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Zero Population Growth – A Forgotten Fear

Politics / Demographics Oct 21, 2013 - 01:13 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Government-friendly environment and development aid NGOs avoid this one like the plague: they never say the world is massively overpopulated and left that role for a few privileged hard line speakers - like Obama's chief science adviser John P. Holdren, guru ecologist Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome and its WorldShift Network, and a few others. Occasionally, reputed organizations like Britain's Royal Society joined in with arguments for ZPG, calling for a “radical rebalancing" of global consumption, to go hand-in-hand with linked and stronger attempts to curb the rapid rise of global population.

The problem for them is that population is not rapidly rising. As a percentage annual rate, its growth has fallen even lower than economic growth in most developed countries. World population is now growing at only just above 1% a year. And the rate is inexorably falling.

In some leading countries of real world ZPG, like Japan, the demographic cycle from growth to contraction has moved so far that it can be said that the national culture has mutated. Reporting on Japan, 20 October, the UK 'Observer' said:
“Japan's under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex. For their government, "celibacy syndrome" is part of a looming national catastrophe. Japan already has one of the world's lowest birth rates. Its population of 126 million, which has been shrinking for the past decade, is projected to plunge a further one-third by 2060”.

The 'Observer', based in one of Europe's few remaining nations of population growth  - mainly due to recent immigrants and not the indigenous-allogenic core population – could only say this was “partly the government's fault”.

In fact the trend to firstly lower birth rates followed by annual births outrun by death rates and population decline ensuing, is a global trend and process. In the late 1960s, the 1970s and early 1980s the world's population was growing at rates sometimes nudging 3% a year but since about 1985, the annual growth rate of world population has only fallen.  Demographers now predict that by 2035-2040 the growth rate will be 0.5% a year or less, and zero percent a year in a timeframe the subject of considerable debate, but at the very latest in the 2070s. Present scenarios from the UN PIN (population information network) and other sources set the “crossover” to zero net annual growth then decline of world population as happening before the 2060s.

This is about as big as a paradigm shift can get. Due to ageing and a concomitant rise of death rates, world total population will progressively stabilize, reaching ZPG and then move into net decline by at latest the 2065-2075 period. Under these newer scenarios taking account of aging and rapidly falling fertility/fecundity rates (number of children for each female person in her reproductive lifespan) on an almost worldwide basis, the world's population will trace a curve and by 2099 may be back to today's 7.1 billion. This will be reached after a peak not above 9 billion in the 2050s or 2060s.

As recently as year 2000, some demographers and ZPG fundamentalists like Ehrlich and Holdren could brandish forecasts of 14 or 15 billion for 2099 or before. The difference between these two forecasts – 14 or 15 billion at end century against a probable 7.1 billion – is the same or more than the world's total population today. The probable likely peak of world population this century, 9 billion, is around 5 billion less than the alarmists' forecast. World total population in 1987 was 5 billion!

The Royal Society's "People and the Planet" report of 2012 underlined the complex interactions of
population, resources and environment but was heavily influenced by the fundamentalists' call for
drastic action to combat “runaway growth” of the world's population. Its report of course asked the rhetorical question of what happens to the global economy, world food and water supplies and oil supplies when the world adds the equivalent of 1 new USA to the global population every 4 years?

It did not pose the question of what happens as we approach, and then move through “population crossover” which will be preceded by at least 3 straight decades, possibly 4 or 5 consecutive decades – 30 to 50 years – of the world's population aging every year?  For starters older persons consume less, are more conservative, migrate less, value thrift and savings, and so on.

The average age of the world's population will increase every year, from the very short term. This ageing will continue for decades on end. Apart from the most extreme-possible events such as one or even two world wars at least comparable to World War I and World War II in their demographic, economic and cultural-political impacts, or catastrophic events like the 16th century Black Death - which can “reset the demographic clock” - there can  be no remission or bounce back to strong and sustained growth of world population on a permanent annual basis.

Instead, the decline will be and will seem permanent. It can only change the world as we know it.


The ZPG alarmists always posed their “runaway growth” paradigm the same way that global warmists set a paradigm of constantly rising world average temperatures. When it doesn't happen, there is a “paradigm shock” and a slow or more rapid reappraisal. ZPG fundamentalists urged radical remedies, saying that the world's wealthiest people must rapidly cut their consumption to save the Earth from what the UK Royal Society called  "a vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills".

Economists however ignored these calls, saying that only more economic growth pushed by population growth can combat the “diseconomies of growth” - but their paradigm will also have to integrate the changing outlook for population. Most economic demographers like to pretend, or worse, they believe they have a total and perfect explanation of why the human population has for 250 years grown in a semi-exponential manner, seemingly shrugging off the impacts of world wars, regional wars, famines, epidemics, economic crises – and climate change.

The exact opposite of ZPG advocates, almost all economic demographers are “populationists' or natalists. They argue that governments must maintain population growth to ensure economic growth in the future.

