On the 15 November last year, the global population breached eight billion. It was a largely unheralded landmark. This would have surprised the English economist Thomas Malthus, who, at a time when Earth’s population was less than one billion, predicted in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of Society’ [1798], that population growth would lead to mass starvation. It didn’t.

Starvation happens because of war and economic mismanagement etc., but not because the planet cannot produce more food. Even the UN Environment Program acknowledges that the world currently produces enough food to feed 10bn people. Often ignored by eco-fanatics, one of the benefits of global warming is global greening; NASA’s satellites show that the Earth has greened by as much as 30 percent over the past 40 years.

It is mainly in ecologist quarters that the Malthusian fallacy still resides. Doom-mongering is their stock in trade. Dutch eco foundation, the Ten Million Club, self-servingly warn, ‘Our planet can offer a quality of (western) life… to no more than 2 billion people.’

Generally, ecological leaders are rich or middle-class people who resent a population growth that reduces their quality of life. Their concerns are mirrored by a privileged wealthy elite represented by such moral grandstanders as Al Gore, Prince Harry and Greta Thunberg. The latter, evidently dismissive of the needs of Germany’s fuel-poor, is currently protesting the expansion of a coal mine in Northern Germany.

A few years ago, I was invited to a very grand eco-dinner at the Walbrook Club in London, where a similar bunch of wealthy eco-narcissists, whilst gorging themselves at table, pompously agreed amongst themselves that economic growth should not be allowed in China and India because of global warming. In other words, ‘let the global poor stay poor’.

At a subsequent eco-podcast event I was roundly criticised by, amongst others, Sir David King (scientific advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair) and Baroness Minouche Shafic, (a former deputy managing director of the IMF) for suggesting that the housing boom in China and India was a good thing – because it enabled previously poor rural people to have indoor bathrooms and the other amenities of western life.

A similar eco-narcissism is promoted by Sir David Attenborough - the famous naturalist broadcaster whose utterances are treated with God-like reverence by the ‘wokerati’ at left-wing media organisations like the BBC. ‘As I see it,’ Attenborough opines, ‘humanity needs to reduce its impact on the Earth urgently.’ Population reduction is his mantra.

As it happens one of the eco-narcissists’ fondest wishes – depopulation - will soon be delivered. People are not reproducing. Again, Malthus got it wrong. For him it was one of the ‘fixed laws of nature’ that populations would always rise because of the ‘passion between the sexes’.
However, birth rates fall, not because of diminished sex drive, but because of increasing wealth and technological advance (eg. contraception and health care). Malthus could not foresee these developments.

Today population growth is largely being sustained by a falling death rate. Since 1850 the world’s average age of death has increased from 40 to 73. Birth rates meanwhile have collapsed over the last 30 years. Out of 193 countries and dependencies, half are at or below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Included on the list are the mega-population states of India (2.1), China (1.7), Europe (1.5), United States (1.8), Brazil (1.7), Bangladesh (1.9), Russia (1.8) and Japan (1.4). In some countries replacement has fallen to catastrophic levels: Italy and Greece at 1.3 and South Korea at an astonishing 1.1.

Of major countries only Pakistan and Nigeria will significantly increase their populations: respectively their populations will grow from 220m to 440m and from 218m to 580m by 2075. However, by this date the UN’s median expectation is that global population will peak at about 8.5bn.
Far from being damaging as the eco-narcissists would have it, population growth has been an enormous boon to living standards. Historically countries have benefitted from a pyramid demographic with a lot of young workers at the bottom and a few retirees at the top. But, if the combination of declining birth rate and increasing life expectancy has been a boon to economic growth in the past, this virtuous circle has begun to reverse in the new millennium.

Of the 25 countries with the oldest median age, Europe occupies 22 of the top 25 positions. As a result, Europe is now beginning to experience the chronic social problems for which Japan, the country with the oldest population, average 48.6 years, has been the bellwether for a decade or more.
Japanese industry is plagued by chronic labour shortages. Thus far attempts to bring in more immigrants on special visas, to encourage over 65s back to work and to raise the birth rate have failed to reverse an inverted age pyramid. A diminishing and ageing labour force will need to support a wealthy retired population soon to be 35 percent of the population.

It has been estimated by the UN that to rebalance its worker to retiree ratio, the retirement age in Japan would need to be raised to 77. This is Europe’s future too. The fear must be that Europe, like Japan in the 1990s, is entering a long period of secular economic stagnation. Like Japan, European countries’ public debt as a percentage of GDP, particularly that of the Mediterranean bloc, has risen dramatically since 2000; France from 58% to 113%, Italy 109% to 145% and Spain 58% to 116%. Try telling these home truths to a French trade unionist.

Actually, that is exactly what President Macron is doing… or at least, trying to do. With pension payments now higher in France than any other European country Macron has little choice. His current draft legislation is calling for the retirement age to rise to from 62 to 65. This is still well below the required sustainable level. Taxes will have to be increased on an ever-dwindling supply of workers. Not that even Macron’s modest reforms are likely to pass into law. His is a minority government in a country where 70 percent of voters are hostile to increasing the retirement age.

In the UK and Germany, the retirement age is 66 but, as in the rest of Europe, further rises will be needed. Pension costs are just one of the issues that will be highlighted by global ageing. As in Japan, the West will soon require a drastic recalibration of its economic and social policies.

For example, old age care will be an even more critical problem in Europe than Asia where social norms demand that families look after their aged. In Europe socialism has taught us that this is the job of the state. I was once attacked by French Marxist friends for my immorality in spending a week’s vacation caring for old and sick pilgrims in Lourdes. This was the government’s job they argued.

The eco-narcissists should beware of what they wish for. In the past year, the sudden withdrawal of baby boomers from the workforce during Covid, has sprung a demographic surprise on Europe. The problems of depopulation with its effects on budgets, labour shortages and inflation, have come sharply into focus. On the upside the eco-narcissists will soon have to find another vehicle for their moral superiority.