Population Decline – Disaster or Opportunity? or Both?

old barn

Abandoned barn by Dean McCoy

The coming drop in world population was in the news earlier in the year.  Many outlets, for example, Time and Slate have run articles about the projected decline.  “Experts say the rate of population growth will continue to slow and that the total population will eventually — likely within our lifetimes — fall.”  I live in a rural area, and I know that the census shows my county and other rural areas are losing population, but the thought that the whole world’s population will decline is hard to absorb.

Americans are used to our population growing thanks to immigration, and Americans of my era recall The Population Bomb and other dire warnings of overpopulation.  It seems the future will be different than the prophets of doom predicted.  What will a falling population mean?

Not the end of humanity:  Making a straight-line extrapolation to human extinction seems silly and just as unlikely as the opposite extreme on Gideon (that is, the overpopulated planet Gideon from Star Trek TOS).  But our culture and our economic success are so dependent on growth; it’s hard to know what a successful shrinking world will look like.  It will be harder to justify infrastructure in many areas.  Maybe sections of cities will be returned to open space or farm land.  More rural towns will become ghost towns.  This is a great futurist topic for science fiction – and not just dystopias.

Perhaps our thinking should combine the population trend with the “hollowing out”  of middle class jobs.  Those jobs are being lost, in part, due to technological advances.  Improved technology could mean lower prices, so maybe low-wage workers will be able to afford decent housing, good food, and entertainment.  Maybe the trends towards renting rather than owning will save people money and headaches.  If my car breaks down, I’d love to just call the cab company and say, “send me another ride now.”

The future will be different from today, and probably it will be just fine.  A major cause of population decline is improved education, most notably for women.  There is reason to hope our smarter posterity will figure it out.  We figured out a lot of our generation’s challenges.

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