The era of expanding human populations may be ending, according to a new study, with major implications for societies, the economy and the environment. The world’s population may top out at roughly 9.7 billion around 2064, up from about 7.8 billion today, before shrinking to 8.8 billion by the end of the century, according to estimates published in the journal FILE PHOTO: A combo shows buildings on Nov. 8, 2018 and after air pollution level started to drop during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 8, 2020.It would be great news for the environment. Fewer people would generate fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants, for example. It would lower demand for food, reducing the pressure that agriculture puts on land and water.  But it would turn the economy on its head.  Declining populations mean fewer workers, which means lower GDP. It also means fewer consumers, the bedrock of the global economy.  “What happens when you don’t have young people buying their first house, buying their first refrigerator, buying the first car?” said Darrell Bricker, co-author of the book, “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.” Bricker was not involved in the study. Also, populations age as fertility rates drop.  “This is actually more serious than just simple population decline,” said Brown University sociology professor Zhenchao Qian, who was not involved with the research.  A smaller workforce would be supporting a larger elderly population, Qian noted, raising political and fiscal questions about how to pay for health care and social security systems.  Population declines could also have geopolitical consequences. Fewer workers also mean fewer potential soldiers, Murray noted. “The balance of power between nation-states has always been related in some ways to the size of the working-age population,” he said. Anti-government protesters wear hazmat suits and gas masks during a rally demanding women’s rights during the International Women’s Day in Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq, March 8, 2020.Female empowerment Fertility rates have been declining worldwide mainly because women are getting more education and better access to birth control.  “It’s really a story about female empowerment,” Bricker, the “Empty Planet” author, said. The main difference between the new forecast and the U.N.’s is what they expect to happen after fertility rates bottom out.  Populations hold steady when women have an average of just over two children each. Tourists practice social distancing as they wait to extend their visa at Immigration Bureau in Bangkok, Thailand, March 27, 2020.’Great uncertainty’ The U.N.’s Wilmoth notes that both groups are basing their assumptions on “what’s still early experience in the lives of a few countries. So, I have to confess there’s great uncertainty about that,” he said. “We will know much more about that in 10 or 20 years,” he added. “But for now, we’re both guessing to some extent.” If populations do shrink, Murray said countries have three options to keep themselves afloat.  “One is to make it easier for women to work and have children,” he said, including generous parental leave and support for working mothers with young children.  Most countries that have implemented these policies have found they can help, he added, “but they don’t bring fertility back to (the) replacement (rate).” The second option is to open their borders to immigration.  Public sentiment currently is against this option in parts of the West. The Trump administration, for example, has sought to curb immigration into the United States. Opposition to European Union migration policies helped drive Britain’s Brexit vote. However, “if Murray and colleagues’ predictions are even half accurate, migration will become a necessity for all nations and not an option,” Ibrahim Abubakar, director of the University College London Institute for Global Health, wrote in a commentary accompanying the Lancet article.    A third scenario, “one that we think is a real risk,” Murray said, is countries would be “tempted to roll back women’s reproductive health rights in order to put pressure on them to have more children for the sake of the nation-state,” a situation he called “very undesirable.” The major exception to Murray’s group’s shrinkage predictions is sub-Saharan Africa.  “Education for women is growing, but it’s still at a very low level in many countries, and it’s growing slowly,” he said.  There is a lot of uncertainty in the longer term, however.  “Birth rates are still really high,” Bricker noted, “but they’re coming down, and urbanization is starting to take place there, too, at a really rapid rate,” which tends to lower fertility rates. On the other hand, the U.N.’s Wilmoth noted, “we’ve consistently had to up the estimates. … I worry about underestimating the future population of Africa, not overestimating it.” 

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