Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
The Population Explosion
Featuring Darrell Bricker & John Ibbitson
Are we on the brink of a population explosion with untold global consequences? On the contrary, a growing number of experts argue that we are headed for a worldwide decline. Hear from Empty Planet authors John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker on how this could bring with it many benefits as well as surprising disruptions.
This recording was first released on March 5th, 2019.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? Talk to your friends, talk to someone on the street, and most will say that one of the pressing challenges of the 21st century is global population expansion. We’re at seven and a half billion people now. Soon we will be at eight. And if you listen to the UN, and if most of us think about what our assumptions are going forward, it’s going to be 10 billion, 11 billion. And will the environment, will societies be able to sustain this massive increase of human beings on the planet, with resources and water and all these other issues already showing signs of stress? That at least is what we tend to assume. But as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, who are my guests today, point out in this incredibly important new book, “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,” those assumptions are almost certainly wrong.
They may have been right, the models may have been correct 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But with massive urbanization globally, and the increase of global middle-class affluence—and that doesn’t mean there isn’t huge inequality and challenges—with those changes, the arc of population increase has leveled off sharply. It already has in Japan. It already has in Western Europe. It already has in Latin America. And it has in significant portions of the United States and North America. That is changing the demographic future. And it is changing it far more rapidly and much more dramatically than most of us assume and that the models currently dictate. What the problem with this is: if it’s not going to be an issue for 30 years, the problem is, of course, that if we are all driving our societies, driving our businesses, making strategic assumptions for how we spend and what we spend and what we invest in, and countries and governments doing the same based on a wrong assumption, based on the wrong script, then we are steering these massive societies and chips of state and businesses and individual decisions about the future, we’re steering them in the wrong direction.
So being more attuned to what the actual population arc is versus the population arc that we assume is crucial to understanding the future. And one of the things that emerges most positively from Darrell and John’s book, “Empty Planet,” is that many of the most crucial and pressing resource strains on the planet, which are based on more people needing more stuff, will by virtue of demography become less pressing over the next decades. That doesn’t change the urgency of environmental change, currently. It just means that while it may be getting worse now, it may actually ease in the future. Anyway, they’re both compelling individuals. Darrell Bricker is chief executive officer of Ipsos Public Affairs, which is the world’s leading social and opinion research firm. And John Ibbitson is a writer-at-large for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading national newspaper. So with that, let’s speak with Darrell and John.
So Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, thanks for joining me today to have this discussion. I was deeply pleased to see the publication of this book, as it’s an issue that, you know, I’ve been talking about with people for some time, and I’m struck by the degree to which the concept of the population not expanding exponentially—and then creating the panoply of social, environmental, and political challenges that that would entail—that idea that we may not continue to grow, grow, grow infinitely is not a familiar one to most people. And in fact, I think it really cuts against what most people believe in a way that is unsettling. So what’s been your experience with this when you have told people that you’re writing this book, I mean, do you get raised eyebrows and skepticism, or have people been receptive to the concept that really upends what most people perceive?
Darrell Bricker (DB): It’s actually been quite the opposite. It’s been a lot of people, particularly demographers, saying what you just said, which is, “yeah, you know what, we’ve been saying the same thing, so I’m glad somebody is talking about this finally.” So there is kind of what we might call the received wisdom or vertical knowledge about this being an absolute fact that is unquestionable. But when you go out and you talk to a lot of scientists who are dealing with this day to day, and particularly when you go into the countries and talk to the scientists who are living there, as opposed to say, for example, living in New York and Washington, and just interpreting data that comes their way, this is not a shock to them, or a surprise to them. This is what their daily experience is. So the reaction I basically got when I was out in the field, and I know John had a similar type of reaction when he was out in the field was, was people saying, “yeah, it’s about time somebody wrote this.”
ZK: I mean, do you feel that that is… What about when you talk to your friends?
