Our Empty Future

In 383 A.D. when the Roman legions pulled out of their centuries old occupation of the British Isle, there were about 3.6 million people living in England south of Hadrian’s wall. Four hundred years later, when at last people started counting again (circa Doomsday Book) there were about 2 million. What happened in between was a story of apocalypse and dystopia – clans and tribes living in burned out Roman mansions, fighting each other for access to their scraggy patches of farm-earth. It was a story of Viking invasions and sackings; of a return of disease – and poverty.

It was dramatic; I can’t even imagine the stress. But that was only in England. Something special is happening right now; for the first time in recorded history the world population is starting to fall. Fifty years before the United Nations said it would. The planet will not reach 10 billion, like they thought, by the end of the century; but likely by then we will be at 7 billion. Or maybe less. But that number hides an even more dramatic re-orientation. Japan, China, Korea, Russia, France – all will decrease by half, or even two thirds (in the case of China). And those who remain, will likely be old, and in China (due to the one child policy and the corresponding femicide) likely old dudes.

This collapse will not be like post-Roman England; just like our Great Pandemic was nothing like the ones of the past. In some ways mechanization and technology really have changed things forever. We will not return to vertical chicken coops on our roofs and bean-growing in our back yards. Monsanto will produce what we need to eat. Like our Great Pandemic, it will only be quiet.

Countries will weather the coming desurplussing differently. Ones that have not captured people’s imagination, that have not been able to attract immigration – like China and Korea and Russia – will see the dependency ratios go through the roof, and their governments will turn into massive membership organizations (like AARP) orienting the full power and might of their overextended states to the task of building old folks homes, delivering three meals a day to geriatrics, and figuring out how to spread around the few nurses to make sure that the old receive care. The few closed countries who surged out of the middle income gap in time – Japan mostly – decided to mechanize. Robot waiters serving centenarian dementia patients (Japan has the highest rates of dementia in the world, 25%).

Europe will continue to be a museum to its own past, and continue to attract capital from tourism; retirees floating down the Danube stopping at castles. Their own life force spent in the pursuit of what they believed was important, they now have the means to travel and remember. And Europe is a good place for that! Europe’s economy will become a service economy: hotels and restaurants and hospitals. Meanwhile, the global economy will undergo radical changes. Old people don’t buy things. They know that life is short and the newest bauble is irrelevant. They buy experiences, if they have excess money. They eat at restaurants; they travel; maybe they golf. In point of fact, they “un-buy”. Downsizing from their big houses to smaller ones, easier to maintain. Selling their cars as their eyesight becomes less reliable, opting instead for UBERs. They go through the bric-a-brac collected over a lifetime and carefully curate that which they want to pass on, selling the rest at a garage sale to fund a trip to Paris or just driving it all over to the local Goodwill.

Yes countries will weather differently the next fifty years. The anglophone countries, with more liberal immigration policies, well-entrenched retirement bureaucracies, well-built infrastructure will probably continue to grow due to those who can, leaving their countries of origin to find stability. For the United States, this will be mostly Latino immigration (although significant Indian migration will also occur). People from Honduras and Mexico and Argentina will leave their countries – which are already also experiencing the demographic collapse – and come to the United States. This migration will be Zero-Sum, emptying out South America. The continent will echo in silence, like it did after the wars at the end of the Inca empire burned out. Canada will continue its policy of “poaching”, actively hunting out and offering benefits to key careers they need – nurses and manufacturers and doctors – to Nigerians and Chinese and Indians. The UK will become a majority Muslim country, as Pakistanis move to the Island. Australia will take in more people from Indonesia and the Philippines.

The only place where population growth will increase over the next 50 years is Africa. Africa, a continent already over-populated, will go from 1.5 billion to 3 or even 4. Nigeria will grow to over 1 billion. This will be the most fraught problem. Africa, as it stands, does not have the needed infrastructure for its existing population. They have no schools, no hospitals, no roads. No social security systems, no electric grids, no ports. There is not even any “middle income trap” anymore, which caught China. Those days are over – because there is no way to get the foreign exchange needed to build those things in a world with shrinking economies. China benefited from the “liberation” of hundreds of millions of new workers in the 1980s and 1990s – those freed from behind the Iron Curtain and the peasants who moved from the villages to the Chinese mega-cities to work in their mega-factories for slave wages producing cheep crap for Walmart. But Walmart doesn’t need African labor; and won’t have the energy to battle the entropy to build their infrastructure – like they did in China. They will be busy closing stores and closing factories.

So what fate then will befall Africa? I see only one scenario, and it is not good. Civil war, and state-on-state war, as the powerful in those countries rape and pillage to protect their small groups. Since ‘independence’ (or de-colonialization) Africa has not been able to articulate the ‘noblesse oblige’ which once existed during Borno-Kanem or Songhai dynasties; the rapaciousness introduced by the strict adherence to the imposed western model of elections and constitutions and courts and central banks has only empowered the worst of the continents despots. Those despots, seeing the writing on the wall, will become more voracious as they seek to protect their own. This leaves the rest of the people; what will they do? They will likely try to move north, across the perilous sand sea of the Sahara and then the Mediterranean to Europe, where the infrastructure exists as in a time capsule – empty schools and unused roads. Europe, which will be empty but for the tourists. How will Europe respond? That is probably the most important question of our time. Will they engage quickly to try and build out a future for Africans in Africa? Will they erect a tremulous fence down the middle of the Mediterranean sea, drones flown by geriatrics sinking migrant vessels with hellfire missiles? Or will they accept that the only way to get the labor they need to keep their markets moving is allowing the Africans in? That is hard, the reactionary nativism that exists in all countries exists too in the countries of Europe.

These are strange times indeed, and people of my son’s generation will experience some of the most momentous changes in human history. The de-population of the planet. There is one thing, the animals will be happy. Soon they will breeding their cubs in the empty apartment buildings of once powerful cities – like they do now in ancient temples of Mesoamerica hidden under the dark green jungle canopies which too have rejuvenated.     

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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4 Responses to Our Empty Future

  1. Rod Smothers says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I come here and read your observations about things that have just intruded on my little world!

    Ten minutes before reading your post, I found this vid showing the largest cities in the world throughout history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kptMVQRud5c

    It reinforces the recognition that we have little control over the future and are just minor players in this saga. Go back even further….in geologic time and we realize that continents are all in flux and that it was only 10 million years ago the globe we know came into being. Further back, and we speculate on the origin of the universe.

    So, what of the future? Not sure = but many of us tremble for our tribe, our country, our belief system. Will all be snuffed out in the coming changes? Anxiety prevails but hold! We forget that change is the one constant – that fighting it is probably futile. The seismic shifts coming are beyond our frail abilities to affect them.

    All we can do is seek to understand, to find some wisdom, to control what little we can, to hold our friends and family a little tighter and ride it out for the time we have.


    • Amen. Yup, I agree. We in middle class America thought we’d found stability. But like you say stability is an illusion. History is about conflict and stress and cataclysm and change. The changes coming are gonna be pretty massive – but also good I think. A rebalancing, again.


  2. Donald Sherer says:

    For many years I was concerned about overpopulation but now seeing a bifurcated shift in population the world seems scarier. Advances in technology may be our only hope.


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