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Academic & Professional Books  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Geography  Geography: General

Empty Planet The Shock of Global Population Decline

By: Darrell Bricker(Author), John Ibbitson(Author)
288 pages, no illustrations
Empty Planet is a thought-provoking book that convincingly, sometimes provocatively, argues that the global human population will plateau sooner than we think.
Empty Planet
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  • Empty Planet ISBN: 9781472142979 Paperback Feb 2020 Usually dispatched within 4 days
  • Empty Planet ISBN: 9781472142955 Hardback Feb 2019 In stock
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

For half a century, statisticians, pundits, and politicians have warned that a burgeoning planetary population will soon overwhelm the earth's resources. But a growing number of experts are sounding a different kind of alarm. Rather than growing exponentially, they argue, the global population is headed for a steep decline.

Throughout history, depopulation was the product of catastrophe: ice ages, plagues, the collapse of civilizations. This time, however, we're thinning ourselves deliberately, by choosing to have fewer babies than we need to replace ourselves. In much of the developed and developing world, that decline is already underway, as urbanization, women's empowerment, and waning religiosity lead to smaller and smaller families. In Empty Planet, Ibbitson and Bricker travel from South Florida to Sao Paulo, Seoul to Nairobi, Brussels to Delhi to Beijing, drawing on a wealth of research and firsthand reporting to illustrate the dramatic consequences of this population decline – and to show us why the rest of the developing world will soon join in.

They find that a smaller global population will bring with it a number of benefits: fewer workers will command higher wages; good jobs will prompt innovation; the environment will improve; the risk of famine will wane; and falling birthrates in the developing world will bring greater affluence and autonomy for women. But enormous disruption lies ahead, too. We can already see the effects in Europe and parts of Asia, as aging populations and worker shortages weaken the economy and impose crippling demands on healthcare and social security. The United States is well-positioned to successfully navigate these coming demographic shifts – that is, unless growing isolationism and anti-immigrant backlash lead us to close ourselves off just as openness becomes more critical to our survival than ever before.

Rigorously researched and deeply compelling, Empty Planet offers a vision of a future that we can no longer prevent – but one that we can shape, if we choose.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Stimulating and convincing, provocative in places
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 3 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty Planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet these two Canadian authors contend exactly this.

    Empty Planet kicks off with a short history of population growth before a strident attack on demographic doom-mongers. (As an aside, it is surprising that these chapters contain no graphs.) They scoff at the classics, such as Thomas Malthus ("wrong" and "hopelessly flawed"), The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich ("a predictive failure"), the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth ("a doomsaying blockbuster"). They are equally critical of more recent dispatches of despair, such as Joel Bourne’s The End of Plenty. And do not get them started on the predictions of the United Nations Population Division (UNDP). Their medium variant model suggests a plateau of ~11 billion people by 2100, while the high variant model suggests ~17 billion people by 2100 without stabilization in sight. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is all wrong, say Bricker & Ibbitson.

    Why? If you follow this topic, this will not come as a surprise: urbanization and the empowerment and education of women. Those two factors are causing birth rates to plunge around the world to replacement rates (2.1 children per couple) or below. And it is happening much faster than UN forecasts predict. The bulk of the book supports this argument through both a review of the numbers and numerous interviews with academics, public officials, and, on the ground, with men and especially women around the world.

    The overall picture is the same everywhere. When people move to cities, children become a costly liability. With reduced childhood mortality, removal of the influence of nagging families, and religion generally waning, many couples have fewer children and have them later, focusing on education and career instead. But what does emerge from the interviews is that the particulars may differ per country. In Brazil, for example, teenage pregnancies persist, but women stop having children earlier as well and often choose voluntary sterilization when they undergo a caesarean section.

    One of the interesting trends the authors highlight is that the decrease in fertility rate seems to be a one-way street only. Once women become empowered, fertility rates do not rise again (the post-WWII baby boom is considered an unusual blip). After countries have been campaigning for couples to have fewer children (from China’s disastrous one-child policy to India’s "complete families"), some governments are now panicking and pushing pro-child policies. Sweden serves as a case study of how these initiatives are both expensive and not very effective.

    Bricker & Ibbitson focus foremost on the economic and social price of declining fertility rates. An ageing population that requires pensions and expensive healthcare puts incredible financial pressure on a diminishing, younger workforce. The authors show their progressive side here, arguing that continued immigration is the only solution. Although they are not blind to how it sometimes goes awry, they take Canada as a successful model. At a time when nations around the world are closing their borders and reverting to nationalist and protectionist thinking, they rail against the many myths and outright lies that are being spread about immigrants.

    Early in the book, the authors accuse the UNDP and other demographers of "recency bias", the belief that, because things have gone a certain way in the past, they are bound to go the same way in the future. You could throw this back at them when they assume that fertility rates will continue to decline globally in lockstep with urbanisation. (And, oh my, do they open themselves up for that when on page 113 they write that they believe fertility rates in Kenya will continue to drop "because much of the rest of the world is precedent".) But I think this is too easy. The impact of female education on fertility rates is well documented and also explainable.