John Ibbitson (JI): Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that it sort of goes about 90–10, or maybe 95–5. So if you talk to anyone, you know, in my craft, in journalism, at dinner parties, out in the street, you get a reaction of shock. “What Do you mean that in fact, we’re not going to just keep growing and growing and growing. What do you mean that the population could in fact start to decline by mid-century. That’s outrageous. And it’s something we have been taught the very opposite of from the day we were born.” And then as Darrell said, you talk to this demographer or that public servant who is in charge of projections and planning, and they go, “oh, yes, of course the UN numbers are all wrong. Smithers did a monograph on it last month. Why would you even bother writing a book?”
So really, the purpose of the book is to get an idea that is in the academy and inside some elements of the bureaucracy and get it out to the public, just to say to them, “you’ve been told from the United Nations Population Division, that we’re going to go from seven and a half billion today to over 11 billion by the end of the century. And this is going to be calamitous, environmentally, economically, and in every other way. But in fact, that’s not likely to happen. In fact, we are likely to get about 9 billion by the middle of the century, and then start to go down. And there are consequences for that. Some good, some bad.” But that is, in fact, an ultimate reality that people are going to have to come to grips with.
ZK: So let’s back up for a moment. And maybe, Darrell, you had a large polling and public opinion organization—I’m sure you do other things, but that’s the most familiar part of Ipsos to most people in North America. Where did this come from? I mean, where did the idea for this come from? How did you both arrive at it and then decide to do it together?
DB: Well, John and I have been on a sort of a parallel track with this idea for a while. I know he mentioned to me the other day that he’d been writing on this since almost the turn of the century. So it’s not something that was unfamiliar to him, but it’s not anything that he spent an awful lot of time on. And it’s something similar for me when I’m talking to my clients or talking to people about population issues in general. I’ve always been really interested in demography. But we came together on a book about five years ago that was a number one bestseller here in Canada, about how factors such as these were going to change the political landscape. Since we had some success with that, we started looking around the world to see how some of the arguments that we were talking about in Canada played out in other parts of the world.
And the two things that we found were, first of all, just as John said, this absolute certainty among most of the population, including, you know, Hollywood producers that can’t stop making these apocalyptic movies based on population explosion, but also the general conversation out there that this can’t possibly be right. And when you started looking at the numbers in other places, everywhere from India to China to the United States to Brazil, you started seeing exactly the same patterns that we noticed in Canada. And those things where urbanization declining, fertility, and population aging. And they’re common phenomena everywhere. So we said to each other, you know, why don’t we take a shot at telling the world about this? And the book is the product.
ZK: So it’s interesting, you note in the book that about two dozen countries, 20-ish are now inactive population decline, and they tend to be the most affluent countries in the world. Western Europe, Japan, the United States is obviously much more complicated in that the more urbanized affluence part of the United States tends to have negative population decline, different regions have population expansion, and of course, immigration is a countervailing factor. But that there are still some parts of the world, Nigeria, other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, certain countries in the Middle East like Iran and Egypt, Morocco, have had population growth, but you think this is going to also begin to reverse rather quickly.
JI: Yeah, I think that, again, one of the big surprises is, if you went to a dinner party or its equivalent and you raise this issue, people who have some knowledge of the field would say, “well, you’re half right.” The developed world is below replacement rate—and replacement rate, by the way, is 2.1 children per woman within any given society. If your overall average is higher than 2.1, your population is growing. If it’s below 2.1, your population will start to decline. The United States, Canada, all of the developed countries are below 2.1. So either you have immigration as Canada and United States have, or you have declining population, which is what you see in much of Europe and in the developed countries of Eastern Asia. That’s fine. But your friend at the dinner table would say, “but everyone knows the developing world is still a baby factory and there’s massive growth. And that’s where we’re going to see the extra 4 billion people come from.” But then you start to look out, and you start to look at the countries with the highest populations in the world.
