Think Out Loud

Why population is going up in some countries but down in others

By Dave Miller (OPB)
Jan. 26, 2023 1:16 a.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Jan. 26

Travelers walk along a concourse at Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. A population that has crested and is slowly shrinking will pose new challenges for China's leaders, ranging from encouraging young people to start families, to persuading seniors to stay in the workforce longer and parents to allow their children to join the military.

Travelers walk along a concourse at Beijing West Railway Station in Beijing, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. A population that has crested and is slowly shrinking will pose new challenges for China's leaders, ranging from encouraging young people to start families, to persuading seniors to stay in the workforce longer and parents to allow their children to join the military.

Mark Schiefelbein / AP

Recent U.S. Census data found that Oregon’s population decreased in 2022 for the first time in 40 years. Last week, China announced that its population went down for the first time in 60 years. Then, this week, Japan’s prime minister said that his country, with its lowest birthrate in more than 120 years, is “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions.”


Peter Walker, a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon, joins us to talk about what’s driving global population trends, and why some regions are shrinking and others are still growing.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, we talked about the recent U.S. Census data showing a decrease in Oregon’s population for the first time in 40 years. As we heard when demographers at Portland State University crunched their numbers, they came to a slightly different conclusion, but they also showed that growth in Oregon is slowing. Meanwhile, in just the last week or so, there have been some major global stories with a much bigger impact. China, the most populous country in the world, announced that its population went down for the first time in 60 years. Then just a few days ago, Japan’s prime minister said that his country, with its lowest birth rate in more than 120 years, is “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions.” Meanwhile, some countries, especially in the developing world, still have high rates of population growth.

We wanted to get a better sense for why the populations in some places are shrinking, while in others the populations are still growing. So we’ve called up Peter Walker. He is a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Peter Walker: Thank you very much.

Miller: How significant is it to you that China’s population declined in 2022 for the first time since 1961?

Walker: Well, it’s hugely significant in the sense that it confirms what demographers have been projecting for a long time, which is that some of the fastest growing populations on the planet, and that would certainly include China, would stabilize and decline in population within the next few decades. So what we’re seeing is a confirmation of the projections that have been made over a number of decades.

Miller: Is it happening faster than some experts had predicted?

Walker: Yes. I think the projections were that the stabilization and decline in China would probably occur in the early or mid 2030s. And of course we’re seeing that about 10 years earlier than I think some projections had estimated.

Miller: When we talked about the U. S. Census data a couple of weeks ago, we heard from Josh Lehner, state economist, that this may just be a blip. In fact, he thought it was likely a blip. And PSU’s data, in fact, as I mentioned, doesn’t show a decline. But for China, which we’re talking about, more than a billion people as opposed to you know, in the four or five million range. Are you expecting this as a blip or is this sort of the top of a curve that now will go down?

Walker: The latter. In the case of Oregon, I think we need to look skeptically at the data, because from a social science perspective, there’s no real reason to expect that kind of sudden and abrupt and unexplained reversal in long term trends, whereas in China, the trends were pretty clear for a long time that family sizes were declining. It fits the way demographers understand, what they refer to as the demographic transition, from large families to small family sizes that we’ve seen over a few centuries in different parts of the world. Different countries have had their so-called demographic transition from large family sizes to small family sizes at different times. And China’s was predicted to happen sometime in the next 10 years. The reasons for that are understood, it was expected. So this makes sense.

Miller: And what are the reasons for that? And it’s fascinating, you’re saying that what’s called a demographic transition, this phenomenon, has been seen for centuries now. So what are the standard reasons for people to have smaller families, to choose to have smaller families?

Walker: I think it’s helpful to think about the history of demographic change all over the planet, which is that historically, humans have tended to have quite large family sizes. And in agricultural societies, even in Western societies, where we now see actually very low or negative population growth, historically there have been very large family sizes. And what changed was a transition from agricultural society and economy to industrialized societies. And in that change, the logic of how many children to have changes.

