Animal populations migrate to find food or better living conditions, often in huge numbers, when populations become too large for available resources. For the caribou, whales, birds, and other creatures an annual migration is part of their ritual of survival, but some other species, such as lemmings, only migrate when under pressure. Humans have managed to remain more sedentary as we invented shelter, clothing, and technology to keep us comfortable and well fed. How will this change when the cheap energy we use to sustain our food production and comfort becomes too expensive for most people? Will we see larger and larger “migrations” from the poorest and most overpopulated countries to the most developed? Have the migrations already begun?
The populations of many developed countries are already cited as stable or declining, and it has been observed that China solved serious economic problems such as high unemployment with the imposition of a “one child” law, under which there were penalties for parents having more than one child. As a parallel, India’s population is growing much faster, but average economic status and social welfare have suffered in contrast with the Chinese (link). Contrary to assertions by some that stable, limited-growth, or declining populations are likely to be associated with poorer economic performance, it appears that the avoidance of over three hundred million new citizens during the past couple of decades has left more resources for the rest, but had minimal impact on gross national product. (I previously wrote about the Chinese one-child law here.) Note also that the apparent assumption by some economists that workforces need to be maintained does not address the problem of energy shortages that will occur in the coming decades if we maintain our current rate of consumption.
The United States’ population growth rate, moderate as it is, is substantially increased by immigration. At present, a substantial part of the annual growth in United States’ population is due to immigration, much of it illegal. People, especially in the Southern Border States, are already objecting more and more loudly to the flow of illegal immigrants, and vigilante groups have formed to “help” the border patrol. It is likely that this trend will expand significantly unless we take steps to help the poorer countries reduce their birthrates, which is best done by raising their standards of living through economic, educational, and family planning assistance. Both history and logic suggest that when the contrast between living conditions is reduced, the incentive to immigrate will be reduced as well. Efforts to prevent illegal immigration through walls, fences, and border patrols have typically been expensive and ineffective, and (fortunately) the American people don’t seem to have the collective will to pursue these avenues though concern for illegal immigration remains high.
Overpopulation creates a compound incentive for migration. Because a larger population decreases available resources per person, and this lowers living standards and increases the contrast with those of more developed countries, overpopulation is likely to cause increasing migrations from the poorer to the richer countries. Current trends indicate that most of today’s human population growth is occurring in the very poorest countries, and if the world is to reach 9 billion by 2050, as a United Nations report says, in the future the percent population increase in the poorest countries will be much higher than today. Since many of the poorest countries are already struggling to provide basic food and shelter for their people, it is likely that situations in those countries will get much worse, especially without substantial and immediate help to reduce their birthrates and improve their average education levels and standards of living. Therefore it is likely that increasing migrations of humans will originate in the poorest countries and move towards the most developed countries. (Note that there is only one mention of the impact of energy shortages in the entire 254 page UN report.)
Migrations are hazardous in even the best of circumstances. Since the poorest people will be involved in the mass migrations of the future, they will most likely not be able to afford standard commercial transportation. That will mean a great expansion in the numbers of “boat people” in the world, and corresponding increases in the numbers who will be lost at sea or otherwise imperiled. This scenario begins to sound much like the pattern of the lemmings, who will swim to get to places with better living conditions. Unfortunately, many of them die along the way.
Birthrate reduction is needed in the developing countries. Reducing the birthrate as soon as possible is needed in many developing countries if we are to prevent lemming-like scenarios and long term, worsening immigration issues. In addition, the increasing population already creates similarly increasing risk of energy shortages and infrastructure collapses. If an energy source to replace fossil fuels is not developed in the next couple of decades it is likely that serious problems will confront the increasingly-global community.
Can we do better than the lemmings? The lemmings have only the option of migration to escape overpopulation. That is not an option for humanity, as space travel is prohibitively expensive and likely to remain so. We need our government officials to be aware of the immediate need for long term planning, assistance to the poorest countries in the areas of education and family planning, and major research funding for new energy sources such as fusion. The alternative for us and our descendants is too unpleasant to contemplate for long. We can each make a difference if we demand these important measures from our government representatives and vote for those who understand these important issues.
As always, I welcome your comments.