Right now the country with the most people is China. China has a fertility rate of 1.5. It is a full half baby below replacement rate. It is going to start losing population in a few years. And once China starts losing population that will never stop. India has reached replacement rate. India is now at 2.1. We actually have it wrong in the book. We were using the latest data available, and we had it at 2.4. But the latest studies, which were published last November in the Lancet, have it now at replacement rate. So we just wiped out 40% of the world’s population with those two countries. You look at the Western Hemisphere, everything except the United States and Canada—so, Latin America, the Caribbean—it’s at replacement rate. Brazil, which is the fifth largest country in the world, is at 1.8. It is below replacement rate.
So yes, there are still, you know, high fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. But that’s just about it. There’s just about nowhere else on earth, apart from bits of the Middle East, where you have high fertility rates. And even in Africa, for reasons that are identical to the reasons that fertility rates are declining elsewhere in the world, the rates there are coming down. So you’re running out of places to make babies.
ZK: So let’s get in the weeds for a moment. If you take out 40% of the population between China and India, and then another 15-plus percent of the global population with Europe and Latin America, do you have enough fertility boom ahead with Nigeria, which is pushing 200 million people, Indonesia, which is above 250 million people, the Philippines, which is 150 million people, Bangladesh, which is another hundred-plus million, and Pakistan, which is close to 200 million? Or even, a, are you seeing the same signs of emerging plateauing of fertility rates in those countries, which have been still very high-growing, or are those going to be 10, 20, 30 years out before they crest?
DB: Well, you know, the interesting thing on that, all the countries that you mentioned, some of them actually are below replacement fertility rates. So for example, Bangladesh. And you’ve mentioned Iran a couple of times. They’re below replacement rate now, too. The interesting thing is when you take a look at the Philippines and some of the other developing markets that you mentioned, even Nigeria, all of these places are going faster or slower—many of them faster—towards declining fertility. None of them are growing. Even Nigeria isn’t growing in terms of its fertility rate. It’s come down, I think the number was somewhere in like around six in 1960, and it’s down to around four now. So you sit back and you say, “okay, well, which country is the country that’s producing all of these babies that are going to fill in for all of these other places?” And if everybody else is declining—slower and faster, but still declining, the direction is the same—you can’t find it.
Now, one of the arguments that the people who still advocate for this 11.2 billion model claim is that, you know, population momentum is going to make it happen. And you hear people talk about this, you know, that there’s so many young people in the world that they’re just going to, you know, keep cresting this wave as we go through the century, and that’s what’s going to get us to 11.2 billion people. The problem with that argument is nobody knows what they’re going to do. But one thing that we know is that they’re not going to behave like the people who were at their age in previous generations. So what John’s argument and my argument is, is just beyond the numbers. And what’s actually happening on the ground, which we really spent a lot of time looking at, is this cultural change that’s taking place. And this cultural change is something that’s never really happened before in human civilization. And it’s this idea that we’re making a decision because of a whole bunch of factors to have smaller families. That’s not representative of what happened in the past, and the models are all based on that idea. So yeah, you’ve got a lot of young people, but what happens if the young people don’t behave the way that their parents did and their grandparents did? Because that’s the one thing that we know for sure they’re not doing.
ZK: Right. I mean, it’s definitely true that models change much less quickly than human behavior. Just like systems change much less quickly than human behavior. So you’re left with what are essentially static models that are innovated but remain the same framework of assumptions about human nature, what they’re going to do, even as humanity or multiple cultures are behaving very differently. I mean, you talk about urbanization as the major driver, or one of the major drivers. What about just women’s education in general?
JI: Urbanization produces fewer babies for four distinct reasons. And you’re right. We’re pinning this all on this one word: urbanization. Everywhere around the world, countries are urbanizing. For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than outside them. And that process is accelerating everywhere in the developing world.
So, when a society urbanizes four distinct things happen. The first is, a child becomes uneconomical, right? A child born in the countryside is another pair of hands to work at the fields. A child born in the city is just an economic drag. So there’s the economic self-interest.
ZK: So, children go from being an asset to a liability.
