The year is 2022. Mankind is on the brink of collapse. The planet is groaning with the weight of overpopulation. New York has grown to 40 million inhabitants, many of whom live in slums. People are starving; the soils are no longer producing enough. They desperately eat a mysterious emergency food. But what only insiders know – the greenish slop is made of corpses.

What a pleasant horror it was when the science fiction shocker Soylent Green came to cinemas in 1973! And the thriller certainly had a serious background: the fear of a “population explosion” was as ubiquitous then as the fear of the “climate catastrophe” today, spurred on by a partially alarmist report from the Club of Rome entitled “The Limits to Growth”. In order to defuse the impending population explosion, China’s government ordered a one-child policy from 1979 onwards in order to curb the seemingly uncontrollable flood of children.

At that time the world population was a good four billion people. Since then it has almost doubled, and it continues to grow at great speed. The United Nations is therefore still warning today against unchecked population growth, which will continue beyond 2100 with no end in sight.

“By the year 2100, the world population is very likely to grow to 11.2 billion people,” says Frank Swiaczny, 52, deputy director of the United Nations Population Division.

But other experts have long seen signs of a remarkable trend reversal. “The United Nations are wrong, the figures are based on erroneous assumptions,” criticises the Canadian Darrell Bricker, 58, manager at the market research agency Ipsos: “The population figures will be much lower and approach a plateau from the middle of the century. From 2070, mankind will shrink.”

Commuters cover the outside of a train in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta

Empty Planet is Brickers’ book published in February, which he wrote together with the journalist John Ibbitson. Since its publication, new data is constantly coming in to support the prognosis that we will soon be noticeably fewer.

A permanently shrinking world population? This has never happened before in human history. In most cases, the population decline was local and temporary – triggered by epidemics, wars or natural disasters, for example.

How can it be that the top people’s counters at the United Nations have overlooked this tidal change? The UN expert Swiaczny knows Bricker’s predictions, but considers them premature: “Stabilisation in this century,” he says, “seems unlikely, but not impossible, with a probability of about 27 percent.”

Every two years the statistician, who studied geography in Mannheim, Germany, and used to work at the German Federal Institute for Population Research, presents an update of the UN figures; he presented the next “revision” in mid-June. 

But Bricker does not trust these figures. “The UN simply updates the developments of recent decades and underestimates how quickly the world is changing,” he says. Especially in Africa, population growth is slowing considerably; in Nigeria or Ethiopia, for example, the fertility rate is falling much faster than expected by the United Nations.

The global average number of children per woman has almost halved since 1950, from around 4.7 to only 2.4 in 2017

The Canadian researcher is not alone in his criticism of the alarming UN figures. A small data quake shook the demographics industry last November when the medical journal Lancet published a global overview of the growth and shrinkage of countries and showed a surprisingly low fertility rate, especially for giant countries like China. The list of authors reads like a Who’s Who of the demographics industry, its names filling eleven pages printed closely.

According to the study, the global average number of children per woman has almost halved since 1950, from around 4.7 to only 2.4 in 2017. This means that the number of children worldwide is approaching an important limit: if there are no more than 2.1 children per couple on average, the population will remain stable at the very least.

If the number is lower, the domestic population even shrinks. This has long been the case in large parts of the industrial nations. Towards the middle of the century, however, the decline also affected huge emerging markets such as China, Indonesia and Brazil.

How can such a development be explained? “The most important reproductive organ in humans is the brain, which is why the education of women is crucial,” says mathematician Wolfgang Lutz, 62, director of the Wittgenstein Centre in Vienna: “As soon as girls gain access to schooling, health care and the labour market, birth rates decline. And that applies worldwide.” The UN projections, on the other hand, hardly take the education issue into account, which at least partly explains the differences in the predictions.

An aerial photo of houses along the Xuyen Tam canal in Ho Chi Minh City. There are about 20,000 remaining households on Ho Chi Minh City’s serpentine waterways slated to be demolished by 2020 as part of the city’s massive renewal project that promises to replace some of the polluted canal banks with Parisian-style riverside promenades, paved roads, modern shops and buildings. Photo: Kao Nguyen/AFP

Lutz is a leading voice in the shrinkage thesis. He was born in Rome as the son of the historian Heinrich Lutz, who researched in the archives of the Vatican. Sometime in the early seventies the father told the teenager excitedly about the dystopian study of the Club of Rome. But as a historian, he added regretfully, he could unfortunately say little about it. So his son decided to become a futurologist.

Is everything going to be all right? Not at all, because an unchecked population decline can bring with it similar challenges as an unchecked baby boom.

This can be guessed at in countries like Japan, whose population could shrink by a quarter in the next few decades. The situation is similar in South Korea, where the average number of children per woman fell below one last year. Or in many small German towns, where shops and schools close and more and more pensioners break their grey heads about poverty in old age and the need for nursing care.

Bricker recommends the Canadian solution: the targeted recruitment of qualified immigrants, preferably from countries that still have a birth surplus. This would cushion the effects of too sudden a shrinkage. His book is currently being translated into Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

Not every country is prepared to open up to foreigners. But the author sees advantages even for nations that decide to settle: small towns shrink, farms become desolate, factories fall silent. In return, forests reclaim their habitat – and nature breathes new life into the healing emptiness.

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