The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Pay less attention to the population doomsters and gloomsters, urges Darrell Bricker, who sees the glass as very much half-full. Human ingenuity and adaptiveness have seen us thrive as a species so far, and even the daunting power of artificial intelligence will be no match for us.
Is the big difference between the projections in Empty Planet and those of the United Nations simply that global population will peak earlier and at a smaller number?
Yes, that’s basically what we suggest. Now, that’s not based on unique estimates that John Ibbitson and I came up with; that’s the growing consensus, I would say, among demographers. There’s a very interesting article that came out in The Lancet magazine in November  in which a whole series of demographers went and re-examined all of the data, and all of the estimates they have from just about every country are lower than what the UN has. And if you accept that what the UN says is true, which is that the biggest driver of population growth going forward is going to continue to be birth, then one has to wonder how it is that we can continue to stick with the estimate of 11.2 billion people. I don’t think that there’s really a reasonable debate at this stage of the game that suggests that 11.2 billion and decline after that is really realistic.
It seems that not many people are making plans for the population rise, whether it’s to a peak of nine billion or 11 billion. So how does it really change anything at a policy level?
Well, what it changes, I think, is your estimates going forward of what the composition of the population is going to be and where it’s going be living, and how big it’s ultimately going to be. One thing I do agree with the UN on is that there’s been a massive migration. The biggest migration in human history is taking place right now, and its people moving from the countryside to the city. So really the topic of what the management of humanity is going to be going forward is really more around how we’re going to accommodate all of these people in cities, and how are we going to move them around, how are we going to provide for them, how are we going to be able to deal with the pressure that’s going to come on everything from housing through to healthcare.
The other part of that is that we’re not talking about a population that looks like the population today. Not only is it going to be incredibly urban, it’s also going to be increasingly old and increasingly female, so it’s going be a different population than the one that exist on the face of the earth today.
And the other major trend is population decline, happening at the same time as population rise?
Exactly. China, for example, is one of the biggest stories in all of this. I mean, 35%-36% of the world’s population lives in two countries, China and India. I’m seeing reports in the last couple of weeks that some demographers are claiming that India has already passed China as the most populous country in the world. China, even using the UN’s estimates, is going to lose 300 million people this century. Estimates that I’m seeing from the other demographers suggest it could be as high as 500 or 600 million people. That’s an enormous number of people leaving the human population, and just in one country.
Your book outlines how once the declines starts it will never end. Can you describe the process you’re imagining? How would it manifest itself, and why is it so unlikely to reverse or halt?
Well, because of a few reasons. The first one is that once you get stuck in what demographers call the low fertility trap, which is the idea of the sociological preference, the cultural preferences for smaller families, everybody adopts that preference. It becomes fairly universal. We did a survey in which we asked people in 25 countries, “what’s the ideal number of kids in a family?” and regardless of where you go it’s two. So once you get stuck in that situation of low fertility, and it is around replacement rate or slightly lower, it just steamrolls going into the future. And if the smaller family becomes the cultural reality like it is in China now today, or increasingly in places like India, then that’s the population pattern that you can expect.
The other thing that happens is that the one thing that we haven’t changed is the biology of creating people. So we almost universally today create human beings the old-fashioned way. But if that’s the way that we continue to create human beings, while women are changing – and this really is a story about women – women are changing the way that they participate in that process. So even in developing markets now, they’re getting married in many countries later, if they get married at all. They’re having their first kid older than when their mother or their grandmother did, and then they’re having fewer of them. So the problem that you have with that is, when you take out the most productive years of someone’s reproductive capability, so between the ages usually of about 18 and 35, well, if you’re staying in school till you’re 30, then you’re taking a pretty big chance on whether or not you’re actually going to be able to have your two. And the one thing that we haven’t changed in all of humanity about reproduction other than we still do it the old-fashioned way is, when it effectively ends for women. And that’s usually around the age of 45. If you condense everything in terms of human reproduction between the ages of 30 and 45, when you cut that other time out, you’ve already created this phenomenon that is not only cultural, but is now biological.