JI: Exactly so. And that’s a powerful factor. The second equally powerful factor is that women in urban settings have access to education that they don’t have in rural settings. They have access to state school systems. They have access to media. They have access to other women. And as women acquire education, they make demands. They begin to demand some level of autonomy over their own lives. And once they achieve some level of autonomy, then the first thing they decide is, they want fewer babies than their mothers had. The third thing that happens is the power of religion declines. In rural environments, no matter what the religion is, the religion tends to be powerful and it tends to be oppressive towards women and towards the autonomy of women. But when you move into a city, the power of religion erodes. You mentioned the Philippines. The Catholic Church in the Philippines is angst-ridden at the collapse of church attendance in the Philippines, even as the Philippines is urbanizing and its fertility rate is plunging. And then fourth and finally, the power of the clan erodes. In the rural environment, your family and your extended family place enormous pressure on you to get married, settle down, have kids, be normal. But when you’re in an urban environment, the power of the family erodes and is replaced by the power of the peer group, coworkers. And when was the last time one of your coworkers urged you to have a baby?
ZK: So the other question I have, which is a little bit more of a pushback, and it may be more of the anecdotal one, is there does seem to be a trend in affluent Western societies for people with means to have more children as kind of an odd latter-day expression of affluence. You know, it’s sort of the… The personal familial equivalent of having a large house is being able to afford to have a large family. Now that probably is not demographically significant enough in terms of a percentage of a population to move the needle that you’re describing. But if there is increasing affluence in most parts of the world, albeit with huge inequality, could you see some reversal of the trend that you’re saying is reversed toward more “back to replacement or above”?
DB: No. In a word, no. And the reason is because there are examples of that, but there are many, many, many, many other examples in which it’s not the case. And particularly when it’s two parents that are working to create that affluence, women are staying in school for longer, and this is especially the case in the developed world, until they’re around the age of 30. And the biological reality is, the years of being able to produce an abundant number of children have been cut in half. So it’s not just a question of affluence. It also requires a woman making the decision that she wants to be in that role that her mother or grandmother is. And what we’re seeing in the world is, that’s a decreasing number of women.
ZK: So then even if there is a small, maybe not lunatic, but a small fringe of wealthy people saying as an expression of their ability to support in costly urban environments or suburban environments, with lots of kids, that even if a lot of people did that in that incredibly narrow demographic, it wouldn’t move the needle at all for the larger populations globally.
JI: No, not really. In fact, there’s an irony. In the developing world, having fewer children is a sign of growing affluence. Poverty is associated with many children. But as you become more affluent, as you become more educated, as women become more autonomous, then fertility rates decline.
And then it flips. In the developed world, sure, governments may put in, you know, childcare supports, extended parental leave things like that to try to get their fertility rates up. But generally speaking, in the developed world, affluence is something that might permit you to have three children, but you’re now in an environment that we describe as the low fertility trap. You live in a society where just having one or two or no kids is the norm. Where, if a friend of yours were to say, “I’m getting married and we want five children,” you would raise your eyebrows and go “really, five kids, who ever does that anymore.” Society just becomes adapted to the idea of one or two or no children. And the reason for having children changes. As I said, it’s no longer about pleasing your God or pleasing your family or pleasing the state. Children become an expression of self-fulfillment. And we find, in most societies, if you and your partner are having a child in order to fulfill yourselves, one or two is enough to get you pretty fulfilled.
ZK: You know, it’s funny, in some of the themes you touch on, one observation you make in the book and you’ve both talked about is, if your new demographic reality proves correct—and I, for one, absolutely believe that, and every indication of data suggests that, except for UN estimates and popular culture—so if everything crests and then begins to decline sometime around mid century, 2050-ish, then in many ways, many of the most pressing issues that we’re now facing—environmental strain, resource strain, water table erosion in places ranging from China to India to the United States—many of those issues will fade in intensity simply because the need for more more more will presumably wane. In a weird way, there’s this sort of, “if we can get through the next 30 years” question, right? So if all the apocalyptic, real concerns of global crisis around the strains that increasing population will create begin to fade, they fade in 30 years. So are you—leading question—are you both relatively optimistic that we’ll muddle through the next 30 years, and then we can then deal with the new challenges ahead? Or is it a neck and neck race between our ability to sustain this and our ability to collapse?
