‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.
Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’
World PopulationThe global population size today is heading towards eight billion – not with one born every minute, but with 250. World population is rising by 9,000 every hour, 200,000 per day, 75 million per year – a whole United Kingdom added every year.
The UN has made predictions for population growth for the 21st century, hedging its bets at a peak at somewhere between 8.7 and 17 billion. The huge variation in the lower and higher figures shows how dramatically future family sizes will affect the ultimate peak population size. There is built in global population growth momentum for the next few decades due to a low average age average in some (mainly African) countries, with birth rates due to increase as the large younger generation reaches child-bearing age. With proactive policies aiming to reduce birth rates, the lower projections are achievable.
World population size is growing at a rate of around 1.1 per cent per year, with small annual decreases in the rate. Although the growth rate is decreasing, the increase in actual numbers remains high, as the total population size has also risen. The annual growth rate peaked at over 2 per cent in the late 1960s and average family sizes have very gradually dropped every year since then. Half of the world’s people now live in countries where the average number of children per woman is below 2.1. However, 43 per cent of people live in countries where that figure is between 2.1 and 5 children. The main area of rapid growth is sub-Saharan Africa, with growth also continuing in the Middle East, Central and Southern America, India, the Far East and Australasia. Europe, China and Russia have stable and slightly declining populations.
Fig 2. World population projections. (Source: UN Desa/Population Division, 2017)
The graph above shows the huge differences that are possible in future population figures, depending on the number of births per woman. A small decrease in birth rates has an immense and accumulated impact over time.
Population is easier to measure than consumption as it only involves counting the number of human beings. It is far from a uniform process across the planet, though: the way it is changing and continues to change around the world has some interesting aspects. The picture of current population projections seems straightforward at first, but there are many factors to consider. As population growth continues in countries with high birth rates, migration helps to take pressure off densely populated areas. Humans naturally move to a different place where incomes are higher, with more options to prosper and multiply, but as migration continues, so the population density increases too, adding pressure to natural resources.
A simple demonstration of the impacts of varying family size can be shown by taking scenarios of three small communities from the same starting point on a fixed area of land: community A has a two-child average, B a four-child average and C a one-child average.
Community A’s average family size is two. There is stability with everyone happy as things are passed on to the next generation as they were before, with no net gain or loss.
Community B’s average family size is four. This increases exponentially in size and so rapidly decreases the land area per person and their corresponding wealth per person. The community is rapidly plunged into poverty.
Community C’s average family size of just one child doubles the land size available per person, doubling their land and natural wealth per person with each generation. Obviously, this exponential decrease soon ends with zero numbers after a certain number of generations, but once the community is happy with more wealth and land than they know what to do with, they can switch to a Community A scenario.
Fig 3. Global birth rates per woman 2016. (Source: CIA World Factbook)
Lies, Damned Lies and StatisticsAs with all statistics, it is easy to pick and choose certain figures and ignore others in order to dispel worries about human population growth. For example, it is a fact that birth rates have slowed dramatically over the last 50 years. They now stand at an average of slightly above the replacement rate and are predicted to decrease further. It is also true that many developed nations, such as Japan and Germany, are seeing a decline in population, and that decline is expected to continue.
Global population growth is slowing and will almost certainly peak sometime this century, which is positive. However, because we know numbers are projected to gradually stabilise, the statistics are treated with complacency, as if they are set in stone and there is nothing we should do about it. What is not being taken into account is that there has already been an exponential growth in our numbers, leading to the current unsustainable number – and it has not yet peaked. Total population is at an unprecedented high in human history, and numbers are set to increase for several decades to come. The future population is not fixed and there are many factors in our power to significantly influence where we end up.
The global figures hide complexities and factors about our changing numbers that can be reassuring or frightening depending on how they are presented. Many predictions have been made – so should we be worried about an unsustainable eight billion people, or do we have nothing to worry about, as it is a temporary blip that will sort itself out in a few generations?