Imagine people on a spaceship ageing as they move through time and space, that portion of the population that can actually create new human beings, which are women between the ages of about 18 and 45, is getting smaller and smaller.
So where will it end up?
Well, as with anything, I think that at some point, there’s going to be a natural stasis point, where it’s going to be a reflection of the biological and cultural realities, and what that number is going to be and how small it’s going to get, nobody knows.
You focus very much on the fate of humans. What about the potential environmental dividend of this reduced population and falling number of consumers on the planet?
We found one study that suggests that just the changing of the human population has a positive effect on climate change. The other thing is, it’s not just the size of the human population, it’s the distribution of the human population. So, if we are moving more and more to urban areas, that means things like marginal farm land, for example, all of a sudden reverts to nature.
I would expect the technology and improved farming techniques, just as they’ve improved things in the past, are going to continue to improve things in the future. And a lot of that marginal farmland that’s still being farmed is going to revert to back to nature. So when I see David Attenborough on TV talking about the future of the giraffe, or the future of the elephant and saying encroachment of human beings is going to be the biggest impact on that, I have to say, “Well, Sir David, maybe you should rethink that idea, because maybe there aren’t as many human beings in the world as we think there’s going to be, and secondly, maybe they’re not going to be distributed as you’re assuming they will be.”
Do you have an optimum number for a sustainable human civilisation? Paul Erlich still claims it’s two billion.
No, I don’t have a number. The combination of millenarian/Malthusians have an incredible record of just getting it wrong. We are actually sustaining the human population today. Steven Pinker’s work is quite instructive on this. All of those things that usually are markers of human progress, all of them have been improving. Everything from declining violence to declining child mortality. There are no famines in the world today that are other than those caused by humans through war or civil strife or something of that nature. Just look at longevity: I think the average person in 1960 lived to the age of around 50, they’re now living into their mid-60s. In China, the average person back in 1950 lived to the age of 40 years old. Today, they’re living into their late 70s and early 80s. So if things are so dire and so we’re going to-blow-up-tomorrow because of this huge weight of humanity, well, if you look at the facts, it’s just not true.
What about equity internationally? Are Africa and the Middle East going to benefit from a demographic dividend?
Well, yes, and that’s the hope. To the extent that human brain power and human physical power is going to be necessary to drive the future, this puts places like Africa, if they can ever get their act together politically, in a pretty good place, but I think anybody who’s bet on Africa over the space of the last few decades is still waiting for that one to pay off.
In the coming years, do you expect robots and AI to displace as many jobs as feared?
No. It always amazes me the degree to which futurists just don’t get the future. Don’t forget that robots don’t go shopping and don’t consume. They don’t pay taxes either. And so, when I hear all of this stuff about AI and robotics and everything that’s related to what new technology is going to be, my view is, it never survives the way that we intended it to survive after coming into contact with human beings. The internet was developed for the defence community and for academic researchers. Nobody ever thought of Netflix. The human species is incredibly innovative, incredibly adaptive, and my personal view is we’ll do just fine in the future. There’s going to be adjustments that are going to have to be made. There’s going to be all sorts of discussions about technology, particularly when it comes into the issue of jobs, but also things like privacy. Technology, globalization, people’s sense of culture and community, a sense of privacy, personal ownership… all of these things are going to collide as we move into the future. But I’m a perpetual glass half-full kind of guy. So I think that humanity will work out a way to deal with this, but exactly how it all is going to work, I don’t think it’s that easy to predict.
The UN predicts the global population of sub-Saharan Africa by mid-century will be over four billion. What do you think the potential implications are?
Well, it’s a young population and the assumption is that it will behave the same as previous populations. I don’t know if that’s right. The same phenomena that are happening in the rest of the world are happening in Africa. So there’s going to be a downward pressure on their population eventually, but they do have a young population and it will continue to grow. Will it get to four billion? I really, really question that.
But potentially there will be millions of surplus young, under trained, unemployed people particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Is this a recipe for unrest or tensions?