DB: I would say that any issue in which your opening premise is that we’re going to get to 11.2 billion people by 2100, and that’s going to cause us to make a lot of changes, I think both John and I would agree that maybe you should revisit some of those assumptions. That doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t happening. That doesn’t mean that there are all these environmental degradations that we still have to deal with. They will still be there. But if you believe that they’re driven because population expansion is out of control. You really need to revisit that assumption, look at the denominator in your equation, and recalculate. And that’s basically what we’re saying in the book. We don’t have… I mean, we have a few ideas that we submit as prescriptive, but we don’t have a lot of commentary that we make about specifically what needs to be done. It’s rather just suggesting that we need to have a bigger debate about these questions.
And instead of just running around like a bunch of Cassandras lighting our hair on fire and saying, “oh my God, there’s this apocalyptic moment that we’re all about to face,” calm down, slow down, look at the facts, and let’s make some right decisions.
JI: Although, you could be a Cassandra about other things if you want to. It depends, of course, on your own personality. There’s no question that going to 9 billion and then starting to go down is going to be massively beneficial to the environment, just because there are fewer of us stressing the environment. Also, because urbanization leads to the conversion of marginal farmland back to bush, which is terrific both as a carbon sink and in terms of biodiversity.
So it’s all good news on the environmental side. But it’s all bad news on the economic side. If you have a society in which there are fewer young people every year than there were the year before, that means that you have a society in which there are fewer taxpayers every year than there were the year before, fewer young people to sustain the health care and pensions that old folks need. And fewer consumers able to drive an economy, to buy the first house, to buy the car to buy the baby stroller; as Japan will tell you because they lost, I believe, almost 450,000 people last year. And they’re in about three decades of low economic growth. And once you’re in an aging society, especially a society with a declining population, you have all sorts of economic challenges that you didn’t have before that have to be addressed. So if you don’t want to panic over the environment and it is in your nature to panic, feel free to panic over the economy.
ZK: Although there, too, interesting question. And I’m glad you raised Japan, which is a fascinating, and it’s kind of the test-tube case for what we’re all about to face, because they’ve been, as you say, in this for quite some time that everybody else is moving into, i.e., negative population replacement. So the economic question of lower economic growth has obviously been a huge issue for Japan. Hence why this whole handwringing about Japanese stagnation and “is that our future?” But then if you shifted away from the numbers and you just looked at Japan as a society, if Japan is your worst case scenario—high affluence, longevity, pretty good public health, low levels of crime—if that’s your worst-case scenario, that’s most people’s vision of what would have been a human utopia for most of human history, right? It just has bad numbers that are attached to it. So is the problem simply that we don’t have a way of measuring affluence and stability in the absence of economic growth, or is economic growth in and of itself something we need that’s going to be a problem because there’s not enough people?
DB: All you have to do is just turn your eyes to one of Japan’s neighbors to see what the problem is going to be. And that’s China. So it’s about to go through the same situation as Japan, maybe even at a bigger rate because of the odd structure of the population due to the shortage of women that they have in their population. But they’re in a different situation because they’re not rich enough to support that type of a population. So there’s going to be situations, particularly in these developing markets, where you’re going to see the type of population decline that you’re experiencing in Japan. It’s going to be happening in the future. But they don’t have the social infrastructure. They don’t have the affluence. They don’t have all of the supports that are necessary in order to be able to support that older population. And they won’t have the economic driver of a younger population to either create the wealth to supply for that older population or to create the economic growth that they’re going to continue to need through the future.
ZK: So your point around that is a little like a twist on the Fool to King Lear who said something like “you shouldn’t have gotten old until you should have been wise.” This equation would be, “you shouldn’t get old until you are rich.”
