Framing Population Decline as a Good Omen

pop_map.gifPlenty 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!

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

4 responses

  1. Ok — I agree with you about needing a measure beyond the GDP, but in terms of the Q re:why so many people react with fear at the idea of a population drop — in some countries, this has to do at least in part with cultural identity.
    For ex, I was talkin’ to my mama about this (we’re Korean) and she felt some of the fear had to do with the fact that 1. S. Korea’s a v. small country that’s, in recent history, been at least politically conquored by other countries that did little to respect Korean culture, and 2. No other country (‘sides N. Korea, but I mean besides the 2 Koreas) speak Korean — so with a pop decline, that would mean even fewer people speaking Korean. There’s an active fear that Korean culture and language might get subsumed, obliterated, or at least watered down in many ways, including via a pop decrease.
    So esp. in nations that’ve placed undue (in my opinion) emphasis on bloodlines, declining pops do lead to some other, less-GDP related worries —

  2. The only other thing I’d mention is that fear of population decline/demographic shift has a strong racialist component in many quarters, particularly as regards the alleged “overbreeding” of Muslim populations. Right-wing commentators like Mark Steyn have forecast that Europe will be ruled under Sharia by 2025, and other demagogues have complained that “Islamofascists” are consciously attempting to outbreed “us.” Similar arguments are common among the anti-immigration extremists. The pedigree of this kind of rhetoric is fairly obvious, I think.

  3. You need only to look at the analogy of bacteria in a petri dish… sustainable growth is an oxymoron, as is probably sustainable development… the Earth will not survive a world-scale Western standard of living. Our growth paradigm is a fallacious one, a fact which we, and our ‘leaders’, conveniently ignore.
    Of course, it’s easy to just talk and do nothing…

  4. People have a good reason to fear of the population drop; it leads to a economical and social disaster. Not IT MAY LEAD, it LEADS, always. It’s because population decline which is due to low fertility causes aging of that population turning country into a gigantic senior home. The disease and death rates skyrocket while the poverty explodes following not some exotic link with pop growth but simply because productivity shrinks as 70-year worker can’t work as a 40-year one.
    This is not a theory statement. I’m in an Eastern Europe and this is happening. The rest of the continent don’t care much yet, but the fall will be rapid there too (at this moment it’s slight only because the process is at its very begining) and when their average inhabitant will be 60 years old they will!
    What’s the worst, the population decline is incredible hard to stop ones it occurs. For Eastern Europe, I’ll say it’s already beyond control and it will procced until population drop to zero. The developed Europe will probably somehow survive, but with much effort. Thus countries which are not hit with decline by now should do everything they could to prevent it!

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