We can sit back and not worry about it and hope that the forecasts are right and population will decrease reasonably quickly so the planet’s resources aren’t completely used up. Or we can take a proactive view, recognise the threat multiplier of overpopulation and encourage the population to stabilise and then decrease more quickly to give ourselves and the planet a chance to recover from our over-exploitation as soon as possible.
Simply hoping that things will turn out fine is the easy, but dangerously irresponsible, path to take. Hoping things will be fine won’t save us from some of the increasingly reported apocalyptic scenarios, so we should aim to avoid them. No official population predictions take into account the effects of climate breakdown, resource loss, war or famine. The predictions may be higher than the actual numbers we see in the future. Do we want to see numbers stabilise and decrease through the benign human influence of family planning, or through wars and famine?
International DisparitiesLooking at world population as a whole is misleading, as it doesn’t show the bigger picture and the huge variations between countries. By looking at countries and continents individually we can get a much better understanding of how population growth and decline varies throughout the world. Countries around the world are governed in very different ways, with varied policies on economics and often no policy at all on population. A successfully implemented population policy can influence a country’s success massively. Over the longer term, it has far more beneficial effects than standard economic policies. Unfortunately, today some countries are seeing their populations heading for their first ever reduction, which governments mistakenly see as negative and as a threat to economic growth. It is seen as something to be rectified. They try to encourage higher birth rates, whereas they should be grateful that their population levels will fall, ultimately to provide a far better life for most.
Many countries are experiencing fertility reversals for the first time, including Costa Rica, Cuba, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Georgia, Singapore, Japan, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Andorra, Greece, Slovenia and Morocco. Many of these falls are happening as quickly as they happened in China, but without the controversial one-child policy. The fact that population as a whole is still increasing so rapidly, despite many countries having a steady or declining population, shows the extent of high population size, young demographics and high birth rates in some countries.
A growing number of countries have governments that are alarmed because they have populations that are reducing. Analyses are made that show the economic benefits of a growing population, while ignoring the benefits of a smaller population. There is a widespread myopia of the realities of overpopulation, which goes to the heart of policy-making. Over 25 countries, including Singapore, Germany, France, Austria, Chile and South Korea, have population growth policies offering people financial incentives to have children.
Russia’s population fell following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It now has a 500 billion rouble (£6.3 billion) scheme to boost its slowing birth rate. President Putin has declared that he will introduce a monthly allowance for families, payable for 18 months following the birth of their first child, together with mortgage relief.
Governments and policy-makers are blind to the many benefits of a smaller population. They ignore the fact that age imbalance is a temporary and inevitable final stage of the demographic transition towards a new, lower equilibrium.
The graph below gives the clearest picture of projected population growth per continent and shows the large disparities between continents. Future population changes will most dramatically affect Asia and Africa, with Asia being ahead of the demographic curve and possibly peaking as early as 2030. Africa is expected to continue its climb until 2100 at the earliest.
Fig 4. Continental population projections. (Raftery, 2014)
Human numbers by themselves only tell half of the story. It is the impact per person that counts regarding climate breakdown and resource depletion. By combining the two factors, the graph below illustrates this with the relative impacts of both consumption and population growth per country.
Fig 5. Annual absolute energy demand added as a result of population growth, as a function of the number of people added per year. (Murphy, 2013)
This graph gives the truest picture of the countries with the most impact in relation to population. It clearly shows the countries with the most damaging effects: the United States is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of energy use increase. China, despite its reduced population growth, is the number two energy user. India is not far behind and catching up due to its still rapidly increasing population and consumption. The other named countries are all steadily increasing in both their consumption and population.
Taking a closer look at countries within continents, we can see how differences in cultures, policies and histories result in a wide range of population and consumption outcomes.
Europe and the Middle EastEurope as a whole has a stable and relatively small population but with a high per-person rate of consumption. Population is set to gradually plateau and decrease through the 21st century.
The UK is a crowded, workaholic economy, enduring a constant battle to keep things ticking along. No UK government has dedicated any resources to directly addressing population since 1973’sPopulation Panel appointed by then prime minister Ted Heath, who said at the time: ‘Britain must face the fact that its population cannot go on increasing indefinitely.’
