After the Baby Bust

The Politics and Ecology of Zero Population Growth


Having calmed down from the overblown twentieth-century fears of overpopulation, the world has yet to grapple with the end of population growth–and even de-population–that will occur this century. As Paul Robbins observes, global population growth rates peaked in the 1970s, and if current trends continue, some countries could see their citizenries substantially depleted in the coming decades. As native populations in Germany and the United Kingdom dwindle, replaced by immigrants from rapidly growing countries in Africa and Asia, a surge in nationalism and cultural upheaval is already apparent. What comes next depends on how governments and civil society this radical new order of things.

Summer 2016 | Paul Robbins,

“Lazy workers.”

This, the owners of coffee and rubber estates in Karnataka, India, told us, was why they would tear out dense canopies of trees harboring wild hornbills and critically endangered frogs and replace them with more intensive and less wildlife-friendly crops. Compared to the days when their fathers ran these estates, and the workers required for the back-breaking tasks of weeding, coppicing, and harvesting were more pliable, today’s workers had become defiant and demanding. Laborers now insisted on smoke breaks, higher wages, and even electricity. Worse, farmers told us, they had little choice but to either give up labor-demanding crops or to comply with worker demands, lest their laborers vanish.

The shift in labor relations is striking given the locale. Karnataka is a place where the bargaining power of workers has always been notoriously poor, where rural poverty is crushing, and where generations of people have lived without access to modern amenities and education.1

Many factors have contributed to the shift: urbanization, labor outmigration, globalization, and an unprecedented aspirational culture that eschews rural farm labor where other opportunities exist. But one central reason, contributing to and accelerating all the others, is far more surprising: Karnataka is shrinking. As in most states throughout southern India, the fertility rate in the state has fallen to 1.8, and for many years has been well below the rate at which new births can replace those who naturally pass away.2 Population is getting smaller, influencing wages, farming practices, and habitat. Zero population growth has arrived in southern India: a Baby Bust.

As growth has ceased throughout Karnataka, across southern India, and in many other parts of the world3, new social arrangements are evolving, new ecologies are coming into being, and new political and economic conflicts are emerging. What happens to an economy, anywhere in the world, when population stalls or declines? How are relationships between workers and owners reconfigured? What happens in families, when the demands for women’s labor and demands for reproduction come into conflict, especially in historically patriarchal contexts? When labor becomes scarce, do regions shift to land abandonment and incidental rewilding, or instead to increasingly mechanized and intensive agricultural systems?

A scarcity of people, or at least the end to a constantly increasing surplus of laboring bodies, in short, has an enormous influence on politics, economics, and ecology. Demographers have been observing falling fertility rates around the world for many decades.4 Our ideas about geo-politics, social relations, economics, and ecology, meanwhile, have scarcely evolved at all.


In January, 2015, the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) appealed to India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, accusing Muslims of what they called “Love Jihad.”  They charged that the Muslim community was waging a campaign of “luring Buddhist girls,” in the words of the LBA secretary, Sonam Dawa, into marriage, in a bid to convert them to Islam.5

This phrase, “Love Jihad,” has become common across India since at least 2009 to denote a supposed campaign of demographic aggression on the part of India’s Muslims. The decadal release of the Indian census is in part inflaming the paranoia, insofar as an ongoing shift in religious composition is underway. India’s Hindu population, as a percent of the total population, fell from 80.5 percent in 2001 to 78.4 percent in 2011, while the percent of Muslims increased from 13.4 percent to 14.2 percent.6

The differential rates of population growth between Hindus and Muslims are driven by complex economic and social factors. But they are read by religious leaders in strictly sectarian terms. From their pulpits in Ladakh, Buddhist and Muslim leaders, all men, have been calling for enhanced family size for many years. Geographer Sara Smith finds general agreement in her interviews with women in the region. The women believe that there is increasing need to drive fertility up, with members of each community respectively fearing being outnumbered by the other.