JI: It’s going to be especially a challenge in the developing world, in places like Brazil, for example, that also has a below-replacement rate, and that is going to start seeing its population decline when it doesn’t have the pension investments in place that older people will be looking for. That said, I’m by nature a cheery sort. Sowhen I look at stuff like this, and then I’m wringing my hands that, at 20, 30 years out terrible things are going to happen, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who sort of shrugged and said, “these things have a way of working themselves out.” And I think they will.
I worry more about the lack of innovation. If you have fewer and fewer young people, then you have fewer and fewer new ideas, the kind of creativity and energy that a young society produces. But you do still have India, which is, yes, at replacement rate, but which is at over a billion people, and which is going to have a couple more generations of large numbers of young people. The same thing is true in parts of Africa. So we just may see that there’ll be innovation shift. New York and Toronto may start to look old and gray and tired and uninteresting. But we may be getting fabulous stuff out of Lagos and Mumbai.
ZK: But there is this question of, do you need growth, or do you need the expansion of this thing we called an economy, if you don’t have population growth? Or flip that: How much of what we call the success of capitalism and economic growth over the past 200-plus years has simply been a byproduct of the pressing need to house, feed, clothe more people without, you know, massive global conflict. I mean, and maybe growth in and of itself is an unnecessary characteristic of a static and shrinking population.
DB: We have a whole capitalist system that’s based on that. And I work in the world of consulting, right? I mean, I’m a research consultant. I deal with private sector companies all the time. I talk to them about their strategies. And they don’t consider this point. There is this tremendous youth bias that we have to everything that we do in business. It’s essentially built around the idea of young people buying stuff. You know, even when it comes to designing a restaurant. When was the last time you saw a restaurant that was designed to do anything but appeal to a millennial? And we hear this, you know, huge conversation about millennials in the marketplace, you know, as the drivers of consumption, as the people who are going to be most important to the future of the economy, and what increasingly I’m saying to my clients is “I’ll give you another ‘-ennial.’ How about the perennials? How about the people who are older, who are living longer?” Because it’s not just that the population is not producing babies. Most of our growth these days is actually coming from people not leaving the planet, as opposed to getting born. I mean, it’s older people living longer. So when was the last time you actually thought about selling anything or making anything for somebody who is older? Because not only are they not consuming things the way that young people consume them, they’re sitting on all of the money. So the challenge for businesses, and governments too, will be, how do you unlock those assets, that wealth that they’re sitting on? And almost nobody is talking about that these days.
So when I think about the future of the economy, and I’m talking to my clients about this, because, you know, the usual answer is, “yeah, so what; what am I supposed to do about this?” And “let’s talk about how we you know, open up another you know, specific coffee shop for a hipster with tattoos and laptop who wants to sit there.” My answer is, “well, why don’t you turn down the music? Why don’t you make it accessible so people can get in and out? Why don’t you turn up the lights a little bit, so people can actually see what it is that you want to order? And why don’t you make it available to people who actually have the money to afford the premium that you’re trying to get for what you’re selling?” But that’s not our marketing culture.
So I think the combination of, when we look at the future of the economy and economic growth, I think it’s the smart people who are going to start figuring out that the real challenge going forward is unlocking older people from the money that they have, rather than getting people, of which there is a shrinking number of our population, millennials, and trying to separate them from the money they don’t have.
ZK: Darrell, I think you’ve got your next book. John, are you on board for that one?
JI: Oh I don’t know. I’m but a lowly journalist, so it’s not for me to speculate on economic matters. But to me, Darrell obviously makes a very good point, that if you are looking at ways in which to grow your company or grow your society you’re going to need to look at ways in which you can keep older people productive and consuming. So, for example you’re going to want to look at raising the retirement age, both because your government can’t afford to have a pension system in place for people who are going to be on that pension for 30 or more years and because these people are healthy, they’re productive, and you want them in the workforce contributing taxes and also consuming.
