Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.
He is also
We live in an interesting age.
There have never been so many people on the planet we inhabit. At eight billion and expected to climb to 10.9 billion by 2100, the world population will peak by the turn of the Century.
One of the key determinants of the global population is that we may never know precisely how many people we have on Planet Earth. Population figures are notoriously inaccurate because they are almost always imperfectly recorded. There is a logic to this. In an age where economies are based on consistent growth and military power is often related to the fecundity of a nation’s population, honest statistics do not necessarily serve the political interests of countries caught up in political, strategic and economic competition. Indeed, the best we can do is take what we know of a country’s population size and extrapolate it. This can give national planners ‘near-enough’ figures to guide housing and other critical infrastructure policy projects. A happy population means a calm population that isn’t likely to take to the streets and call for the violent removal of those in office. On the other hand, countries with large populations have multiple issues to contend with, but nearly all of them revolve around maintaining stability. If a government cannot ensure adequate food supplies and affordable water and electricity, the last commodity being the lifeblood of modern societies, there is a high likelihood of trouble.
Size can be an advantage and disadvantage.
Countries like China and India have used their large populations to exercise local strategic power over potential rivals – largely through passive intimidation. However, the large markets these populations of citizen-consumers represent can have beneficial economic effects since large masses of un and semi-skilled people can provide a source of cheap labour for manpower-intensive industries – in other words, factory, mining and construction ‘fodder.’ Once these people have enough economic resources to spend on creating and sustaining families and buying a minimum of luxury products, developed countries can profit from the human desire among the lesser developed countries to better the overall material standards of individuals and communities.
Generally speaking, this might be considered a good thing when the social glue of free trade exists.
But since COVID-19, changes in attitudes towards free trade and a general move towards protectionism profoundly affected existing global supply chains that were once the hallmarks of international neo-liberal capitalism. Distance and time are factors in a worldwide delivery system governed by ‘just in time’ methodologies. Few things are ‘just in time’ anymore. Where once China stood as the 21st Century’s workshop of the world, the phenomenon of friend-shoring is pulling Western companies out of the PRC and relocating them to more reliable (pro-US) destinations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, India and parts of the Americas. Where once all supply chains led to China, in the future, far fewer will be connected to the People’s Republic, and this will have enormous social, economic and political impacts on both Chinese and Indian fortunes, shifting the Asian balance of power from one to the other.
However, a cursory examination of current population statistics indicates that parts of the global population are experiencing population decline. Countries like Russia and Japan are at the forefront of this phenomenon. But many parts of Europe are also experiencing rapid ageing, with mortality rates overtaking birth rates on that continent.
The least affected countries by population decline seem to be in the Global South – where poor and less developed states still have young, vibrant populations buoyed by socially conservative gender roles and the adherence to the social and religious beliefs that largely underpin them. In the West, migrant countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the least affected by rapid ageing since they can maintain relatively healthy populations, not through natural increase, but through immigration. Countervailing progressive trends in these countries, however, such as the proliferation of birth control, personal dependencies on virtual entertainment, the strong move towards gender equality, the breakdown of traditional family structures and communities and the atomisation of the individual continue to have their effect of lessening national birth statistics.
Reliance on immigration alone to stem the ageing tide brings other risks, such as the rapid displacement of older established population groups with newer ones.
While this may be viewed as a positive development, older, established populations still have disproportionate political clout owing to the belief that it was them and their cultural, racial and ethnic forebears who built their national communities. They often resent large numbers of newcomers living among them. Progressive anti-racism policies such as multiculturalism have mitigated some of this among the developed migrant countries, though outbreaks of racist violence or confrontation stubbornly continue. In Europe, a traditional outflow destination where European emigres flowed to less densely populated parts of the world or to imperial colonial possessions when European empires existed, are uneasy with their new reality of being a net importer of people from former colonies in Africa, the Middle East, Asia or the Americas. They share little with these new settlers besides being human. Linguistically, religiously, socially, culturally and racially, new migrants in Europe are not universally welcomed. Many are violently attacked or generally intimidated. Some progressive elites have attempted to force the hand of the older European population groups into accepting a reduced status by emphasising newcomer populations and the wonders of their cultural diversity over national monocultures, pushing a feminist cultural agenda rather than a traditional masculine one, focusing on the rights of individuals to identify and do whatever they like as opposed to conforming to old notions of community based on shared national values and expectations, whether secular or religious.