And yet, when Smith counts heads across villages she sees family sizes descending across the board. Individual women all report the same thing. They have aspirations for their children to secure education and employment, and therefore reject increasing their own family size, preferring one child or two at most.7

What Smith is documenting is a growing schism between demographic anxieties and personal aspirations, between fixed notions of ethnonational identity and changing gender roles and responsibilities. Increasing education, economic opportunities outside the household, and access to health care and birth control in countries around the world are leading to greater autonomy, equity, and power for women within households and beyond. This, in turn, is leading to different fertility choices, and with that, a host of new challenges and conflicts, in a world where births are decreasingly common and, hence, increasingly political.

As in Ladakh, ethno-nationalists around the world decry the threats associated with demographic transition. A flurry of racial fears of a coming nonwhite majority have swept through the United States in recent years. In Europe, similar unease has mounted as birth rates have fallen, leading to hand-wringing about insufficient family size among the native majority, revealing what the Dutch geographer Luiza Bialasiewicz has called a “moral geopolitics of birth.”8

Beyond the North Atlantic, pronatalist policies are rampant. In Singapore, the fertility rate has been below 1.3 for years. Here, the government has attempted to create a new tradition, procreation as a national holiday. The ad campaign for “National Night,” cosponsored by the Mentos candy brand, is hilariously explicit,9 but the fact that Singapore’s government simultaneously monitors and manages the fertility of immigrant workers from South and Southeast Asia reveals the disturbingly racialized nature of this campaign.10

At the same time, indigenous groups like the Tawahka of Honduras and the Miskito of Nicaragua have experienced recent demographic turnaround after centuries of decline and have leveraged their expanding populations to advance territorial and environmental claims. Operating from what geographer Kendra McSweeney and anthropologist Shahna Arps have called a “communal memory of near-extinction,” these groups have developed a novel indigenous politics, observed elsewhere in Central America as well, emerging only where the demographic tide has otherwise turned.11

Declining fertility rates also bring aging populations. While the majority of the world’s population is young, an artifact of more than 100 years of growth, the balance is swiftly tilting. The population of those over 60 years of age, most dramatically, will rise to near 25 percent globally by the middle of the century (the historical average is less than 10 percent). In more developed countries, this transition has already occurred.

The shift in intergenerational equity that follows, and the basic problem of providing care, have profound social and political implications. The burden of the aging population increasingly falls on an incrementally shrinking population of young people. The potential support ratio (PSR), the number of 15–64 year-olds for every person over 65, will fall to four by 2050, from a mid-twentieth-century level of twelve, nearly tripling the economic and care burden for younger generations since 1950.

Figure 1: Global potential support ratio (PSR), 1950–2050

Data source: Population Division, DESA, United Nations (2002)

Add class and race to this mix and other problems emerge. Elder care skews dramatically toward poor, minority, and immigrant communities in the United States and Europe, and predominantly toward women. The most intimate and exhausting of work experiences, care-giving, nursing, and end-of-life support, all fall to a growing underclass of female immigrants.12

Though slightly delayed, similar population pyramid inversions are not far behind in the developing world, where hotspots in a global dementia epidemic are brewing. Cases of dementia are forecast to increase threefold in India, China, and their south Asian and western Pacific neighbors by 2040.13 Providing care, economic support, and labor in a world where the aging begin to outnumber the young is a challenge that is only beginning to take center stage as the implications of the inverted population pyramid start to become clear. Doing so in a manner that is humane, supportive, and economically and socially equitable for all will be more challenging still.

These shifts also hold enormous environmental implications. The tilting demographics of the countryside, in particular, can give rise to a range of contradictory outcomes. On the one hand, the slow emptying-out of some rural areas may logically lead to land abandonment, the succession of former fields into forests, and the rewilding of landscapes. On the other, the complex reality of agrarian and resource economies assures no such outcome. The absence of available labor can also lead in the reverse direction, to the acceleration of energy-based inputs and technologies, and more-intensive agricultural systems.

Returning to the coffee and rubber farmers of Karnataka, do our farmers choose to abandon production and shift into other livelihoods (like tourism) or, instead, replace lost labor with chemicals or ecologically simpler, less labor-demanding agricultural systems? Do they diversify and disintensify, allowing the land to shift into wilder ecosystems, or instead intensify production and industrialize the agricultural landscape?

