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Umbilical Ruminations

Goodbye Malthus

Adam Oxford
Adam Oxford

Fred Pearce’s Peoplequake was the book that woke me up to the idea that Malthusian fears of overpopulation may not be what they seem, and are generally tinged with anti-poor sentiment. There’s always too many of them, never too many of us, right?

A research report published in The Lancet has been doing the rounds this week, which may finally finish off the argument that people are inherently a problem for good. It counters official UN models that the world is heading for 10bn or more folks upon it with a prediction that global population will go into rapid decline after peaking just after mid-century. The trend is already well established: in the US, much of Europe and Japan, the birth rate is already well below the 2.1 children per woman required to keep populations stable. It’s what generally happens when women have equal access to education and employment. The Lancet report finds that the same shift in behaviour is happening in the rest of the world much faster than has been previously thought – and countries like Japan, Spain, Brazil and China are likely to see their populations drop by up to 50% by 2011.

One of the critical differences between The Lancet paper and previous population estimates is that the new model predicts sub-Saharan Africa hitting its peak earlier. Yes, there will still be a lot of people, but around three quarters of a billion fewer than the three billion predicted by the UN.

The irony is that those countries which have displayed xenophobic tendencies of late are going to become ever more reliant on African immigrants to do essential work and take care of their ageing populations. The danger is that Covid-19 may yet throw the world back off track: there are fears that many more girls than boys will not return to school after having their education disrupted by lockdowns, and as families seek to cut costs in the wake of the virus.

Adam Oxford
  • Adam Oxford is a freelance journalist, media consultant and civic tech enthusiast. He also works closely with startups developing solutions to access to justice problems.

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