The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Declining Birth Rates Are Good & Bad

So, there’s constant talk about the problem of declining birth rates and how much of a problem they are. There’s some truth to this, but a lot of it is based on the argument that more people lead to growing economies and that argument is terrible. The part that is reasonable is the rising increase in infertility, including plummeting sperm counts. That’s not bad because it leads to less children, precisely, it’s because it indicates how badly we’ve poisoned ourselves.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the world is well past its carrying capacity for the type of society we have. The Club of Rome predictions from 1968 have almost all tracked the real world, and we’re just past the hump: we’re into decline, but barely.

Notice that population decline happens about 30 years after the peak of food, industrial and services per capita. That’s bad and it’s part of what is going to make this so ugly. Check out the food per capita line for some real ugliness, though there’s going to be a lot less fat people.

Note that carrying capacity is not purely about population. Different global societies have different carrying capacities per capita. If we had not gone with planned obsolescence (there was a fight over near the end of the 19th century, managers vs. engineers and the engineers lost); if we did not have suburbs and exurbs but only urban, rural and wilderness; and if we had seriously started our transition from fossil fuels in the 80s instead of electing Thatcher and Reagan, our carrying cost would be much less and the world could support a much higher population. But under current circumstances, the world maximum population is probably about two billion, and once climate change runs amok it will be less.

So our population is going to reduce. It’s not “we have to reduce our population” it is “we are animals who exceeded the carrying capacity of our environment and our population IS going to drop, whether we like it or not.” That’s going to suck.

There was a window to avoid this. It is a result of our own decisions: to go with planned obsolescence, to have suburbs and massive numbers of cars, to pollute like maniacs, to destroy the forests and the swamps and the jungles, to not transition away from fossil fuels and dozens of decisions based on greed and “I won’t be here when it gets bad, so who cares?”

As for economies, high dependency rations (fewer working age people supporting people who can’t work) will be a drag. But because we have legitimately already overshot carrying capacity and because of resource and sink constraints (sinks is where we put our pollution, like CO2 and methane) reduced overall population is going to be more good than bad.

How much population will be lost is, in some sense, up to us. We left doing all the right things too late to avoid this, but the faster we transition to societies built around not exceeding planetary limits and working with and for the environment, the less people will die.

But even in a very optimistic scenario I have trouble seeing our population not winding up down two to three billion.

It is what we, as a species, chose through our decisions. That doesn’t mean you or I chose, we mostly didn’t, but at the species level, our decisions lead here.

It is what it is, and it will be what it will be.

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Justice, Law and Norms


The Pandemic Is Not Over And Neither Is Long Covid


  1. Curt Kastens

    I remember back around 2010 thinking about when we would be retired. I thought not all of our retirement plans need to go according to plan for us to be OK, only some of them need to go according to plan. I still thought that humanities problems could be solved. If governments acted like an inhibitor because we were in an emergency situation there are still short term measures that could be taken to delay the the course of history.
    Now I understand that when the population goes in to decline, nothing at all will be going right for very large numbers of people, and that will include us.

  2. Willy

    When I was young having kids was a given, something everybody did. In my 30’s we’d heard too many horror stories plus didn’t have the support network, time, or finances to conscientiously reproduce. Today I think you’re in for some serious angst if you have children, if you aren’t both independently wealthy and able to train the next John Connor. Not to mention that none of my adult nieces or nephews are anything like the Waltons. Or the Jetsons or Bradys or even the Connors. Most of them are self-absorbed, tribalistic, selfish, consumerist and even anti-social pieces of whatever, products of a failing society.

    But I think this post was more about population post peak civilization. Carry on.

  3. Astrid

    There’s still quite a lot of give on the food per capita angle, since much of the world’s food is wasted, used for animal feed, given over to plantation crops for export, or used for ethanol production. If RoW can get from under the thumb of Western Imperialism and produce food for domestic consumption again, that may reverse some of the calorie losses since 1980.