ZK: So, Darrell, John, one of your prescriptions is to encourage countries to become more receptive to immigration and multiculturalism. And we’ll get to the Canada example at the end because I think it’s both one of the most interesting ones and relevant to your book. So immigration certainly can augment population or substitute for domestic negative population growth. And the United States clearly has benefited from that and continues to. But from a global system perspective, isn’t it a bit like shifting deck chairs on the Titanic? In that immigration simply moves people from where they are to a different place. It doesn’t generate more population.
DB: Well, you know, we’re really clear about this in the book where we say pretty much what you said. A couple of things. The number of people who are actually migrants in this world—so people who don’t live in the country in which they were born—is just over 3% of the population. So we’re not talking about a large number of people. The second thing is that whatever immigration can add to the equation will be really important for the people who can figure it out in the short to medium term. Is it going to be a long-term solution if you believe the population decline is something that you’re worried about and a problem that you want to solve? Not for the longer term, because what’s going to happen is all of those places that are the producers of immigrants are reducing the number of young people that they are creating, because of declining fertility.
And so, what’s going to happen is that resource is going to become a shrinking part of their population as well. Because immigration is basically a young person’s game. It’s not an old person’s game. So as you reduce the number of young people in the population, it’s going to get harder and harder to find them. But also the places that are producing most of the migrants—so the biggest diaspora in the world right now is India—are the most rapidly becoming middle-class economies. The incentive for people to leave is going to decline. So anybody who particularly right now is in the short-term game of trying to reduce the amount of immigration coming into their country—obviously it has to be well managed; obviously there’s a lot of challenges that are associated with this—but anybody who just wants to shut the door, like Viktor Orbán has just done in Hungary, is accepting a future of a declining population in the shorter term, rather than the medium to the longer term.
ZK: So let’s end with where you end the book, and also with where you are sitting currently having this conversation with me, namely Canada. I’ve often joked and use this great “South Park” movie that was done years ago, where one of the key scenes in it is America is trying to figure out what to do, and they start breaking out into a song, “Blame Canada.” But in your book, it’s the reverse, which is Canada is the apex of a lot of global trends heading its way. And of course, you know, Americans now, some look wistfully at Canada as a functional political system that seems to be inclusive. But you also talk about the population trends being very favorable, partly because of immigration, that Canada could go to maybe 60 million people plus by mid- to later century. And that if a country like Germany continues to shrink, Canada will be roughly the size of Germany in 30 or 40 years, which I hadn’t thought about until I read that in your book. So is Canada the winner of these demographic and cultural trends in the 21st century?
JI: Well, sure. And it’s something you should think about if you’re Canadian. But there aren’t that many Canadians around. Canada has embraced a notion of immigration and multiculturalism. So, both encouraging people to come to the country, which we have been doing for more than a hundred years, because it’s a big country and there aren’t a lot of people in it; also, it’s cold. It’s snowing as we speak right now here in Ottawa. So we’ve always had to sort of go and recruit immigrants, rather than the United States, which could just sort of open its door and let them in. But in the greatest scheme of things, both countries have employed the same procedures in the past, and if they’re smart, will continue to in the future.
So, the United States brings in only a third of the number of people that Canada brings in on a per capita basis. But in real terms, you bring in a million people a year. You do the same thing that Canada does in terms of recruiting foreign students for university, and then trying to get them to stay in their country, because you know that the foreign students are going to be fluent in your language and are going to be highly adapted to your society. These are all things that the United States has done throughout its history. These are all things that Canada has done throughout its history. These are things that advantage both countries going forward in this century, at least in the medium term, at least for one more generation or so. Now, we will be able, both of us, to bring in people more from Latin America in your case, more from Southeast Asia in our case. But nonetheless, bring in large numbers of people to keep the society young, to keep it innovative, to keep it creative, and to pay taxes.
If we do anything suicidal either in the United States or Canada, it will take the form of shutting the door to immigration. That is why the debate around Donald Trump is such a powerful and poignant one. Because if Donald Trump’s ethos becomes the national ethos of the United States, that is to say, you’re going to close your doors and put up walls and keep people out, then you are committing demographic and economic and geopolitical suicide. The great golden goose that you have is immigration. And if you look at the fertility rates in the United States, they are low, they’re below replacement rate. Secondly, African American and Latino fertility rates are converging with white fertility rates. So you can’t look to one demographic and say, “well, they will have babies and the other one won’t.” No, all three are finding their fertility rates going down. And only if you are able to bring in, again, a million people a year, at least—you probably should be doing more—will you be able to keep the natural advantage that the United States has. You guys should think about that.