The panel’s report concluded that Britain would do better with a stable population, although no direct measures were implemented other than the promotion of family planning to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Since then, the UK’s population has risen by nearly 10 million to just over 65 million. It is projected to increase by another 10 million by 2026 (ONS).
All past projections of UK populations have been revised upwards. As recently as 1994, the UK’s projections expected the population to peak at around 60 million by 2010. Today, growth is projected to increase throughout most of the 21st century to over 80 million. Although this is a relatively small increase compared to some countries, personal UK consumption levels are over 20 times those of some developing countries, which means a 10 million UK increase is equivalent to a 200 million increase in a developing country.
The governmental mind-set of the UK is driven by one thing: the economy. The whole system is governed by this one overriding factor, with no regard to living standards or wildlife. It is grudgingly accepted, as if this were the only path we can take and people’s lives and well-being are governed only by their salary.
Fig 6. Dare To Be Different, by Guillermo Mordillo
The evidence of an overcrowded UK is all around for those of us living here, though population is the factor never mentioned as the cause. With schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure all needing funding, the country is forced to exploit everything it can, and to hell with the environment and personal well-being. Government debt cannot be repaid and families are in debt through credit cards, loans and mortgages. House prices are high and the roads, especially in the south-east, are full.
A trip to the seaside on a sunny weekend used to be a great day out. Today you are greeted by a three-mile queue of virtually stationary traffic as tens of thousands of other people have the same idea.
As the UK’s population grows, pressure for housing grows. UK house prices increase beyond the reach of first-time buyers as wages stagnate, creating a generation of renters who see no chance of buying a property in the way their parents did. Food production is intensive and unnatural, with millions of chickens reared and slaughtered every week in giant indoor farms across the country, fed on imported food supplies. The UK cannot feed itself and imports an ever-increasing amount of food, including strawberries and raspberries in the middle of winter from countries such as Peru. The UK is an island surrounded by ocean and yet fish is increasingly farmed and the UK is a net importer of fish. (FAO, 2016)
We become more and more accustomed to these unnatural and unsustainable food importation practices, but the outcry if, and when, sources of food dry up will be immense for a country hooked on cheap food. The older generation, who can remember a time when bananas were not seen in supermarkets, lives alongside a generation that does not know that strawberries only grow in the summer. A large proportion of the UK’s city dwellers rarely visit the countryside and visitors from different cultures see the way of life in the UK as industrial and removed from nature.
Education and prospects are another factor influencing population growth. Some British girls with an under-average education and looming unemployment or low-paid work can see a way out through having children. They have not been inspired to achieve more with their lives, through no fault of their own, and naturally use the system for their own benefit. By having a child you will go straight to the top of the council housing waiting list and you will be given housing because of your needs. Of course this should happen, as every child should be given a home and a secure future, but it causes resentment from so-called ‘hard-working people’ who have to struggle to pay their mortgage or rent.
The whole system is weighed down with the burden of a population that is too large, like an overloaded bus crammed with people barely making it along the road. Simple changes in policy to encourage smaller families, rather than policies that incentivise child-bearing, would ultimately benefit everyone.
At the other end of the scale, wealthy British families are also bucking the trend and having larger than average families. With no concern about the amount of resources they consume, or any concern for environmental impact, large families are seen as something to aspire to. With highly paid jobs, these families can afford every indulgence for their children, with large houses, multiple holidays per year, private education and consumption far beyond the average. These are all perceived as quite normal and something to be proud of.
In the late 1980s Iran introduced one of the most progressive family-planning programs the world has ever seen. In 1986, when the population was 49 million, women averaged six children and the annual population growth rate was 3.2 per cent. The government faced the prospect of the population doubling in just 20 years, posing immense challenges for food security, education and jobs. Tehran wisely adopted explicit demographic goals to slow the growth.
To support the initiative, the government deployed print media, TV, radio and pre-marriage counselling to educate the public about population growth. Family planning was encouraged to reduce poverty and enhance access to health and education for future generations. The status of women was boosted extensively, as secondary education was opened up to females and university enrolment for women soared. The results were dramatic. The government’s goals were so successful they were accomplished by 1993, 16 years ahead of schedule.
