A study commissioned by the Club of Rome and published on Monday found that the world population is approaching its peak and will begin declining swiftly after the middle of the 21st Century, averting the “population bomb” scenario in which longer lifespans, more abundant food, and better medical treatments cause the human race to overwhelm the capacity of the Earth to sustain it.
The “population bomb” thesis derives its name from the sensationalistic, and later thoroughly discredited, 1968 book by Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s fanciful book touched off a worldwide overpopulation panic, presenting grim scenarios of imminent mass starvation and resource shortages that did not come to pass. He was also a pioneer of the junk science movement, which used flimsy research and sensationalistic hypotheses to stampede public policy changes.
Ehrlich has refused to give up on his theory, popping up in left-wing media as recently as 2022 as an “expert” on environmental issues without any mention of his rough treatment at the hands of objective reality.
Ehrlich has recalibrated his projections of overpopulation doom several times, essentially arguing that he underestimated technological innovations and the discovery of fresh natural resources in his original prediction, but was still correct that the human population would eventually reach a tipping point; he was merely a bit off in calculating how high the apocalyptic population figure would be.
The Club of Rome study published on Monday, conducted by a consortium of environmental and economic research organizations, could prove to be the final defusing of Ehrlich’s population bomb.
According to the study, earlier United Nations predictions of the human population reaching ten billion in the coming century were wildly incorrect. Instead, the global population will, the study found, peak at about 8.8 billion in the middle of the century — rising from about 7.8 billion today — and decline rapidly afterward.
It should be noted that the Club of Rome is hardly sanguine about humanity’s impact on the planet. The new study is part of an event called “The Limits to Growth+50,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Club’s grim population-bomb book in 1972. The Limits to Growth+50 report does not admit that the original “Limits to Growth” publication was wildly inaccurate; instead, it argues that some good policy choices were made over the past five decades and more are urgently needed to minimize human impact on the environment.
In other words, there is no soul-searching about junk science to be found here. Instead, the researchers told the UK Guardian on Monday they used “a new methodology which incorporates social and economic factors that have a proven impact on birthrate, such as raising education levels, particularly for women, and improving income” and concluded the population is leveling off — but possibly not fast enough to save the Earth from the virus of humanity:
In the business-as-usual case, it foresees existing policies being enough to limit global population growth to below 9 billion in 2046 and then decline to 7.3 billion in 2100. This, they warn, is too little too late: “Although the scenario does not result in an overt ecological or total climate collapse, the likelihood of regional societal collapses nevertheless rises throughout the decades to 2050, as a result of deepening social divisions both internal to and between societies. The risk is particularly acute in the most vulnerable, badly governed and ecologically vulnerable economies.”
In the second, more optimistic scenario – with governments across the world raising taxes on the wealthy to invest in education, social services and improved equality – it estimates human numbers could hit a high of 8.5 billion as early as 2040 and then fall by about a third to about 6 billion in 2100. Under this pathway, they foresee considerable gains by mid-century for human society and the natural environment.
“By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions are about 90% lower than they were in 2020 and are still falling,” according to the report. “Remaining atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial processes are increasingly removed through carbon capture and storage. As the century progresses, more carbon is captured than stored, keeping the global temperature below 2C above pre-industrial levels. Wildlife is gradually recovering and starting to thrive once again in many places.”
In other words, population-bomb hysteria is fading in light of the easily observable tendency of advanced industrial societies to experience sharp declines in birth rate, a sort of built-in limiting system that is proving to be inescapable even in totalitarian China, where the government thought it could order bigger families as easily as it once mandated abortions.
The “Limits to Growth+50” report alluded several times to increasing educational and career prospects for women as a factor in this phenomenon. Population growth requires young people to begin having children at the height of fertility so they can raise large families. The same industrialized prosperity and technological advancements that primed the population bomb by lengthening lifespans and providing abundant food also turned out to have an inherent limiting factor: young women are less willing to sacrifice income, educational prospects, lifestyle, and career to begin having children before middle age.
The report noted that sharp demographic decline can be a major problem, as it causes the workforce to contract between generations, leaving a large number of older people with fewer young workers to sustain them — or finance their government benefits. This, in turn, could leave nations in an advanced state of demographic decline without the funds to implement the environmental proposals favored by the Club of Rome.
“This gives us evidence to believe the population bomb won’t go off, but we still face significant challenges from an environmental perspective. We need a lot of effort to address the current development paradigm of overconsumption and overproduction, which are bigger problems than population,” report author Ben Callegari told the Guardian.