Need to rethink | Inquirer Opinion
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Need to rethink

“At that low a level, the population can’t sustain itself,” said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California. Professor Wang Feng was talking about China where the population growth rate over the past decade has been only 5.4 percent. By 2100, China’s population will have fallen to 730 million from the 1.41 billion now. There will be as many 85-year-olds as 18-year-olds.

The same thing is happening in Japan. Japan’s population fell -0.2 percent in 2019. Japan’s population, which stood at 126 million, is expected to decline to 88 million by 2065. Currently, around 25 percent of Japan’s population is over 65 years old. This is expected to increase to 40 percent by 2060. Japan is heading for difficulties in running its businesses and looking after its old people.

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In other advanced countries we’re seeing the same thing, a slowing population growth rate. It is projected that the US, UK, Singapore, and France will also become “super-aged” nations, where more than 20 percent of their population is older than 65.

It is estimated that by 2100 the fertility rate will have fallen below replacement rate in 183 out of 195 countries.

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The concern of the professor, and economists generally, centers around one basic fundamental: To maintain strong economic growth, the world needs to keep supplying young people to do it. The Economist pointed this out when it said that “encouraging women to have more babies used to be politically fraught. Radical feminists everywhere opposed the idea, and in Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain it carried fascist baggage. But times have changed and now a number of countries are actively encouraging larger families.”

A 2015 article in Inter Press Service explained that “concerned with the consequences of demographic decline and population ageing, especially with respect to economic growth, national defense and pensions and health care for the elderly, a growing number of governments are seeking to raise birth rates. Whereas nearly 40 years ago 13 countries had policies to raise fertility, today the number has increased four-fold to 56, representing more than one-third of the world’s population.”

It’s all based on the fundamental economic theory that you need a growing workforce for an economy to sustain itself and grow. This has perhaps been true in the past, where humans were needed to undertake business activities. But into the future, robots and AI will replace many of those needed humans.

But there’s another, and far more important, fundamental to consider: Too many humans are destroying the planet they live on.

Already we need 1.7 planets to support the 8 billion people that now inhabit it. If current growth rates continue, we’d need three planets to support us by 2050. So it’s good that growth rates are reversing. We must encourage it. If we continue to encourage faster population growth, the human race could wipe itself out through extraction of all its resources, destruction of all its forests, elimination of much of its wildlife. And a world with temperatures created by too many people so high that human beings can’t exist on it.

“Ah, Wallace, he’s a doomsayer. Don’t listen to him.” Well maybe I’m exaggerating to make a point. But maybe I’m not. Armageddon is a distinct possibility. It’s a reason for the Paris Accord, to keep the earth’s temperature within livable limits. A smaller population would help. There have been five major extinctions in Earth’s history, and we could well be the sixth if we don’t stop adding people.

It does mean, for instance, that the Catholic Church needs to acknowledge that when Christ said “Go out and multiply,” he was talking to a world of about 300 million people, where more made sense. It no longer does. I suggest the Church needs to reconsider this policy, recognizing that Christ, being the intelligent, compassionate man he was, wouldn’t make such a statement today.

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Kenneth Boulding, an economist, said: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth of anything physical on a physically finite planet is either a madman or an economist.”

So we have to rethink our economic theories, rethink the whole structure of society. COVID-19 could be a wake-up call to do this. Some potential Nobel laureate needs to come up with a solution to the question: How do we reduce the population to a number the earth can support? The ultimate goal is a new economic system designed so that every human on planet Earth can lead a decent, human life without destroying the planet and consuming all its resources.

If we want a planet that our great-grandchildren can live comfortably in, we need a fundamental rethink of how we manage it now.

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TAGS: Like It Is, Peter Wallace, Population growth
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