The changes made to women’s rights gave them an unprecedented opportunity to change Iran’s male-dominated society. With more control over their bodies Iranian women began marrying later, and waiting longer before having their first child. During those childfree years they were able to further their education, which they did in their thousands, with women making up the majority of all university admissions by 2006.
Iran was given the United Nations Population Award in 2001 in recognition of their accomplishment.
Unfortunately the policy was too successful, which has led to the family-planning program being rolled back in recent years. Realizing that a very low birth rate would result in a decline in the country’s overall population, and could then in turn lead to future economic hardship, the regime decided it was time for a U-turn in policy. In August of 2012, the Ahmadinejad regime announced that they were shutting down the entire family planning program.
Ayatollah Mohammad Ghazvini appeared on national television to announce that the government goal was to grow the birth rate to at least five children per family, saying ‘So tonight...start the operation of having 5, 8, 12, and 14 children. Which, God willing, will be a big slap in the face…. to this nasty one-child culture.’ The change in policy drew criticism from Amnesty International in 2015 for threatening to turn women into ‘baby-making machines’ (Amnesty International, 2015)
The good news is that so far these policies don’t appear to be working, for several reasons: couples aren’t having large families because they simply can’t afford to; Iranian women have grown accustomed to control over their own family-planning decisions, and women expect to have equal access to education. Today, Iranian women are empowered to decide for themselves when and if they wish to have children and will not sit silently by while the hard-won rights they’ve secured are threatened.
Today, Iran’s fertility rate is a still low 1.65 children; population is expected to peak in mid-century at 92 million and to then gradually decrease to 70 million by 2100.
United StatesThe United States has by far the greatest, and still increasing, impact of any country in the world: it has the highest consumption per person (of large countries) and a simultaneously large and growing population. The US population has increased from five million to over 320 million in just two centuries. To borrow the words of Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune: ‘The arsonist is now in charge of the fire department, and he seems happy to let the climate crisis burn out of control.’
As the world’s single biggest consumer and polluter, any positive population policy change made by the US would have a more beneficial impact on slowing climate breakdown than that of any other country. The United States has a fertility rate just below replacement level, with good access to contraception (this is despite the US religious right making it very difficult for people to get contraception and/or abortion) giving families the choice of the number of children they have. The US population still rises, however, due to the added effect of immigration.
The US is a country of widening political and ethical extremes in opinion, which appears more stable than it actually is. Despite being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, it also has a large and vociferous hard core of climate deniers, making any population discussion very tricky. Ironically, President Trump vowed to tackle the growing population, but his reasons were based on self-centred economics, not on climate-based concerns of consumption and overpopulation.
There were aims to stabilise the US population by the 1990s, as with NSSM 200, but no action was taken and the US population is set to grow for decades to come. It is generally accepted as inevitable, even by prominent environmental campaigners such as Al Gore. In Gore’s ground-breaking book and film on climate breakdown, An Inconvenient Truth, he mentioned population growth as a factor influencing climate, but such is the stigma attached to discussing population that he did not mention any of the benefits or methods of achieving population stabilisation, instead focusing on techno-fixes such as solar power.
Some statistics on United States population and their effects:
- Over 40 per cent of the groundwater in the US is contaminated by industrial, agricultural and household pollution, making it extremely difficult and costly to purify.
- Americans make up only 5 per cent of the world’s population, yet consume 25 per cent of the world’s resources.
- Six million acres of prime farmland were lost in the United States between 1982 and 1992. Four of those six million acres were lost to urban and suburban expansion. The other two million acres were lost through erosion caused by deforestation, unsustainable farming practices and animal over-grazing.
- The number of people living in 58 US metropolitan areas rose 80 per cent between 1950 and 1990, and the land covered by those areas expanded by 305 per cent.
- If everyone on Earth lived like the average North American, it would require four more Earths to provide all the material and energy required.
- The US population is growing by over two million people per year, about half from new births and half from immigration.