ZK: Darrell, do any final notes about “Canada is our future”?
DB: Canada’s a very special example. And John and I went back and forth on this. It’s not like the Canadian Canadians are Teletubbies or Muppets. The immigration issue is quite controversial in Canada, too. And it’s a very delicate balance. It’s the ability to be able to have a robust immigration program that is well controlled, that really focuses on bringing in people who have the best chance of success, like John was talking about, the university students and others, focusing on those people and making sure that they can have success in this country. We’re not really that much more humanitarian than anybody else in the world. Refugees make up only about 10% of our immigrants on an annual basis. So it’s really this country making the decision to sell the population on a program that will work. It’s not based on this idea of having, you know, great big hearts andyou know, being so much more compassionate to the rest of the world. Although, you know, there’s elements of that to it as well.
You require that. But then the other thing that you require is making sure that that program remains in place, intact. We don’t have holes in it that show that the government is less than willing to make sure that the program is run well, because the minute that that starts to become a problem, immigration, which is now the number three issue on our list as the most important issue facing the country today, becomes a problem. When it goes up to number three on our list, or number two or number one, that’s not because people like what’s going on. So it’s a very delicate balancing act. You have to have a good program, and you have to have a belief that integration is working in the country. And if that does not occur, then you have problems.
So Canada yeah, a great example, but I think what really needs to come out of how we manage immigration is how carefully we manage immigration, and how carefully we manage cultural integration.
The biggest problem that I see in the United States when it comes to immigration is that you’ve got two groups of people, both irrational. One side of it focuses on all of this cultural change that’s supposed to be destroying the US. People not understanding that they need a certain amount of immigration because they’re not having kids, and it’s to their personal benefit to have this happen for all the same reasons that John already articulated. The other side is the left, which has gone on a completely destructive path when it comes to immigration, which is to say it is all about compassion. It is all about the size of your heart. That’s not a message that sells that well within a population.
So the thing about Canada that makes it work is both sides have decided not to go down those roads, and they’ve taken a middle place, which is to say, “we can run an effective immigration program. It will be safe. It will work. It will integrate people well. And we will run a multiculturalism culture in our country that will make it possible for people to integrate within the society.” And if you don’t have those two things, and you don’t take that middle ground, it’s an explosive political issue. So we have to be very careful about how we manage it.
ZK: Well, maybe Canada will, in this, amongst other things, show a more rational, sober, middle ground between the extremes that the United States is clearly marking out right now. It’s going to be an interesting century, particularly if you are American and are not used to looking north for ideas and inspiration. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have been looking north for ideas and inspiration all along. It just means it’s a new world in the 21st century, where Canada becomes a leader for multiple trends globally, in a way that is kind of fascinating. And it’s a very quiet shift that you two both point out. I want to thank you so much for writing this book. I think it’s a vital, vital issue. And as you note at the beginning, it’s not one that’s either well understood or has yet really penetrated public consciousness, in terms of what the likely arc of our century is going to be.
And those expectations frame everything from spending plans, as you mentioned, Darrell, for companies, to how governments conceive of their strategic challenges going forward, as well as their own domestic challenges. And, you know, for the time being the assumptions of a massive population explosion in the 21st century are guiding a lot of our policies in a way that, as you point out, is almost certainly not statistically true and will not be the case, which means we’re all at risk of steering the ship in directions that we shouldn’t because we’re anticipating problems that aren’t going to arise. So I hope a lot of people read this. I hope people listen to this. I hope you both continue to speak about this. And I want to thank you so much for the conversation.
JI: Our pleasure.
DB: Thank you very much.
Meet the Hosts