The upside of population collapse

From the April 2023 print edition

I find economics endlessly interesting because it addresses the most fundamental problem that each of us faces in life: how do I get what I want? One of the first notable economists was Thomas Malthus, born in 1766. His thesis was that as food production increased so would population. Subsistence was the best we could hope for. This is why economics was termed the “dismal science.” Our species would never be able to progress.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka is a tenured professor at George Brown College. He hosts a weekly podcast about wagering on professional football. His website is

Growing up, I heard variations on this theme. In 1968, Stanford economist Paul Ehrlich published a book called The Population Bomb, which argued that widespread starvation was imminent.

Things didn’t work out that way. From 1968 to today, global population has grown from approximately 3.5 billion to eight billion. During this period, not only has the percentage of people living in extreme poverty plummeted, but the absolute number has gone down, as well. The facts almost defy belief.

According to World Bank estimates, at the end of last year, about 685 million people lived in extreme poverty, so things continue to get better.

Why am I pointing this out? Alarmism is always going to be with us. It could be environmental alarmism. I, for one, am so tired of the phrase “existential threats.” But I digress. We’ve seen economic alarmism before and we’re seeing it again.

Here’s the latest version. A new demographic crisis is looming.

The problem will not be (as Malthus predicted) that there will be too many people. The problem is that there will be too few! What is so interesting about this thesis is that while there is an element of truth to it, upon closer examination it collapses in on itself.

One country is being held up as the canary in the coal mine for this phenomenon and it is the People’s Republic of China. Two years ago, China was the most populous country in the world. This is no longer true. It has been surpassed by India. According to Worldometer, there are currently 1,454,000,000 Chinese citizens. That same source estimates that its population will peak in 2030 and by 2050, there will be approximately four per cent fewer Chinese nationals. Then it will be downhill (in numbers) from there. Some demographers estimate that by 2100, its population could be cut in half.

Things are different in Canada. Let me return to Worldometer.

It estimates that our current population is 38.7 million and it is expected to increase at a constant rate until we reach 45.7 million strong by 2050. But here’s the important distinction. This growth is due entirely to immigration. For native-born Canadians to maintain the current population (or replacement level), each Canadian woman on average would have to bear 2.1 children. The latest numbers indicate that the rate is 1.4. If we didn’t welcome the best and the brightest from the rest of the world, our population would already be in a downward spiral.

Canada is a developed country. Some consider China developed as well. I have heard the argument made that sub-replacement fertility is directly correlated with wealth. That is, the richer a country becomes, the fewer children per woman. But what is fascinating is that even many developing countries are below replacement rate. In Brazil, it’s 1.65 births per woman, which is a far cry from the 6.1 which was the number in the year that I was born. Iran’s rate is 1.7. The only region in the world where population continues to grow is Africa and more specifically, sub-Saharan Africa.

There are different theories about why women having fewer children has more or less become a universal phenomenon. I have my own opinion, but it’s that, an opinion. What I’m here to discuss are the implications of a global population that is simultaneously smaller and older. The bottom line is there’s nothing to worry about. Robotics and technology will mean that fewer people and more machines will satisfy production. People will choose to work longer because this is the only way to maintain the desired standard of living and qualify of life. We will stop warehousing our adult children in wasteful and corrupt institutions of “higher learning” where they learn nothing valuable while taking on debt.

This is why I find economics simultaneously endlessly interesting and at its core essentially optimistic. Economics is the anti-dismal science. As long as the invisible hand of the marketplace is allowed to do its magic, as long as utility-maximizing individuals are allowed to pursue their self-interest, everything will work itself out. It might be that the global population declines, but doesn’t that mean that on a per capita basis there will be more resources for those who will be inhabiting the planet? Yes, that’s exactly what it means and that doesn’t sound too bad to me.