By Robert Kunzig, ENVIRONMENT Executive Editor
Which are you more worried about, population growth or population decline? Or do you prefer to freak out about both at the same time?
The recent Census Bureau report that the U.S. population grew in the last decade at the slowest pace since the Great Depression triggered a slew of concerned stories. China, the world’s most populous country for now, just reported even slower growth than the U.S. All this and more (including decades of low fertility in Europe, South Korea, and Japan) caused the New York Times to make the looming social and economic dangers of population decline its lead story on Sunday—even though global population is likely to keep growing into the second half of this century, maxing out somewhere around 10 billion.
A decade ago, when there were just about to be seven billion humans on Earth—we’re closing in on eight billion now—I argued in National Geographic that global population growth was not a productive thing to worry about. Over the years this attitude has earned me a few letters from irate readers. But if the growth does turn out to be coming to an end sooner than we thought, I plan to celebrate for a while before I start worrying about ghost towns or the social security system. I’m guessing that the rich countries on the front lines of the population bust will find a way to adapt. And there will be more planet to go around for all of us.