The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future

The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future

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by Fred Pearce

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A leading environmental writer looks at the unexpected effects—and possible benefits—of a shrinking, graying population
Over the last century, the world’s population quadrupled and fears of overpopulation flared, with baby booms blamed for genocide and terrorism, and overpopulation singled out as the primary factor driving global…  See more details below


A leading environmental writer looks at the unexpected effects—and possible benefits—of a shrinking, graying population
Over the last century, the world’s population quadrupled and fears of overpopulation flared, with baby booms blamed for genocide and terrorism, and overpopulation singled out as the primary factor driving global warming. Yet, surprisingly, it appears that the population explosion is past its peak—by mid-century, the world’s population will be declining for the first time in over seven hundred years. In The Coming Population Crash, veteran environmental writer Fred Pearce reveals the dynamics behind this dramatic shift and describes the environmental, social, and economic effects of our surprising demographic future.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Well-written and important. . . . The book discusses the impact of the green revolution, massive migration, the Chinese one-child family programme, declining birth rates in the developing world, the rise of death rates in Russia, and more. Even those of us who have been in the population business for half a century can learn from its coverage of controversial topics. We hope [The Coming Population Crash] will convince many decision-makers, especially in the U.S., that they ignore population issues at their peril.”—Paul and Anne Ehrlich, New Scientist
“[Pearce] weaves the views of many of the world’s top demographers together with first-hand reporting from the slums of Mumbai and ghost towns of east Germany to bring to life what could easily have turned into a drab bit of statistical analysis. It doesn’t.”—Danny Fortson, Sunday Times (London)
“[A] fascinating analysis of how global population trends have shaped, and been shaped by, political and cultural shifts . . . Highly readable and marked by first-class reportage."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Fascinating [and] optimistic.” —Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

Publishers Weekly
“Demography is destiny. But not always in the way we imagine,” begins Pearce (When the Rivers Run Dry) in his fascinating analysis of how global population trends have shaped, and been shaped by, political and cultural shifts. He starts with Robert Malthus, whose concept of overpopulation—explicitly of the uneducated and poor classes—and depleted resources influenced two centuries of population and environmental theory, from early eugenicists (including Margaret Sanger) to the British colonial administrators presiding over India and Ireland. Pearce examines the roots of the incipient crash in global population in decades of mass sterilizations and such government interventions as Mao's one child program. Many nations are breeding at less then replacement numbers (including not only the well-publicized crises in Western Europe and Japan, but also Iran, Australia, South Africa, and possibly soon China and India). Highly readable and marked by first-class reportage, Pearce's book also highlights those at the helm of these vastly influential decisions—the families themselves, from working-class English families of the industrial revolution to the young women currently working in the factories of Bangladesh. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran environmental journalist peeks into the future and reports some surprisingly good news. Beginning with Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 1700s, the study of human populations has been dicey, attracting its share of crackpots and doomsayers, many of whom have warned against the "folly of philanthropy" and touted pernicious practices from forced sterilization to euthanasia. Demographers' predictions also have a history of being spectacularly wrong-e.g., Paul Ehrlich, whose The Population Bomb (1968) forecast the starving death of billions in the 1980s. Pearce's forthright recounting of this dubious record helps establish credibility bolstered further by his worldwide travel and informative interviews. The post-World War II decades of maximum population growth, he writes, the greatest surge in our history, are coming to an end. With contraception a near universal technology and with women now clearly in charge of their reproductive futures, soon after 2020 "the world's population is primed to start falling for probably the first time since the Black Death in the fourteenth century." New Scientist consultant Pearce (Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff, 2008, etc.) foresees a "kinder, gentler, wiser, and greener world," a "low-mortality, low-fertility future" with "tribal elders" (dominated by women) taking center stage. Before entering this Promised Land we must first navigate a demographic "youth bulge," the cohort responsible for much of today's terrorism; apply new technologies to conserve environmental resources and stave off the worst effects of climate change; and curb rising consumption, a trend that threatens to negate advantages gained fromdefusing the population bomb. The author pictures an increasingly migratory world population-New York City today features more first-generation immigrants than at any other time in its history-and discovers silver linings even in megacity slums, which contain illustrative strategies for sustainable living. Consistently interesting, informative and inspiring reporting. Agent: Jessica Woollard/The Marsh Agency

