The herd of elephants in the room

The NY Times has an opinion piece on demographics and shrinking populations.

China, the most populous country on the planet for centuries, this month reported its first population decline in six decades, a trend that is almost certainly irreversible. By the end of the century China may have only around half of the 1.41 billion people it has now, according to U.N. projections, and may already have been overtaken by India.

The news has been met with gloom and doom, often framed as the start of China’s inexorable decline and, more broadly, the harbinger of a demographic and economic “time bomb” that will strain the world’s capacity to support aging populations.

There is no doubt that a shrinking global population — a trend expected to set in by the end of this century — poses unprecedented challenges for humanity. China is only the latest and largest major country to join a club that already includes Japan, South Korea, RussiaItaly and others.

And so on. The weird thing is that the sociologist who wrote it, Wang Feng, never mentions the climate issue. How can it make sense to talk about population decline or growth without mentioning what’s happening to the planet this “shrinking global population” lives on? It’s like being on a train approaching a collapsed bridge and talking about service in the dining car.

But the alarmist warnings are often simplistic and premature. The glass is at least half full. Shrinking populations are usually part of a natural, inevitable process, and rather than focus excessively on concerns like labor shortages and pension support, we need to look at the brighter spots for our world.

But the trouble is, labor shortages and pension support are going to look like luxury issues as the climate spirals out of control.

Compared to a half-century ago, people in many countries are richer, healthier and better educated and women are more empowered. China’s population, for example, is shrinking and aging, but its people are more educated and have a longer life expectancy than at any time in the country’s history. 

Yes but. There’s that bridge up ahead.

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