New Demographic Transition: Is the Aging Global Population a Problem?

“The demographic transition” is a concept that has been around for decades, but has received declining interest as populations have changed. A half century ago, some social scientists suggested that it is the key to national development. Once a nation reached the economic “takeoff point,” it would experience both sustained economic growth and a slowing of population growth.

A good deal of data suggested that this model of development in the West might be replicable elsewhere. If a significant middle class is established and grows, people will have fewer children and population will gradually reach an equilibrium. But like so many theories, that seems to be sometimes true and sometimes not true.

What the western economic development theories ignored is the historical and contemporary processes of intercontinental exploitation of colonialism, then imperialism. The economic and military domination by Europe and North America short-circuited the development dynamic in the Global South. The industrially developed nations of the Global North have consistently extracted resources from the not so developed nations of the Global South.

The robust development of Europe and North America both depended upon and caused the underdevelopment of the Global South. So-called “developing” nations remained underdeveloped and dependent for revenue, usually from underpriced commodity sales and politically incurred debt, on the developed nations. The theory of economic takeoff falls apart under conditions of political and economic dependency that resulted from historical colonialism and modern imperialism.

Economic Growth Here, Population Growth There

Population growth and resource depletion have been problematic issues for a long time.[1] Several key issues come up and fade away generation after generation. Human populations have long influenced their environments. Sometimes too many people have strained local ecosystems to the extent that they can no longer provide the resources those people depend on for survival. Jared Diamond illustrates how this happened in several past societies in his now famous book, Collapse.[2]

World.Population passes 7 Billion
World Population passing 7 Billion

Despite world population approaching seven billion and evidence of resource depletion everywhere, the debate over how many humans the planet can support rages on. Proponents of the conventional theory of endless economic growth through technological and resource innovation don’t see population growth as a problem. The form of neo-classical economics that dominates business and government policies today requires endless economic growth to satisfy the demand for return on capital investment.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, see the damage that human populations inflict on ecosystems as a clear threat to the environments that humans depend on. This leads them to conclude that limits to growth[3] of both populations and economies must be achieved to avoid complete resource exhaustion and human devastation. Global warming and accelerating climate destabilization, along with the sixth mass extinction now underway, provide conclusive empirical evidence that the environmentalists are right.

But minds attached to economic interests are hard to change. Mainstream economists claim that human creativity and technological innovation can support growing populations indefinitely, if corporations are given enough tax breaks. The growing number of their opponents argue that at current levels of resource depletion we have already surpassed the capacity of earth’s ecosystems to sustain human life. Resource depletion is real; the evidence is clear. But the facts of physical limits to growth conflict with the ideology of endless economic growth, the presumed engine of all prosperity. This ideology dominates the thinking of most conventional economists and politicians. It is no more than collective magical thinking in the form of pseudo-science.

Another Demographic Transition

Despite having reached unprecedented numbers, population growth has slowed in some regions, notably China, Japan, and the U.S.A. The slowing of population growth means that as fewer babies are born and medical technology improves, a population grows older. That is, an increasing proportion of the population is old and a decreasing proportion of the population is young.

Under those conditions, a new demographic transition is underway. The “working age” population becomes a smaller portion of the total. This has an effect on the economy. The economic growth that is touted as necessary and inevitable requires more workers than are available. In the U.S. and Europe, that has meant immigration and all the social resentments and political turmoil that entails. In China, plenty of young rural poor are still available to fill the ranks of the urban industrial plants. In Japan, which has traditionally not welcomed immigrants in significant numbers, industrial growth has stagnated. This has made Japan a model for the fears of other industrial nations with dwindling supplies of workers.

Population patterns are not that difficult to project in the short run, but demographic trends over long periods are far less certain, both in numbers and in the complications for life on the planet resulting from changes in population composition and growth. If we hold to the myth of necessary endless economic growth, we will not find answers to our demographic dilemma. We will not consider the fact that our technological capacity for production does not require large numbers of workers anymore.

The problem is not that the industrial world has insufficient workers. It is that the economy is not organized in a way that recognizes that fewer workers should be needed with more efficient production. The extant economic system attempts to take up the slack of too many workers by expanding production. Part of that effort involves the creation of artificial wants to prop up consumer demand. The world over-produces, concentrates consumption in a decreasing segment of the total industrial population and leaves many in non-industrial regions without work.

The problem is not insufficient economic growth. The problem is not insufficient numbers of “working age” adults among industrial populations. Instead, the problem is a combination of over-production of artificial demand in industrial populations and the consequent overproduction of superfluous consumer products. Needed goods are under produced in non-industrial populations as their resources continue to be depleted by the extractive capital of the industrial nations. The result is an over-concentration of wealth and economic decisions in the world’s financial elites and the impoverishment of everyone else.

All this is leading to what Christian Parenti[4] calls a “catastrophic convergence” of global poverty, agricultural failures, resource wars, mass starvation and forced migration, and political upheaval with climate collapse. Each crisis interacts with the others, accelerating the headlong rush of humanity to join the sixth mass extinction.[5]

Ironically, the solution to all these converging crises is the same. A New Great Transformation of human institutions will be required to align economies with their ecological sources to attain human sustainability. That will be the most monumental task humanity has ever taken on. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the deepest levels of social order is the only way to restrain the carbon emissions that drive climate destabilization and amplify these crises. It is also the only hope to retain some semblance of civility in addressing humanity’s greatest crisis ever. The only alternative is chaos and collapse. The choice is very hard, but it is ours.

[1] The classic warning of excessive population growth came from Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971). Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s forecasts were premature, not having accounted for surges in industrial agriculture and other short term factors. It appears, however, that he will soon be right.

[2] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

[3] The first comprehensive modeling of resource depletion, population growth, and economic growth was published in Donella H. Meadows, The Limits to Growth (New York: Signet, 1972). The research and computer modeling were done at MIT, and sponsored by the Club of Rome. The original forecasts have been remarkably accurate nearly a half century later. See Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update (Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).

[4] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

[5] Elisabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Picador, 2015. See also the scientific assessment of the sixth extinction in Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H., Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

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