If you’re in an agricultural economy, you live on a farm or in some cases in a less developed country, where either children can become workers on the farm, they say that every mouth comes with a pair of hands. And economists and demographers have studied it and by a very early age, children are actually a big economic asset within the household. And as, for example, the European population, European countries shifted from agricultural societies to industrial societies, the logic, the household economics, if you will, of having children really changed. When the parents, when both the mother and the father, are working in a factory or an office, suddenly it becomes much more expensive and difficult for families to have a large number of children. And in a sense, that’s what we’ve seen throughout much of the world at different points in time, but that’s pretty much exactly what we’ve seen in China, which is China was a largely rural and agricultural society. It transitioned now to one of the leading industrial economies in the world. More and more young families, including mothers, are working in the wage sector. And that just makes it more difficult to have children.

Miller: What about India, which has been getting closer and closer to China as the world’s most populous country. What does the demographic picture look like there?

Walker: Well, actually, the projections that I’m seeing currently are that even within this year, possibly 2023, India will surpass China as the world’s largest population. And that might be cause for concern, but the projections for India are basically the same as China, that within a decade or so we’ll probably see the same forces in play, where more and more people are working, entering the industrial and wage economy, as opposed to the agricultural economy and that India’s population will also stabilize and probably decline within the next few decades.


Miller: So let’s turn to growth, what countries or what regions are still growing quickly?

Walker: For one, as we just mentioned, South Asia and India in particular, of course. But again, what we predict is that those populations are going to stabilize fairly quickly. I think the big source of concern, from a population level, still remains Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. Again, using the concept of the demographic transition that we’ve seen in virtually every place around the globe, where you transition from a largely agricultural society to a more industrialized modern economy. We’re not seeing those sorts of underlying economic and social changes happening as rapidly in Sub-Saharan Africa as other parts of the world. So the big demographic wave will continue a number of decades into the future, in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Having said that, the good news is that even in Sub-Saharan Africa, what we’re seeing is that the typical family size, what demographers refer to as the fertility rate - which is measured as the number of children that a woman has in her lifetime - is already declining. So even though there’s still going to be a lot of population growth in Africa, there are already signs that that’s going to slow down and hopefully stabilize or reverse, sometime in the not too distant future. I think what all of us should be supporting is the basic kinds of development, cultural rights, political, legal rights and so on, that help those countries to make that transition to a smaller family size in Africa.

Miller: This gets us to some of the issues that a lot of people wrote to us about, after our first conversation about Oregon’s potential population decline, as shown in the U.S. Census numbers. I want to read you an email we got from one listener, which is pretty representative of a kind of avalanche of responses.

This came from Pete Reagan. He wrote, “In the long run, our population must stabilize or come down, right? We can’t just keep growing forever. The only question is when is stability better than growth? The answer is hopefully before we are so overrun that quality of life is degraded. It’s true a stable population has a higher age and greater percentage of retirees than a growing one does. That fact has very significant economic consequences. But those consequences need to be faced, planned for, dealt with. We have the will, the science and technology to handle living with a stable population.”

What are the repercussions of a stable or maybe even declining global population? What would change in terms of the way our lives or our economies are set up?

Walker: Well, for one thing, it would obviously be a step in the right direction, environmentally. I mean one of the big concerns for the last 60 years or so has been, what will be the consequences of rapidly increasing human population for the global environment? And the population is one part of that story. Obviously, but there are also issues of what’s our rate of consumption, that you have what is sometimes referred to as the ecological footprint of different people in different places in the world.

Miller: Can you give us a sense of why that gulf might be? I mean, if we’re talking about, say one extra person in Arizona, versus one extra person in sub-Saharan Africa or Pakistan or wherever, how big might that the difference in those footprints be?

