Book review: 'Empty Planet' explores the world's next biggest population threat

Humanity is facing an imminent catastrophe, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson assert in their new book

Empty structures stand in the new district of Kangbashi in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China, on Saturday, April 30, 2011. Designed for 300,000 people, Kangbashi, the new urban center of Ordos prefecture, may have only 28,000 residents, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch said last year. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
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The central assertion Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson make in Empty Planet is one that readers of the daily news or regular government reports will find deeply counterintuitive. According to all that received wisdom, there is a worldwide population crisis, with humans reproducing at ever-increasing rates, rapidly eating up all the world's resources and driving the engines of runaway climate change.

Stripped of modern trappings such as greenhouse gases and industrial meat farming, this is fairly close to the old vision of 18th-century scholar and theorist Thomas Malthus. He declared back in 1798 that in conditions of economic and cultural stability, the human population would continue to increase, even to the point where it chokes resources and overburdens the Earth itself.

Such a view has been the standard for centuries, and some of its proponents have made quite tidy sums writing books about the doom it foretells, most notably Paul Ehrlich. His 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb warned of imminent, widespread famines as the result of human overpopulation.

Bricker and Ibbitson say such books and the thinking behind them are "completely and utterly wrong". They agree with Malthus, Ehrlich and company that humanity is indeed facing an imminent population catastrophe – but the problem won't be overpopulation. "The great defining event of the 21st century – one of the great defining events in human history – will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population begins to decline," they write. "Once that decline begins, it will never end."

Empty Planet: THE SHOCK OF GLOBAL POPULATION DECLINE By DARRELL BRICKER and JOHN IBBITSON published by Crown. Courtesy Penguin Random House

The authors know they're working against not only popular perception, but also raw numbers. They point out that the United Nations predicts the human population to hit 11 billion in the 21st century, up from the nearly eight billion on Earth today, an increase from five billion since 1950.

But Bricker and Ibbitson say that population growth rates have declined slightly in the 21st century, particularly in what they refer to as the richest places on the planet. Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Europe – all such places are facing long-term reproduction rates that won't come close to sustaining their current population levels. And they claim this same levelling and then downward trend will be seen in places such as China, Brazil, Indonesia and even such fertility hot zones as India and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the pages of Empty Planet, the authors travel to some of the most densely populated places on Earth. They interview dozens of experts and government officials, offer a briskly readable survey of the history of human population fluctuations and consult experts in urbanisation, fertility and family planning in the developing world. They also talk to ordinary people whose lives, they contend, will be affected by all this. "Right now, today, economic, social and demographic forces are pulling at you in ways you scarcely notice," they write, "no matter what your age."

Some of these consequences will be small and personal: decreasing population growth means an ageing society, and this means a drastic change in the "seniors' dependency ratio", the number of working-age people needed to support each retired person. Today, there are roughly six working-age people for every one retired person, and as Bricker and Ibbitson write: "This is a positive ratio, and the world will be in good shape if it holds up. But we already know that it won't."

Declining birth rates will lead inevitably to greater immigration, drastic shifts in national economies and perhaps even more seismic international developments. According to the authors, population decline will shape the nature of war and peace as some countries age faster than others and geopolitical imbalances worsen. They even add an alarming specific: "The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy."

The main reason Bricker and Ibbitson cite for their certainty about all this is that the floor of the world’s basic prosperity is steadily rising. Two things happen as a result: an increasing number of women in developing countries are gaining more education and more control over reproduction, and an increasing number of couples are therefore either postponing having children of their own or having far fewer children than their ancestors did.

Empty Planet makes the case that this change is not only inevitable but already well under way, and that it will be permanent: humanity will simply go into terminal decline, no asteroid or other global catastrophe required. As mentioned, readers have heard such alarming claims before – Ehrlich, for instance, was certain the human population would reach its breaking point in the 1970s.

So, are Bricker and Ibbitson correct? One way or the other, our grandchildren will be the ones to find out.