Plenty Mag’s excellent blog alerted me to this very cool population projection map that was produced by Population Action International. (See the full size here)
The first thing you notice when you look at that map is that some parts of the world, most notably Europe and Japan are in fact expected to *decline* in population while the usual showcases of overcrowding like China and India will continue their upward trend for some time. There’s no question that *more* population growth in a place like Bangledesh is a major problem that needs to be addresed, but what about that new phenomenon of population decline? Should we care?
In the case of the former USSR, unfortunately, the blue on the map is probably due to economic problems and resulting migration But In the case of the rest of Europe and Japan, I’m inclined to think of a slowly declining (or at least stable) population as a very good thing. It goes hand-in-hand with prosperity, women’s freedom, and the availability of family planning. It means there’s a little more space in an overcrowded world and more wealth to spread around.
Furthermore, most people can clearly see the problems that are associated with population growth. So why do so many people react with fear at the idea of a population drop?
I think the reason lies primarily in our obession with GDP as the end-all measure of economic success. With no other ways to measure economic progress, it’s hard to think outside the box. Why is “economic growth” so inexorably tied to population growth? (see my previous post on this). Many Economists can’t conceive of a world without the GDP growth that population brings. In the United States we’ve made population growth out to be some kind of competition, with “housing starts” being our most important economic indicator.
Then again – despite our 300 million people, the US is nowhere near as overpopulated as Bangladesh so people don’t really think about it much. But when is enough enough – especially considering our consumptive habits? The good news is that most indicators suggest that global population will stabilize by 2050 at around 10 Billion people. The bad news is that an unprecidented strain upon the world’s ecosystems and political/cultural systems awaits us.
So, what can be done to ease the strain? Without rambling endlessly about it, I propose three simple things: One – adoption of something other than the GDP as our primary indicator of progress – perhaps something like the “Genuine Progress Indicator” which though somewhat subjective, seems a whole lot better. Two – a general “Re-framing” of the of population growth as not necesarily being good or bad depending on why and where it’s happening. That, of course, may be more easily said than done.
Finally, and a bit more pragmaticaly, since shifting demographics mean far less political power for the US and Europe, it’s yet another reason for the “west” to make sizable economic investments in the developing world to ensure stability on all fronts. Not just sweatshops that produce cheap junk for Americans or infrastructure projects that keep nations in debt forever – but a new era of real, middle-class building, micro-lending, leapfrog technology investments that pay off for both parties. Aside from the obvious moral reasons, there are benefits to self interest that would satisfy even a neo-con.
I’ll do another post on that later! But if you have any ideas where to begin, please comment away!