Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

By Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson

Review by John DePutter – December 22, 2019

Empty Planet makes the case that the world’s population will peak sometime between 2040 and 2060, level out and then begin a long-lasting decline.

This book makes a compelling case that population growth will be significantly less than has been predicted. It suggests that the world’s population may never grow from its current 7 billion to anywhere near the 11 billion which the United Nations forecasts will be reached by 2100.

There is evidence that the world population may not even rise to 9 billion, a threshold that a variety of experts anticipate us to reach in the next 30 to 40 years.

Bricker and Ibbitson assert that this decrease in population will be caused by an accelerating decline in fertility – fewer babies born per woman, globally. This trend is already underway and is gaining momentum, due in large part to increasing levels of education and urbanization. The authors state that “the human herd has been culled in the past by famine or plague. This time, we are culling ourselves; we are choosing to become fewer.”

What’s my take on this?

Well, I have been involved with forecasting for long enough to know that making long-term predictions is a dangerous business. I wouldn’t want to bet heavily on any outcome for population growth 40 to 60 years ahead (nor will I be around to witness the outcome).

However, those interested in the global trends that shape our planet should seriously consider the authors’ arguments. They do seem to have merit.

I was alerted to this book by a reader of the DePutter Market Advisory Service newsletters. This farmer had some interesting thoughts and questions.

“Did you read the book?” he asked. “If not, you should.”

“If their calculations and theories are correct, the world is going to see a paradigm shift unparalleled since the Industrial Revolution. How will we sustain profitability in the agricultural sector without a growing population? Even if, as I believe will happen, age-extension technology adds a decade or more to the average human lifespan, we will be forced, at some point, to confront the reality that agriculture isn’t going to be economically sustainable from food-based incremental demand. We will produce ourselves into poverty.”

“If this comes to pass in the next couple of decades, the only way forward that I can see for agriculture is to grow consumption-based products. Hemp comes to mind. If the oil industry someday fades away, we will need replacements for plastics, clothing, nylon, etc. If we can find other uses for our products, perhaps agriculture can still thrive into the middle part of this century and beyond.”

Those were interesting ideas, from a thoughtful farmer.

One reaction I have relates to his comment about the oil industry possibly fading away.

We do see that the oil industry is in disarray, but I don’t expect it to fade away completely. No doubt there will be continued public opposition toward the use of fossil fuels. Western Canada seems to be a lightning rod for such opposition, while other oil production methods and countries keep ramping up production, without as much media attention.

Whatever the outcome for the oil industry, we can already see the early growth stages of bio energy and other replacements for petroleum-based products. We can expect to see more. Indeed, the growth of plant products for various industries is part of a broad new frontier for agriculture that also involves various forms of new technology, new crops, new methods of production and transportation, new uses for crops and other dramatic changes.

Will we produce ourselves into poverty?

The farmer’s comment about producing ourselves into poverty drew my attention as well.

Farmers, as a group, will never be poverty-stricken. They are too resourceful, adaptable and resilient. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that rural living and the business of farming will be easy. Historically, members of the agricultural sector have often experienced lower levels of income and standards of living than their urban counterparts. There will be times in the future when it happens again.

Demographic shifts related to the world’s population expansion and retraction will likely happen too slowly for most individual farmers to notice, on a year-by-year basis. Prices and profits are historically cyclic in nature. As such, even if a major 100-year trend in prices and profitability is flat or down (due in part to a downturn in population, for example), there will still be some big ups and downs – some great times and tough times – along the way.

What can a farm or ag-business manager do?

In response to the viewpoints offered by Bricker and Ibbotson in Empty Planet, I would offer some suggestions about planning ahead:

  • Bet on population growth for another couple of decades, but not after that.
  • Recognize there’s a good possibility of a long-term downtrend in the world’s population after approximately 2050. But don’t make day-to-day or month-to-month decisions based on this extremely long-term trend change.
  • Already, the capability of farmers to add to their production is outpacing the world’s consumption needs. The way forward may result in even more production and more surpluses. Sometime in the future, this will necessitate price declines for some commodities to levels which deter production. It is when this comes to pass for some of the commodities on your farm that some real tests of survival in the business may confront you.
  • It will occur to some readers that another way farmers could protect themselves if the population declines, resulting in reduced commodity demand, is to migrate along the value chain. Instead of only producing bulk commodities, farmers could aim to add value. We agree with this in principle, although there have been many unsuccessful attempts in the past. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the road to success. There will be some farming operations that do make it work.
Impact on climate change

The Empty Planet might ease the minds of those who are intensely afraid of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global warming. Admittedly, though, it offers only a very long-term prospect for change.

The book suggests that the world will reach its peak fossil fuel demand around 2040 because of the growing energy needs of the developing world, primarily China and India. Coal is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and China’s coal-generated electrical capacity is three times that of the US. The authors also assert that, at the time of publication, India had plans for approximately 370 new coal-fired generating stations. The use of coal by these two huge users could decline sometime around the year 2040.

Looking ahead, Bricker and Ibbotson believe that population decline could play a major role in limiting carbon emissions in general around the world. One recent study projected that, if the current low-variant population growth model in the US plays out, relative emissions would decline by 10% by 2055 and 35% by 2100. As such, the solution for producing less carbon dioxide might ultimately be producing fewer humans.

Canada could do well

Certain countries, such as Canada and the US, could benefit economically from a global population decline, particularly if immigration is encouraged. Immigration would keep a population uptrend in place for countries able to offer desirable living and working conditions, long after the global population trend changes.

Some nations may come to embrace immigration as a solution to their aging societies. Some will not. Japan has not and its economy has been in decline for many years. However, there are many pieces of the puzzle that have yet to fall into place to determine which countries will emerge victorious and which will go down in economic defeat in addressing the effects of changing global population.

Contrarian thinking

I want to conclude with the comment that whenever I see a theory that runs contrary to the assumptions of the crowd in general, I take notice. My many years in the markets have instilled a contrarian approach to my thinking. If you’re like me, you’ll appreciate this book, if only because it challenges a commonly held belief.