Studies of past population reveal some valuable facts with implications for our future. Given that, before the widespread use of fossil fuels, there were apparently never more than about a billion humans on the planet, the fact that we are over six billion now and climbing fast, and that fossil fuels prices are already rising due to increased scarcity, it is probable that human population will decline back toward the one billion level in the next century. This suggests a variety of scenarios for making the adjustment. Most scenarios sound bad, but the challenge to us is to create and implement long term plans to manage the change. Given what we can anticipate, can we sufficiently raise the importance of taking the long term view and making long range plans to minimize the pain of the adjustments we face in the future? The economy and infrastructure will have to change significantly, but how? How will the business world change in response?
Obviously we won’t need the number and extent of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure that we have now. What we stop using won’t necessarily be driven by planning and unfettered choice, however. Fewer people will, by itself, mean a smaller tax base. Also, a great deal of the value we construct today is dependent on fossil fuels for cheap energy input, and we have to assume we’ll be using a lot less of that. This means there may be less total GNP (gross national product), and less GNP per capita to tax. As a result, tax revenues for infrastructure maintenance may be doubly reduced.
Fewer people will also mean a smaller labor and tax base. Even if the money and other resources should be available to maintain infrastructure, there will probably not be enough people to do the work. While automation will be advanced, probably through the development of more sophisticated robotics, there will still be a net decline in productive output and, accordingly, taxes.
Much of our current infrastructure will be, of necessity, abandoned. The complete picture indicates we won’t have the money OR the labor to maintain our infrastructure, and that means a lot of what we have built by the beginning of the 21st century will be, of necessity, allowed to fall into disuse and decay. The business of demolition and stabilization of unused structures will no doubt thrive.
Some subdivisions, skyscrapers, factories, and roads will inevitably crumble. If When population declines to a sustainable level of perhaps two billion or less, half or more of all structures will be unneeded. While some roads, airports, and railways may be abandoned, most will still have traffic, but just a lot less of it than today depending on how much of our current mobility is retained. Similarly, high volume electrical power and pipeline infrastructures will be used, but probably under far lower demand than today. Maintenance costs for major infrastructural elements will not be able to decline as much as the population, suggesting costs will be generally higher for travel and transportation services.
Whole areas of cities may have to be fenced off for safety reasons. The facilities we abandon will be beyond our economic ability to maintain and, in many cases, will become dangerous places where structures can collapse or drop pieces at any time. Keeping people out of those areas when many of them are possibly poor, homeless, and seeking shelter will be an ongoing municipal problem. It may be a good time, economically, for fencing, surveillance, and security companies.
Current highways and railways may be used only in portions. Perhaps highway lanes will be blocked off so they aren’t used and don’t have to be maintained, and some secondary and tertiary “back” roads will be abandoned. Many railways in the United States have already been reduced to a single track through lack of government support, but this may happen in the rest of the developed world as well. Bridges and underpasses will be a huge and expensive problem, as the usability of the highways and railways will still be dependent on them, so the business of maintaining and renovating them will continue.
Marginal agricultural land will be abandoned or allowed to lay fallow. The area under cultivation is already declining in regions where ground water supplies are running out. As an example, if you fly over the great plains of the United States on a clear day you can see the seemingly endless round green spots of center pivot irrigation systems, and you will note that, at the edges of these areas, the spots are only partly green, or brown and completely abandoned. This is because the underlying Ogallala aquifer (link) is being pumped down at a high rate and may nearly dry up in the next few decades as a result. The adjustment to reduced agricultural output may be problematic as it will probably not match the changes in human population and infrastructure, and thus demand, that it will need to meet. In any case, a lot of the infrastructure that serves that farmland will be no longer needed, and some rural roadways, pipelines, and power transmission lines and related equipment will be salvaged or abandoned. The business of salvaging and recycling unused or obsolete infrastructure components will undoubtedly grow.
Some infrastructure will only partly be shut down or cut back. Some facilities such as school and office buildings will be used in part, and the unused parts will be shut down to require as little energy and maintenance as possible. The construction industry will shift focus from building totally new construction to maintenance, renovation, and only occasional new construction. Retrofitting buildings to reduce energy requirements may become a major part of the construction business as the demand for skylights, solar water heating and power generation equipment, sophisticated low-energy ventilation systems, and related structural features will increase.
Travel for work will be greatly reduced. Out of necessity and cost, the internet and advanced automation technology will provide ever increasing capability to do one’s work from home. Virtual meetings where all or many of the attendees are there via audio and video conveyed over the internet are on the rise. Dangerous jobs like running underground mining equipment are already being performed over data links that allow the workers to be virtually present, and hear and see what their remotely-operated machinery is doing as they work. Once the control of the work is sufficiently removed from the actual work, it becomes possible via the internet for that work to be done from almost anywhere. This suggests that a great many more jobs will be performed from home with only the most minimal amounts of travel involved.
A smooth, managed decline in population (the preferred scenario) suggests a large contingent of the elderly. As the birthrate will, of necessity, be below the maintenance rate, the elderly population we already predict due to the mid-twentieth century baby boom will persist and possibly grow proportionally larger over a period of up to a century. If we continue to improve our average health many people will be able to live without expensive assistance farther into their later years, and provide productive input to society later in life as well. Still, age-related medical and life-assistance care will continue to be big business, and may expand. Technology businesses serving the elderly, especially medical, will undoubtedly expand.
The inevitable decline in population can be managed, and can avoid catastrophic change if we think, learn, plan effectively, and begin acting on our plans and expectations now. The path to a good future for our descendants always runs directly through us. Each of us owes it to our ancestors as well as those who will follow to make regular meaningful effort to educate ourselves, discuss and collaborate with others, and work towards a sustainable future. While the natural (and man made) events that inevitably come up from time to time will raise consciousness, as the recent spike in gasoline and oil prices did, far more of this is needed. We each need to demand long term thinking from our government and corporate representatives. We need to make the call for long-term planning so loud that it can’t be ignored. We need to thrust articles such as this under our representatives’ noses and demand that they read them and take action. If we allow natural and man made catastrophes to drive the changes we will inevitably need in the future, it will be a far more painful future than necessary, and will reveal just how evolved and smart we REALLY are as a species.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim