexpected effects-and possible benefits-of a shrinking, graying population.
Demography is destiny. It underlies many of the issues that shake the world, from war and economics to immigration. No wonder, then, that fears of overpopulation flared regularly over the last century, a century that saw the world’s population quadruple. Even today, baby booms are blamed for genocide and terrorism, and overpopulation is regularly cited as the primary factor driving global warming and other environmental issues.
Yet, surprisingly, it appears that the explosion is past its peak. Around the world, in developing countries as well as in rich ones, today’s women are having on average 2.6 children, half the number their mothers had. Within a generation, world fertility will likely follow Europe’s to below replacement levels and by 2040, the world’s population will be declining for the first time since the Black Death, almost seven hundred years ago.
In The Coming Population Crash, veteran environmental writer Fred Pearce reveals the dynamics behind this dramatic shift. Charting the demographic path of our species over two hundred years, he begins by chronicling the troubling history of authoritarian efforts to contain the twentieth century’s population explosion, as well as the worldwide trend toward the empowerment of women that led to lower birthrates. And then, with vivid reporting from around the globe, he dives into the environmental, social, and economic effects of our surprising demographic future.
Now is probably the last time in history that our world will hold more young people than elders. Most fear that an aging world population will put a serious drain on national resources, as a shrinking working population supports a growing number of retirees. But is this necessarily so? Might an older world population have an upside? Pearce also shows us why our demographic future holds increased migration rates, and reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the developed world: the simple fact is that countries with lower birthrates need workers and countries with higher birthrates need work. And he tackles the truism that population density always leads to environmental degradation, taking us from some of the world’s most densely packed urban slums to rural Africa to argue that underpopulation can sometimes be the cause of environmental woes, while cities could hold the key to sustainable living.
Pearce’s provocative book is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what demographics tell us about our global future, and for all those who believe in learning from the mistakes of the past.
“Clear, accessible, and smart, this book cuts through the complexity of current population dynamics and politics to make a compelling case that we are on the brink of a low-fertility, low-mortality future in which women’s equality is the main motor force of change. Pearce challenges the apocalyptic fears of overpopulation in the Third World and declining population in the West that too often dominate and distort public policy on family planning, social welfare, immigration, and the environment. This hopeful, thought-provoking book deserves to be read widely, from the corridors of power to the classroom.” —Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control
“Fearless and well-informed; every paragraph crackles. Pearce evokes past and present with vivid detail and startlingly coherent insight.” —Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment, Rockefeller University
“The population ‘debate’ is so fraught with the history of colonialism that no one wants to touch it. Thank goodness that Fred Pearce has had the courage to write this informative, timely, and brilliant challenge to the commonly held vision of overwhelming population growth laying waste to the earth. This book is about hope-just in the nick of time.” —Maude Barlow, author of Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water
“What a wonderfully rich and humane book! As a generation of newly empowered women sweeps away our wrongheaded Malthusian nightmare, Fred Pearce demonstrates persuasively that the end of the population surge may well usher in a new era of ethnic tolerance, increased global integration, and a period of kinder and more nurturing governance.” —Ross Gelbspan, author of Boiling Point
Review: Publishers Weekly, starred review - February 15, 2010
"[A] fascinating analysis of how global population trends have shaped, and been shaped by, political and cultural shifts…Highly readable and marked by first-class reportage."
Review: Kirkus Reviews - February 12, 2010
"Consistently interesting, informative and inspiring reporting."
Review: The Sunday Times London - February 4, 2010
“Conventional wisdom has been that the human race is heading inexorably towards mass starvation, disease and conflict as our numbers outstrip the earth’s capacity to provide. The latest book from Fred Pearce, one of Britain’s most prolific and entertaining science writers, begs to differ . . . [Pearce] weaves the views of many of the world’s top demographers together with first-hand reporting from the slums of Mumbai and ghost towns of east Germany to bring to life what could easily have turned into a drab bit of statistical analysis. It doesn’t.”
Review: The Ecologist - February 1, 2010
“[Pearce discusses] why overconsumption is the key issue, the need for relaxed immigration laws, and why men should look after children. . . . [He] traces the history of the population control movement and makes some disturbing links between eugenics and the founders of the modern environmental movement.”
