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  • Writer's pictureJake Browning

Underpopulation, Overpopulation, and Other Screwy Debates

There is an increasing anxiety about underpopulation, one that mirrors the anxiety about overpopulation in decades past. But debates about these often happen at such a big picture level that they cease being very useful or realistic.

Part of this is ignorance; plenty of "degrowthers" seem to be unaware of the Green Revolution. We now have more than enough food to feed everyone (yay), a point that motivates many of those worried about underpopulation. But "pro-natalists" often seem fixated with the replacement rate--as if the world ceases to function as soon as the population slips below whatever it is at this moment. This is obsessing over one number at such an abstract level that it doesn't really make much sense.

It's helpful to get a little more grounded in these topics to prevent the debates from just spiraling into people's faulty intuitions and assumptions. And the details help some, since they clarify what we're talking about--and what (I hope) we're not talking about.

The Reality of Pro-Natalism

First, these conversations need to be better grounded in the fact that we are talking about women's autonomy over their body. The main reasons fertility rates have decreased have been more autonomy for women: education, access to contraception, ending child marriage and limiting arranged marriage, making marital rape illegal, improving divorce actions, allowing work outside the home, and so on. So the falling fertility rate is a Good Thing for women, and largely reflects their priorities and values.

This is important because, second, pro-natalist policies don't work that well. Unless we're willing to roll back protections for women, most pro-natalist policies--like improved child subsidies, free childcare, and so on--just aren't that effective (maybe an increase of 0.2 to 0.3). This means conversations all have a whiff of the handmaiden's tale running through them, especially during a time when women's reproductive rights are being rolled back in parts of the world. Pro-natalists should be a little more sensitive to this fact when talking about "the numbers."

More effective pro-natalism is possible, but it is a bit less direct. A lot of policies are not "neutral" on natalism: access to affordable housing and pre-K, extracurricular activities, safe neighborhoods, increasing wages, decent returns on educations, maternity leave (and ensuring women aren't disadvantaged for taking leave), and so on. This stuff all matters: if a New Yorker is thinking about having a second child, the fact that the city isn't building two- and three-bedroom apartments is pretty good incentive to hold off. If prices keep going up on groceries, adding another mouth to feed is unattractive.

Which is all to say, if you want more kids to be born in developed countries, build a better economy for the lower- and middle-class. Lots of people want more children, but if they can't afford them the issue is largely moot. And if people genuinely think the future will be worse--because of political instability, climate change, or just decreasing living standards--it would be irrational to have another child. People respond to incentives, but the incentives need to be holistic. Just offering an extra $100 a month to new parents is nice, but not nice enough to cover the increases in rent or groceries. So it won't do its job.

Overpopulation Here, Underpopulation There

But there is a second issue that is often ignored by pro-natalists: a low birthrate in one place isn't that big deal if there is a high birthrate somewhere else. Right now, a central problem is the non-ideal distribution of people--both for the economy and for the people. Lots of regions with low-birthrates need people to fund their elderly pensions, pay for healthcare, occupy their schools, work their jobs, and so on. But lots of other regions can't support all its people. They lack the infrastructure, institutions, and economies necessary to ensure people receive those public goods necessary to survive and thrive. So there are people there living in slums, receiving poor education, and working in the informal economy who would love to be somewhere with better resources and opportunity.

The law of supply and demand suggests that this mismatch between economies and people will eventually work itself out. The obvious mechanism is immigration, and countries will need to start getting more pro-immigrant (see, for example, the low birthrate Japan and its changing attitudes). This is usually ignored in these conversations because many pro-natalists are also ethno-supremacists and eugenicists who often actively discourage pregnancy among "undesirable" groups. If the standard pro-natalist is genuinely concerned about the economy, immigration is a better and more reliable mechanism for increasing the population.

What about the countries experiencing "brain drain"? That's unfortunate, obviously, but regional degrowth is often part of global growth; industrialization involves people leaving unproductive regions (farms) and migrating to more productive ones (cities). And this isn't necessarily bad for regions losing population; many farms became more productive when populations fell because they needed to automate to survive. The Green Revolution is, itself, partially a story of farming transitioning from a slap-dash, unstable practice into an industrial operation.

Degrowth in Population and GDP

There is also a pervasive misunderstanding about GDP. A growing population needs a growing GDP to lift people out of poverty, but GDP isn't dependent on a growing population. If productivity gains are high enough, population can fall and GDP rise; there is nothing weird about that. And many countries, like India, experienced sluggish growth as the population exploded because of poor infrastructure and institutions. So we shouldn't get too caught up on the overall population numbers in isolation.

The more important issue is the nature of the economy. If the magical "AI economy" pans out, massively increasing growth with less human input, you could do a lot more with less. You may, in that case, move to a universal basic income, allowing people to spend their days playing Helldivers. You don't need human workers to support your elderly pensions; you need more money. How that money happens--whether through exports, services, or technology--is secondary.

The "more people needed" argument seems to assume we can't do more with less, but simply need more people to keep the world going. But we better hope this is wrong. We need to use less resources and get more out of them. The Green Revolution led to a massive loss of biodiversity, and a lot of land, food, and water just goes to supporting climate destroying livestock (like cows). We've also contributed to a ton of waste that could have been recycled, with the result that we mine new toxic rare earths rather than just re-using the old ones.

The result is that population growth has been extremely damaging; we can feed and clothe everyone, even give them a phone and electricity. But these benefits have immense costs, like degraded environments and undrinkable water. If we want a larger population, we'd better focus on using resources more efficiently. And if that is possible, pro-natalism doesn't really follow; we can just get more--and healthier--GDP growth while decreasing overall population just fine as long as we use workers more efficiently. If, on the contrary, the only way to survive as a species is just to keep wasting more and more resources, then we're probably doomed as a species anyway.

Muddling Through

Which is all to say, I'm not worried about the population. I think worries about over- and under-population are largely irrelevant. Humans adapt pretty effectively to changing circumstances, both at the individual level and at the population level. The "overpopulation" worry disappeared because of technology improvement, and I expect the "underpopulation" worry to follow it--though maybe for different reasons. (My own guess is that population will eventually stabilize on its own, with little input or impact from government policy.)

Worrying about numbers in the abstract is kind of silly, since they aren't that meaningful on their own. And if people do want a larger population for their country right here and now, immigration is a realistic, easy-to-pull lever. Immigrants also have a higher birthrate so, in a win-win, since you can even get a higher fertility rate out of the deal.

If they still want a larger population after immigration, then they just need to make a better world. Few people are going to raise two kids in a one-bedroom, especially if they have to work two jobs to pay for childcare costs--and if they can't afford college, don't see high-paying jobs, and are worried about extreme weather. In short, there needs to be a real shift away from bloodless conversations about population levels and more interest in making it more children seem like an attractive option. As long as the decision is in the hands of individual human beings, the most important government policies are the generic ones focused on making the world worth living in.

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