The evidence from around the world is mixed. In many places, especially throughout Central and South America, areas heavily modified by long-term human occupation have sometimes been abandoned as land values, labor availability, and production have moved, leading to indigenous or invasive vegetative growth, shrub and forest recovery, and succession. This “forest transition” has been observed in a wide range of geographic contexts.14

Yet this outcome is by no means inevitable or easily predicted. State policy, remittances from migration, configurations of property, and systematic violence can either drive or retard such outcomes, regardless of demographic conditions. In the Yucatan, outmigration has indeed led to a decline in cropping, only to be replaced by ranching, a land use with an arguably heavier footprint.15

Even where land abandonment from the demographic transition does occur, ecological “recovery” is by no means assured. In both Mexico and India, declining human disturbance often coincides with decreases, rather than increases, in biodiversity. Abandonment of rice fields in rural Japan, where populations are plummeting, has similarly led to declining habitat heterogeneity, and impaired ecosystem function. As with geopolitics, health care, and sectarian strife, a world after population growth suggests diverse and surprising trajectories for global environments.16


For those paying attention, none of this should come as a surprise. Worldwide Total Fertility is 2.3, down from 4.95 in 1950. More dramatically, in 2014, a majority of nations in the world reported fertility lower than the replacement rate, the tipping point between a growing and shrinking population (a fertility figure slightly more than 2.3). More countries are now shrinking than growing. In fact, national fertility rates are now at or below replacement in a huge range of countries that, until recently, were growing by leaps and bounds, including Tunisia, Iran, and Vietnam.17

Yet our habits of thinking, in economics, ecology, and politics, have hardly changed. Each of these fields remains rooted in scarcity as an organizing principle. This intellectual heritage is not a coincidence. All the major works of classical and contemporary political economy were written during an era of rapid demographic growth.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, just as the Enlightenment roared through European intellectual and political circles, populations also began to surge, owing to improvements in sanitation, health, and longevity. The great thinkers of the era, upon whose work the later edifice of modern political economic thought would be built, advanced theories of economy and politics rooted in the context of a sudden but sustained European demographic transition.

Consider Scotland, only one of several critical geographic touchstones for Enlightenment thinking. Throughout the early modern era, that country was a site of vexing enclosure policies, revolutionary property experiments, and emerging juxtapositions of starvation and abundance, making it a source of inspiration for many key thinkers. Adam Smith (himself Scottish) set off the classical revolution with Wealth of Nations in 1776, using Scottish birth rates, poverty rates, and interest rates as empirical fodder. Continuing onward, Scotland would remain to be a source of intellectual inspiration precisely during its era of greatest growth, with Thomas Malthus writing at length about its population and Karl Marx meditating on its migrations and enclosures in the next century. During precisely this period, when the major works of classical political economy were written, Scotland went from a half-million people to almost five million, a product of the very economic changes the great thinkers of that era sought to explain.18

Figure 2: Demographic change and intellectual history, 1776–1899

Data source: Paul Robbins and Sara H. Smith, Baby bust: Towards political demography, Progress in Human Geography, © The Authors, 2016. Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd. 

Such coincident development would carry on into the twentieth century, when global development models superseded the classical era and new thinkers emerged, from Shumpeter and Keynes to Rostow and De Soto. The intellectual infrastructure used to explain global development, especially now focused on the “Global South,” from India to Ghana, was inextricably embedded in a period of accelerating population growth in those same places. India alone provides a startling example, where historically unprecedented rates of demographic growth were taken for granted within (and undoubtedly accelerated by) development economics throughout the twentieth century.

In sum, all the major conceptual innovations and debates of the modern era unfolded within the confines of two constants: first, a population growth rate well in excess of 1.5 percent, and second, an enlightenment and colonial knowledge system rooted in questions either of resource shortage or human growth and abundance (i.e., Malthus or his critics).

Figure 3: Demographic change and intellectual history, 1934–2005

Data source: Paul Robbins and Sara H. Smith, Baby bust: Towards political demography, Progress in Human Geography, © The Authors, 2016. Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd. 