- With a population of over 320 million and each consuming more than 20 times that of the average African, the United States consumes five times as much as the entire continent of Africa
There are no signs that the US will take a lead in talking about population; it can’t even bring many of its people to accept climate breakdown. It may well continue with its current denial, in-fighting and self-interest. The US certainly is not immune to the effects of climate breakdown; indeed, they are becoming more and more evident, with increased wildfires in the west and Atlantic hurricanes in the east.
If there is one country that should aim to stabilise its population as fast as possible, it is the United States of America.
AfricaAfrica’s population is projected to grow far faster than any other continent in the coming decades, with the UN predicting that over half of the world’s population growth to 2050 will be in Africa. In 1980, Africa’s population was below 500 million; today, it is over 1.3 billion. It is expected to double again to over 2.6 billion by 2050 – that’s more than the entire world population of 1960. Looking further into the future, UN projections show Africa’s population is estimated to peak somewhere between 3.5 and 5 billion by 2100. With a low per capita consumption rate, the focus in Africa is on the dangers of population growth.
While this ongoing and unprecedented growth continues unabated, there are potentially devastating consequences for both people and wildlife. The fertility declines found in many other parts of the world are not happening nearly as fast as was expected in large parts of Africa. Fertility rates have been revised upwards in recent years and are now forecast to level off at around 4.6 children per woman instead of continuing to decline. Consequently, world population figures may be as high as 12 billion by 2100. 29 of the 31 countries where the average woman has more than five children are in Africa (the remaining two are Afghanistan and Timor-Leste). With a very young age demographic, more women are of childbearing age today than ever before in history.
The reasons why Africa should reduce its population growth as rapidly as possible are different to those of the US, but no less urgent. Africa’s dilemma is not overconsumption per person, as is the case with the United States and the rest of the developed world, but the direct impacts of overpopulation. As a less developed continent, with less infrastructure and fewer financial resources, Africa’s potential threats are more existential in terms of the direct impact on the population. Africa is unique in its low per capita consumption and income. Any crisis resulting in a lack of food has a much greater impact on the people themselves, as there is little money available to import food from elsewhere, as most other countries would. As Africa’s population grows faster than the production of food and resources, the likelihood of large-scale famine, war and disease increases. It is in Africa’s own interest to put family planning and education at the top of the agenda and for the rest of the world to fully assist in this aim.
The Ethiopian famine of 1984 took the lives of over 400,000 people, and the horrific pictures of starving children were broadcast across the world. This resulted in Bob Geldof and others organising the Live Aid, concert with the song ‘Feed the World’ being played across the globe. Live Aid was watched by almost two billion people worldwide. The global public’s donations did have an impact, yet the aid and assistance provided had only partial success because of difficulties with food distribution and political instability.
The famine was a tragic event, but since 1984 the population of Ethiopia has continued to increase. Today’s fertility and education figures show how little has been achieved to fundamentally aid the people of Ethiopia and help it become sustainably self-sufficient in the long term. The statistics show the prospects of Ethiopia in the coming decades are not promising: the fertility rate today is 4.6, with a contraceptive prevalence rate of only 36 per cent. Secondary school enrolment is low, with boys at 18 per cent and girls only 11 per cent. 10–24-year-olds make up 35 per cent of the population, so a high birth rate is built in due to a young demographic.
The numbers tell the story themselves:
In 1950, Ethiopia’s population was under 15 million.
By 1985, the population had almost tripled to 41 million.
Ethiopia’s population is now over 100 million.
Within the next 40 years it is predicted to double again to over 200 million.
Nigeria is at the heart of population growth in Africa, with a dangerously unsustainable increase taking place.
In 1950, Nigeria’s population was 38 million.
By 2006, it was the ninth most populous country in the world, with 146 million people.
In 2018, it had risen to the fourth most populous, with 198 million people.
Forecasts are predicting 300–500 million people by 2050.
This will make it the third most populous country in the world, surpassing the United States (despite the rapid US increase), leaving it behind only the population giants of China and India.