Walker: Huge. The top 20% of the world’s wealthiest societies - Western Europe, the United States, North America, some of the industrialized Asian economies like Japan, obviously increasingly China - are having larger and larger per capita ecological footprints on the planet. People are consuming more and that’s including some of the rapidly industrialized societies like China, where people are consuming more cars, eating more meat and so on. And I think that one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that one person in Arizona, or for that matter, Oregon, would have a very large ecological footprint, compared to somebody in a less developed economy and Sub-Saharan Africa. And if we’re concerned about global climate or biodiversity loss or other ecological concerns, we should really be looking at least as much at ourselves in terms of our consumption rates, our ecological footprint, as we should be looking at the less developed countries.

Think of it this way, the top wealthiest 20% of the world’s countries consume something on the order of 80 or 86% of the world’s resources, whereas the poorest 20% of the world’s population consumes something around 1% of the world’s resources. So you could actually have a lot of population growth in the less developed countries, and still have relatively little ecological impact. So sometimes people have said, and I think this is fair to say, that the highest consuming, on a per capita basis, the highest consuming societies, are where there’s the biggest population problems, regardless of the number of people. So even if, for example in the United States or Western Europe, you have more or less stable populations at this point, those countries should still be our biggest ecological concern because those are the countries that are consuming most of the world’s resources.

Miller: This gets into issues of race too, right? I mean, it’s because, it’s a lot of white people, saying, “oh there are too many people in the world, we should be worried about more Black and brown people.” I’m simplifying things, but I think not in an unfair way. What do you see as the racial dimensions of the way population or overpopulation is often talked about?

Walker: Yeah, the population debate that’s really kind of raged since the late 1960s, early 1970s, has centered a lot on the question of who’s consuming most of the world’s resources. And critics, people were writing books with titles like “The Population Bomb” in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich. To be fair, in 1968, the demographic trends looked a lot scarier than they do now, but people like Paul Ehrlich and others were pointing to population growth, specifically. If you open that book, for example, the first few pages are specifically about population growth in India. And they paint a very scary picture about overpopulation driving resource scarcity, driving conflict and chaos around the world and ecological collapse.

There are sort of two points of view on the population issue: people opposed to the population bomb theory said, in effect, “well, you’re blaming other people in other places for an ecological crisis that’s really being driven by people, for example, in the United States, which has the highest per capita consumption among all of the major industrialized countries.” And there was this element of race injected into that conversation where people said, it’s easy to point your fingers at, as you said, Black and brown people someplace else as the ecological villains in the story. Whereas maybe you folks in the wealthy, industrialized countries need to be looking at yourself in the mirror and what your ecological footprint is in the wealthiest, highest consuming countries. And that debate raged and to some extent still does largely at the international level between countries like India and the United States, where India was responding to the population critiques and saying “it’s not us, it’s you.”

Miller: I want to go back to one thing you mentioned earlier, so we can dig deeper into it. If you were a policy maker, a sovereign in charge of some country and you could really exercise your own policies and you wanted to reduce population in a way that was both moral and effective, what would you do?

Walker: Great question. I think what we have to keep in mind is that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, we need to be focusing on our own consumption behavior. Again, the ecological footprint of people in western, industrialized wealthy societies is by far bigger than in most less developed countries, where the populations are continuing to grow quickly. Now, that’s not to say that population growth in those less developed countries isn’t an ecological concern. Of course it is. It just may not be the biggest one.

But if you’re concerned about population growth in those countries, you should look to do what we know works in terms of helping to slow the rate of population growth and hopefully stabilize it. And those things are sort of win-wins for society. In particular, what we know is extremely effective in terms of bringing down fertility rates is educating young women and girls, providing access to health care, job opportunities and also cultural changes in terms of gender equality. What we find all around the world is that typically women will choose to have smaller family sizes than their male partners. And in societies that are highly patriarchal, we should be encouraging greater autonomy and rights for girls and young women, so that it’s a real win-win. If we are concerned about population growth, we should be providing, to the extent that we can, through international development aid, as much focused aid for educational opportunities, job opportunities, gender equality as we possibly can.

Miller: Peter Walker, thanks very much.

Walker: You bet. My pleasure.

Miller: Peter Walker is a professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Oregon.

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