But it is on the European continent and perhaps in North America, specifically the United States, where multiple internal wars of ethnic and racial succession may eventually come to a head.
Should this take place, this could spread to other corners of the world as the expression of personal bias becomes a far more accepted form of public discourse, jeopardising the personal security of everybody. And coming at a time of increasing food, water, and energy scarcity and insecurity, the constellations align for an extended period of worldwide disorder. Older established populations within advanced Western countries begin to reject progressive ideology in all its manifestations, close their borders to immigrants from the Global South and erect economic barriers to protect local jobs and privileges rather than spreading the high-minded benefits of free trade and development to other parts of the world.
This needn’t be a violent time. However, those invested in socially progressive politics and neo-liberal economics are unlikely to easily give ground or reach an agreement with their ideologically conservative or radical right counterparts. The attraction to and retention of political power and social dominance is a universal desire for the left and the right. Indeed, one only has to look at the political polarisation in the United States between the Democrats and Republicans to see that political radicalisation undermines the country’s democratic processes. The French body politic is radicalised, with the country’s population torn between various anti-government, progressive, traditional and right-wing political groups where protesting has become a national pastime, and no one is happy. In Germany, an undercurrent of right-wing rejectionism of centre-left progressive politics is steadily increasing despite Berlin cracking down on neo-Nazi and allied groups such as the Reichsburger Movement. And in Brexit Britain, a largely apathetic public tolerates the ineptitude of a political elite unused to good governance. While radical extremism exists, it is not as organised as in the United States or Continental Europe and has been given a form of legitimacy in being anti-EU. With the British government having accepted Brexit, it embraced a form of nationalism it now has to defend and protect. This might buy it some time before it becomes evident that no amount of EU-bashing can solve the UK’s immigration and economic problems and the social issues arising from both.
All of this is happening at a time when there is a hot war in Europe, with a desperate Russian leader attempting to inform the world that his will, coupled with aggressive military expansionism, can save Russia’s status as a relevant international power. The more cautious Chinese, too, are moving along the lines of militarisation, building up the Chinese military to counteract US and allied forces operating in the Western Pacific while, at the same time, attempting to intimidate the island-state of Taiwan to Beijing’s will. But with the economic rugs being pulled out from both Moscow and Beijing, how will their brittle dictatorships manage?
Divided democracies and fragile autocracies rule a volatile international system. Neither side is strong enough to dominate the other, and yet both and their many supporters cling to their illusions of grandeur and power as narcissistic psychopaths writ large. Ultimately, with food, water and electricity becoming unaffordable, and ecological damage from rapine and amoral exploitation too extensive, supporting the teaming billions of people living on this ‘third rock from the sun’ is expected to get more difficult over time. While we all get distracted and fixated by wars of conquest and potential wars of conquest, the battles that will tear us apart will be internal. What is needed is an iron self-discipline to pull back from the edge, become moral agents in an amoral world, be satisfied with a delayed gratification of our political, economic and social desires and address social ills through dialogue and cooperation. We need to slow down, breathe and work for the betterment of society and not be carried away by ego, greed and short-termism. Sounds easy enough, and our more disciplined forebearers had this capacity, and let us not forget it was them who bequeathed to us a sound and reasonable world, a world that was imperfect to be sure but one that we could make sense of. But, unfortunately, it is a world we are about to lose.
Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
Image Credit: [[File:Population growth rate (UN (1950 to 2100)), OWID.svg|Population_growth_rate_(UN_(1950_to_2100)),_OWID]] Wikimedia Commons (date accessed: 30th May, 2023)