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In 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb. Ehrlich predicted mass-starvation by the mid-1970s due to an exploding human population outstripping agricultural capacity. Global population in 1968 was 3.5 billion. Today there are 7.6 billion people living on planet earth. Clearly, Ehrlich’s dire predictions were wrong, but the book was a huge bestseller.
In 1987, author and commentator Ben Wattenberg published The Birth Dearth: What Happens When People in Free Countries Don’t Have Enough Babies? In this prescient book, Wattenberg correctly identified the early signs of what is now widely understood—in every developed nation on earth, birthrates are well below replacement levels. Wattenberg’s book didn’t sell nearly as well as Erlich’s.
The truth is, Ehrlich wasn’t entirely wrong. Throughout most of the so-called “developing world,” birth rates remain well above replacement levels.
To illustrate his point, Ehrlich made frequent reference to the “doubling time” of a population. It’s an apt concept because it refutes the argument that human innovation and enterprise can accommodate limitless population growth. In a public lecture at Stanford in the 1970s, Ehrlich drew a grim laugh when he explained that eventually unchecked human population growth would result in a solid sphere of human flesh expanding into the universe at the speed of light.
The fact that population growth rates vary among nations, with extremes at both ends, is not sufficiently acknowledged. It is central to discussions of immigration and refugee policies, environmental health, economic models, and the fate of nations and cultures. Yet despite its centrality, exploring practical solutions on this topic invites accusations of racism, ethno-nationalism, even neo-colonialism.
Studies in Contrast: Somalia and Japan
To explain why this discussion cannot be avoided, Ehrlich’s concepts are useful. And alongside exploring the implications of a population’s doubling time, the implications of a population’s “halving time” shall also be included. To provide an example from each extreme, the following cases use data from Somalia for the high-growth scenario, and Japan for the negative growth scenario.
Somalia currently has a population of 11.3 million. On average, women have 6.2 children. Infant mortality is 8 percent. Life expectancy is 55. Their population is projected to increase to 27 million by 2050, a doubling time of under 30 years. At this rate, in just 800 years there would be a Somali standing on every square foot of land area on Earth including Antarctica. In other words, there would be 1.5 trillion Somalis. Can human innovation accommodate this? Perhaps. With high-rise cities and colonies throughout the solar system, why not? But where does this end?
It has to end somewhere. Using Ehrlich’s approach, to visualize what a doubling time of 30 years means, and taking into account the average human body consumes two-cubic feet, within 3,000 years, there would be a solid ball of Somali flesh extending to just beyond the orbit of Jupiter, nearly a billion miles in diameter. In 5,000 years this cosmic flesh ball would exceed the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy. And within 10,000 years—a span of time that is neatly symmetric with recorded human history—there would be a solid ball of human protoplasm expanding at the speed of light in all directions, on track to absorb the entire known universe.
Japan’s shrinking population trends yield a sharp contrast. Japan currently has a population of 126.2 million. On average, women have 1.4 children. Infant mortality is 0.2 percent. Life expectancy is 84, the highest in the world. Japan’s population is projected to decline to 104 million by 2050.
Based on Japan’s projected population pyramid in 2050, where the population of Japanese aged 75-79 is expected to be more than twice as numerous as those under the age of five, Japan’s population will drop by 50 percent every 70 years. This means that in less than 2,000 years there will be only one Japanese person left in the world. And to extend the metaphor, in less than 5,000 years, what is left of the Japanese people will occupy the volume of one human ovum. The Japanese will disappear into nothingness.
How Japan Copes With Population Decline
These comparisons, while mathematically accurate, are hypothetical to the point of absurdity. But the consequences of these trends are relevant now. How these demographic realities are dealt with in the coming decades will, perhaps more than anything else, define the type of global civilization we leave our children and grandchildren. Examining the policy response by the Japanese to their population decline is useful since Japan is the only nation on earth with both a homogenous population and a strict policy against mass immigration.
The Japanese have countered their population decline by becoming world leaders in robotics. Their economy, while superficially considered weak due to the country’s debt and monetary deflation, is actually quite robust by other standards. Despite recent setbacks, the Japanese have a history of trade surpluses, meaning their debt is primarily held internally. And because their population is in slow decline, their housing and infrastructure spending is limited to maintenance and upgrades. Their productivity and innovation remain among the highest in the world.
Japan is pioneering an economic model that adapts to a stable, declining population. While this is not necessarily something all nations must accept, it offers important tips for the future. Moderate population growth probably can continue indefinitely, as humanity continues to urbanize and begins to harvest resources elsewhere in the solar system. What is unsustainable and unacceptable, however, is for human populations, anywhere, to continue to double every 30 years.
Somalia’s Population Continues to Explode
How Somalia’s population continues to increase at its current rate is instructive, since it applies more generally to dozens of much larger developing nations across mostly Africa and the Middle East. In the context of a GDP of $7.1 billion, Somalia has an annual trade deficit of $2.1 billion. They receive foreign aid equivalent to 27 percent of GDP, along with remittances sent from Somalis living overseas equivalent to 22 percent of GDP. Nearly half of all Somalis, 46 percent of the population, are “food insecure.”
According to the CIA, “Somalia scores very low for most humanitarian indicators, suffering from poor governance, protracted internal conflict, underdevelopment, economic decline, poverty, social and gender inequality, and environmental degradation. Despite civil war and famine raising its mortality rate, Somalia’s high fertility rate and large proportion of people of reproductive age maintain rapid population growth, with each generation being larger than the prior one. More than 60 percent of Somalia’s population is younger than 25, and the fertility rate is among the world’s highest at almost 6 children per woman—a rate that has decreased little since the 1970s.”
