Facing an Empty Planet and the Shock of Global Population Decline

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published his bestselling book, The Population Bomb, which predicted the apocalyptic death of millions in the 70s and 80s as the result of over-population. Surely you have heard the nutshell of his argument before: the earth and its resources simply cannot sustain humanity’s ever-growing population. Sixty years later, the fact that nearly all of his predictions have failed to come true did not stop the now ninety-year-old from doubling-down on the disaster of over-population on 60 Minutes just last month. And many people are still in agreement with his assessment.

Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson make a case that the global population is actually looking at the very opposite problem: a population bust rather than a bomb. In their book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, they aim to dismantle several common population myths:

No, we are not going to keep adding bodies until the world is groaning at the weight of eleven billion of us and more; nine billion is probably closer to the truth, before the population starts to decline. No, fertility rates are not astronomically high in developing countries; many of them are at or below replacement rate. No, Africa is not a chronically impoverished continent doomed to forever grow its population while lacking the resources to sustain it; the continent is dynamic, its economies are in flux, and the birth rates are falling rapidly. No, African Americans and Latino Americans are not over-whelming white Americans with their higher fertility rates. The fertility rates of all three groups have essentially converged.


As Bricker and Ibbitson argue, the overall decline of global fertility rates means that we must dismiss those pervasive myths alongside the grand myth of a population bomb itself. Instead, “our future will contain something we have never experienced: a world growing smaller in numbers by choice” (225). Wars, famines, plagues, and the like have certainly lopped off large segments of the global population at various times throughout history, but the population decline that is currently underway is unlike any of those. It comes not by way of global disaster but through secularization, namely, the decline of religion and the rise of gender equality. The more education that women receive and the more they are integrated into the workforce, the fewer children they have. We should not need to have this explained to us, since we likely have countless examples all around, but here it is anyway:

When a woman has an interesting, well-paying job, she is less likely to get pregnant. Childbirth can be a major impediment to career advancement. Even with the most enlightened parental-leave policies, even with the best child care available, taking time off work to have a child can set back a woman’s career. Leaving work early because the school calls to say your child is throwing up can raise eyebrows. Sending an email saying you’ll be working from home today because the child care arrangements fell through gets noticed. Yes, fathers could and should do more, but they often don’t. Studies show that childless women earn about the same as men. It’s having children that generates the pay gap. (97)

And though this trend largely began in the West, it is now a global trend. Indeed, when you combine the fact that children limit women’s career advancement with the reality that children are more liabilities in urban settings as opposed to being assets in rural environments, modernizing humanity is simply choosing to have fewer children, very often below the replacement rate.

Overall, while I am tremendously thankful that Bricker and Ibbitson took the time and energy necessary to write this book and to do their part in dispelling the over-population myths, they very clearly hold a secular worldview and are left-leaning in their politics. Thus, while the book is generally a beneficial read, I have a number of natural disagreements.

First, they largely attempt to veer away from the doom-and-gloom that marked Ehrlich’s book, which, to be fair, is probably the right move to make. However, they certainly seem to lean a bit too heavily on the glass-half-full side of things. Namely, they “believe there will be much about [the future world] to admire. It will be cleaner, safer, quieter. The oceans will start to heal and the atmosphere cool–or at least stop heating. People may not be growing wealthier, but that might not matter so much. Power centers will shift–and centers of innovation and creativity, too” (225). I hope that is all true. Yet a global population decline will likely come with a number of, say, hiccups to put it mildly.

“Population decline,” they say, “isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for healthcare and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children” (4).

Call me pessimistic, but I’ve got a much grimmer feeling in my gut about the whole matter of global population decline. The economic shake-ups coming down the line certainly have a part to play but not entirely. Rather, my sense of grim foreboding comes more from the sense of despair that will surely grip societies around the globe even tighter as they continue to age. You see, the joy that children bring, especially to the elderly, is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify, but it is impossible to ignore whenever you see it with your own eyes. Even if the external conditions are largely good, a declining population indicates a decaying society. “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3). Whenever a culture forgets that reality, they signal the presence of the evil days that Théoden lamented, saying, “The young perish and the old linger, withering.” Or, maybe the best way to say it is this: even if the global population decline does not result in external problems, it already is an indication of a very large existential one.