Demography is destiny. But not always in the ways we imagine. It underlies much of our world, shifting the tectonic plates on which our civilization is built. Never has that been more true than today. Wherever we look, population issues are among the most toxic headline-grabbers. From Gaza to Grozny and Rwanda to Afghanistan, baby booms are blamed for war and genocide. Festering slums burst into tribal violence in Kenya. Teenage terrorists lurk in refugee camps and overcrowded madrassas. Migrants from poor, overbreeding states are flooding Europe and North America. Overpopulation is the unspoken driver of environmental destruction. Millions of environmental refugees will soon be fleeing from spreading deserts and drowned deltas, as China’s billionplus inhabitants undermine all efforts to halt climate change.
The stats seem scary, too. The world’s population is approaching seven billion--four times what it was a century ago. Never have there been so many mothers, and with half the people in some countries under sixteen years old, there are billions more baby-makers in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the world’s masses are on the move. Some 200 million people go to bed in a country different from the one they were born in.
No wonder the language is bleak. Dickensian. Malthusian. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s Armageddon. We fear an overpopulated world teeming with the dispossessed and the alienated, the fanatical and the fascist, the wetbacks and the snakeheads, the Humvee-driving superpolluters and the dirt-poor deforesters. Surely we are racing to demographic disaster.
And yet slamming on the brakes seems almost as dangerous. For meanwhile, the insurgency of the old is looming. We are all living longer, healthier lives. Life expectancy has doubled since the 1950s. Back when I was born, 150 babies out of every thousand died before their first birthday. I could have been one of them. Now only fifty die. Should we cherish or fear this? Is good luck for the world’s babies bad luck for the planet? It is sometimes said that more than half of all the people who have lived on the earth are alive today. This is nonsense. Just under 7 billion of the total human roll call of 100 billion are alive today. But what may well be true is that half of all the people who have ever managed to reach the age of sixty-five are alive today.
But don’t despair. There is something you may not have guessed-- something that may save us all. The population “bomb” is being defused. Only gradually, because the children of the greatest population explosion in history are still mostly of childbearing age, but it is happening. They may be having seven children in Mali, and six in Afghanistan, but half of the world’s women are now having two children or fewer--not just in rich countries, but in Iran and parts of India, Burma and Brazil, Vietnam and South Africa. Mothers today have fewer than half as many offspring as their own mothers. This is happening mostly out of choice and not compulsion. Women have always wanted freedom, not domestic drudgery and the childbirth treadmill. And now that most of their babies survive to adulthood, they are grabbing it.
This book is the story of the peoplequake, the dramatic convulsion of the world’s population that began with the Industrial Revolution and continues today. It is the story of how the tectonic plates of human population are shifting, and what this means for us and future generations. We see those plates shifting in the mosques of Iran and the slums of Mumbai; the vodka shops of Moscow and the killing fields of Rwanda; the demographic battlegrounds of Israel and the laid-back saunas of Stockholm.
If you are over forty-five, you have lived through a period when the world population has doubled. No past generation has experienced such an era--and probably no future generation will either. But if you are under forty-five, you will almost certainly live to see a world population that is declining--for the first time since the Black Death, almost seven hundred years ago. And it may happen soon. Demographers pre dict that, as during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the global recession that began in 2009 will encourage people to give up on babies for the duration.
The future will be a different world in other ways, too. The average citizen of the world today is under thirty. Before he or she dies, the average will probably be over fifty. In parts of aging Europe, there are already fewer than two taxpaying workers to support every pensioner. Book your places now for the global old folks’ home. But the quake is not just about numbers. It is about age and sex and women’s rights and war and migration; about the rise and fall of nations and, some fear, the end of the family. It is about environmental limits and climate change and the fertility of soils and minds.
