Empty Planet

This post looks at the basic premise of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet (2019), that the human population, now at 7.5 billion, will peak at 9 billion, before declining rapidly, later in the 21st century. The question addressed is how different nations/ regions will cope with a collapsing population.

All advanced and many emerging market economies, to use International Monetary Fund slang, have fertility levels below replacement, considered to be 2.1 offspring per woman. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Norway in 2018 was 1.56, the lowest on record. In her New Year’s address in 2019, the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, encouraged Norwegian women to have more children. The PM has had 2.0 children, while the two other women party leaders in her government have not had any children. Being generous, these three have a combined TFR of 0.7.

Is Canada the world’s first post-national country? Despite my Canadian heritage as well as Bricker and Ibbitson’s suggestion that this is the case, I would have to answer, not yet. Yes, Canada features individualism, combined with urbanism, low TFR and high immigration. Twenty percent of the population are immigrants. That is higher than any other country, including the United States of America. Yes, this contrasts with the stereotypical image of Canada as the vast, unpopulated, ice-encrusted North. But these characteristics are not sufficient to make a country post-national.

For a country to be post-national, it has to be multi-cultural. This means that it cannot display preferences for one culture to the detriment of another. Canada does this, by continuing to have a British monarch of German heritage, as head of state. The fact that it uses a first-past-the-post electoral system also puts limits on representation in parliament. Amazingly, the Liberal Party currently in government as of this writing in 2019, first promised a more democratic voting system, then reneged on this promise. Currently, cultural minorities have to find their place within a three party system. Rather than having a group of people from an assortment of political persuasions representing citizens over a larger area, one person from a specific political party represents everyone in the riding, including those who did not vote for that person.

Despite the book’s Canadian chauvinism, it offers important insights. In urban societies, women become better educated, have better knowledge about contraception, this results in fewer children and leads women to better jobs, which makes women more financially autonomous. Ties to family, clan and religion deteriorate. The ties that are left are cultural.

Immigrants to Canada generally teach their children their original language, so that these children can continue to be entrenched in two cultures – Canada and something else. My daughter, who took her secondary education in Canada, had Norwegian as her second language. My old elementary school, named after gold prospector, journalist, some time New Westminster resident and former British Columbia Premier John Robson, has been demolished. It has been replaced with Ecole Qayqayt Early Education Centre. It is named after the Qayqayt First Nation, who originally lived in New Westminster, and offers French immersion classes.

While most of the world is at or below replacement fertility, 2.1 children per woman, the one major exception is Africa. The 2019 African Economic Outlook reports economic prospects and projections for Africa and for each of its 54 countries. It offers short and medium term forecasts for the main socio-economic factors, noting challenges and progress.

The report states, “Africa’s economic growth continues to strengthen, reaching an estimated 3.5 percent in 2018, about the same as in 2017 and up 1.4 percentage points from the 2.1 percent in 2016.”

But also cautions, “Africa’s labor force is projected to be nearly 40 percent larger by 2030. If current trends continue, only half of new labor force entrants will find employment, and most of the jobs will be in the informal sector. This implies that close to 100 million young people could be without jobs.” African fertility has halved to 4 since 1975 due to better female education and empowerment. However, this is still about twice replacement levels.

While declining population is a benefit, in terms of relieving pressure on the environment, it will also swing economic power from capital to labour, reducing inequality.

There are four approaches that can be taken to the world population challenge. Approaches 1 and 2 both accept a perpetual decrease in population. Approach 1 is to continue relying on humans as before.

Approach 2 is to replace workers with robots. Japan is the poster child for working with this. There are many areas of the economy where robots can be used, especially in the transport sector and manufacturing. Some progress can undoubtedly also be made in terms of construction.

With these first two approaches, there will come a point when having a nation-state will become impractical. There will be so few people living in them, that land could be freed for other groups to use.

The third and fourth approaches allow increased immigration. There are a number of situations that have to be understood, when dealing with immigrants. One term bandied about is integration. Quite often it is understood to be something that someone else has to do. Many people in the host population confuse integration with assimilation, and expect immigrants to assimilate themselves into the wider society. That task is, of course, impossible. So, Approach 3, is a situation in which the host society/ culture envisions itself as superior to anything/ everything on offer from migrants. It also expects them to give up social and cultural values, for something these immigrants may not quite understand.

Approach 4, the last approach here, is to accept that society will ultimately become multicultural. This is the official Canadian approach. Apart from a disdain for radicalism, Canada is willing to accept large numbers of well educated and young immigrants, capable of engaging with other Canadians of divergent backgrounds. At the same time these immigrants are allowed, even encouraged, to preserve their original culture, so they can function as a link between the two societies. Immigrant children to Canada are taught that they have two feet, one planted in Canada, the second in the culture they come from. Both are equal, and both are relevant.

Society changes

If anyone were to enter a time machine, and go fifty years back in time, they would discover a completely different world. With respect to my own situation, it would be a world filled with cheap gasoline, smokers, mini-skirts, vinyl records, beef steaks and corporal punishment. Since then, that culture has become unrecognizable. Like everyone else born before the new millennium, I didn’t grow up with cell phones, and had to learn how to use them – as an adult. Dress codes prevented women from wearing trousers at school and at work. In fact, some women had to quit work if they married. I was strapped for turning around in my desk at school.

Corporal punishment is illegal in Norway today, but listening to Norwegians my age, it seems to have been quite common fifty or sixty years ago. Transitions to a new culture can be difficult and while I don’t approve of people hitting their children, I don’t think jail sentences are the correct response either, in many cases. Suspended sentences are a cost-effective way of expediting behavioural change, both for the individual and society.

Yet, prophecy is a tricky proposition. With hindsight, it is easy to see that pizzas are more than a passing fad. The same cannot be said of fondues.

This weblog post was originally written 2019-03-06, but not published until 2019-07-08. It continues a discussion begun in Workshop Activism (published 2018-02-03), and continued in Lotta Hitschmanova (published 2019-02-14).