    What of the environmental cost? They remain largely mute on this topic, although they are outspoken enough to write in their final chapter that "reducing the size of the human population is the best prescription for protecting the seas" and that "the solution to producing less carbon dioxide might ultimately be producing fewer humans". Might?

    In my opinion, overpopulation is not a problem of the future, of whether we will land at the projected 11 or 17 billion people. It is a problem now. It has been a problem for the last several decades. Empty Planet makes a convincing argument that the world population will likely plateau at 9 billion or so, but that is still more than enough, thank you very much. Already, the planet’s support systems are creaking and we have plenty of signs of an ongoing biodiversity crisis (see The Sixth Extinction), not to mention the impact of climate change (see The Uninhabitable Earth). And that is with 7.6 billion people of which only a part is affluent.

    With increasing urbanisation and concomitant affluence, the existing population will put even more pressure on non-renewable resources. To think, as the authors seem to do, that we can safely proceed urbanising because the population bomb has been defused ignores the natural resource crisis. It is not just peak oil anymore. How about peak everything? From mineral resources (see Extracted) to rare earths (see The Elements of Power) to sand (see The World in a Grain – particularly relevant to urbanisation I would think). It is here I feel the authors suffer a bit from recency bias themselves. Beware the cliff, Bardi would say (see The Seneca Effect). Perhaps they chose not to focus on these matters in this book. And from above quotes it seems we are on the same page. But by barely acknowledging this in Empty Planet, it is easy to come away with the impression that they grossly underestimate just how problematic existing population levels already are.

    With that rant off my chest, let there be no mistaking that I think Empty Planet is not an important book, because it is. And perhaps the answer to Coole’s question (see Should We Control World Population?) is "we do not need to, it is already happening". Though I might not share the authors’ optimism regarding humanity’s future, Empty Planet is convincing, passionately argued, and soundly researched. A thought-provoking book that makes many interesting points, it comes highly recommended if you are interested in matters of demography and overpopulation.
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Darrell Bricker is Chief Executive Officer of Ipsos Public Affairs, a leading international pollster. John Ibbitson is Writer at Large for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Successful authors on their own, their first collaboration was on The Big Shift, a study of change in Canadian politics that became a number-one national bestseller.

By: Darrell Bricker(Author), John Ibbitson(Author)
288 pages, no illustrations
Empty Planet is a thought-provoking book that convincingly, sometimes provocatively, argues that the global human population will plateau sooner than we think.
Media reviews

"A gripping narrative of a world on the cusp of profound change"
– Anjana Ahuja, New Statesman

"Arresting [...] lucid, trenchant and very readable, the authors' arguments upend consensus ideas about everything from the environment to immigration; the result is a stimulating challenge to conventional wisdom."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Warnings of catastrophic world overpopulation have filled the media since the 1960s, so this expert, well-researched explanation that it's not happening will surprise many readers [...] delightfully stimulating."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Thanks to the authors' painstaking fact-finding and cogent analysis, [Empty Planet] offers ample and persuasive arguments for a re-evaluation of conventional wisdom."

"The 'everything you know is wrong' genre has become tedious, but this book is riveting and vitally important. With eye-opening data and lively writing, Bricker and Ibbitson show that the world is radically changing in a way that few people appreciate."
– Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now

"[Bricker and Ibbitson] have written a sparkling and enlightening guide to the contemporary world of fertility as small family sizes and plunging rates of child-bearing go global."
– Paul Morland, Globe and Mail

"Bricker and Ibbitson work their way around the globe in pacey, sometimes breathless journalistic prose, although their argument is refreshingly clear and well balanced [...]"
– Robert Mayhew, Literary Review

"The authors combine a mastery of social-science research with enough journalistic flair to convince fair-minded readers of a simple fact: fertility is falling faster than most experts can readily explain, driven by persistent forces [...] Empty Planet succeeds as a long-overdue skewering of population-explosion fearmongers"
– Lyman Stone, Wall Street Journal

"While the global population is swelling today, birth rates have nonetheless already begun dropping around the world. Past population declines have been driven by natural disasters or disease – the Toba supervolcano, Black Death or Spanish Flu – but this coming slump will be of our own making. In this fascinating and thought-provoking book, Bricker and Ibbitson compellingly argue why by the end of this century the problem won't be overpopulation but a rapidly shrinking global populace, and how we might have to adapt."
– Lewis Dartnell, Professor of Science Communication, University of Westminster, and author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch

"To get the future right we must challenge our assumptions, and the biggest assumption so many of us make is that populations will keep growing. Bricker and Ibbitson deliver a mind-opening challenge that should be taken seriously by anyone who cares about the long-term future – which, I hope, is all of us."
– Dan Gardner, author of Risk and co-author of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
"A highly readable, controversial insight into a world rarely thought about – a world of depopulation under ubiquitous urbanization."
– George Magnus, author of The Age of Aging and Red Flags: Why Xi's China is in Jeopardy

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