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'Empty Planet': The Looming Danger of Population Collapse Is Real

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Empty playgrounds. Schools without enough students to stay open. Small towns, deserted and abandoned. This is not some dystopian vision of the future. Demographers say this is our future. 

Global population growth is leveling off, and as early as the second half of this century could begin to shrink for the first time since the Black Death struck the world almost 700 years ago.

"Everything that we understand that functions in our societies today, that depends on people, which is almost everything, is going to change," says Stephen J. Shaw, a data scientist, demographer and producer of the film Birthgap

Shaw spoke to us from his home in Japan, a nation at the forefront of this global demographic collapse. Shaw told us he made the documentary mostly out of fear. "...Fear of the future that we're, as a planet, completely unprepared for and mostly unaware of," Shaw says.

The population crisis could be the most important story of our time, mainly due to all the changes and serious economic, social, and political problems it could bring to our world. 

Taxes could soar as economies shrink; the many elderly could cause retirement and medical systems to collapse; businesses will struggle to find employees, and there won't be enough young to care for the old. 

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Shaw says, "Sporadically you're going to have housing that's left desolated. You're going to have stores that are empty. You're going to have places with fewer and fewer employees, fewer customers. You're talking of decimation of communities, you're talking of closed schools, you're talking of closed hospitals."

A nation needs an average fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman to keep its population from shrinking. But 70% of the global population and almost every developed nation falls below that replacement rate. 

The U.S. fertility rate hit a new record low last year, dropping to 1.62 births per woman, a number temporarily offset by record numbers of illegal immigrants.

In his film, Shaw explains how fewer children from fewer and fewer mothers creates a cascading effect, leading to what he predicts as a downward spiral from which no known civilization has ever recovered. 

Darrell Bricker, global CEO of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs and co-author of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline says, "This thing is going to be like a snowball rolling downhill, and it's just going to keep building."

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Bricker says, "The top reason for people not having children is they just don't want them. That's the main reason people are not having children. The second reason tends to be related to their ability to have children, whether it's the relationship that they're in, or the personal circumstances they find themselves in, or their physical ability to have children."

Shaw calls it "unplanned childlessness," linked to delayed parenthood.

"We see it's linked to people trying or wanting to start families well into their thirties when frankly, biology isn't really going to help necessarily," Shaw said. "Biological challenges start around that time. But there's a bigger problem. Often people looking to start families in their thirties aren't in stable relationships. They've gone through a breakup; they don't have a partner, or their partner's not on the right page at the right time. It doesn't get easier to find that magical moment, uh, when we're in our thirties."

Government incentive programs to encourage larger families have seen only limited success. Shaw says nations with the lowest fertility rates, such as South Korea, could see their populations cut in half in as little as two generations.  

Most of all our lives, we've been told how the world faces dangerous overpopulation. 

In a 1967 speech, President Richard Nixon warned, "If present trends continue...our cities are going to be choked with people, they're going to be choked with traffic, they're going to be choked with crime, they're going to be choked with pollution, and they're going to be impossible places in which to live, and the explosions will be even worse."

So people stopped having enough children, and now this widening birth gap could be the most important social and political event in modern history. 

Bricker says, "The first message I would give to anybody is wake up. This is going to be one of the dominant issues, if not the dominant issue through the course of the 21st century."

Shaw says, "We've gotten used to this idea that things generally get better, but all that relies on certain things being in place. It's not like the population is going to glide down to some wonderful lower number... No, it's ugly. But also because there's no known solution. No society's ever come out of this."

The future doesn't have to look like this, but Shaw says we've got to start talking about it.


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About The Author


Since joining CBN News, Dale has reported extensively from Western Europe, as well as China, Russia, and Central and South America. Dale also covered China's opening to capitalism in the early 1990s, as well as the Yugoslav Civil War. CBN News awarded him its Command Performance Award for his reporting from Moscow and Sarajevo. Since 9/11, Dale has reported extensively on various aspects of the global war on terror in the United States and Europe. Follow Dale on Twitter @dalehurd and "like" him at