As we know the complete opposite paradigm – control and limit population growth to favor economic growth – has been used with considerable success by governments with as wide-ranging ideologies as Singapore, the Peoples Republic of China and Iran since the 1960s and earlier. In all 3 cases the large success in curbing population growth came as a surprise to governments, but as we are finding out today, whether the economy is growing or shrinking, population growth rates are falling. They fall to ZPG, and then become negative, shifting to net annual decline of national populations.

In the regions and countries where this new paradigm is already installed, including most European countries, Russia, Japan, several “surprise countries” such as Bangladesh and Malaysia, and soon China, whatever sets of national demographic, economic and family policies are applied, the decline process beds in. It then becomes hard or impossible to switch back to national population growth.

Whatever its impacts on politics, society, lifestyles and culture, the demographic cycle will change the type and nature of economic systems and economic growth.

Like we know, ZPG fundamentalists, sustainable economy advocates and global warming alarmists often made the argument that high income earners and consumers need “additional planets” to supply their resources and absorb their pollutants, compared with smaller “planet needs” of poor persons, reflected by gauges as simple as their per capita oil demand and per capita CO2 emissions.

As we also know, the “planet growing business” has on-the-ground, real world effects as clear and simple as urban development and high rise building, which multiplies the habitable surface area many time above the actual physical ground area of the built environment. Developed as a single high rise urban area, the world's present total human population could be comfortably housed, if nothing else, on the Isle of Wight or Hong Kong.

Unnoticed, the multiple feedbacks from the demographic growth process – which are biological, biomedical, ecological, ethological, cultural, economic, social and political (among others) – are not all pro-growth, and can be individually limiting. They can and do finally converge to limit the growth process of human numbers. This is known, but demographers admit they are in the dark about why, exactly, human population growth rates have turned down since about 1985 and show every sign of continuing the process. Some of the farthest-out theories even try to include the SN1987 Supernova in the Large Magellanic Cluster, and of course global warming, among their explanations.

The inferred demographic cycles in the examples of say China and Singapore, versus India and Somalia, could be compared with economic growth and per capita wealth scores- which are far ahead in the case of slow-or-no population growth China and Singapore. But we also find that the majority of other countries moving into demographic transition made this change either without anti-natalist government policies, or in spite of government pro-natalist policies.

The new demographic cycle imposed itself and is now 27 years old.

Another major problem for demographers is what they call the “1750 breakout”.  From about that date – when London became the first city in the world to attain and then maintain 1 million population – population has only grown. Exact reasons for this breakout remain disputed, but in the 300 - 500 years preceding 1750 world population growth rarely exceeded 0.25% a year and was often negative, sometimes for a century or more, at very low annual rates.

The usual explanations, mostly from economic demographers, focus economic growth and the wealth effect combined with better public health, more food and better food. Few economic demographers go on to show a graph of human population, and a chart of stock exchange index growth together – because they are basically the same chart, but economic growth “as we knew it” was grounded in and due to population growth, reinforcing the argument that the economic growth paradigm will have to be heavily reappraised..

Due to spectacular cases of policy failure trying to restore population growth – for example in Russia, Germany and Singapore - alarm has quite rapidly replaced previous “no worry” political attitudes to declining population. Several EU countries, especially France and UK have maintained or increased pro-natalist policies and spending, which has mainly benefitted recent migrants – but they are now also trying to curb inward migration. Their action does not in any way change the continental-majority, national demographic trend across Europe in all nations with high levels of “indigenous allogenic” populations, not including sizeable numbers of recent migrants from Africa south of the Sahara, south Asia, and west Asia.

The majority European demographic trend is typically minus 0.25% per year population growth - that is a net decline of the total population at 0.25% a year.

In Russia, for specific reasons, the decline rate is much higher, at about 0.75% a year. Japan, with a similar very low level of migrants in its total population, is also declining at more than 0.5% a year. Germany, despite spending on family subsidies running at about 200 billion euros a year, is on track to lose another 15 – 18 million from its national population by the 2060s.

The mystery of the demographic cycle – lowered and then zero rates of growth, followed by decline, whatever the state of the economy and government family policies – applies with full force in nearly all Latin American nations, and in many Asian nations. Key examples include Argentina, Brazil, China, Russia, Japan, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia. In almost all cases, government policy initiatives to reduce family sizes and reduce national population growth, where they existed, have been “fast forwarded” and upstaged by actual rates of decline far surpassing official government targets. In spectacular cases like Singapore, its government admits that its “declinist policy” has been too successful and is now attempting to get Singaporeans to have more babies - but with an aging population this is proving difficult.

The disconnect between economic-demographic paradigms, and all or most other paradigms has become clear since the global 1985-event. This is shown by the previous permanent increase in annual population growth increments – the number of additional humans per year – replaced by an ever-decreasing annual increment. In the early 1980s the annual increment attained its ultimate peak of around 115 million a year, but is about 69 – 72 million a year today. The difference or “growth deficit” is equal to the 2013 national population total of countries such as Ukraine, Kenya or Argentina.

