Depopulation, not overpopulation will be one of the true crises of the century
Of the innumerable crises projected to dominate the 21st century, perhaps the most misguided warning has been about so-called “overpopulation,” the reality seems to be the exact opposite.
West Asian, Arab and Sub-Saharan states, though among the world’s poorest, have the most promising demographic future if they can achieve true economic independence and integration.
So much of modern life has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic that almost every change seems to have been blamed on it. A particularly interesting example came in 2020 when for the first time since modern records began; China saw a decline in its overall population, with the number of births outnumbered by deaths. The numbers were even more catastrophic in Russia, with over 900,000 excess deaths over the course of 2020 and similarly grim declines across Europe and North America. Even the United States is now seeing net population decline in 20 of its 51 states.
The dawning of this realisation has led to two misunderstandings. First, that this trend is any more than tangentially because of the pandemic and secondly, that population growth in these countries will ever return to “normal”.
Of the innumerable crises projected to dominate the 21st century, perhaps the most misguided warning has been about so-called “overpopulation,” wherein the planet’s carrying capacity of human beings will be so overwhelmed by our numbers that a Malthusian die-off of billions will be inevitable due to diminishing access to food, water and arable land.
In most states, this projection is simply the opposite of what the numbers show. All but 46 of the world’s countries and territories have population growth rates below the “replacement rate” (2.1) needed to maintain any given population level. Likewise, close to 40 states are seeing their overall population decline, including such geopolitical heavyweights as Russia, Germany and Japan. China, currently the world’s most populous state at 1.4 billion is just barely in positive territory.
Current projections have predicted that by the end of the century, China will have lost a staggering 50 per cent of its current population. Others brought forward this scenario to as soon as the middle of the century! The generations born before the introduction of the one-child policy are now retiring en-masse, leaving behind a workforce that will be a fraction of the size and burdened with the cost of supporting what is becoming the oldest national population in history. Such a demographic profile will bring with it profound economic challenges that will test the thesis of the “Chinese Century” to its limit. It is also unavoidable because, even though the one-child policy is now history and parents are being encouraged now to have upwards of two children per family, the nature of the problem is such that any change in policy has at least two decades before it takes effect, with newly born people finally entering the workforce.
Nor is this at all limited to China or the states of East Asia. The states of the former Soviet Union have seen catastrophic declines over the last three decades. By some accounts about half of the population of Turkmenistan now lives abroad, having migrated seeking better economic opportunities. Swathes of former European powers such as Spain, Italy and Germany are already effectively empty, their own populations having peaked half a century ago!
Trying to raise the birth-rate is a non-starter as has been stated. For the most severely affected states there is only one possible solution. In Europe and Russia, mass-immigration is the only option, and this would only serve to cancel out the decline, not to increase the population. Russia already has a vast pool of potential migrant labour in its former Central Asian underbelly. Already home to one of the largest migrant populations in the world, Russia will need to begin making itself as attractive as possible to millions more Central Asian citizens. If and when this decision is taken, Moscow will have to finally repudiate any notion of politically exploiting narrow ethnonationalist chauvinism, such as seems to be taking hold in Europe.
Those countries in the best long-term position, demographically speaking, are also the world’s poorest and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Greater Middle East and Africa. By 2050 nearly half of the 10 most populous countries are projected to be in Africa, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Egypt. By the end of the century, Nigeria is likely to be the world’s third most populated country, at over 400 million people.
As of 2021, the country with the fastest growing population is the Syrian Arab Republic, at over 5 percent annually. Other Arab heavyweights including Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and of course Egypt all stand in the ranks of the fastest growing populations on the planet. Unlike the countries of Europe, to which increasing numbers look for the hope of a better future, the region, like Africa south of the Sahara is among the most blessed in natural wealth of anywhere on earth. Rather than continuing to hold to the orthodoxy of economic liberalisation towards a rapidly weakening global system, should the countries of the region prioritize internal development, economic and even political unity, they could rapidly find themselves shaping the global order itself rather than being passively shaped by it.
Were these states be able to assert meaningful economic independence, develop their own internal markets, educate and employ their populations, the balance of global power in the second half of this century may look truly unrecognisable.