The story opens with Bob Malthus, a morose eighteenth-century vicar spooked by two revolutions--the French and the Industrial-- counting his stunted parish flock and imagining our demographic doom. From the Irish potato famine to Rwanda, the story follows the evolution of Malthusian fears of overpopulation. It tracks the terrifying logic of the twentieth-century eugenics scientists and the concerns of their birth-controlling successors who imposed coercive family planning in China, India, and elsewhere. It catches up with the new century’s migrants and refugees and pensioners and, diminishing in number though they are, the babies of our planet.
It explores how demography drove the rise of the Asian tiger economies and China’s economic miracle--and how it will soon undermine them both. It charts shrinking Europe, and how by midcentury Russia could have fewer people than Yemen. It follows the declining power of Catholic and Islamic clerics alike to lay down the law in the bedroom. It takes the political temperature of the “youth bulge” creating mayhem in the Middle East.
Most of all, it investigates the baby boom generation, born during the late twentieth century as world birth rates for a while reached double the death rates. The baby boomers are now adults, driving the global economy. But soon they will grow old.
And as the baby boomers start to die, global deaths will exceed global births. One way or another, their fate will be the fate of us all, for the boomers changed the planet. They were born into a world of resource abundance and will leave behind a world of profound resource scarcity. They brought us peak population, and with it peak oil and peak mining and peak trade and peak pollution. They will leave behind peak temperatures, too.
Have they done so much damage to the planet that the worst environmental nightmares are about to come true? Was the British government’s chief scientist right to say in early 2009 that we face a “perfect storm” of food, energy, and water shortages by 2030? Was the Gaia scientist Jim Lovelock right to argue in his ninetieth year that the result will be “death on a grand scale from famine and lack of water . . . a reduction to a billion people or less” by 2100
Many believe so. But haven’t we heard such fears before? Malthus, of course. But also William Vogt, the forgotten hero of the environmental movement, who captured the world’s attention with similar warnings in 1948, and Paul Ehrlich, whose Population Bomb repeated those warnings in 1968. None have come true--yet. So could the techno-optimists be right that our ingenuity will see us through to a new age? This is the first time in history that we have been able to foresee with some certainty a decline in our numbers. It means that if we can accommodate the imminent population peak, survival on planet Earth ought to become easier. That is not a cause for complacency. There are some choppy waters ahead, for sure, especially over climate change. We will need all our ingenuity to get through that, and to find ways to feed the eight or nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2040. But it could be a cause for hope as well. Optimism, even. Should we look forward to the benefits of a return to center stage of the tribal elders? Might the final legacy of aging boomers be a greener, happier, and more frugal world
Part One Malthusian Nightmares
1 A Dark and Terrible Genius
2 The Road to Skibbereen
3 Saving the White Man
Part Two Rise of the Population Controllers
4 An Ornithologist Speaks
5 The Contraceptive Cavalry
6 Three Wise Men
7 Six Dollars a Snip
8 Green Revolution
9 One Child
Part Three Implosion
10 Small Towns in Germany
11 Winter in Europe
12 Russian Roulette
Part Four The Reproductive Revolution
14 Sex and the City
15 Singapore Sling
16 Missing Girls
17 Where Men Still Rule
Part Five Migrants
18 Waving or Drowning?
19 Migrant Myths
20 Footloose in Asia
21 Godís Crucible
Part Six Reaching The Limits
22 The Tigers and the Bulge
23 Footprints on a Finite Planet
24 Feeding the World
25 Slumdogs Arise
Part Seven Older, Wiser, Greener
26 The Age of the Old
27 Silver Lining
28 Peak Population and Beyond
Notes on Sources
Read Fred Pearce's opinion on overconsumption in The New York Times, 6/8/2015
Scientific American has posted an excerpt from The Coming Population Crash on their website, 6/11/2010
Fred Pearce'sComing Population Crash is featured in an article on falling birth rates on Grist.org, 5/24/2010
Fred Pearce in the Washington Post's Political Bookworm blog on why more immigrants are a good thing, 5/3/2010
Read Fred Pearce's engaging interview on Salon.com, 4/19/2010
Read Fred Pearce's prediction about the world's ageing population in The New Scientist, 4/8/2010
Fred Pearce's exciting appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Fred Pearce on CNN International with Christiane Amanpour