The Peak Human

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the peakiest of times.

Amid the list of “peaks” (peak oil, peak medical costs, peak bad TV, etc.) is peak population. The population is going up now, but it won’t go up forever. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens in the next 40 years, the population will top out on or before 2050. Of course, if catastrophe strikes, we’ll start the downward slide rather more abruptly. Either way, it’s one of the most momentous transitions in the planet’s history, and it’s going to happen when many of the people reading this blog are still alive. Every generation tends to think of themselves as special, but it occurs to me that it’s not mere chauvinism to say big things are afoot and we have a front row seat. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the apocryphal Chinese curse.

All this made me realize something terribly obvious that hadn’t occurred to me before: there’s going to be a peak person. And when this peakster passes, that summit of humanity will never again be surpassed. Not on this planet, anyway. Furthermore, I’m in the right demographic to be the Sir Edmund Hillary of the population curve. The view from the top is bracing. It’s a long way down.

Here’s a talk by Phillip Longman on what depopulation might look like. It’s long, but he makes a number of interesting points. Hearing someone talk about the problems associated with a shrinking population reminds me of how economists manage to see the bright side of any story: “Interest rates are up… bad news!” vs. “Interest rates are down… bad news!”

Peak Everything

Our best predictions of the future, which is to say, when those predictions work, tend to be straight-line extrapolations based on trends that don’t change too much. Our worst predictions occur when previously stable trends start to do loopy nonlinear things. Trendquakes.

We’re in for a lot of those in the next few decades.

There’s a lot of talk about peaks of one kind or another, trends that have done nothing but grow in living memory now starting to reverse course. Peak oil has been a popular term since the publication of Ken Deffeyes’ book Hubbert’s Peak. The premise is that the rate at which we squeeze oil out of the ground has topped out and is now in a terminal decline. Tim O’Reilly has pointed out that we may also be in the era of peak consumption, or perhaps more aptly, peak waste.

In the American Scientist this month there’s an article that dwells not so much on the environmental concerns of burning all that oil as the limits to growth once that “free” energy starts to dry up: Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil. In it, the authors mention Richard Heinberg’s concept of peak everything.

One of the more interesting peaks is peak population. Everyone who was born in 1965 or before (hey, that’s me!) has seen the world’s population double to its current value of 6.8 billion. The world’s population will never double again. Peak population isn’t expected until 2050 or so, but there is an inescapable and sustained depopulation in our future, something that hasn’t happened in a thousand years.

Sustained depopulation will be new when it’s happening across the entire globe, but it’s happening already in more places than you might suspect. In Russia, it’s gotten so bad they call it “hypermortality”. Read about it in the World Affairs Journal: Drunken Nation: Russia‚Äôs Depopulation Bomb. Here’s another demographic snapshot of a changing world from the Wilson Quarterly: The World’s New Numbers. Birthrates are falling all over the world with the exception sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, Africa will become the global centroid of both Christianity and Islam.

The coming depopulation

My brother and his wife were recently in town for a surprise visit (my birthday). At one point, over lunch, the conversation turned to population growth and the woes of the world. I pointed out that all was not lost, since the Earth’s population was going to peak in this century and shrink for a long time to come thereafter.

I was challenged on this point and asked to provide a little support for my assertion.

The most forceful description of this situation that I’ve come across is Phillip Longman‘s talk at the Long Now Foundation entitled The Depopulation Problem. He’s written the entire speech out as a PDF file. It’s worth reading. It’s got some startling facts in it. It’s reasonably well known, for example, that industrialized countries like Japan and Italy are producing children at below the replacement rate, which is to say, they’re shrinking. Russia is shrinking at the incredible rate of three quarters of a million people every year. That’s nontrivial shrinkage.

People who are aware of this phenomenon in rich countries still generally believe that it’s more than made up for by high fertility in poor countries. But this isn’t true. Here’s what Longman says.

In no industrialized nation today is fertility high enough to prevent declining population. In countries as diverse as Italy, Japan, Spain and Korea, fertility rates are so low that population loss on the order of 30 to 50 percent per generation are in the works… Yet what is even more surprising is the rapid decline in fertility now seen in the developing world. The phenomenon of sub-replacement fertility has by now spread to ever corner and continent of the globe.

In short, Longman actually paints a gloomy picture of what a depopulating world may look like. That part is controversial, but the basic demographic premise is not: we’re done doubling the world’s population.

As further evidence of this point, look at the organization called Zero Population Growth, an organization that was founded by Mr. Population Bomb himself, Paul Ehrlich. That organization is not even called Zero Population Growth anymore. It’s called Population Connection. They still have plenty of good work to do with overcrowding and environmental issues, but even they agree that the population curve is flattening this century.

For all the wretched things going on in the world, that’s a pleasant thought.