October 18, 2011


Possible 'peak population': a world without borders? (Danny Dorling, 18 October 2011, OpenDemocracy)

But behind these numbers, across more than half the globe, fertility had fallen below replacement level. In Vanessa Baird's recently published No-Nonsense Guide to World Population, she points out that even in Africa there are now countries where women are having on average fewer than two children over the course of their lives. Wherever women gain more literacy and a little more power, wherever parents see that their offspring's chances of surviving to adulthood have become higher, fertility has headed down, usually quickly, towards an average of less than two children per woman. Matthew Connelly's Fatal Misconception lays the evidence out clearly.

Demographers have been described as accountants with a charisma bypass; Vanessa's very short and Matthew's very long book show it's possible to write demography with passion as well as accuracy. But in the end it all comes back to the numbers.

The latest projections published by the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) in May this year forecast 10.1 billion people by 2100. I argue in my book Fair Play (2011) that this new projection fails to take account of global 'baby-boom' peaks and troughs over the past sixty years. The UNPD press release came with a health warning: 'Small variations in fertility can produce major differences in the size of populations over the long run'.  I argue, based on figures which the graphs here demonstrate, that worldwide we experienced a baby-boom during the past decade that peaked in 2006. The previous boom peaked in 1986, and the one before that, in 1966. Progressively fewer children were born in the 1986 and 2006 peaks because contraception had become more popular worldwide and infant mortality was falling.

If one projects forward, following this pattern of peak and trough, then the world's population reaches 9.3 billion in 2060, but by 2100 drops to 7.4 billion - and if the pattern holds, will continue to fall. The UNPD estimates that if women who are currently each projected to have 2.5 children just have 2, and those groups projected to have 1.5 children just have one, the drop will be even greater - to 6.2 billion in 2100.  In a century there may well be fewer people in the world than there are today.

I think it is more likely that the human population never exceeds 9 billion than that it rises above 11 billion. But I have no crystal ball. If global economic inequalities were to grow rapidly, and infant mortality in poorer countries begin to rise again, then we should expect no continuing falls in fertility.

What's the relevance of this to migration controls?  Imagine for a minute what might happen if humanity doesn't allow mass impoverishment to grow in future and infant mortality to rise again. Imagine a world in which human population (rather like oil consumption) peaks and then declines. 

To try to get a grasp of how momentous these possibilities are, think back to what we know happened in Western Europe after the Black Death, that cataclysmic event between 1348 and 1351 which killed half the population in some places. The shortage of labour meant workers and peasants could command better pay and conditions - though as Bridget Anderson describes, England's rulers did their utmost to contain this.  Poor people and their labour were suddenly worth more.

Could a continuing drop in population numbers, and a corresponding drop in the numbers of workers available, lead to migration controls being weakened and then removed? I believe so.

There's another reason to be optimistic that a future without border controls is not simply a utopian fantasy: ever since the Japanese asset bubble burst in 1991 there's been an accumulation of evidence to suggest that while economic inequalities between individuals and within countries continue to grow worldwide, economic inequalities between countries have been falling.

The other factor is that globalization is forcing cultural homogeneity.

Posted by at October 18, 2011 6:27 AM

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