Nigeria has a fast-growing, oil-based economy with millions of jobs created, but population growth has been even faster. Poverty reduction has not taken place for the majority, and more than two-thirds of people live on less than $1.25 per day. Nigeria ranks 152 out of 186 countries in the 2015 United Nations Human Development Index (UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME, 2015) and a Gallup poll published in 2013 found that just 9 per cent of Nigerians work full-time for an employer.
Nigeria’s population is projected to reach an unprecedented 750 million by 2100. Add to this the gradual decline in oil revenues as the world switches to renewables and this has the potential to cause a humanitarian disaster on a scale that dwarfs anything ever seen before. Given the world’s full awareness of these facts, there does not appear to be any action being taken to avert this looming catastrophe.
India and China
The two most populous countries in the world, India and China, have put themselves on different population trajectories.
Fig 7. India and China Population projections. (Source: UN Population Division)
The graph shows the effect of China’s one-child policy in slowing China’s population growth: China’s population will peak 30 years before India’s. India’s population is 1.3 billion, growing by 15 million per year, and is set to supersede that of China’s, becoming the most populous country the world has ever seen by 2024.
As with most countries, India’s fertility rate has decreased substantially, from 5.7 in 1966 to 2.4 today, but it is still above replacement level and the population is projected to carry on growing until 2060. India’s booming population is severely and increasingly polluting the environment in ways never seen before. To take just one example, the Ganges receives trillions of gallons of untreated sewage, industrial waste, chemicals and millions of pieces of plastic that constantly flow into the ocean. This has created a 20,000-square-mile dead zone at the mouth of the Ganges, spreading pollution across the Indian Ocean.
If you ask anyone about Chinese population, the first thing they will mention is the infamous one-child policy, which has given China, and population policies in general, a bad name. The policy was introduced across China in 1979 in order to reduce the growth rate of the country’s enormous population. Since it was introduced, Western media has consistently maligned the policy, reporting on it negatively, and not recognising it as being a difficult but necessary choice. China has taken media insults on the chin and continued with the program. Given the history of China, with the great famine of 1959–61 that killed over 20 million people, a population policy was a perfectly reasonable solution to help the situation. The policy may have been draconian in its implementation, but look at the results and the positives far outweigh the negatives.
The policy had flexibility and exceptions and was not nearly as draconian or coercive as many reports have suggested. There were many ways in which parents could qualify for exceptions to the law towards the end of the one-child policy’s existence. As of 2007, only 36 per cent (Callick, 2007) of the population were subject to a strict one-child limit. 52.9 per cent were permitted to have a second child if their first was a daughter. Ethnic minorities were allowed more than one child, as were residents of rural areas. Some cities allowed families in which both parents were only children to have additional children. Some couples simply ignored the law and paid a fine for having two or more children.
Today, at family planning offices, women receive free contraception and pre-natal classes that contribute to the policy’s success: the average Chinese household expends fewer resources, both in terms of time and money, on children, which gives many Chinese people more money and higher living standards. Since Chinese adults can no longer rely on children to care for them in their old age, there is an incentive to save money for the future. The one-child policy has also played a major role in improving the quality of life for women in China. Girls have traditionally held a lower status in Chinese households. However, the one-child policy has prompted parents of daughters to invest money in their well-being. As a result of being an only child, women have increased opportunity to receive an education and support to get better jobs.
A 2008 survey (Pew Research Center, 2008) showed that the one-child policy is popular with the Chinese public: 76 per cent approve, while only 21 per cent disapprove. Approval was particularly high among those with higher incomes (85 per cent) and those who live in cities (84 per cent). Individuals who have two or more children under the age of 18 living at home were less likely to support the policy, although, even in this group, 63 per cent approve of it.
The policy has resulted in the Chinese population being 400 million lower than if the policy had not been introduced – or the population of 16 Australias. If the policy had not been introduced, China, and by implication the planet, would be in a far more parlous state than it already is. Despite its enormous success, China has been repeatedly criticised for the policy, when it should be congratulated for its achievement.
A special report in The Economist (The Economist, 2014) on global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions ranks China’s one-child policy as the fourth most important policy or action contributing towards this goal in recent decades, after the Montreal Protocol, worldwide use of hydroelectric power and the spread of nuclear power. The one-child policy is credited with producing a cumulative reduction of 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other gases.