Demographic change and intellectual history, 1934–2005 (Robbins and Smith, 2016)

One cornerstone of twentieth-century development theory is emblematic: Arthur Lewis’s Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor. Lewis, arguably the father of modernization theory, was a visionary development theorist, the first (and so far only) black man to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, and the first economic advisor for the nation of Ghana as it emerged after independence.

Lewis understood population to be, whatever its other burdens, a central engine of capitalist growth. Proposing what would come to be known as the Dual Sector model (or the “Lewis Model”), he observed that an ever-present and ever-growing reserve army of rural immigrants to the city, fueled by high rates of rural fertility, drove down urban wages in the developing world. This created a comparative advantage in industrialization, floated on an ocean of cheap labor, which lifted the boats of development throughout the poorest parts of the world.19

This insight, tied to Marx’s observation a century earlier that capital maintained an “industrial reserve army” as a “lever of capitalistic accumulation,”20 became a powerful cornerstone of investment and wage strategy in the postwar world. Even today there are debates about whether China has passed through the “Lewis turning-point.”21

Figure 4: Sir William Arthur Lewis, Nobel Prize–winning father of Modernization Theory and visionary observer of the conditions of surplus population and labor.

Lewis foresaw an end of population growth with concern, since its implication for developing economies was problematic. He postulated that such a shift would put upward pressure on industrial wages and lead to inflation of rural farm prices. Even so, the bulk of his work, echoing more than a century of intellectual history, modeled and projected economic history around an assumed, ongoing, and uncontrollable population boom.


What this all means is that most of our contemporary ideas and expectations are steeped in two centuries of population growth, a demographic condition that, however real, represents a comparatively brief historic anomaly.  The intellectual legacies we have inherited, even where they are not explicitly and problematically Malthusian, are still better suited to the period in which they emerged, one in which advances in medicine and health drove down death rates while birth rates remained temporarily high. That period, characterized by exponential population growth, has been overtaken by history and is coming to a rapid end.

The precise ending date for population growth is a matter of dispute; some models predict it for the middle of this century, and other models suggest the final end may be several decades delayed.22 But even the most draconian Malthusians agree that world population growth peaked in the early 1960s, that zero population growth is nearing (and past) in both Latin America and much of Asia, and that populations are falling in a great many places. Judging from the trends worldwide, the decline in global and regional fertility and growth rates is unlikely to ever reverse direction.23 In most regions of the world, the end of demographic growth is already evident. Within our current lifetimes, it will be ubiquitous.

Figure 5: World Population Growth Rates: 1950-2050

Data source: US Census Bureau (2011)

But as this era ends, a huge range of new problems, questions, and opportunities emerge, all of which demand new ways of thinking, and most of which are deeply political, insofar as they impinge on the control of polities, people, resources, and land, and will shape the trajectory of new environments in the Anthropocene.

And, of course, lurking behind all these smaller questions is the most interesting one of all: what will the global economy do without human demographic growth? On a planet arguably already plagued with overproduction, where will sufficient demand emerge to maintain the levels of surplus accumulation demanded by many political leaders, most investors, and every corporate CEO? Will demographic decline lead empowered laboring classes to leverage improved wages and rights or instead lead to harsher bargains for workers to squeeze still more productivity from fewer bodies? Can prosperity be decoupled from demographic growth in a way that is just, equitable, and good for the planet? Given the population luxury that capitalism has enjoyed for two centuries, this has been a question long deferred. But no longer.

Sadly, questions of population and demographics remain off the table in many quarters of the intellectual community, for fear of the taint of Malthusianism. And with good reason. Malthusian thinking has been consistently insistent on predicting economic and ecological disasters that never arrived, even while it was used to bolster barbaric and authoritarian actions against women and the poor.

