Seven things you should know about global population trends

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 19, 2019

Today our news team highlighted a report in Foreign Affairs which argues that the world is on the verge of a population bust. Here are seven things you need to know about current demographic trends:

1. Both population growth and the impact of population growth are hard to predict:

Population growth is hard to predict because it is often affected by unpredictable factors. For example, after about two thousand years of relative population stability in Europe, dramatic improvements in the field of medicine, including increasing life-spans and a rapid drop in infant morality, ushered in rapid increases in population beginning in the eighteenth century. This led to fears of mass starvation arising from a catastrophic “population explosion”, fears which were proven groundless by rapid improvements in agricultural techniques.

2. Complex social attitudes are a huge factor in population growth and decline:

As we now know, social influences that encourage or discourage families and children play a huge role in population growth. Things like the need for larger families to work the family farm or pressure on both men and women to work outside the home; social approval or disapproval of large families; the influence of religion on procreation; and the tension between material desires and strong family life—all these and more fuel culture-wide tendencies which affect population growth. In a technological era in which conception and birth are far easier to control, and in a hedonistic age in which sex and marriage are regarded as completely separable, family sizes are often determined by our natural and supernatural commitments.

3. The current pattern around the world is a declining birth rate:

We have been aware of the demographic winter in Europe now for years, but the birth rate in both North America and China have declined below replacement level as well in recent years. Decline in the birth rate is characteristic of most world regions, even if that rate has not yet fallen below replacement level. In fact, over the last few generations (for whatever this may be worth in predictive terms), there has been a marked tendency around the world for a period of rapid population growth to be followed by rapidly declining birth rates.

4. Islamic countries may be the last to decline, but they exhibit the same trend:

While many Islamic regions are still above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, some—such as Iran—have now dropped below the line. Islamic populations are still generally quite young, so continuing population increase is likely for another generation, but declining birth rates are still the trend. Examples: Since 1960, Iran has dropped from 6.93 to 1.66; since 1969, Iraq has dropped from 7.38 to 4.37; and since 1997, Afghanistan has dropped from 7.64 to 4.65.

5. Declining population may well ease pressure on the global environment:

Most discussions of climate change assume a rapid increase in world population which, based on more recent studies, now seems unlikely to occur. If the most sensible demographic predictions today prove correct over a reasonably long term (a generation or so rather than merely a few more years), one upside is that those working on environmental concerns will have more time to improve things without fear of the near-instant catastrophes that have been so widely predicted (rightly or wrongly) in recent years.

6. Declining population will almost certainly be generally bad for capitalism:

For nearly all of its history, modern capitalism has enjoyed expanding markets. It is difficult to imagine the future of either established corporations or new entrepreneurs in a protracted era of declining markets. The Foreign Affairs story suggests that, at the very least, there will have to be a greater emphasis across the board on cost-reduction in the production and delivery of goods if there is to be hope for the increasing prosperity of major modern businesses.

7. Christian numbers are not critical:

Take this statement as a reference to demography, not souls. Obviously, we should want nothing more than to bring each person to a profound awareness of the message and gift of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. The number of nominal Muslims now exceeds the number of nominal Catholics, though not yet the number of nominal Christians. But even that is likely to happen (according to current projections) before population growth in Islamic countries bottoms out. Yet if we have learned anything in recent years about numbers in our own Church, it is that quantity can be a real drag on quality.

For all of Christian history, the number of Christians (and certainly the number of Catholics) has been a minority of the world’s population. What matters most here—according to our Lord’s own words—are salt, leaven, and light. In other words, fidelity matters. But in and of themselves, numbers just don’t count.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: winnie - Aug. 20, 2019 6:13 PM ET USA

    Thank you! Especially for the reminder that faithfulness to Christ and His Church is the answer - not a lukewarm mile wide and inch deep Catholicism.