Japan is ahead of the demographic curve, with its population forecast to decline by a third in the coming 50 years. Population peaked at 128 million in 2009 and is expected to contract to 88 million by 2065. As an island nation, Japan stands unique in history for its culture and isolationism. Already the oldest society on Earth, there will be only 1.2 working people to support every person over the age of 65 by 2065, compared to 2.1 in 2015. Japan is 20 years ahead of China on the demographic curve.
The Japanese government is understandably worried about the steady decrease of future tax revenues to support an aging population. In 2014, the Abe administration set a goal of maintaining a population of 100 million in 2060, with one result being that local governments now hold matchmaking events with the aim of increasing birth rates. But Japan is also known for its willingness to create and for its adoption of innovative technology. Abe has also said the nation’s declining demographic is not a burden but an incentive to bolster productivity through robotic technology and artificial intelligence.
As Japan’s population has aged, people have moved from rural to urban locations. When this happens, rural communities decline, the economy slows, buildings and land are abandoned and the remaining population ages. Despite the general move to cities, the benefits of a shrinking population are becoming evident, as seen with the beginnings of an increase in young people moving to rural areas and working remotely. Creative younger workers are seeing the benefits of moving to depopulated areas that can provide spacious and affordable accommodation in less polluted, greener environments. Technology allows them to keep in virtual contact with their work, giving them a good income without the stress and expense of cramped city life. Lives are becoming easier with safe, clean and natural environments for raising children rather than noisy, polluted cities. The new arrivals add vitality and help keep communities alive, with the older residents welcoming the newcomers. Others are making the best of both worlds with a place in the city and another in the country. This has become possible as both population and the price of rural property falls.
News stories of the Japanese population decline are generally negative, as per the general narrow-minded economic stories of worries about productivity and falling tax revenues. It is true that Japan is in debt by 10$US trillion (one quadrillion yen) and economists have been warning of economic collapse for the last two decades, but it has not arrived and its debt is now seen as stable and manageable. When you look closely at the media’s economic meltdown scare stories, you see there is really nothing to be worried about – the economists’ only concern is for their own investments. This is especially true when compared to countries with growing populations, as with Nigeria.
Japan has the oldest median age in the world, but they are still a successful, wealthy and happy society. There are many positives: small families mean that large fortunes are bequeathed to fewer recipients, each receiving a larger share. GDP and overall production may fall along with population size, but this is only anything to worry about for economists and financial investors; for everyone else, it’s a good thing, with more space in a currently crowded country and more resources available per person. The true indicator, GDP per person, is increasing, but this isn’t reported by economists.
Another positive side effect of a reduced population in Japan is research and development into automation. With a low unemployment rate, labour is scarce, but urgently needed to help with care of the elderly. Rather than take the politically difficult option of introducing large-scale cheap labour via immigration to help with an aging population, Japan is looking to automation and robots to do the work instead. This makes perfect sense in a country with the unique homogeneous cultural identity of Japan, which has never invited large numbers of people to its shores from other parts of the world. It also makes sense in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, as it has the resources and funding available to do so, which will place it in the vanguard of a valuable new commodity. Japan has a history of embracing technology and using it beneficially. They see eliminating undesirable, low-paid and repetitive manual jobs as a good thing.
The US is looked to as the leader of the free world, but Japan is a far more civilised country when you compare the two – even after suffering atomic bomb attacks in World War II. The Japanese don’t need to worry about gun crime; it rarely sees more than ten gun-related crimes committed per year for the whole country. Compare this to the US, which has over 30,000 per year and increasing.
Japan is shaking off past over-industrialism and the detrimental enslavement of perpetual economic growth and replacing it with a post-modern, post-growth economic order. This is counter-intuitive to the accepted growth models of economists, but for the Japanese people themselves, their standards of living and the environment, it is immensely positive.
Thailand dramatically reduced its birthrates in a visionary and inspirational way, via ‘Mr Condom’, aka Mechai Viravaidya.