For those who faced the sterilization camps of Indira Gandhi’s emergency and the draconian legacies of China’s now-abandoned, one child per family policy, the ghost of Malthus is more than a specter. Indeed, as David Harvey famously observed: “Whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some kind of political, economic, and social repression.” Thinking about population almost always has meant inviting arguments for repression.24

But as the demographics of the globe begin to lurch toward stasis, it is clear that research and policy will need to begin grappling with the questions of demography and population raised here, however uncomfortably. No meaningful health policy can emerge in the absence of serious consideration of global aging and the intergenerational politics and resource transfers this implies. To confront the strident politics that has emerged alongside the demographic transition, we will need a far better understanding of the shifts in values, gender roles, and ethno-national composition when births become scarce. Guiding ecosystems to ecologically rich conditions and outcomes demands that we understand them under conditions where populations decline. A new kind of research and theory is required for a world of zero population growth, albeit one that both acknowledges and avoids the often-catastrophic legacies of past demographic thinking.

How do we engage the Baby Bust without reproducing the habits of Orientalism and patriarchy that have always attended discussions of population? A breakthrough in thinking about global economies, polities, societies, and ecologies requires that we brace for the oncoming demographic shift while admitting that all matters of population are inherently political. After two centuries of growth, something quite remarkable is happening. As suggested by our experience in Karnataka, however, this transition is not the end of history, economics, or politics. Instead, it is the beginning.

1. Neilson, J., and B. Pritchard. 2009. Value Chain Struggles: Institutions and Governance in the Plantation Districts of South India. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

2. National total fertility rates (TFR) are excellent but imperfect proxies for overall population growth, since mortality can vary greatly between countries. Consider that Sweden has a positive rate of natural population increase, though its fertility rate falls below “replacement,” since life expectancy there continues to increase. Even so, falling global TFR is real and powerful.

3. The increasing incidence of national fertility rates below the replacement rate is truly international, though necessarily uneven from country to country and region to region. For a terrifically accessible introduction and explanation: Newbold, B. K. 2014. Population Geography: Tools and Issues (Second Edition): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

4. Observations of the Baby Bust are by no means new; demographic transition is periodically rediscovered in the pages of Atlantic Monthly on a roughly decadal frequency: Singer, M. 1999. “The Population Surprise.” The Atlantic Monthly 284 (2):22–25; Friedman, Uri. 2014. “The End of the Age Pyramid” The Atlantic. June 28.

5. Ashiq, P. 2015. Now, Buddhist group seeks Modi’s intervention to stop ‘Love Jehad’ in Ladakh. Hindustan Times, 1/18/2015.

6. Ghosh, A., and V. Singh. 2015. Census: Hindu share dips below 80%, Muslim share grows but slower. The Indian Express, 01/24/2015. Gupta, C. 2009. Hindu women, Muslim men: Love jihad and conversions. Economic and Political Weekly 44:13-15; Jain, B. 2015. Muslim population grows 24%, slower than previous decade. Times of India, 01/22/2015.; Mohan, R. 2011. Love Jihad and Demographic Fears. Indian Journal of Gender Studies 18:425–430.

7. Smith, S. 2012. Intimate Geopolitics: Religion, Marriage, and Reproductive Bodies in Leh, Ladakh. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102:1511–1528.

8. Bialasiewicz, L. 2006. The death of the west: Samuel Huntington, Oriana Fallaci and a new “moral” geopolitics of births and bodies. Geopolitics 11:702.


10. Huang, S., and B. S. A. Yeoh. 2003. The difference gender makes: State policy and contract migrant workers in Singapore. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 12:75–97; Teo, Y. 2009. Foreigners in our homes: Linking migration and family policies in Singapore. Population, Space and Place 15:147–159.

11. McSweeney, K., and S. Arps. 2005. A "Demographic Turnaround": the rapid growth of indigenous populations in lowland Latin America. Latin American Research Review 40:3–29; Mollett, S. 2010. Estálisto (Are you ready)? Gender, race and land registration in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. Gender, Place and Culture 17 (3):357-375; Mollett, S. 2013. Mapping deception: the politics of mapping Miskito and Garifuna space in Honduras. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103 (5):1227–1241.

