The Problem of Population Decline

The more discussed problem is that of population increase: can a nation or the planet support a continuous increase in the population? Eventually, the limited amount of land and resources must limited the number of persons who can live in a limited area of land.

But what would happen if the population declines continuously?

Over at National Catholic Register, Matt Archbold comments: College Prof: You Have No Right to More Than One Child. “A philosophy professor at Bowdoin College, Sarah Conly, really misses China’s One-Child policy. I mean, really misses it.” She thinks that perhaps the whole world should have a one-child per married couple policy.

First, let’s do some simple math. Since the time of Christ, 2000 years ago, we have had 80 generations of 25 years each. A generation is the average number of years from the birth of one person to the birth of that person’s children. Some persons bear children at a younger age, and some at a later age, so this is a rough approximation. But let’s say that approximately 40 generations occupies 1,000 years, which means that every 10 generations occupies 250 years.

The current world population is 7.2 billion persons. Not everyone lives to reach their adult years, and not everyone marries or bears children. But let’s say that the “one-child” policy applies to everyone, and we’ll simply things by assuming everyone grow up, married, and produces a single offspring. First, subtract 2.2 billion, for persons who are currently still children. They are the next generation. Then subtract 0.85 billion for elderly adults in the world (over 60 years). They are the previous generation. The result is 4.15 billion persons in the “current” generation, who are, as a group, still producing children.

A universal one-child policy reduces each generation by half. Actually, it would reduce each generation by more than half, since some persons would die before marrying, and some would never marry, or never have kids. So a reduction by half is an over-estimate. Even so, the world population would quickly decline. In ten generations (250 years), we would have 4 million persons in that generation (plus persons from the next and previous generations, perhaps doubling the number), worldwide. In 15 generations, we’d have 126 thousand persons for that generation. And by the 20th generation, we’d have only 4000 persons in that generation (double it for the whole population still alive). Ten more generations reduces the number to 3 persons (in theory). But since we are overestimating each generation, the human race would perish, in this calculation well before that 30th generation.

So a literal one-child policy is unsustainable beyond a limited number of generations. But that analysis is merely based on numbers. What would happen to society if there was a severe population decline: to one half or one third or one fourth of the current world population?

Civilization requires a large number of persons, working together, dividing up the work to be done into many different roles. Modern civilization requires a very large number of persons and roles. You can’t have 10,000 persons working for NASA, unless you have a total population of hundreds of millions. You can’t have very many persons working in research and technology without a large base of consumers to whom you will sell those products.

Eventually, the population decline causes the collapse of research and development, a decline in science, and a slowing of new commercial products. As the decline continues, one industry after another would collapse. Many industries require a large customer base to be viable: the cell phone system, the production of televisions and computers, and all the hardware, software, and person-hours of work that support the internet. As the population decline continues, one modern system after another would fail: cell phone communication, the internet, cable TV, the production of crude oil, gasoline, and motor vehicles, etc. The world agricultural system would also collapse, since it requires fuel, farm vehicles, fertilizer, and a transportation system for moving supplies and food around the nation and the world.

Long before we reached the point of not having enough persons to sustain the human race, we would reach the point of a collapse of modern civilization. The only resources would be local resources. Most types of technology would be unavailable, and there would be no gasoline or other fuel, and no new products in stores. The population would have to focus on growing their own food, and obtaining the resources needed to heat their homes in cold weather. Medicine would be reduced to a rudimentary state. Hospitals would quickly run out of medications and supplies. Life would be mainly about survival.

I don’ know at what population level modern society would collapse. But it would not take even 10 generations (4 million persons in that generation, 8 million worldwide) of decline by halves. A decline to one third or one half of the current population would be enough to devastate all major industries: food, power, transportation, communication, manufacturing, etc.

So the one-child policy is civilization-suicide.

In the realm of eschatology, I should point out the well-known prediction that the Three Days of Darkness will leave the world population greatly reduced, perhaps to one third or one fourth of the current population. My view is that the first part of the tribulation reduces the world population by about one third, and the Three Days of Darkness takes away another third, leaving modern civilization reduced to a very rudimentary state.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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