Also, I do not agree with their implied premise that if a global population decline is the price of women having careers then it is a price worth paying. When our second daughter was on the way, my wife and I discussed her working situation. She made as much money being a part-time small business advisor as I did as a full-time pastor, and she loved her career. So, the stakes were high. I ended up asking her which would be a greater regret at the end of her life: letting go of her career or not being fully present with her children when they are young. She then chose to stay home, and we are trusting the mathematics of God’s kingdom to make three (soon to be four) children work on one income. I rejoice to see that many women today are making the same kind of decision. Of course, I do not think that women have no place in the workforce; I only believe that we need to massively correct our society’s emphasis that women will be most fulfilled by having a great career. When actually given a choice, many women will choose to be homemakers; the problem is that many are afraid of deviating from society’s wonderful plan for their lives by admitting that they want to be a mother.

Second, Bricker and Ibbitson present immigration as the solution for the United States and other advanced nations to mitigate the economic hit of a shrinking population. I have no reason to doubt the validity of this argument. Indeed, the logic seems to work out just fine. If the problem is not having enough children, then accepting more immigrants can help prop up the population. My concern is that this solution apparently leaves the developing countries to rot as large swathes of their population flees to more developed countries like the U.S. and Canada. And we cannot soften this thought by noting that developing countries still have higher fertility rates because that is precisely one of the myths that Bricker and Ibbitson aimed to bust. Yes, developing countries do still have a higher fertility rate than developed countries, but those rates are not stable. They are falling as quickly as the countries are developing.

All this brings me to my largest criticism of the book: Bricker and Ibbitson come across as having a fatalistic view of humanity’s numerical decline. Again, they readily admit that secularization appears to be main culprit behind declining fertility rates, and because they agree that secularization is an overwhelming net positive, they sort of just hope that the consequences won’t be too bad.

Although I fundamentally disagree with secularism, I will admit that some benefit has come from it that Christians would do well to note. Of course, that kind of admission is not really saying much whenever we consider that God even used Babylon for His glory and for His people’s ultimate good. Even still, I disagree whole-heartedly that secularism has been largely beneficial to humanity, and I would cite our global lack of desire to procreate as exhibit A. Our imitation of pandas at the very height of global prosperity and comfort is a massive red flag that depression has moved from the individual to the society as a whole.

But what else were we to expect after we jettisoned the very idea of God and then the uniquely Christian doctrine of mankind as God’s image-bearers? With these two foundational beliefs gone, we have called ourselves animals while trying to become gods. We both exalted and humiliated ourselves at the same time. Indeed, because the inherent value of each human life has been swept off the table, I am not convinced that the coming generations will take on all of the burdens of the far larger elderly population. The utilitarian will note that the elderly consume far more than they contribute, and what morality will silence the suggestion to prune the population? We already sacrifice millions of unborn upon the altar of women’s careers; why not sacrifice the most dependent elderly for the good of the whole society?

The Christian response to all of this ought to be a reclamation of the imago Dei and the creation mandate. Yes, the Great Commission is the supreme mission of Christ’s church, and it is through making disciples that the new humanity is even now arriving. Yet the First Commission for humanity to be fruitful and multiply was not obliterated by Jesus’ command to disciple all nations. We hold both together. Therefore, let us guard ourselves from any Malthusian lies that mankind is a plague upon the earth. The filling of the planet with God’s image is good, and it is even more glorious when more and more image-bearers are redeemed back into communion with God.

Although we must face the consequences over the next several decades that secularism and depopulation have already caused, I pray for a global embrace of Christ that will lead to the glad and sacrificial care of the coming elderly population, that will lead families into embracing the burden yet great blessing of having many children, and most importantly that Christ will be made known among all the nations.


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