On both extremes, the natalist or populationist paradigm fails. Neither extreme high populations and-or extreme high rates of population growth favour economic growth, nor low populations and zero or negative population growth favour a growing economy. In other words very large and very small countries can be like any other -  that is rich, poor or neither, ie. “middle income”.

Attempts by economists – almost always populationist – to talk their way around this fact feature for example the USA and its role of “magnet for the world's poor and oppressed”, flocking to an “empty country”, supposedly favouring and accelerating US economic growth. Apart from so-called empty lands being in short supply today, what we find is that similar to the 1930s, many recent and present migrants to the US above all seek temporary employment or merely a way of finding enough to eat. Their interest in and willingness to adopt “the American ideal” is low or zero. Under current semi-permanent recession economic conditions, it could be argued that continuing large-scale immigration to the USA and Europe from mostly African and a declining number of Asian low-income countries is heavily counterproductive for a hypothetical economic rebound and recovery - for example due to age, educational and cultural barriers. This probability is often sidelined or rejected by painting it as a reactionary, fascist or xenophobic political theory.

Stepping back and looking at what adding another billion to the world's population every 13 years in the 1967-2007 period did is a sobering exercize - especially for the developing countries - where about 90% of the world's remaining population growth and over 75% of world migrants originate. The key demographic result was that population growth rates declined almost everywhere in that period.

The falling number of nearly-exclusively low income countries which are still nowhere near ZPG crossover will need to build the equivalent of one new city of a million people every week for several decades, as well as find ways to feed, educate and employ the new “population recruits or cohorts”. The previous paradigm of being able to make excess population “disappear” - through mass emigration, increasingly illegal – has become less able to be employed. The question now is how long it will take before the barriers to continued fast population growth force a demographic transition to ZPG, in the decreasing number of these countries which still have population growth rates above 2% a year, doubling their national populations about every 34 years.

Apart from ZPG anti-natalist policies, their only other choice is seeking economic aid from rich countries – which is declining – or encourage both legal and illegal migration out of their countries. The chances of that even being physically possible, let alone economically and politically possible in the target countries are low. This is getting to be openly admitted, whether its called 'fascist', or not.

For most of the past decade the ZPG alarmists could argue for a “perfect storm” of runaway population growth, peak oil, global warming, water and non-oil resource shortages and other doomster props to argue that people living in rich countries will get poorer and consume fewer natural resources - so that poorer nations will consume more. Taking a not so random indicator, India's current oil demand is around 1.3 barrels per capita each year, but the OECD average is 15. For India's 1200 million population to reach the present OECD average, its oil consumption would rise by about 44 million barrels per day, close to 1.5 times OPEC's total export supply.

The forecast is simple but the Indian future oil demand number is only theoretical. Of course.

Indians at home are unlikely to attain the OECD average, which itself is falling, but by emigrating to an OECD country, they can. The 2012 UK Royal Society report argued for a "decoupling" of economic activity from all the natural resources of the planet, but it did not duck the fact that expanding the availability of contraceptives to the world's poorest people will not on its own solve many or most of the acute problems caused by present world population distribution, economic and social models, an often depleted natural environment, and inefficient technologies.

To be sure, the Royal Society claimed that the gauge of resource availability-per-capita for the world's population has been falling fast, but it did not integrate the reality of world demographic transition since 1985, nor the massive investments made in resource supply capacity in 2000-2007, before the 2008 crisis and the onset of much lower trend rates of economic growth.

The claimed “no brainer” of forcing the sustainable economy model and a social model with a more egalitarian pattern of consumption is less no-alternative due to the global demographic transition that has installed itself – not by government policy or design. In any case, arguments for more resource-efficient and energy-efficient economic activity do not need the prop of “runaway” population growth.

World population growth now has only a few remaining bastions – but some of them are large, like India. In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi heard the ZPG alarmists call and launched a drive to cleanse Delhi of slums and force residents to leave the capital city. Sanjay ordered the Delhi Development Authority to clear the heavily populated, mostly Muslim slums near Turkman Gate and Jama Masjid in Delhi. The forced resettlement of more than 250 000 people, and forced vasectomies and sterilisations led to a disputed number of associated killings. The real end to Sanjay and his brother Rajiv's political hopes, and another reason Rajiv was assassinated was their wrongheaded, violent and totally ineffective family planning program to limit population growth. 

The program led to long-term public aversion to family planning in India, but other methods work and do not need forcible sterilization. One of these “methods” is the continued and increasingly worldwide trend of declining rates of population growth – that was not set as government policy goals except in a few countries, and was deliberately opposed by “natalist” or “poulationist” family policies in a large majority of countries. The simple fact we are now seeing so many governments attempting to reverse the natural trend to ZPG, and then population decline, proves that the decline is real!

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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