The Global Population is About to Collapse

One of the most hyperbolic, over-reactionary, and ultimately wrong fixations of the last several decades has been the academic preoccupation with the risks of overpopulation. I’ll counter with my own radical contention that the reverse – underpopulation – may soon transform our planet for the worse.

Many of us marvel at the radical improvements to life over the last several centuries. It’s true that over the last few-hundred years life has improved in nearly way. Global absolute poverty in raw statistical terms has been nearly eradicated, and improvements in per capita standard of living are represented in radical advancements in nearly every field, from information technology to medicine to rapid access to goods and services never seen before in human history.

While these advancements owe in large part to the many things credited for their causation – the spread of free markets, the propagation of the liberal order, the improved understanding of human health, access to cheap fossil fuel resources, and the cultivation and democratization of physical and financial infrastructure – these advancements fundamentally are largely the downstream impact from a prevailing overarching factor that has defined the last few centuries: a nearly undending era of unimpeded and exponential population growth that has precipitated urbanization, industrialization, and economic growth as a byproduct.

Consider how this works: In 1940 the global population was around 2 billion, and has since exploded to around 8 billion, a growth rate of around 1.62 percent per year in that timespan. Countries like the US saw a large share of this growth within their borders, including a doubling of our population since 1970. This growth has been accompanied by urbanization and the shift from predominately agricultural and blue collar economies to white collar ones, with rising per capita incomes as the economic division of labor expands across a larger labor pool. Even as population growth has slowed in the US the country has benefitted from the fact that other countries are still growing, increasingly allowing us to leverage the still cheap labor standards of those growing countries to enrich ourselves.

The US has urbanized from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy in the 1800s to a largely white collar economy today. And now the rest of the world is following suit. The global urban population has expanded from around 700 million in 1950 to around 5 billion today, a rate of increase of 2.54 percent per year. The global economy has grown downstream from the wealthiest countries, rising per capita at a rate of around six percent per year. Per capita GDP has grown from $445 person globally in 1950 to around $11,000 today. This growth in economic output has been fueled by population growth and urbanization, fueled by access to expanding population as a resource for production internationally.

While that growth pipeline has been good to the world’s population overall, it is quickly drying up. The global population’s growth is slowing down. Many large industrialized nations already have negative birth rates, and many others are soon to follow. Their economies have hung on because for now other countries are still growing, meaning that pool of labor and immigration is still there, but it won’t be for much longer. Continuing urbanization is shrinking the pool of cheap labor around the world as a percentage of the overall population, and that labor pool is starting to disappear. Eventually, as global population growth dries up and urbanization continues, the era of cheap labor will end.

There are places where population loss is already felt palpably. These include cities like Detroit and St. Louis, where population loss has left large portions of those cities vacant and struggling to balance resources, a sort of “ruin porn” that for now is but an anomaly to the country at large. Other cities like San Francisco and Washington, DC have thrived, but largely on the back of imported growth stemming from the global population growth formula. Soon they too will struggle to see continued growth. Not long form now, the struggles of Detroit and St. Louis may be more the norm than isolated cases.

Population collapse is coming, like it or not. Even if we wanted to, it will be hard to reverse. The dynamics of the global economy have made it a near inevitability by now. Efforts to reverse it through policy will be so difficult as to perhaps be prohibitive. And this is all compounded by the fact that globally sperm counts are plummeting at the same time that people are waiting longer to have kids and having fewer of them.

Many people have predicted a dire world when the era of cheap oil comes to an end. The era of the era of cheap labor will be even more dire. Imagine a world in which everywhere feels like Detroit, in which growth, rather than shrinkage, is the anomaly, and in which nobody knows how to get out of a spiral of shrinking economies and shrinking populations. Welcome to our new reality.