Demographers have a different kind of catastrophe to worry about
This week saw the unsurprising news that Japan’s population has fallen again. A sombre Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told the nation that there are now 556,000 fewer people in the country, a twelfth consecutive decline, and a record fall offset only by an influx of 175,000 immigrants in 2022.
For the world’s third largest economy, the declining population is now being treated as a national emergency. Japan is now “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told his countrymen earlier this year. The leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic party now regards “child rearing” as one of the country’s most important economic policies.
Japan’s experience may well be a warning to the rest of the world. Since the pandemic, falling birthrates alongside ageing populations have been the top line in global development. Last year, the UN reported the lowest population growth since 1950. Europe, North America and China are now all facing a future of declining and ageing populations. By 2030, one billion of the world’s population will be aged over 65. There are even signs that population growth may be slowing in Africa.
Perhaps the most surprising voice to join the depopulation doomsters is the Club of Rome. Its infamous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, cheerily argued that “the basic behaviour mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.” Now, the think tank appears to have had a change of heart.
In its latest report in partnership with Earth4All, the neo-Malthusian organisation is now predicting that the global population growth will plateau around 2050 with a decline in total numbers of up to 2 billion by the end of the century.
The report still stresses the problems of resource scarcity, global warming and social tension; however, in both of its scenarios, it predicts that population growth will largely fall across all continents between 2040-2060. The report even confesses that on “existing policies”, limiting the planet to nine billion by 2046 will “not result in an overt ecological or total climate collapse”.
Half a century on from the apocalyptic 1972 report, it’s now clear the alarmism about overpopulation was wrong. Despite this, its legacy persists. David Attenborough has toyed with the idea of overpopulation and saving the planet in his films. There is also evidence that younger generations associate not having children with a similar endeavour. Even Greenpeace has issued an edict on the subject, warning its members not to dabble with the overpopulation argument, and describing Paul Ehrlich’s influential 1968 book The Population Bomb as a “racist narrative”.
It now seems this bomb isn’t quite going to go off as predicted. But, as seen in Japan, this brings an entirely new host of problems. Conservative demographers such as Paul Morland and Philip Longman have argued for the economic and social catastrophes of declining birth rates combined with an ageing population, a debate that is yet to really penetrate the mainstream.
In an ever-widening field of apocalyptic worries, from climate change to the threat of AI, the problem of global depopulation is starting to sneak up. Soon, the eyes of the world may well be on Tokyo’s push for more babies.