With rare exceptions, Somalia’s situation is mirrored across the continent. Africa’s population has exploded as a result of foreign aid in the form of medicine and food, without commensurate advancements in governance, infrastructure, the rule of law, advanced literacy, technical capacity, individual freedom and internal stability, or any of the other hallmarks of developed nations.
Africa is a welfare continent. In 1960, when most African nations achieved independence, the population of the entire continent was a mere 285 million. Today there are 1.3 billion Africans, and by 2050 Africa’s population is estimated to exceed 2.5 billion.
How Cultures are Altered by Foreign Aid and Welfare
Why the Japanese choose to reduce their population, and why the Somalis choose to increase their population so rapidly, cuts to the heart of cultural issues as much as economic ones. As median income rises, birth rates fall. In a nutshell, that explains the declining populations of developed nations.
But what if instead of affluence, guaranteed subsistence is offered? This describes the impact of foreign aid in Africa, and the result is a sustained population explosion. And as aid falters or is interrupted by war and instability, as the efficacy of aid becomes precarious in direct proportion to the additional hundreds of millions each decade who depend on it, the inevitable result is mass migrations. Which is equally problematic.
In developed nations, a comprehensive system of welfare awaits the migrant. This is completely unlike the challenge of indentured servitude, or at the least, freedom devoid of government assistance, which greeted immigrants to America prior to the 1960s. The result is predictable; a population explosion enabled by welfare, and an immigrant culture where entrepreneurial talent makes the logical choice to work in the informal economy to avoid losing the welfare benefits.
Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies, the incentives to perpetuate mass migrations are obvious. Immigrant communities that depend on government benefits will vote for Democrats. Somali immigrant Ilhan Omar, recently elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th district, adds to the far-left wing of congressional Democrats. Omar, along with far-left Democrat Keith Ellison who narrowly won election as Minnesota’s new attorney general, were elected with overwhelming support from Minnesota’s burgeoning Somali population. Similar patterns are observable from California to Texas to Florida, and everywhere in between. In America, immigrants from developing countries are turning red states blue, and they are turning blue states bluer.
Current Welfare and Foreign Aid policies are Unsustainable
None of this is sustainable. Socialism, whether through foreign aid to developing nations, or through more government benefits approved with the swing voters coming from developed nations, eventually collapses. Productive citizens, outvoted, overtaxed, and disenfranchised in their own nations, lose their incentives to work hard. This leads to several inevitable conclusions.
First, it is beyond the capacity of developed nations to accommodate ongoing migrations from the developing world. Just the increase in Africa’s population each decade exceeds the entire current population of the United States or Western Europe.
Second, current foreign aid policies are completely unsustainable, because they facilitate this population increase without improving any of the other “humanitarian indicators” that might lead to a cultural shift towards lower birth rates.
Third, while it is possible to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, the more people there are, the harder that gets. The environmental impact of Africa’s population quadrupling in the last 60 years, and doubling yet again in the next 30 years, is nothing short of catastrophic.
Solutions Exist, But They Won’t Be Easy
French President Emmanuel Macron has been refreshingly blunt about Africa’s challenges. Speaking in Lagos earlier this year, he said, “I am sorry; if you have seven or eight children per woman, even when economic growth is 5 percent, you will never end the fight against poverty. In Europe, centuries ago we had such large families, but ask the women today. If it is their free choice then I am fine but when this situation is due to forced marriage and no education, it is crazy.”
Paul Ehrlich devoted chapters of The Population Bomb to his ideas for how to lower population growth. None of them anticipated the fact that in developed nations, it turned out that affluence was all it took for birth rates to fall voluntarily. Ehrlich’s prescription for the developing world was harsh. He suggested “triage” where nations on a clear path to self-sufficiency would continue to receive food aid, and nations failing this test would have food aid eliminated. But despite its progressive brutality, Ehrlich was recognizing that foreign aid, just like welfare, is unsustainable when the ratio of payers to recipients is relentlessly narrowing.
What can be done?
One controversial idea that deserves development and discussion is the concept of international charter cities. This would involve a nation or coalition of nations being invited into, say, Mogadishu, to set up a zone administered by the visiting nations, subject to their laws and law enforcement. The resulting stability would encourage foreign investment. Over time, these charter cities could become charter regions, where it is conceivable that migrations could be reversed. For example, Somali expatriates, from St. Paul to Sweden, might welcome the chance to return to their homelands to live and work in an area where economic growth and political stability offer them a return to the land and culture they cherish, without sacrificing the safety they found abroad.
Another idea, equally controversial, would be to use foreign aid funds to instead co-invest with private partners in big infrastructure in Africa. For example, within the security of charter regions, constructing nuclear power plants. Or throughout Africa, to invest in economically beneficial infrastructure projects that violate some environmentalist wishes while fulfilling others. An example of such a tradeoff would be an aqueduct to divert water from the Ubangi River to Lake Chad. Just a small percentage of runoff from the mighty Ubangi would restore Lake Chad, enriching the economy and the ecosystems across the Sahel.
Industrializing Africa might actually save the environment, because with economic development, not only are smaller families a welcome consequence so is a cleaner environment. Another demonstrated result of prosperity is the voluntary migration of people from rural areas into cities. With urbanization, economic growth can reduce the footprint of humanity on Africa’s great wildernesses.
The course currently plotted for humanity is alarming. Mass migrations from the developing world will eventually turn developed nations into socialist police states with diminished economies and shattered dreams. Meanwhile, unchecked population growth in the developing world will create political, economic and environmental havoc. It is time for new approaches and clear thinking.
Photo Credit: Sosthene Kambibi/AFP/Getty Images