Billionaires 'kvetching' about population collapse

Billionaires 'kvetching' about population collapse
© Getty Images

Some billionaires are “kvetching” — or griping — again. It’s not about high taxes, government regulations or a shortage of workers. Nor is it about climate change, environmental degradation or pollution. No, this time some billionaires are kvetching about an imagined world population collapse.

Instead of focusing on critical issues such as climate change, they have the chutzpah to claim that the greatest risk — potentially — to the future of civilization is population collapse. Moreover, they predict that in the next 20 years the biggest problem the world faces is population collapse. A major reason for an increasing world population centers on their desire for colonizing Mars and for millions of people to permanently live and work in space.

Their claim and prediction are pure “bupkis.” To be clear, world population is not likely to collapse soon and the biggest problem the world faces in the coming two decades is certainly not population collapse.

ADVERTISEMENT

The likely demographic future for the world is just the opposite of those claims. The world population, currently 7.9 billion, is increasing, and current projections expect it to reach 9.3 billion in 20 years. 

During the 20th century, the world experienced extraordinary demographic changes. The world population nearly quadrupled, growing from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.1 billion in 2000. Approximately 80 percent of that unprecedented growth occurred during the second half of the 20th century. 

The world’s most rapid rate of demographic growth and largest population increase also occurred during the second half of the 20th century. The annual growth rate of the world’s population peaked at 2.1 percent in the late 1960s, and by the century’s close declined to 1.3 percent. The peak annual increase in world population occurred in the late 1980s with the addition of 93 million.  

Today world population is growing at an annual rate of 1 percent, or about 80 million. However, the coronavirus pandemic, which increased deaths and reduced births in 2020, is believed to have affected world population growth at least in the short term. The pandemic’s long-term demographic consequences on fertility, mortality and migration rates remain uncertain

Prior to the pandemic, the world population was projected to reach 8 billion by 2023, 9 billion by 2037, 10 billion by 2056, and close to 11 billion by the close of the century. Although the world population is increasing, that demographic growth is unevenly distributed globally. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Many countries, especially in Africa, continue to grow rapidly, with their populations projected to increase by more than 100 percent by midcentury. Especially rapid population growth is projected for Niger (161 percent), Angola (128 percent), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (111 percent) and Tanzania (110 percent).

A particularly noteworthy case of population growth for a developed country is the United States. America’s population, which nearly quadrupled during the 20th century, is expected to increase, largely by immigration, by more than 50 percent during the 21st century, from 282 million to 434 million.  

In contrast, many countries, largely in Europe, were expected to experience population decline over the next three decades, even before the pandemic occurred. Among those countries whose populations are projected to decline by more than 10 percent by midcentury are Ukraine (20 percent), Japan (17 percent), Hungary (12 percent), Poland (12 percent) and Italy (11 percent). 

Another noteworthy case of expected population decline is China, currently the world’s most populous country at 1.4 billion. China’s population, which more than tripled during the past century, is growing considerably slower and is expected to be overtaken by India’s population by 2027. China’s population is projected to peak at nearly 1.5 billion in 2031 and then begin declining. Due to sustained below-replacement fertility levels, China’s population is projected to be approximately 1.1 billion by the close of the century.  

Again, to be clear, the world population is not going to collapse any time soon and the biggest problem the world faces in 20 years is not population collapse. By 2041 world population is projected to be about 9.3 billion, increasing at a rate of around 0.6 percent, or approximately 60 million annually.

To be fair, many billionaires are not kvetching about population collapse. Some billionaires have expressed concerns and written books about global warming and climate change. They have also made commitments and pledged billions of dollars to the sustainability of the planet and a carbon-neutral future. 

To reiterate, the world population is unlikely to collapse soon, and the imagined demographic outcome of some billionaires is by no means the greatest risk to the future of civilization. The most likely demographic course for the near future, and certainly during the lifespans of today’s billionaires, is continued world population growth, but at a substantially slower pace than occurred during the second half of the 20th century.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."