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Ibbitson on global population decline and Canadian politics

Expect the unexpected

John Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail’s political columnist, discussed his research on the direction of global population growth, and shared his perspectives on Canada’s upcoming federal election during his presentation at RBC Investor & Treasury Services’ fifth annual Investor Forum.

Key insights

  • While many hold the view that the global population will continue to grow, some demographers believe this idea should be updated with new views and statistics about the future of human population growth
  • Instead of the perpetual growth model, falling fertility rates will result in a global population decline over time, mirroring the population changes already entrenched in developed economies around the world
  • The largest single factor spurring population decline is growing urbanization around the world, as the planet becomes more urban than rural

Up or down?

Over the past decades, many of our predictive models have been constructed on the assumption that the global population will continue to grow. The United Nations’ median estimate for future growth sees world population reaching 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100.1

In contrast, John Ibbitson offers a different view about the future. Instead of continuing to increase even at reduced rates, Ibbitson believes the globe’s population is headed for a steep decline, and in many countries, that decline has already begun.

That idea is the thesis for Ibbitson’s 2019 book ‘Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline’,2 co-authored with Darrell Bricker. Ibbitson discusses the implications of an “empty planet” for Canada and the world.3

The old idea: an overflowing planet

For Ibbitson, the idea that Earth and humanity are threatened by population growth is something he called “vertical knowledge,” or a belief that is so entrenched it masks any changes that do not fit within its parameters.

In that model of the future, a barely controlled “population explosion” will result in increasing poverty, resource shortages, heightened conflict, and environmental catastrophe. Over the past few decades, the spectre of world overpopulation has driven everything from China’s one-child policy to the radical transformation of agricultural practices in efforts to increase food yields.

New thinking: the global population is in decline

“What if our basic assumptions about population growth are completely and utterly wrong?” asks Ibbitson. That is the question he set out to examine, following the thinking of so-called “dissident demographers” who disagree with the United Nations’ population projections.

What if our basic
assumptions about
population growth
are completely
and utterly wrong?

That growth model, he explained, presumes a population increase in excess of replacement rates. That is, future births not only replace but exceed the number of deaths resulting in a substantial increase in the world’s population over time. This requires that fertility remains high with women having more than two children each.

Intrigued by the ideas of the “dissident demographers,” Ibbitson and Bricker travelled the world to examine the fertility question directly. They proceeded to ask women around the globe how many children they would have, given the choice. The answer in most cases was two. The implications of that choice are startling, Ibbotson said, as between 24 and 30 of the world’s countries already have declining populations.

China, one of the world’s largest countries in terms of population, has a fertility rate of only 1.6, while India’s population growth is stable at a replacement rate of 2.1. In the US, the rate is 1.7, with the rate among millennials at a mere 1 child per woman, while Canada sits at 1.6. If these trends continue throughout the world, population growth will be replaced by population decline.

Growing urbanization driving population decline

What might an
emptying planet
mean for Canada
and the political

Ibbitson identifies increasing urbanization as the one overriding factor pushing population rates down. “Over the last decade, the planet became more urban than rural, and the pace of urbanization across the developing world has only sped up,” he commented. As a result, “if you believe that urbanization will continue to accelerate, then the decline of fertility rates will also accelerate in lock-step.”

What might an emptying planet mean for Canada and the political agenda? The prospect of economic prosperity has historically drawn migrants to Canada from around the world. Today, Canada’s open-border policy continues to facilitate the influx of immigrants to Canada’s urban areas. For Ibbitson, the solution to the challenge of a declining population is to import replacements, which requires that nations must embrace both immigration and multiculturalism, as Canada has. Ibbitson concludes that, “With immigration offsetting losses, the vibrant cities of the future look to be areas of growing diversity and prosperity.”

Ibbitson on “Brand Trudeau” and the prospects for Canada’s October federal election

Ibbiston’s political discussion drew on his previous book, also co-authored with Darrell Bricker, outlining the “big shift” of political power from the political, media, and business elites of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal to “a new, powerful coalition based in the West and supported by immigrant voters in Ontario.” 4

It is this shift, Ibbitson commented, that may put Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s re-election bid at risk. “In 2015,” he noted, “we got a ‘change election,’ as voters wanted the most possible distance from the previous federal government.” In the first years of his first term, Trudeau enjoyed a national and international “rock star” reputation, Ibbitson commented, “with a ‘Canada is back’ message heard around the world.”

Today, the picture looks much different, with no polls showing the Liberals in the lead. The main question in the coming months, commented Ibbitson, is whether the Liberal party is seriously, or only modestly, behind the other parties as the October 2019 election approaches.

With a relatively modest 19-seat majority in the House of Commons, “every seat counts” for the Liberals. For example, Trudeau currently holds all 32 federal seats in Atlantic Canada. If the Liberal seat count is reduced by half in the upcoming election, their majority will be reduced to just three seats before polls are tallied in the rest of Canada, which is where, according to the Ibbitson’s “big shift” thesis, political power increasingly lies.

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  1. United Nations Population Division (2017) World Population Prospects 2017
  2. Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson (2019) Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline
  3. RBC Investor & Treasury Services’ Investor Forum (May 8, 2019) Geopolitics: Expect the Unexpected
  4. Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson (2013) The Big Shift: The Seismic Change In Canadian Politics , Business, And Culture And What It Means For Our Future