The human population was around 0.8 billion in 1750; it took 150 years to double to 1.6 billion in 1900. But in the next 100 years, it quadrupled to 6 billion, and in the last 15 years we have added another 1.5 billion. It is expected to reach over 11 billion by the end of this millennium. This was among the factors that prompted even Stephen Hawking to famously revise his extinction date for homo sapiens from 3000 AD to 2100 AD! No wonder that during the 20th century the fear among demographers was of a population explosion overwhelming the planet. In his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich predicted that millions would die of starvation. But the narrative has now changed into a reverse paradigm: The concern among economists now is one about declining, not exploding, populations.
The global total fertility rate (TFR) is around 2.4, less than half of what it was in the 1960s. (India’s TFR was 2.2 in 2015-16). This is close to 2.1, the exact replacement level for a population. But the figure conceals a massive imbalance: in 91 countries of Europe and North/South America, it is far below 2.1; China’s TFR is 1.8, Japan’s population will decline from 130 million now to 85 million by 2100. It’s the same across Europe and huge swathes of the Americas. Half the world’s population lives in sub-replacement nations.
But the story is different in Africa and South Asia where populations continue to grow, in some places exponentially, as in Niger for example where the average woman gives birth to seven children, or in Afghanistan, Mali and Chad where TFR is between 4.5 and 6. By 2100 Africa alone will contain 39 per cent of the world’s population. This is why the global population will continue to increase to unsustainable levels: it will go bust in parts but rise in others, changing the world’s geopolitics. The process throws up contradictory challenges for demographers, economists and environmentalists.
The countries in Africa and Asia where populations grow unabated, lacking the resources to tackle the numbers, will be subjected to more environmental degradation, social and political instability. This could lead to millions of environmental and political refugees, moving to fill up the vacuum in the developed world, a process that already seems to have begun.
The ‘bust’ countries, on the other hand, will witness a rapidly shrinking labour force, leading to a drastic decline in economic growth rates, reduction in the number of consumers, increase in the dependency ratios (ratio of non-workers to workers), fall in government revenues, increase in pension and social welfare costs (due to an ageing population). Their set of challenges will be entirely different from that of the ‘boom’ countries: maintaining productivity levels, strengthening social safety nets to cater to the increase in the number of older people. Some of these countries are already experimenting with policies to encourage increase in TFRs by incentivising larger families. But these are not likely to work as China’s relaxation of the one-child norm shows. Others are looking towards allowing in more migrants to make up for the labour shortages, but this comes with its own set of problems, as demonstrated by the cultural and political pushback in Europe and by US President Trump. Economists are a worried lot.
Demographers and environmentalists are not. Total population levels are already unsustainable and a figure of 11 billion doesn’t bear thinking about. Ecologically, our planet is almost at the tipping point of irreversible collapse, temperatures are expected to go up by around 2.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 (as against the agreed upon 1.5 at the Paris summit), we have already wiped out 60 per cent of other species.
This Anthropocene age will probably be the last for homo sapiens unless we control our rampaging and rapacious numbers. So, declining populations (anywhere in the world) is good news for the environment. But as recent studies show, it’s also good news for our dismal economists if only they could look beyond the stock market. The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of distinguished academics on development policies, reckons reduction in global TFR to replacement levels would lead to an economic benefit of $432 billion each year. This would accrue from savings on reduced infrastructure costs, social spending, health costs (due to a healthier environment). The benefits could actually be more when spread across all sectors of human and economic activity.
The decline in labour force and productivity would be more than compensated by the surge in hi-tech: artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics which, the same economists tell us, are likely to result in tens of millions of jobs being lost. Yes, governments will certainly have to increase their social welfare spending, perhaps introduce policies like Universal Basic Income to expand the safety net, but this should be possible with the kind of savings projected by the Copenhagen Consensus.
We may even see a more equitable world order, with new centres of manufacturing emerging in the ‘boom’ countries of Africa and Asia, leading to a better quality of life for the people in these underdeveloped regions. This may, indeed, be the only route for survival of the human race; there is no dilemma here, just a straightforward choice between numbers and environment. If we make the wrong choice, homo sapiens too shall soon join the 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals that become extinct every 24 hours, according to UNEP. It’s time to stop listening to economists and pay heed to environmentalists.
served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh