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Natural decline

The two big population pulses at either end of – and not uncoincidentally – the oil age – the boomers and the millennials – largely account for the “overpopulation” that the world will experience for the next couple of decades.  All else being equal though, growing the human population to somewhere between nine and ten billion would be celebrated as a triumph of science and technology over nature.  Instead, the growing population is viewed with trepidation as evidence of “overshoot” – growing beyond Planet Earth’s carrying capacity.

Not that the planet couldn’t handle 10 billion humans… so long as they were all prepared to live at a subsistence level.  The problem is that the “golden billion” in the developed states, and especially the godzillionaires at the very top – are living at a level which would require several tens of Earths to be sustainable, even if the remaining seven billion don’t get to play catch-up.

The sense of crisis though, is driven not so much by the increase in population itself, but by the jaws of a material vice.  The one jaw being the impact of our lifestyles on our natural life support systems – aka “the environment” – the other being the rapid depletion of the remaining mineral and – especially – energy resources… the hope being that the remaining resources will deplete at a fast enough pace to prevent us from rendering Earth uninhabitable to humans (although this is far from certain).

Less obviously – and simultaneously – however, humanity is facing a serious underpopulation crisis, resulting from a global collapse in birth rates.  For many years, this decline was welcomed as an entirely positive outcome flowing from progressive western policies… a view which persists in establishment media today.  For example, Roula Khalaf at the Financial Times told readers last month that:

“… the long-term drop in the fertility rate is mostly the result of positive socio-economic trends.  First, global female labour force participation and education levels have risen over the past half century.  This has led to fewer children, or having them later in life. Second, economic development, better welfare systems and lower childhood mortality have reduced the need to have several children to support financial security.”


“Richer and higher-skilled economies come with more parenting costs, as childcare and education requirements tend to be higher.  The opportunity costs of looking after kids, in lost earnings or leisure time, are also greater.  But in advanced economies today, disposable incomes available to raise children have also been squeezed by rising living costs and sluggish wage growth.  House prices have soared, and childcare support has often not kept up either.  In the UK, some estimates put the cost of raising a child to 18 above £200,000…”


“The impact of falling birth rates should not be taken lightly.  The burden of healthcare and pension spending for older populations will fall on a shrinking workforce.  That may lead to higher taxes.  Public finances will come under even greater pressure too.  Fewer youngsters in the labour market could also limit innovation and productivity growth.”

The early impact of this economic fallout can be seen here in the UK in the mismatch between its ageing workforce and its businesses need for younger workers… a problem exacerbated by the fall in births following the millennials.  Although the growing recession has taken the edge off the vacancy crisis, there are still more than 900,000 unfilled jobs – mostly in hospitality and social care roles traditionally filled by the young.  At the same time, the political class is exercised by “the missing nine million” – people aged 16 to 64 who are neither in work nor seeking work (a condition required to claim state benefits).  Notably, other than the long-term sick – whose ranks have been swelled by the collapse of the NHS following lockdown – the numbers have increased as a result of people at both ends of the age range effectively opting out – neither working nor claiming benefits.  At the young end, again resulting from lockdown, more people are staying at home to study… which lowers their living costs and so their need to take on employment – with wealthier parents also funding their children.  At the older end, also spurred by lockdown, people with access to private pensions have been taking earlier retirements, taking a cut in income rather than continue the fruitless pursuit of non-existent jobs suitable for older workers.

The broad political point here is that no amount of tightening of eligibility for state benefits is going to force people who don’t claim them back into the workforce.  And while cuts to sickness and disability benefits might make life harder for those groups, they are not, for the most part, the kind of workers that employers need.  Which leaves just two potential – but politically controversial – reforms on the table.  The first starts by recognising Blair’s expansion of student loan-funded education for what it really was… a cargo cult which conveniently hid youth unemployment behind the – often unfulfilled – promise of uninflated graduate level careers.  Simply allowing most of the UK’s – often technically bankrupt – universities to fail, would restore the remainder to their former status as elite centres of excellence while simultaneously creating the pool of young workers the economy is crying out for.

Alternatively – or perhaps simultaneously – the UK – and the west in general – is currently spending billions housing and feeding young migrant men who happen to meet most of the requirements of Britain’s missing workforce.  Currently, migrants – particularly those arriving by illegal routes – are barred from working.  But in an economy with a slumping birth rate and a growing shortage of younger workers, putting young migrants to work may well become irresistible.  Indeed, some argue that the main reason governments seem to be ignoring the growing migrant crisis is precisely because they intend putting them to work as replacements for the declining indigenous population.  In a recent post, for example, John Michael Greer argues that:

“[The global elites] through a network of nongovernmental organizations they control, are luring as many people as possible to migrate illegally to Europe and Anglophone North America.  Why?  Because if it weren’t for the ongoing flood of illegal migration, western Europe, the United States, and Canada would already be deep into population contraction, and the entire structure of power and wealth that depends on economic growth in those areas would have come apart.

“It’s a temporary gimmick at best, and not just because illegal mass migration is generating a forceful political backlash in western Europe and Anglophone North America.  The more potent issue is that birth rates are falling in the countries that until now have produced most of the immigrants…

“Exactly when there will no longer be enough migrants available to prop up the existing order of things is an interesting question.  Doubtless frantic attempts will be made to get people to have more children; there have been plenty of attempts in that direction over the last century or so, and none of them has accomplished much, but I’m sure it will be tried again.  Meanwhile demographic trends will keep sliding in the same direction because the forces driving them are not subject to political or cultural manipulation.”

The “forces” in this case boil down to energy depletion as a world two decades beyond the peak of conventional oil extraction comes to terms with more expensive and difficult energy resources causing economic costs to rise without the accompanying increase in productivity that industrial civilisation has relied upon since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  As Gail Tverberg explains:

“In today’s world, energy products of many types act to leverage human labor.  As far as I can see, growing fossil fuel consumption is the primary reason why human productivity grows.

“Oil is especially important in farming and transportation.  Coal and natural gas are important in steel and concrete manufacturing, and in providing heat for many processes.  Years ago, oil was burned for electricity, but today coal and natural gas are the fuels typically burned to provide electricity.  Fossil fuels are also important for their chemical properties in many different goods, including in plastics, fabrics, drugs, herbicides, and pesticides.

“Using renewable energy, alone, sounds like a good idea, but it is not possible in practice.  Forests were the major source of energy to support the economy before the advent for fossil fuels, but deforestation became a problem long before 1800.  The world’s population, even at one billion, was too high to sustain using biologically renewable sources alone.

“At a population of around 8 billion today, there is no way that wood, and products derived from wood, can support the energy needs of today’s population.  Doing so would be like humans trying to live on a 250 calorie a day diet instead of a 2000 calorie per day diet.

“What are referred to as modern renewables (hydroelectric power and electricity from wind turbines and solar panels) are really extensions of the fossil fuel system.  These devices can only be made and repaired using fossil fuels.  In addition, today’s electrical transmission system is only possible because of fossil fuels.”

Interestingly, Tverberg argues that we are caught in an overshoot situation which, albeit more complex, mirrors the biological overshoot seen in predator-prey relationships in the natural environment.  So that, for example, while those who self-identify as being in charge may delude themselves – and most of us – that the current population decline and “hollowing out” of the western economies is the entirely rational response to climate change, this is no more than a narrative used to cover the harder reality of energetic and economic collapse.  As Tverberg puts it:

“The real story is that fossil fuels are moving away from us.  Somehow, we must adapt, very quickly, to this disastrous situation.  But this is not a story that politicians can tell their constituents, or that universities can tell their students who are studying for future job opportunities.  Instead, they need a ‘best case’ scenario: There is perhaps something we can do; we can transition away from fossil fuel use quickly.

“It is not possible to explain to the public what is really happening.  Instead, a ‘Sour Grapes’ scenario is presented.  In this narrative, the current economy can continue, much as today, without fossil fuels.”

This takes us back to a very old philosophical conundrum concerning the extent to which people – individually and collectively – have agency, and how far they are merely blown on the fickle winds of external – and especially material – forces.  Social scientists alighted upon one or other version of Marx’s observation that:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

More recently, psychology has taught us that people have very little agency, but merely post-rationalise decisions in which they really had no choice.  But what Greer and Tverberg are pointing to is a similar process of post-rationalisation occurring at the societal level too… something which would explain our current “carbon tunnel syndrome” in which we ignore almost all of the crises resulting from overshoot except for the one – climate change – which coincidentally requires us to do that which Earth limits dictate anyway… to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

From this framework, we might re-evaluate the story we have been telling ourselves about falling birthrates.  For six decades, the story was of education in the developing world and the contraceptive pill in the west helping to liberate women from the grind of domesticity.  This though, turns out to be another “sour grapes” narrative like Tverberg’s climate change story.  The first country where the birthrate fell was Japan in the late 1960s, where the contraceptive pill was banned.  What had happened in Japan was a period of massive industrial modernisation which, among other things, drove land prices into the stratosphere – it was said that a handkerchief dropped on the floor in central Tokyo was covering land equivalent in value (or at least price) to an entire county in the UK.  And the knock-on impact of this was that both sexes had to work to afford property, and that couples only began to settle down in their thirties – when average female fertility is in steep decline.

The key statistic within the falling birthrate is the absence of growth of one-child families.  That is, people who have children tend to have two or more.  The big increase is in the number of people not having children at all.  And what began in Japan soon spread across the westernised parts of Asia, and on to Europe and North America, as the energy crisis and economic slowdown of the 1970s gathered pace. As Stephen J. Shaw explains:

“The number of childless people in the UK has grown to one in four over the past five decades, yet the number of children that mothers are having has increased slightly, from 2.3 in the 1970s to 2.4 today.  In Japan the figure for childlessness is one in three, yet 6 per cent of mothers are having four or more children, exactly the same as in 1973. In Italy two in five women are childless, while the average mother is having 2.2 children, the same as 40 years ago.  As for the US, the proportion of childless women is trending towards one in three, but the average mother is having 2.6 children, up from 2.4 in the 1970s.

