Population decline, migrations and its ecological implications: a delicate balance

In a world where population growth has been the norm for centuries, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture, exploring the complex dynamics surrounding the decline in global population and its far-reaching consequences.

The problem of depopulation in rural areas of Spain, a child only for a town – Photo Credit: Enrique del Barrio

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center, which examined demographic data from the United Nations, arrives at the conclusion that the global human population is not projected to sustain its current trajectory of accelerated growth. Instead, there is an observable trend of population decline. Simultaneously, an increasing number of nations are grappling with the challenge of inadequate population levels required to sustain their economic and social infrastructures. Moreover, international migration, which holds the potential to address this issue, is not universally embraced, particularly in regions experiencing aging populations and declining fertility rates.

This phenomenon has garnered significant attention, particularly in certain European countries, where there is a growing need for an influx of affordable and readily labor to supplant native workers. This need arises, in part, due to native workers’ heightened demands and reluctance to engage in lower-skilled, lower-paying occupations. Consequently, this situation has prompted massive and, at times, unregulated immigration to address the burgeoning demand for less specialized labor roles.

Beyond the specific numerical data reported by various international agencies, it is essential to recognize that human migration is a ubiquitous global phenomenon, a recurring feature across historical periods and geographical regions. Throughout human history, profound cultural, economic, geographical, and political shifts have instigated large-scale population movements, both voluntary and coerced.

This continuous flow of population movement has led to the emergence of theories and concerns related to the notions of «great replacement» or «great substitution.» These concepts posit that the local populations of host countries, particularly those in Europe, are undergoing systematic replacement by non-European groups, including Arabs, Berbers, Levantines, North Africans, and sub-Saharans. This replacement is purportedly occurring through mass immigration, demographic growth, and a declining birth rate among Europeans. These demographic shifts are generating considerable apprehension among several European countries and their governments.

It is important to note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Europe. Analogous trends have been unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border, which represents one of the most complex international boundaries to manage. As Elon Musk recently noted in a tweet, «the U.S. Border Patrol reported the highest number of registered illegal immigrants in history, surpassing 260,000 individuals in a single month. When accounting for unregistered immigrants, the total figure may exceed half a million, a population comparable to the state of Wyoming.»

While some governments employ immigration as a political tool, the majority of nations support mass migration as a necessity, even if most politicians never said that in public. This support stems from a recognition that their populations are dwindling, thereby imperiling the economic growth and tax revenue models that underpin their sustainability and societal well-being. Despite the existence of dissenting voices, such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and several U.S. Republican senators, most of these countries require increased inflows of cost-effective and readily exploitable labor to mitigate the shortfall in native populations available to contribute to the labor force, as the available statistics underscore a clear trend of declining fertility rates and markedly reduced birth rates across numerous countries in the northern hemisphere over several decades. These data collectively suggest that the global human population, as a whole, is poised to diminish sooner than anticipated in prior decades’ predictions.

Is the Population Decline a Positive Phenomenon?

Will nature benefit from less people? Photo Credit – Aleh Hubarevich

At first glance, the reduction in population size might be perceived as a positive development, given the evident threats posed to ecological systems by our production of polluting waste, coupled with our escalating demands for water and food resources. It appears self-evident that a decrease in human numbers is imperative for the well-being of our planet. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that if this reduction is too drastic, in alignment with prevailing models, it could usher in a host of serious problems, potentially culminating in catastrophic events.

Recent scientific advancements have presented us with the ability to both extend the average lifespan of the majority of society and manage birth rates. A historical examination of population growth reveals that, from the year 1000 to 1400, there was a relatively modest increase in the global population, with approximately 500 million inhabitants worldwide during that period. Subsequently, commencing around 1400, population growth gained momentum, with the global population reaching 1 billion by the year 1800, thereby doubling within four centuries.

The rate at which the global population doubles has exhibited a degree of consistency throughout history. Between 1800 and 1920, the global population again doubled, rising from 2 billion to 4 billion individuals. This time, it took slightly over a century for this doubling to transpire. Subsequently, between 1920 and 2020, yet another doubling occurred, but notably, the rate of doubling did not decelerate; it persisted, taking approximately a century to achieve. However, current trends suggest that this rate of doubling is waning, and a contraction is imminent.