12. Bowlby, S. 2011. Friendship, co-presence and care: neglected spaces. Social & Cultural Geography 12 (6):605–622; Datta, K., C. McIlwaine, Y. Evans, J. Herbert, J. May, and J. Wills. 2010. A migrant ethic of care? negotiating care and caring among migrant workers in London's low-pay economy. Feminist Review (94):93–116.

13. Ferri, C. P., M. Prince, C. Brayne, H. Brodaty, L. Fratiglioni, M. Ganguli, K. Hall, K. Hasegawa, H. Hendrie, Y. Q. Huang, A. Jorm, C. Mathers, P. R. Menezes, E. Rimmer, M. Scazufca, and I. Alzheimers Dis. 2005. Global prevalence of dementia: a Delphi consensus study. Lancet 366 (9503):2112–2117; Cohen, L. 1998. No aging in India: Alzheimer's, the bad family, and other modern things: Berkeley: University of California Press.

14. DeFries, R. S., T. Rudel, M. Uriarte, and M. Hansen. 2010. Deforestation driven by urban population growth and agricultural trade in the twenty-first century. Nature Geoscience 3 (3):178–181; Rudel, T. K., D. Bates, and R. Machinguiashi. 2002. A tropical forest transition? Agricultural change, out-migration, and secondary forests in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (1):87–102; Rudel, T. K., O. T. Coomes, E. Moran, F. Achard, A. Angelsen, J. C. Xu, and E. Lambin. 2005. Forest transitions: towards a global understanding of land use change. Global Environmental Change—Human And Policy Dimensions 15 (1):23-31.

15. Busch, C., and J. Geoghegan. 2010. Labor scarcity as an underlying cause of the increasing prevalence of deforestation due to cattle pasture development in the southern Yucatan region. Regional Environmental Change 10 (3):191–203; Hecht, S. B., K. D. Morrison, and C. Padoch eds. 2014. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

16. Katayama, N., Y. G. Baba, Y. Kusumoto, and K. Tanaka. 2015. A review of post-war changes in rice farming and biodiversity in Japan. Agricultural Systems 132:73–84; Robson, J. P., and P. K. Nayak. 2010. Rural out-migration and resource-dependent communities in Mexico and India. Population and Environment 32 (2-3):263–284.

17. United Nations. 2013. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision. New York: Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations.

18. Robbins, P., and S. H. Smith. 2016. Baby bust: Towards political demography. Progress in Human Geography.

19. Lewis, W. A. 1954. Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labor. Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies 22:139–91. Lewis, W. A. 1955. The Theory of Economic Growth. Homewood (IL): Richard D. Irwin.

20. Marx, K. 1990. Capital: a critique of political economy, Volume I. New York: Penguin Books: 784.

21. Hahn, D. 2013. Did China Already Pass by the Lewis Turning Point? The Comparative Economic Review 20 (1):47–82.

22. United Nations 2015 revisions to global projections time ZPG ( shortly after 2100, with a 23 percent probability of stabilization or decline before 2100. Lutz et al. predict stabilization and decline far earlier: Lutz, W., W. P. Butz, and K. C. Samir eds. World Population and Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also: Raftery, A. E., N. Li, H. Ševčíková, P. Gerland, and G. K. Heilig. 2012. Bayesian probabilistic population projections for all countries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (35):13915–13921; Gerland, P., A. E. Raftery, H. Sevcikova, N. Li, D. A. Gu, T. Spoorenberg, L. Alkema, B. K. Fosdick, J. Chunn, N. Lalic, G. Bay, T. Buettner, G. K. Heilig, and J. Wilmoth. 2014. World population stabilization unlikely this century. Science 346 (6206):234–237.

23. At the highest end of economic development and social service provision, a “rebound” has been observed, with incremental increases in fertility in countries like Sweden and Norway. Even so, this only follows sustained declines and is largely irrelevant for a vast majority of the Earth’s human populations. Myrskylae, M., H.-P. Kohler, and F. C. Billari. 2009. Advances in development reverse fertility declines. Nature 460 (7256):741–743.

24. Harvey, D. 1974. Population, resources and the ideology of science. Economic Geography 50 (3):273.



Paul Robbins is Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 




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