In 1974, Viravaidya was tasked with tackling the demographic nightmare of seven children per family facing Thailand and helped create the modern Thailand of today. After some research, it was decided the best way of doing this was through free family planning for all and an encouragement of its use. The best way to explain how Viravaidya accomplished this task is by Mr Condom telling the story himself, as he did in his 2010 TED talk. (Viravaidya, 2010) Here is the transcript of the funny, inspirational and visionary Viravaidya saying how he accomplished this great transition for Thailand through compassion – and humour:
’Now, when I was a young man 40 years ago, the country was very, very poor with lots and lots and lots of people living in poverty. We decided to do something about it, but we didn’t begin with a welfare program or a poverty-reduction program – we began with a family-planning program.
Seven children per family: tremendous growth at 3.3 per cent. There was just no future. We needed to reduce the population growth rate. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ The women said, ‘We agree.’
Pills and condoms supplied to every village in the country. Most Thai people are Buddhist. We went to them and they said, ‘Look, could you help us?’ – holding a bowl of holy water for the monk to sprinkle holy water on pills and condoms for the sanctity of the family. Soon some of the monks in the villages were doing the same thing themselves. And the women were saying, ‘No wonder we have no side effects. It’s been blessed.’ That was their perception. And then we went to teachers. You need everybody to be involved in trying to provide whatever it is that makes humanity a better place. So we went to the teachers. Over a quarter of a million were taught about family planning with a new alphabet — B for birth, C for condom, I for IUD, V for vasectomy. A condom is the girl’s best friend!
We introduced our first microcredit program in 1975. We only want to lend to women who practise family planning. If you’re pregnant, take care of your pregnancy. If you’re not pregnant, you can take a loan out from us. We decided to provide vasectomies to all men. And then we have ‘Captain Condom’. And then we gave condoms out everywhere on the streets –everywhere, everywhere! In taxis, you get condoms. And also, in traffic, the policemen give you condoms – our ‘cops and rubbers’ programs.
All of this was done with few doctors; it was done through the people. It worked. Combined with the family planning was microcredit, encouraging small rural businesses, including tree planting and sustainable agriculture. And then, finally, I firmly believe, if we want the MDGs to work – the Millennium Development Goals – we need to add family planning to it. Thailand’s population has virtually stopped growing and in ten years’ time it is forecast to contract. Today the birth rate is 1.5 children per woman, with a growth rate down from 3.3 to 0.5.’
Fig 8. Condoms: Weapon of mass protection. (Source: Population and Community Development Association, Thailand)
The UN estimated that the advocacy efforts also prevented 7.7 million new HIV infections, slashing rates by 90 per cent. Thailand’s success is the blueprint every country with a high birth rate should adopt. The achievements made by Thailand came through governmental support and full commitment to a program where the widespread unmet need for family planning was placed at the top of national priorities for a long period. Being a predominantly Buddhist country also helped, as Buddhism does not have anything against family planning. Instead of the fruits of economic growth being eaten up by the need to feed larger and larger families, the ‘reproductive revolution’ led to smaller families and triggered a higher savings and investment rate. It also enabled the government to divert funds away from primary education facilities to investing more in high school and college education to improve the quality of the workforce.
The astounding success of a positive governmental approach to providing family planning can be seen by making a comparison with Thailand’s neighbour, the Philippines. In 1970, Thailand and the Philippines had roughly the same population size and growth rate, with Thailand having a slightly smaller GDP. The Philippines had no comparable population policy or Mr Condom to help them.
From a very similar starting point, by 2010, Thailand’s population growth rate was a third that of the Philippines, with twice the GDP per person:
Population growth rate
Population size (million)
GDP growth per capita
Total GDP (billion)
GDP per capita
Living under the poverty line
The differences between the two countries show Thailand ahead in every measure, which has resulted in it being a far more content and successful country.
Why do we never hear of Thailand’s immensely successful and popular policy in addressing population growth and only ever hear of China’s one-child policy? Viravaidya’s Mr Condom is inspirational. The Thai model could be adopted in all countries struggling with population growth and would change the world for the better at minimum cost to governments and to the benefit of everyone.