    This transition is hard but possible with the right leadership. Unfortunately good leadership is something that the West does not have.

  4. Mary Bennett

    Astrid, in my working class neighborhood, we are planning huge vegetable gardens–I am squeezing out room for my heritage roses. We are just doing it, not waiting for “leadership” to tell us how. Don’t forget that so-called leadership tends to come with its’ own favored clients, all of whom have to have their cut. Almost no one buys new cars; I have seen only two on my street in ten years; and no one dresses in fashion. I make long skirts out of plain, sturdy fabric, which I find practical and comfortable for an aging physique. Old jeans can be mended and remended for garden wear. We also deliberately buy from local businesses, including farms, whenever possible. No one in authority told us to do that, the authorities would rather see the big boxes persist.

  5. Sub-Boreal

    The retrospective look at LtG by Australian researcher Graham Turner is instructive:

  6. Ché Pasa

    But for the periodic and chaotic injections of immigration, the global North is losing population now. This is not a potential for 2050, it’s now. It’s quite simply what our rulers want and will have, come what may. Of course there’s also a confluence of existential crises which will cut population further. Happy coincidence? You decide.

    How ugly is it? Not how ugly will it be; how ugly is it now? The thing about human beings is that we can get used to pretty much any conditions, no matter how horrible and deadly, and some of us will survive. But up to now, our rulers have seen fit to mitigate some of the worst consequences of their actions — for most of us. Will it last? Or will it all wind up like the worst corners of the Middle East?

    Time will tell.

  7. StewartM

    What Astrid said on food production.

    To my mind, we have a choice. Demographic patterns across the world aren’t constant, they’re “lumpy”; some countries (Japan, Italy, etc) have a lopsided ratio of old people to young, while other countries still have a sizeable young fraction. Ergo, immigration is the answer, and to do that we need both to provide income stability for the existing populations in those countries that need immigrants as well as overcome stupid tribalism and fear of the ‘other’. (And while, yes, while the MAGA crowd does qualify in that statement, a country like Japan is probably is probably more inhospitable to foreigners).

    You also need to end age discrimination for those still able and willing to work in their 60s and beyond. The practice is widespread and very easily for firms to overcome; they can either move someone to a position they think won’t last (then they argued they eliminated the position, not the person) or out of the blue they start giving senior employees subpar merit evaluations for vague reasons when previously they had always gotten good reviews. Then the firm will argue that the good performer had suddenly become a poor performer. And once severed, the employee will struggle to find another job as no one wants to hire him or her.

    All this is being done by firms that say they “need skilled workers”. And they indeed do; as I have said many times that American firms and increasingly European ones too (copying the ‘American model’ as a German friend says) run increasingly understaffed. But because decisions in a firm are not done for the true interest of the firm (i.e., how to make new and better high-quality products, or deliver high-quality services), but for the short-term interests of the capitalist class (gotta keep that stock price up, the next quarter report is due soon!!) And indeed, the practice of US firms that I’ve seen is not so much ‘replace the olds with the immigrants’ as much as it is ‘replace the olds with the kids straight out of school’.

    But the ‘olds’ are the one who have a lot of the IP of your firm, and middle management knows it. Thus a tension is created by the upper management who wants to up the stock price to replace expensive olds with cheaper kids, vs the middle management who doesn’t want all to send all the company’s knowledge out the door.

    I don’t think you can pull off this trick by capitalism–certainly not the neoliberal variety of the past 40+ years. The ideal solutions would to make Keynes’s future come true, to become so efficient at making stuff and delivering services that the rewards of this efficiency gets given to the worker bees to have shorter work weeks and shorter working careers, so we can make more with less labor and stuff and no has to worry about income security. Not by sending the rewards to a parasitic capitalist class of “useless eaters” while having everyone work longer and harder with less income security.

