There has been a lot of consternation lately about the leveling out and/or the decrease in populations in various countries, cities, etc. Those concerned worry that a population decrease will cause economic damage as there is less consumption and a smaller number of workers supporting a growing number of retired people. Most demographers think that by the end of this century humans will have largely decided the balance between quality and quantity of life.
Whatever this balance, it will be affected by population. Human population has been and will always be controlled by four forces: disease, starvation, war and political/individual choices. It is clear that as the population increases, disease, starvation and war are taking a growing toll on humans all over the world.
Because of increased population density, human mobility, humans spreading more and more into natural environments and human-caused global warming, diseases are spreading more widely. Both the coronavirus pandemic and the spread of tropical diseases into higher latitudes are examples. The pandemic likely started in a high-population-density area of China and, because of our high mobility, spread quickly around the world. The southern parts of the U.S. are now exposed to tropical diseases that were rare or nonexistent just a couple of decades ago.
Starvation is spreading as the rapidly warming planet creates weather changes that make growing crops more difficult, less predictable and thus more expensive. There is increased flooding in some places while increasing drought in others.
Climate change is also a major driver of migrations. In the northern half of Africa drought is leading many to migrate to Europe. Of the migrants trying to enter the U.S. thru Mexico, many are from storm-damaged areas of the “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador ) where two, likely global warming enhanced, hurricanes destroyed crops and homes leaving tens of thousands with little more than the clothes on their backs. Even the U.S. threat assessment lists climate change migration as a major threat to the U.S. and the stability of many countries.
A casual review of the news every night highlights the number of wars, rebellions, insurgencies, conflicts between countries, etc. going on in the world right now. These conflicts are often over water, land, resources and political power. But the conflicts over political power are usually a stalking horse for one of the other three.
Some argue that the U.S. does not have a population problem, but we do because, while we are only about 5% of the world population, we consume about 20% of the worlds resources. A world where the “standard” of living is like ours now is unsustainable. We are already pressing the upper limits of some resources and likely over reaching others (like water in the southwest of the U.S.). Already anyone trying to visit our five national parks in Utah will notice the crowding in popular areas.
As an increasing population is causing many demonstrable problems, what about the problems of a stable or decreasing population? Putting the issues about economic challenges aside for the moment, what would a world without increasing population look like?
Some places from around the world offer positive examples. In places like Japan, Germany and South Korea, where populations are relatively stable, we see potential examples. In Japan and several areas in Europe, wild animals have begun to move back into areas abandoned by humans. In South Korea, schools have opened their doors to education-seeking elderly adults as class rooms have become available. In Germany, towns that are losing population have razed housing developments to make room for parks, increasing both the monetary value and livability of these areas.
While the political/individual choices involved in the economic issues of less consumption and a shrinking workforce present formidable challenges, compared to the growing waves of disease, starvation and war, the choice is clear.
But, where we come out in the balance between quality of life and quantity of life will depend on the overall values that we bring to the table and the leaders we chose to follow.
David Hart, Torrey, has college majors in physics, sociology and psychology and master’s degrees in education and social work. He is a retired teacher and counselor and lives near Capitol Reef National Park.