The main topics discussed on this blog are the major fiscal and economic issues facing the U.S. My approach is to be calm, factual, rational and objective but I do have a very definite point of view. I am an optimist. I think that life is getting better slowly but surely both in the U.S. and around the world, see here and here.
The key to this progress is economic growth. Faster growth means more progress. But there are limits as to how fast the economy can grow. In particular there are environmental limits as I have discussed in my last two posts, here and here.
Global warming is definitely a huge threat to human progress.
But severe overpopulation is not likely based on two reliable sources which I am using. One is the latest UN Report, “World Population Prospects, 2017”. The other is the 2010 book by Matt Ridley, “The Rational Optimist”.
World population in 2017 is 7.6 billion. 10 years ago it was growing by 1.24% per year, today it is growing by 1.10% per year, i.e. growth is slowing down.
There is a 27% chance that world population will stabilize and begin to fall before the end of this century (see graph). Mr. Ridley’s prediction that population will peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 and then begin to fall is consistent with the lower level of the UN graph.
The UN’s median projection is that the global fertility level will decline from 2.5 births per woman in 2010-2015 to 2.2 births per woman in 2045-2050 and then to 2.0 births per woman in 2095-2100. Since replacement level is 2.1 births per woman, no later than 2100 the die will be cast for world population to peak in the early 22nd century and then begin to decline.
Already 83 countries in 2010-2015 had below replacement level fertility. After 2050 Africa will be the only region still experiencing substantial population growth.
Conclusion. Sometime between about 2075 and the early 2100s, world population will peak and then begin to decline. The sooner this happens, the less misery there will be for humanity. Nevertheless, the catastrophe of never ending population growth is very unlikely to occur.
Human civilization has made remarkable progress in the past two hundred years starting with the Industrial Revolution. This has been well documented in two current books, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future by Johan Norberg.
But for human progress to continue indefinitely into the future depends on sufficient economic growth. Faster growth means more progress. The purpose of the Republican tax plan now working its way through Congress is to speed up economic growth in the U.S.
It is a legitimate question to ask whether there are environmental constraints on faster growth. What are the world’s largest environmental problems and how serious are they? In rough order of severity:
Global warming is a very serious problem, for which the evidence is overwhelming. The use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is growing but not fast enough to stop the world wide increase in carbon emissions. It will require the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China, working together to solve this huge problem but it can be done.
World population is likely to stabilize at about 9.2 billion (the Rational Optimist, page 206) by 2075 and then start to decline. This is because in country after country economic progress has led first to slower mortality rates and then to slower birth rates. When this demographic process eventually reaches Africa, world population will begin to decline.
Pollution is on the decline around the world (see above chart from Norberg). Air pollution is declining in the U.S. (see Ridley, page 279) and China is beginning to get serious about it.
Natural resources are simply not running out, see here and here.
Conclusion. Yes, the world has environmental problems (mainly global warming) but no, they need not stand in the way of economic growth indefinitely into the future.
Economic growth is a question of much political interest these days. Slow growth is a major reason why Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. The main justification for the Republican tax reform plan now moving through Congress is that it will speed up economic growth.
There are many people who say that humanity must learn to live with slower growth because our planet can no longer support the high rate of growth we have enjoyed since the Industrial Revolution. But consider:
World Population is likely to peak at about 9.2 billion in approximately 2075 and then start to decline. (See the Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, page 206.) In country after country around the world, economic progress has already led to lower mortality rates which in turn have led to lower birth rates. This demographic process is likely to continue.
Pollution is rapidly declining in the developed world (see above, page 279). Yes, greenhouse gas emissions (and global warming) are still increasing worldwide but the use of renewable energy is also increasing. Furthermore, the U.S. and China, working together, easily have enough clout to enact a carbon tax, which would provide an economic incentive for industry to get carbon emissions under control.
Natural Resources aren’t running out. Take phosphorous for example, which is vital to agricultural fertility. When the richest mines are depleted, there are extensive lower grade deposits still available. The fracking revolution means that oil and natural gas will be available for hundreds of years to come. The earth is finite, of course, but it is also a vast storehouse of resources.
Conclusion. The economic growth that is needed to create more jobs and better paying jobs is compatible with maintaining a clean and stable environment on earth.
As I remind readers from time to time, this blog is focused on the fiscal and economic problems of the U.S. Our biggest fiscal problem is not having enough tax revenue to pay our bills. Our biggest economic problem is a stagnant economy which leaves too many people unemployed or underemployed.
My last three post have been on the subject of climate change. This is a worldwide problem which has a huge effect on the U.S. There’s going to be a cost in cutting way back on carbon emissions. But there will soon be a much greater cost if we don’t cut back and therefore suffer the growing adverse environmental effects.
Now there is another looming problem. The journal Science has just published the article “World population stabilization unlikely this century,” reporting that world population, now 7.2 billion, is likely to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100. Much of the increase will take place in Africa due to higher fertility rates because of a recent slowdown in the pace of fertility decline. The implications of a growing world population are huge:
First of all, it will add even more stress to an environment which is already being increasingly stressed by global warming.
Secondly, it will aggravate a slowdown in middle-income wage growth throughout the developed world. This is very evident in the above chart. What is happening is that the force of globalization is shifting lower skilled work to lower paid workers in the developing world. A larger population in the developing world will simply exacerbate this trend.
The noted economist, Tyler Cowen, has a different perspective on this problem, “A Strategy for Rich Countries: Absorb More Immigrants,” in today’s New York Times. But Mr. Cowen’s approach is untenable for the long run. The idea that you can offset an increase in the elderly population with an even bigger increase in the younger population will lead to an ever-growing overall population.
What then is the answer to over-population? It is either more birth control or less sex. Take your pick!