15. Demography and Dying Out
The larger the population of a species is, the further away it should be from dying out. In a linear world of thoughts with simply constructed direct causalities, this may seem plausible. However, the large human population (the world’s human population was around 7.7 billion people in 2019) is the result of exponential growth in a relatively short time of only a few hundred years. The available resources for living and surviving, however seem to be finite. Exponential growth in a finite world can not be infinite.
Every species goes extinct, eventually. Maybe Homo sapiens deprives the livelihood of many species including the own species through exploitation of resources and changes of the biosphere (“climate change”). Apart from these gradually threatening processes, there is the threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear or biological weapons, which bear the potential to wipe out the whole of mankind in a very short time. The extinction of the species Homo sapiens is not only inevitable, but appears to be thinkable soon. How to form the process in order to enable a happy or at least tolerable life to the “last generations” instead of letting them suffer from a catastrophic course of events?
Firstly, I want to distinguish mass extinction from mass dying: Mass extinction implies the disappearance of many (masses of) species; mass dying implies the disappearance of many (masses of) individuals. The last mass extinction of complex life that also wiped the dinosaurs off the earth was 66 million years ago and was caused by the impact of a comet, whose crater was found in the Carribean next to the Mexican coast line of Yucatan. The other four of the five mass extinctions of complex life on earth are listed in Table 3. According to current knowledge, they were all caused by changes of the living conditions on earth on land and in water. Changes of the biosphere and athmosphere in a relatively short time of thousands or hundred thousands of years.
Name of the mass extinction event
444 million years ago
372 million years ago
Devonian Extinction (Kellwasser-Event)
252 million years ago
201 million years ago
66 million years ago
The age of the earth is around 4.5 billion years. The first microorganisms emerged around 3.5 billion years ago, the transition of the earth athmosphere from oxygen-poor to oxygen-rich (energy for life through redox reactions) took place around 3 billion years ago. Multicellular life emerged around 1.5 billion years ago. Around 0.5 billion (470 million) years ago the first plants and arthropods (insects, millipedes, shellfishes) on land appeared, and around 0.4 billion (400 million) years ago the first vertebrates on land emerged (the first mass extinction of complex life was around 444 million years ago, thus fell into this time). If we define the emergence of the “human line” with the last common ancestor of man and chimpanzee, this was around 0.006 billion (6 million) years ago. Homo sapiens exists for a mere 0.0003 billion (0.3 million) years. Apart from the last mass-extinction that was caused by the impact of a comet 66 million years ago, all mass extinctions of complex life stretched over thousands, hundred thousands or even millions of years. One can assume that the affected individual animals did not even sense the changes of the biosphere that finally led to the extinction.
If the currently ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the athmosphere should indeed lead to changes of the biosphere that are not compatible with human life, thus an extinction through “climate change”, one has to be aware that these changes would take place much faster. In pre-industrial times the CO2-concentration of the athmosphere was stable at 280 ppm (parts per million), but has climbed to 410 within 200 years (the athmospheric CO2-concentration can be measured in trapped air from ice core-drilling blocks). We are currently living in a time of mass extinctions of other animal species caused by the global spread of Homo sapiens, who takes or destroys habitats on land an in water. At the same time domesticated species are bred in high numbers, so that chicken could have become the land-vertebrate species with most individuals on the planet (estimated number of 23 billion animals in 2019).
Mass dyings occurred again and again in human history. Famines and plagues cost many human lives in the past. Mass dyings of past millenia could however never reach the absolute number of deaths that the mass dyings of the 20th century brough about, as the strong world population increase was a phenomenon of the last 500 years. In 1800, the world population was an estimated 1 billion (2019 around 7.7 billion). The biggest mass dyings of humans in absolute numbers were all in the 20th century (or could face us in the coming future). The big mass dyings are man-made (should we call them mass killings?): In the 20th century the big wars stand out. Best known in Germany are the first and the second World War with around 20 million deaths in the first and 50-60 million death in the second World War. The number of victims of the Spanish Flu is given as 50 million, which would be clearly higher than that of the First World War, for whicht the number of deaths is given as 20 million (120, 121). However, one could ask, if the war has not paved the way to the plague and if the Spanish Flu had caused as many victims without the war. It is also possible that humans dying in 2018 of any other cause were counted as victims of the Spanish Flu. Especially old people with accompanying diseases could have died of other causes, but were nevertheless counted on the death toll of the Spanish Flu. The world population in 1918 was around 1.5 billion, 1940 around 2.5 billion. Millions of human beings died of starvation in the 20th century on the Indian subcontinent in China and in Africa. After the 2nd World War, wars are still important causes of mass dyings. The Vietnam War (1955-75) cost around 3 million lives and the Iraq- Iran War from 1980-1988 around 0.8 million lives. The African wars, especially the Congo-wars with ist associated events, such as the Rwandan genocide cost millions of lives (110).
