we’ll hit peak humanity soon, and we don’t know what happens next

It looks like our future is fewer humans, not more. And while that may be good for our long-term survival, it means rethinking our economic and political systems.
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For a while, just about every piece of sci-fi that talked about humans colonizing other worlds was based on the premise that Earth was overran and polluted into a hellish, toxic desert, or turned into clusters of massive hive cities shrouded in carcinogenic smog. Thanks to the dire and popular predictions of Thomas Malthus in 1798, and a massive population explosion over the past century, the idea that humans will overrun their home world with disastrous and irreparable consequences has become nothing short of an axiom. But the modern world’s accomplishments in science and technology have now enabled a rapid reversal in population growth, and it looks like after 2064, global populations will decline.

Far from being wiped out by hunger and disease, as so many dystopian thinkers envisioned in libraries worth of works on the subject, our population declines are actually a consequence of industrialization, education, and healthcare. Large families used to be the norm because there had to be enough kids to tend to the family farm or help lower class households by doing dirty, risky work in factories, and birth control was rudimentary and unreliable. Today, however, we expect kids to spend their days in schools, family planning is widely available and much more effective, and households seldom risk losing children to infectious disease early in life. We’re living longer and better, doubling our typical lifespans.

Many of us also realize that since the planet’s resources are finite, there’s only so many of them we can consume, and are making a conscious decision to have fewer kids. On the flip side of the coin, many of those who want to have children find it prohibitive to do so in an industrial world that expects them to work for the sake of working. Yet, in a way, all of this was to be expected. Nature tends to curtail population growth for all species, and while humans can temporarily overcome its limitations, we do that at a cost. Now the bills are coming due in many forms, all of them with a significant interest. We all needed to adjust and the current slowdown in birth rates shows that we’ve heard the message loud and clear.

So, over the long term, it doesn’t seem like we’ll exhaust Earth. Depending on the success of ongoing modernization efforts in the developing world and long-term trends, by the 2200s, there may be 6 billion or even fewer people on the planet. They’re also likely to have been hit by the effects of climate change and have centuries of excruciatingly clear data showing them what happens when you ignore the impact you have on your ecosystem. We can expect far less strain on the planet, far fewer emissions, and a lot less growth for the sake of growth, with the societies of the future focusing on quality over quantity. But getting there will be a tough road, and we’re already feeling the transitional pains.

With the populations of developed nations quickly falling and relying on immigration to keep their numbers climbing, politicians are growing concerned about retirement systems and GDPs since they’re all based on the idea that larger future generations will replace smaller aging ones and the economy will keep growing as more people need, make, and buy more stuff. In a way, those annoying social media economists who harp about retirement systems and government pensions being Ponzi schemes, do sort of have a point. They were set up based on delusions of perpetual exponential growth, which, as we’re seeing right now, is simply not possible. We’re like a car driving faster than it was built to go and parts are starting to come off and break.

Over the next century, we’re going to need to think out of the box about everything from child rearing, to immigration, to education, to environmental policies, to how we measure and run our economies. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be obvious that how we do things today simply isn’t working anymore and a lot of currently unorthodox new ideas need to be considered. These latest projections about our population trajectories are now telling us that change from the status quo isn’t a choice, it’s an inevitability and we can choose to either plan how we’ll deal with it and transition to the future today or suffer the consequences when we scramble to catch up later.

# science // future / global population / population growth

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