During the 1950s, the global fertility rate indicated that the average woman gave birth to 4.5 children. In contemporary times, this global average has dwindled to 2.3 children per woman, with numerous countries reporting rates below 2. A fertility rate below 2 implies that the subsequent generation will be smaller than its predecessor, signifying a population contraction.

Projections indicate that countries such as Mexico will cease to experience population growth between 2060 and 2070, and Brazil is expected to reach this point in the 2040s. A study conducted by the United States Census Bureau forecasts that, in the coming decade, the increase in the native population will fall below 1 percent, with immigrants playing a pivotal role in population growth. Meanwhile, Europe has already reached a point of population stability, where growth has plateaued.

The Impact of Population Levels on Natural Resources

We may have peaked population growth already. Photo Credit – Adam Lai

The majority of individuals living today have witnessed consistent population growth within the areas or regions they inhabit. A significant portion of the population acknowledges that we have reached population levels exerting excessive pressure on natural resources. While we are indeed devising technological solutions to mitigate this pressure, it is undeniable that many wildlife habitats have been replaced by agricultural lands. Consequently, numerous species once inhabiting these areas have faced extinction.

In the 3rd century BC, the playwright Plautus coined the Latin expression «homo homini lupus,» signifying that man is the wolf of man. This phrase was introduced in the context of human proclivities for mutual destruction, a propensity that historically acted as a check on population growth. Past centuries bore witness to catastrophic conflicts, with the Second World War leading to the annihilation of 60 million human lives. Subsequently, conflicts like the Korean and Vietnam Wars emerged, and today, the war in Ukraine has resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Astonishingly, despite these grim events, human population growth has remained uninterrupted.

Current trends and projections, as articulated by the United Nations, suggest that by 2080, the global population will approach 10 billion individuals. Subsequently, the human population is poised to commence a decline, which could potentially accelerate. Nonetheless, recent estimates propose that this population peak may never be reached, and the decline could initiate sooner than expected.

While this impending demographic shift holds ecological benefits and contributes to the sustainability of our planet, it warrants immediate attention. It is a fact that when ecological benefits accrue, economic repercussions are experienced. According to research by the Mexican Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the number of infants under five years old, which stood at 681 million in 2017, is projected to decrease to 400 million by 2100. Conversely, the number of individuals over 80 years old is anticipated to surge from 141 million in 2017 to nearly 900 million. This entails a 30 percent reduction in children and a staggering 540 percent increase in the elderly population. The overall life expectancy of the population is on the rise, and this trajectory is expected to persist.

Given these prospects, it is evident that existing retirement programs for the elderly will fall short, housing and food supply capacities will become excessive, and various sectors will grapple with social, labor, and financial pressures. Populist politicians may exploit these challenges to their advantage.

Effectively managing this impending demographic transition is imperative to avert political and economic chaos. France recently experienced societal upheaval in response to the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age. Widespread strikes, including the sanitation workers’ strike in Paris, which resulted in the accumulation of refuse in the streets, exemplified the extent of opposition. President Macron eventually succeeded in implementing the policy, but not without incurring considerable social, economic, and political costs.

The forthcoming drastic reduction in population size over the next few decades will necessitate anticipatory planning for the challenges it will bring. By proactively addressing this issue, the global community may avert the catastrophe that concerns certain affluent individuals («billionaires»). Anticipating these problems and implementing solutions ahead of time could entail defining an ideal global population size, restoring wildlife habitats, and rectifying the environmental damage we have inflicted upon the planet.

Failure to address these imbalances may lead to catastrophic consequences. Populist leaders may make unrealistic promises, garnering support from emotionally driven voting masses, thereby exacerbating complexities until the prospect of a paradise devolves into an irrecoverable demographic catastrophe. Alternatively, with the aid of artificial intelligence, we may achieve equilibrium and redress these challenges. There is still a lot of uncertainty about this and different scenarios may yet manifest themselves in the years ahead depending on how we handle this situation.