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The Population Implosion

You can't get more than 10 minutes into a conversation about the environment or urban sprawl or resource depletion or oil wars or global warming or any other such fundamentally dire topic without someone suddenly announcing, "You know -- there are just too many people."

Four billion years of evolution has given our species not only consciousness, but also the gift of self-loathing.

Packing the planet with upwards of 6 billion people may have been a bad idea. Complications ensue. (And you know the rule: If everyone on the planet lived like Americans, we'd need five planets.) It's like an experiment: Let's see what happens when one imperfect and often short-sighted species becomes highly technological without having the political will or societal constraints to inhibit its worst impulses. (Kids, don't try this at home.)

But before you vow never to breed again, or even slow-dance, check out (if you can find it -- I haven't seen a link yet) the story by my colleague Joel Garreau in the October issue of Smithsonian. He reports that, in many parts of the world, there aren't nearly enough babies.

The population isn't exploding, it's imploding. There is "catastrophic population shrinkage."

[Full disclosure: This whole item is self-serving, since I have three children. What's really strange is that they were produced by parthenogenesis.]

Population shrinkage is happening in Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada, much of East Asia, even China. It has potentially dire consequences for anyone wishing to retire and live off the goods and services of the younger generation.

Garreau's article notes that, sometime in October, the United States population will reach 300 million. Most of that growth comes from immigration. For a population to replace itself, every couple has to produce about 2.1 children. But the U.S. falls just short of that. Italy and Spain are at 1.3 percent, and Hong Kong and Macau are 0.96 and 0.84. Russia has both a baby shortage and a strangely sick population. China's draconian methods of population control have created a situation in which it will soon have a disproportionate number of older citizens. Many won't have a child to take care of them, and they'll have to work in the fields to the end of their days, "a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway," in the words of an economist.

Garreau writes:

"Few demographers ever dreamed that in the absence of war, famine and pestilence -- in fact, as a result of urbanization, development and education -- birthrates would drop so dramatically. No one knows where the bottom is. Keep this up, and eventually your civilization will disappear."

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 27, 2006; 8:27 AM ET
 
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