    Of course, I also agree with cars and suburbs and the other things you said too. I’ve always wanted to see populations move back to the cities (need affordable housing and mass transit) but also prohibitions on clearing any natural land for ‘development’ while there is all this decaying paved-over areas in every urban center just sitting there rotting away.

  8. EarthMagic

    With my generation, millennials and younger, having more than 2 children is rare. There’s really not a lot of motivation. We are less religious, with less buying power, and more aware of environmental and social limits. Most are welcoming a population decline, even if there are harsh consequences.
    A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. ~Greek Proverb

  9. Mary Bennett

    Two events of consequence took place today. One was the first ever indictment of a (former) American president. Not that many if not most have merited the same. Not the least interesting aspect is that Donald seems to have been deserted by his good buddy Bibi, who could have surely pulled strings to have the arraignment and trial presided over by some compliant dual-citizen judge. Guess the bromance is over.

    The other, possibly much more important event is that Finland joined NATO today. The official ceremony was held this morning in Brussels. The Russians are not the only people who have long memories. There were elections in Finland last weekend, I think, and a rightist party or coalition, is taking over. The articles I read are so filled with insult and innuendo that I could not make any sense of them. Apparently, Finnish parties across the board are anti-immigration; hardly to be wondered at in a small nation where food has to be stored for winter. I wonder, only wonder, if, besides memories of the Winter War, the Finns real present concern is China?

  10. Astrid


    Local action doesn’t mean much if the IMF can force your national government to drop agricultural subsidies and trade barriers that make it possible for peasant communities to survive.

    The hard transition I’m thinking of is the one where RoW governments willingly default on their dollar debts and refocus on their domestic food sovereignty. It’s hard because any country that disobeys the Western order has historically gotten couped, invaded, assets stolen, and sanctioned as we’ve most recently seen with Libya and Venezuela. It’s hard to stand firm for possibly decades, but only the countries that take the hardest line (thus garnering accusations of “authoritarian dictatorship”) persists. It is becoming much easier as the RoW realize that the US is a paper tiger that is running out of weapons to fight a “gas station with nukes”, not that Russia was ever just that.

    Also, while I certainly think communal gardens are good things, having gardened in 4 community gardens in the last 15 years, they can devolve into a free for all without a strong governing structure and a dedicated core of volunteers (one or two is not enough, because they will inevitably get busy or sick or burnt out). Even with those things, inevitably the bright eyed enthusiasts of April/May will largely abandon their plots in late July to weeds and rotting tomatoes. It takes skill and dedication (though not necessarily a lot of work) to grow food. Most beginners, despite getting sounds advice, will inevitably plant the wrong way, water the wrong way, fail to mulch, weed too late, leave for vacation or “too hot to work outside” just as the weeds start to flower and set seeds.

    Having said that, I’m planting chestnut, persimmons, apples, pears, and more this spring, far more than I can possibly use. I hope they will end up being a resource for my upper middle class community if we should all fall on hard times ahead.

  11. Willy

    Modern plutocracy hides behind “but authoritarianism is worse”. Actually, authoritarianism is just a thing, like an automobile. And plutocracy too I suppose, which are mini-authoritarianisms. Like automobiles, most people would rather have good operators of authoritarianisms or plutocracies than bad ones. More good can be done faster that way. But sadly as with automobiles, if you have a bad operator then other “things” equally powerful are usually needed to limit the damage. I can’t believe I actually had to type that.

    I’m hopeful that people can discuss how concentrations of power happens, and why they often go bad with disastrous results for many, and what can be done to prevent the bad, and in the cases presented in this post, address concentrated power causing people to not want or be able to reproduce.

  12. different clue


    To take just one recent example, the New Deal response designers to the Great Depression analysed excess concentrations of power and worked to break some of them apart into smaller concentrations of lesser and divided power. Glass-Steagall. Wagner Act. PUHCA. etc.

    And they worked well enough that the anti-New Deal upper classes had to re-infiltrate government and re-take it over in order to legislate and rule-write large parts of the New Deal back out of existence.

    So examples exist.

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