Although, in the 20th century more human beings than ever lost their lives in mass dyings, their proportion of the world population is comparably small, as the world population in the 20th century is so much bigger than it ever was. The Thirty Years’ War depopulated large areas in Central Europe and the genocide of the Native Americans could have cost the lives of 90-95% of the estimated 40-60 million people, who lived in the Americas at the time the European conquerors arrived (37). The restriction on relative numbers (together with a view that is centred on western societies and the short time after the Second World War) can even lead to the brave claim, mankind was becoming more and more peaceful (122). However, it seems unlikely that hunter-gatherer societies witnessed such encompassing murders as seen in wars of “developed”, sedentary societies (40).
Mass dyings due to war are in principle avoidable (although the propaganda organs of the elites of the waring parties claim something different). If the ininhability of the earth is still avoidable is disputed. Possibly, there are too many self-accelerating mechanisms at work, so that the emergence of a biosphere that is not compatible with human life anymore is unstoppable (123). On the individual level one could give calender-motto-like advice to live every day as if it could be the last. For the whole of mankind, one could apply this concept and advice humans to live together in a way that is as pleasurable as possible, just as if the last days of mankind had dawned.
The world population is around 7.7 billion in 2019 and continues to grow, but with regional differences. The strongest population growth is on the African continent. Surfacewise the African continent is much larger than we tend to assume, as we usually have maps using the equal-angle focused Mercator projection, which makes regions appear larger, if they are further away from the equator (equal angles are more important for ship navigation than correct surface areas). Africa lies on the equator. The population density in Africa is only 40 inhabitants /km2 (Germany 225 inhabitants /km2). Surfacewise there is still place in Africa. However, 1/3 of Africa are inhabitable desserts and already now it is previsible that agricultural regions suffer from water shortages and are threatened by famines. Water scarcity could become a limiting factor for agricultural production, the willingness of surplus nations to provide food support could decline (or cynically expressed: their desire to get rid of food surpluses could wane). Large international agricultural cooperations buy land in Africa (“Land Grabbing”) in order to build cash-crops on large plantations or to assure reserve agricultural capacities for their (more solvent) population.
The institutions of African countries are usually already weak under normal conditions and therefore hardly prepared for taking on crisises. The growing mega-cities of the African continent are overwhelmed by migrants from rural regions. Coastal cities are flooded by the sea, which however is not solely due to a rising sea level (melting polar land ice). Local processes, such as the exploitation of groundwater stocks under the cities and the reduced sediments reaching river deltas (due to river damns and sand exploitation for the construction industry) combined with the weight of the buildings make the cities virtually sink. The African population doubles within 35 years between 2015, when it was at around 1.2 billion and 2050, when it will surpass 2.5 billion people.
Already now it becomes apparent that the European people are not ready to accpect unlimited mass-immigration from neighbouring world regions. The migrants, who often take low paid jobs in their countries of arrival, paradoxically are a loss for their home economies, as it is usually not the poor and uneducated who leave poor countries, but rather somehow well educated middle class men (124). Their emigration means a “brain drain” for their home country. In the countries of arrival, it leads to higher competition on the labour market and an imbalance of the sex distribution with considerable surplus of men in the reproductively active age groups. This lowers the chances for each individual man to find a female partner, which can also lead to tensions.
