Saturday, June 03, 2006

The End of Civilization As We Know It

In 1974, I was an impressionable young man just starting college, seeking an undergraduate degree in the exciting new field of computer science. That was also the year that I picked up a copy of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth, a book chock full of dire warnings of global catastrophe, based on then-current rates of resource consumption, estimates of available global resources, and some models of growth and our planet's capacity for environmental recycling.

Thirty years later I found myself a cranky old man thinking of leaving software development to the offshore outsourcing firms and getting a job at Starbucks. I was seriously disappointed that the predictions hadn't come true, and I wondered what I was going to do with the contents of that six-foot-high gun safe in the basement. The Club of Rome did not foresee the economic forces that lead to the discovery of new resource deposits, that would push technology to give us greater energy efficiency, and just flat out eliminate the need for much of our energy consumption. See, there is this new fangled thing called the Internet. Some folks think it is going to be big.

The Club of Rome and prognosticators of their ilk were not much better at predicting the future than my beloved science fiction authors from the 1940s through the 1950s who missed the boat on mobile phones, laptop computers, and the World Wide Web. Yes, some folks hit the mark here and there (Vannevar Bush comes to mind), but we still don't have our flying cars. Here's something else they all missed: the coming global catastrophe of declining population.

The United Nations predicts, based on national population censuses and current trends, that the global population, currently around 6.5 billion, will slow in growth, and peak at 9.1 billion around 2050. Probably to no one's surprise, all growth will be in the least developed countries, with the most rapid growth in developing countries. The populations of the fifty least developed countries will double, while the populations of the most developed nations will, for the most part, shrink (except for immigration).

The flattening of the growth curve has two reasons: decreasing fertility rates, and increasing mortality rates. This is no surprise to anyone who knows a shred of arithmetic, but what might raise a few eyebrows is where these trends are occurring. Fertility rates are dropping in the developed world even in traditionally Catholic nations like Spain and Italy. And mortality rates are rising in Eastern Europe. The U.N. credits this latter effect to the spread of HIV, although other studies have also suggested that the young men of the former Soviet Bloc are drinking themselves to death.

The populations of just eight countries are expected to account for half of the world's population between now and 2050: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Congo, Bangladesh, Uganda, the United States of America, Ethiopia, and China (listed in order of the size of their contributions to population growth).

These projections may be just as shaky as the Club of Rome's, and for similar reasons. And maybe this is just the direction of the current swing of the pendulum. But it is interesting to think of the consequences of these trends, should they come to pass.

  • Reduction in the number of consumers in the developed countries, and a general slowing in the production of new consumers globally: probably good for the environment; probably bad for the economies of the developed world.
  • Larger pools of skilled workers in countries like India, Pakistan, the United States, and China: probably good for high-technology firms; probably bad for skilled workers native to the developed countries.
  • Larger pools of software engineers available to develop and support open source solutions: probably bad for vendors of closed/proprietary technology solutions.
  • Growing influx of immigration from the developing countries to the developed countries providing cheap manual labor: probably good for producers of hard goods and labor services, probably bad for laborers native to the developed countries.
  • A shift in national identity of the developed countries, due to immigration, and a change in global culture, depending on where population growth occurs: this suggests immigration and fertility may be used as weapons of ideology. (However, in at article in Wired, Stuart Luman documents a drop in fertility rates in Islamic nations.)
  • An increase in the mean age of the population (which has been going on for some time in the developed world): a change in cultural emphasis and in national priorities to deal with an aging population.
  • The United States continues to grow while Europe shrinks: the marginalization of the European Union as a world power.

Think even further ahead and consider what kind of world may exist if population levels continue to decline to below their current levels of today. This will happen much sooner in the developed nations (unless immigration really steps up) than in the developing world. Some countries are taking this very seriously. In an editorial in Newsweek, Robert Samuelson remarks that Russian president Vladimir Putin has proposed a baby bounty to remedy the situation.

Fortunately, Al Gore, Colin Campbell, and others have suggested that global catastrophe may still be within reach in my life time, thanks to global warming and oil depletion.

There's still hope.


Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think", Atlantic Monthly, July 1945

Donella H. Meadows, et al., The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Pan Macmillan, 1974

"Population Growth Slows", The Futurist, 37.4, July-August 2003

Stuart Luman, "The Decline of Civilization", Wired, November 2004, p. 78

United Nations, "World Population to Grow from 6.5 Billion to 9.1 Billion by 2050", press release, February 24, 2005

United Nations, World Population Prospects - The 2004 Revision - Highlights, February 2005

Robert J. Samuelson, "The End of Motherhood" , Newsweek, May 29, 2006


Demian L. Neidetcher said...

The disparity in birth rates makes me wonder what the future will be like. Currently we see a brain drain from less fortunate countries. Heck, even Canada suffers from talented and smart people moving to America.

A shining example of a country that will need to re-tool quick is Japan, a country that doesn't embrace immigration and an ethnically diverse population.

I don't think the birth rate difference will have a profound effect on who is on top in the world. The most brilliant people will end up in countries that allow their skills and intellect to flourish.

Chip Overclock said...

I think you're spot on regarding the marginalization of Japan.

I once argued with a Washington lobbiest that the fact that our graduate schools were full of foreign students (mine sure was, and boy were most of them sharp) was one of our greatest foreign policy triumphs. We kept the smartest ones that wanted to stay, and most of the rest went home indoctrinated with our culture. What a coup. She replied "Yeah, but they don't vote". Geeze, this is the political equivalent of just worrying about quarterly earnings. Maybe we should have special scholarships for Islamic graduate students. (Maybe we do...)