“This confirms that the idea we’re moving towards smaller families is simply a myth.  Childlessness alone has driven our overall birth rates to ultra-low levels…

“There is a common misperception that most childless people never wanted children in the first place or have a medical condition that prevents them from becoming parents.  Research, however, suggests that 80 per cent of people without children are childless through circumstance, with the most common reason being not having a partner at the right time.  This is supported by my own research, where we see sudden increases in childlessness during times of major economic crises, from the oil shock that impacted Europe and Japan in 1973 to the Korean currency crisis of the mid-1990s and the near-global mortgage crisis of 2007-08.  The transition to childlessness is not explained by a societal trend towards people remaining childless by choice – it happened too fast, in the blink of a demographer’s eye – but by people feeling economically vulnerable and deferring parenthood.  And for many, that has meant never becoming a parent.”

This, remember, began long before the peak of global oil extraction – although it corresponded to the end of US oil dominance.  Rather, it marked an inflection point at which the cost of energy was too high to allow general prosperity growth to continue.  That is, while the years 1953 to 1973 across the western states had seen rich and poor enjoy rising prosperity, after 1973 the rich could only prosper at the expense of the poor.

The three key mechanics for responding to the growing economic decline also involved sour grapes narratives to cover their mercenary nature:

  • Equalities legislation was couched in progressive language, but its primary purpose was to create a pool of cheap excess labour with which to break trades unions and to drive down real wages.
  • Offshoring was sold as a means of bringing developing states up to western levels, but again, the real purpose was to lower wage costs and to avoid regulation in order to drive down prices.
  • Credit was promoted as a sensible “buy-now/pay-later” approach to consumption in an age of inflation, since economic growth was assumed, and the value of the debt was expected to deflate over time.

Notably, each of these processes has accelerated in concert with the increased cost of energy, and the impact of that higher cost on the price of everything across the economy.  In the UK, for example, almost all of the critical infrastructure was long ago flogged off to the highest-bidding foreign multinationals, while government and private debt is well past sustainable proportions.  To give just one example, the annual amount the UK government has to allocate for interest repayments would be sufficient to double the state pension… instead, British workers have seen their retirement age put back from 65 to 68-years in an unproductive attempt to make the state pension viable.

It is notable, however, that the unfolding of the post-1973 process – which eventually attracted the label “neoliberalism” – was hugely detrimental to the biological process of human reproduction.  That is, the peak age for female reproduction is just 23-years, while beyond 30-years, fertility declines steeply.  And yet economic forces dictate that young women should be pursuing careers at precisely the age that they are at their biological peak.  In the 1980s, it became common for both partners to have to work to have any chance of servicing a mortgage in a housing market which was spiking upward.  And things have got worse in the years since.  The increasing class divide between a shrinking professional-managerial class and a burgeoning precariat has left millions of men economically incapable of raising a family… which helps explain the rise of an increasingly resentful sub-population of “incels” (involuntary celibate men) and, to their detriment too, a large part of the young female population competing for the shrinking (20 percent or so) of economically and physically eligible young males.  At the same time, continued access to credit – at least until very recently – has further driven up housing costs so that young men and women are forced to spend even more of their reproductive years slogging away in soul-destroying jobs just to keep a roof over their heads… something they may post-rationalise but which nobody seriously believes they are doing by choice.

In the natural world, we see this playing out in the symbiotic dancing of fauna, prey animals, and predator animals.  If the lichen prospers, so too do the deer.  And as the deer population rises, the wolves grow fat.  But if the wolves are too successful, the deer population collapses, and the wolves die off again.  Not only this, but also if the deer are too successful the lichen gets consumed, and the deer population collapses, taking the wolves with them.  The human dance – because it substitutes fossil fuels and technologies for lichen and deer – may be more complex, but the drivers and the direction of travel are all too familiar.  Wolves are not the only thing which reduces the population of hungry deer – falling birthrates resulting from malnutrition also play their part.  In the human world, it is the rising energy cost of energy which creates a kind of economic malnutrition – an inability to prosper from productivity growth, which makes essentials like food, and housing too expensive – which is already causing birthrates to fall even as we pass peak life expectancy.  The latter means that – the discovery and utilisation of some new energy-dense energy source aside – the human population will stall at around nine billion twenty to thirty years from now.  The former, however, is forcing a further economic decline already… and the consequences are going to be as devastating as any of the environmental nightmares being conjured by the climate lobby.

Economic growth across the western states since the 1970s has been increasingly an illusion resulting from a growing and indebted population.  But now, with the youth population in decline, any “asset” which depends upon a growing mass of payers – a house, a pension, a government bond, a collateralised debt obligation, an apple i-phone, or a Netflix subscription, to name but a few – will be rendered unviable… only the order and timing of the failures is left to discover.  And beyond that, all that remains is when the various sour grapes narratives – including the one about how some all-powerful “they” behind the curtain is doing this deliberately – finally breakdown and people are forced to acknowledge the reality of a natural process of collapse which has been slowly gathering pace for more than half a century.

As you made it to the end…

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