Back home in the emigration regions, the poor and impoverished remain. At the same time the cost for shelter and food supply of imigrants is booked on the budget for international cooperation and support (development aid), thus on the expense of the poor who remained back home (whose families do not get foreign bank transfers as most emigrating young men are from middle class families, who can afford the migration investment). In brief: migration and flight will not resolve the problems of the African continent (125).
In human history, densely populated regions were catalysts for progress, growth and prosperity (think of the Netherlands). This gives hope that the population growth in Africa will produce more prosperity than misery.
With a sense of justice, one could claim at this point that resource use and greenhouse gas production caused by an average European are much higher than that of an average African. This may well be, but would make the overall situation even more threatening as resource use and greenhouse gas production in Africa will also increase and the level of an African arriving in Europe will quickly reach that of a European. Unlimited growth in limited systems seems impossible. We may require well-being without growth in the long run, instead of our growth driven current economy.
If in the coming years, resource depletion and biosphere destruction indeed became threateing for human life and survival, the corresponding suffering to be expected with the dying of 8 billion sounds like a nightmare. How ever you see it: Dying out with dignity for the individual seems impossible with such a high world population. Even if Homo sapiens as a species survives the coming centuries, mass dyings seem very likely.
Our humanist world view (in the sense of the Giordano Bruno foundation) offers a precious ethical frame for living together as human beings. Does this appreciation of human life mean that we have to welcome a hopelessly overpopulated planet, only because we appreciate every life even before conception? In case of a mass dying or the extinction of mankind, the non/never-individual, who’s procreation has never become manifest can not add to the totals of sufferings, and may be better off, than individuals without hope and a life in misery ending in a death with suffering.
In Europe the antinatalist philosophy of (non-)life rejects reproduction. Fertility in Europe is below the population reproduction quota of 2.1 births per woman. Growing population figures are therefore exclusively due to immigration. The regional differences with regards to the fertility figures, suggest the conclusion that while in Africa a declining fertility would be urgently desireable, a slightly different development may be good for Europe, namely a (light) increase of fertility. In principle, however, Europe could also make do with a distinct population decline as (at least Western) Europe belongs to the most densely populated regions of the world.
If we abandon the human-centred view and view the mass extinction of other species as a catastrophe, the insight that there may simply be too many Homo sapiens on earth seems inescapable. Other species on earth suffer, if the human population grows. A very consequential antinatalist-philosophy is being propagated by the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHMET)“ . The double-meaning of the word “human” in VHMET is intentional. In brief the proponents of VHMET want Homo sapiens to disappear from earth by simply not reproducing anymore. That way, the then last generation should enjoy a good and comfortable life in the dawning last century of mankind. Instead of mass-extinction catastrophe, the (then short) future of mankind would consist of a smooth phasing out. A complete suspension of human reproduction seems unlikely from a current point of view. Suffering and dying in generations affected by catastrophic developments towards extinction, can only be minimised if there are only few human beings exposed to this extinction period. This implies minimising the number of unlucky humans being born into such an extinction period. The proponents of the VHMET movement do not see themselves as human-haters, but claim to simply favour the voluntary, humane and dignified phase out over the miserable and undignified catastrophic downfall extinction.
This would be, what we had to expect, if we continued to overtax the limits of growth and denied the inevitable consequences. The ongoing mass extinction of other species also plays an important role in the world view of the VHMET movement. According to this, humans should give back the planet to all these species, whose existence is threatened by the overweight of the human species on earth.
You do not have to claim that mankind should entirely disappear from earth to recognize some thinking of the underlying philosophy. Dying out through loss of habitats (or through wars with the use of weapons of mass destruction) goes along with much suffering and would make a dignified life impossible for the last generations of mankind. Even if we are much more optimistic with regards to our survival perspectives than the VHMET-movement, they are absolutely right in one aspect: The only way to avoid mass dyings without dignity, is a decrease of the world population growth and the only dignified way to reach this is a reduction of conceptions and births. Even without fearing the imminent extinction of mankind, the moderation when it comes to deliveries may not be a mistake as we can expect improved living conditions in a less overpopulated world. Well-being, however needs to get disentangled from economic growth. Before the economic collapse of the years 2020, economists feared nothing more than a recession, as it leads to unemployment, poverty and misery. Well-being without economic growth sounds simple, but hardly reachable with the current economic system.