Yes. It’s proven to be a recipe for global unrest in the past. When you have large populations of young men – and by the way, there’s always more young men born than young women – it’s never good news. The potential for civil strife in that situation is very high. I came across some research recently that looked at the history of countries that had a greater prevalence for war, and they were always countries that had a higher proportion of younger men over older men. So, say for example if it was 8-to-1, that would mean there’d be eight people trying to fill the job of the one person, creating a restless type of environment. We’ve done research in the Middle East, and if you want to know what’s driving Islamic fundamentalism, it’s exactly that issue.
Throw in two other countries that have a related problem right now: China and India. Because of their heavy male selection at birth and their disproportionate gender ratios, I’ve seen estimates of 30 to 60 million women missing from both populations. So it could be 60 to 120 million in total missing from their population. And that’s a lot of men who are not going to find wives.
Eventually, aren’t most countries going to become more adaptive to migrants, as Canada is, and often cited by you as a good example of multiculturalism?
It depends on what form you’re talking of. I recently spoke to a Japanese demographer who said, “You know, we look with a certain amount of admiration at Dubai.” He meant the idea of guest workers. So there’s going to be different versions of that discussion happening all over the world. As John and I observe in our book, many countries might be too Chinese or too German or too British to contemplate the type of change that’s taking place in Canada. And it’s a big source of populism around the world. Populism is essentially an output of nativism. It’s not really about economics. It’s really about nativism culture. So when they see too much change happening around them too fast… And by too much and too fast, I’m saying their definition of too much and too fast, they strike back through the political system.
The Sustainable Development Goals and the global compacts on migration and refugees have many aspects relating to the role of migration and increasing mobility. Do you think these provisions or aspirations are enough, or do we need a completely new vision to deal with the world’s migration and refugee or displacement question?
I think there’s two issues that we have to deal with. One is a calibration issue, which is really understanding the numbers that we’re dealing with and the population dynamics in the source countries, because I think we need to get that right. One of the things that concerns me about the UN these days is this use of data to push political positions. On refugees and migration, they’re right that the absolute number is higher than it’s ever been, but the truth is, given the growth in the human population, the percentage of people who are going through those experiences right now is actually quite low. Telling people that the problem is overwhelming just overwhelms them. I think we have to put it in its proper proportion. I wish that we could have that conversation using a real clear understanding of what the data is. And the second thing is, people who are advocates for migration and refugees have got a big job to do to explain to people who these people are and why it works for them in their countries to have these people that make these moves, because the other side is doing a very good job of demonising all that.
Why aren’t the advocates winning the argument?
We have to stop talking about macroeconomics and get down to the microeconomics to explain the benefits of refugees and migrants: what affects people’s lives. At Ipsos, we have a survey we do in around 28 countries that we call “What worries the world?” – the most important issues facing the world today. And immigration is down near the bottom of the list of 20, and climate change is like number 50. What do people say they care about? Number one is corruption. But the second issue is really the big problem, and that’s the virtue signalling and the finger wagging and the questioning of people’s morality and hearts if they have in some instances genuine concerns about how migration is changing their community. We need to engage with those people effectively rather than lecturing them and stiffening their spines. And the problem that we’ve got right now is that we enjoy the virtue so much, and how it makes us feel personally, that we’re losing the war as a result of it.
The discussion has become so very polemical now…
Well yes, and all of these issues are now moving past the question of the real people that are going through these experiences, and they’ve all become symbols. It’s like climate change has moved past a real serious discussion about climate and data and real solutions, into symbolism, and people manipulating symbols, and the same thing’s happening with the refugee and immigration issue. The problem that the people who are advocates have is they’re getting beaten roundly by the people who are on the other side of this argument, who are better at manipulating the symbols than the advocates are, for their political landscape.
How do you see the future? Are you pessimistic, optimistic, dystopian or utopian?
Incredibly optimistic, because I think that human beings have an incredible capacity to adapt. And the species that we are today is not the species that we were 50 years ago, maybe even 20 years ago. We have a tremendous ability to use knowledge and information over time to make the right decisions. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems or calamities along the way. But I think human beings have a way of adapting to the betterment of at least their species over time, and I think any way that you can measure it, it is getting better. And I absolutely reject these arguments that we’re doomsday-plus-two-years or whatever, that people run around talking about. It’s just preposterous.