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Demography is destiny. But not always in the ways we imagine. It underlies much of our world, shifting the tectonic plates on which our civilization is built. Never has that been more true than today. Wherever we look, population issues are among the most toxic headline-grabbers. From Gaza to Grozny and Rwanda to Afghanistan, baby booms are blamed for war and genocide. Festering slums burst into tribal violence in Kenya. Teenage terrorists lurk in refugee camps and overcrowded madrassas. Migrants from poor, overbreeding states are flooding Europe and North America. Overpopulation is the unspoken driver of environmental destruction. Millions of environmental refugees will soon be fleeing from spreading deserts and drowned deltas, as China’s billionplus inhabitants undermine all efforts to halt climate change.
The stats seem scary, too. The world’s population is approaching seven billion—four times what it was a century ago. Never have there been so many mothers, and with half the people in some countries under sixteen years old, there are billions more baby-makers in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the world’s masses are on the move. Some 200 million people go to bed in a country different from the one they were born in.
No wonder the language is bleak. Dickensian. Malthusian. It’s Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s Armageddon. We fear an overpopulated world teeming with the dispossessed and the alienated, the fanatical and the fascist, the wetbacks and the snakeheads, the Humvee-driving superpolluters and the dirt-poor deforesters. Surely we are racing to demographic disaster.
And yet slamming on the brakes seems almost as dangerous. For meanwhile, the insurgency of the old is looming. We are all living longer, healthier lives. Life expectancy has doubled since the 1950s. Back when I was born, 150 babies out of every thousand died before their first birthday. I could have been one of them. Now only fifty die. Should we cherish or fear this? Is good luck for the world’s babies bad luck for the planet? It is sometimes said that more than half of all the people who have lived on the earth are alive today. This is nonsense. Just under 7 billion of the total human roll call of 100 billion are alive today. But what may well be true is that half of all the people who have ever managed to reach the age of sixty-five are alive today.
But don’t despair. There is something you may not have guessed— something that may save us all. The population “bomb” is being defused. Only gradually, because the children of the greatest population explosion in history are still mostly of childbearing age, but it is happening. They may be having seven children in Mali, and six in Afghanistan, but half of the world’s women are now having two children or fewer—not just in rich countries, but in Iran and parts of India, Burma and Brazil, Vietnam and South Africa. Mothers today have fewer than half as many offspring as their own mothers. This is happening mostly out of choice and not compulsion. Women have always wanted freedom, not domestic drudgery and the childbirth treadmill. And now that most of their babies survive to adulthood, they are grabbing it.
This book is the story of the peoplequake, the dramatic convulsion of the world’s population that began with the Industrial Revolution and continues today. It is the story of how the tectonic plates of human population are shifting, and what this means for us and future generations. We see those plates shifting in the mosques of Iran and the slums of Mumbai; the vodka shops of Moscow and the killing fields of Rwanda; the demographic battlegrounds of Israel and the laid-back saunas of Stockholm.
If you are over forty-five, you have lived through a period when the world population has doubled. No past generation has experienced such an era—and probably no future generation will either. But if you are under forty-five, you will almost certainly live to see a world population that is declining—for the first time since the Black Death, almost seven hundred years ago. And it may happen soon. Demographers pre dict that, as during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the global recession that began in 2009 will encourage people to give up on babies for the duration.
The future will be a different world in other ways, too. The average citizen of the world today is under thirty. Before he or she dies, the average will probably be over fifty. In parts of aging Europe, there are already fewer than two taxpaying workers to support every pensioner. Book your places now for the global old folks’ home. But the quake is not just about numbers. It is about age and sex and women’s rights and war and migration; about the rise and fall of nations and, some fear, the end of the family. It is about environmental limits and climate change and the fertility of soils and minds.
The story opens with Bob Malthus, a morose eighteenth-century vicar spooked by two revolutions—the French and the Industrial— counting his stunted parish flock and imagining our demographic doom. From the Irish potato famine to Rwanda, the story follows the evolution of Malthusian fears of overpopulation. It tracks the terrifying logic of the twentieth-century eugenics scientists and the concerns of their birth-controlling successors who imposed coercive family planning in China, India, and elsewhere. It catches up with the new century’s migrants and refugees and pensioners and, diminishing in number though they are, the babies of our planet.
It explores how demography drove the rise of the Asian tiger economies and China’s economic miracle—and how it will soon undermine them both. It charts shrinking Europe, and how by midcentury Russia could have fewer people than Yemen. It follows the declining power of Catholic and Islamic clerics alike to lay down the law in the bedroom. It takes the political temperature of the “youth bulge” creating mayhem in the Middle East.
Most of all, it investigates the baby boom generation, born during the late twentieth century as world birth rates for a while reached double the death rates. The baby boomers are now adults, driving the global economy. But soon they will grow old.
And as the baby boomers start to die, global deaths will exceed global births. One way or another, their fate will be the fate of us all, for the boomers changed the planet. They were born into a world of resource abundance and will leave behind a world of profound resource scarcity. They brought us peak population, and with it peak oil and peak mining and peak trade and peak pollution. They will leave behind peak temperatures, too.
Have they done so much damage to the planet that the worst environmental nightmares are about to come true? Was the British government’s chief scientist right to say in early 2009 that we face a “perfect storm” of food, energy, and water shortages by 2030? Was the Gaia scientist Jim Lovelock right to argue in his ninetieth year that the result will be “death on a grand scale from famine and lack of water . . . a reduction to a billion people or less” by 2100?
Many believe so. But haven’t we heard such fears before? Malthus, of course. But also William Vogt, the forgotten hero of the environmental movement, who captured the world’s attention with similar warnings in 1948, and Paul Ehrlich, whose Population Bomb repeated those warnings in 1968. None have come true—yet. So could the techno-optimists be right that our ingenuity will see us through to a new age? This is the first time in history that we have been able to foresee with some certainty a decline in our numbers. It means that if we can accommodate the imminent population peak, survival on planet Earth ought to become easier. That is not a cause for complacency. There are some choppy waters ahead, for sure, especially over climate change. We will need all our ingenuity to get through that, and to find ways to feed the eight or nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2040. But it could be a cause for hope as well. Optimism, even. Should we look forward to the benefits of a return to center stage of the tribal elders? Might the final legacy of aging boomers be a greener, happier, and more frugal world?

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Meet the Author

Fred Pearce is an award-winning former news editor at New Scientist. Currently its environmental and development consultant, he has also written for Audubon, Popular Science, Time, the Boston Globe, and Natural History, and writes a regular column for the Guardian. He has been honored as UK environmental journalist of the year, among his other awards. His many books include When the Rivers Run Dry, With Speed and Violence(Beacon / 8573-8 / $16.00 pb), and Confessions of an Eco-Sinner (Beacon / 8595-0 / $16.00 pb). Pearce lives in England.

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