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About the Author

John Ibbitson

Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Global Public Affairs. Prior to joining Ipsos Reid, Bricker was director of public-opinion research in the office of the prime minister. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Carleton University and is the co-author (with Edward Greenspon) of Searching for Certainty: Inside the New Canadian Mindset. He is the co-author, with John Wright, of What Canadians Think About Almost Everything. Follow Darrell on Twitter @darrellbricker.

Books by this Author
Empty Planet

Empty Planet

The Shock of Global Population Decline
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It was a girl.

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, just before midnight, Danica May Camacho entered the world in a crowded Manila hospital, bringing the human population of our planet to seven billion. Actually, the scales could have tipped a few hours later, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the arrival of Nargis Kumar. Or it might have been a boy, Pyotr Nikolayeva, born in Kaliningrad, Russia.

Of course, it was none of them. The birth that took us to seven billion people was attended by no cameras and ceremonial speeches because we can never know where or when the event occurred. We can only know that, according to the United Nations’ best estimates, we reached seven billion sometime around October 31 of that year. Different countries designated certain births to symbolize this landmark in history, and Danica, Nargis, and Pyotr were among those chosen.

For many, there was no reason to celebrate. Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad declared that a global population of seven billion was “not a matter of great joy, but a great worry. . . . For us a matter of joy will be when the population stabilizes.” Many share Azad’s gloom. They warn of a global population crisis. Homo sapiens is reproducing unchecked, straining our ability to feed, house, and clothe the 130 million or more new babies that UNICEF estimates arrive each year. As humans crowd the planet, forests disappear, species become extinct, the atmosphere warms.

Unless humankind defuses this population bomb, these prophets proclaim, we face a future of increasing poverty, food shortages, conflict, and environmental degradation. As one modern Malthus put it, “Barring a dramatic decline in population growth, a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, or a global outbreak of vegetarianism—all of which are trending in the opposite direction at the moment—we’re facing nothing less than the end of plenty for the majority of the earth’s people.”

All of this is completely, utterly wrong.

The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

If you find this news shocking, that’s not surprising. The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from seven billion to eleven billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around nine billion sometime between 2040 and 2060, and then start to decline, perhaps prompting the UN to designate a symbolic death to mark the occasion. By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now, and steadily growing fewer.

Populations are already declining in about two dozen states around the world; by 2050 the number will have climbed to three dozen. Some of the richest places on earth are shedding people every year: Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Eastern Europe. “We are a dying country,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, lamented in 2015.

But this isn’t the big news. The big news is that the largest developing nations are also about to grow smaller, as their own fertility rates come down. China will begin losing people in a few years. By the middle of this century, Brazil and Indonesia will follow suit. Even India, soon to become the most populous nation on earth, will see its numbers stabilize in about a generation and then start to decline. Fertility rates remain sky-high in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Even here, though, things are changing as young women obtain access to education and birth control. Africa is likely to end its unchecked baby boom much sooner than the UN’s demographers think.

Some of the indications of an accelerating decline in fertility can be found in scholarly research and government reports; others can only be found by talking to people on the street. And so we did. To gather research for this book, we traveled to cities on six continents: to Brussels and Seoul, Nairobi and São Paulo, Mumbai and Beijing, Palm Springs and Canberra and Vienna. There were other stops as well. We talked to academics and public officials, but more important, we talked to young people: on university campuses and at research institutes and in favelas and slums. We wanted to know what they were thinking about the most important decision they will ever make: whether and when to have a baby.

Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for healthcare and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children.

But we won’t have to wait thirty or forty years to feel the impact of population decline. We’re feeling it today, in developed nations from Japan to Bulgaria that struggle to grow their economies even as the cohort of young workers and consumers diminishes, making it harder to provide social services or sell refrigerators. We see it in urbanizing Latin America and even Africa, where women are increasingly taking charge of their own destinies. We see it in every household where the children take longer to move out because they’re in no rush to settle down and haven’t the slightest intention of having a baby before they’re thirty. And we’re seeing it, tragically, in roiling Mediterranean seas, where refugees from wretched places press against the borders of a Europe that is already starting to empty out.

We may see it, very soon, influencing the global contest for power. Population decline will shape the nature of war and peace in the decades ahead, as some nations grapple with the fallout of their shrinking, aging societies while others remain able to sustain themselves. The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating and containing an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.

Some of those who fear the fallout of a diminishing population advocate government policies to increase the number of children couples have. But the evidence suggests this is futile. The “low-fertility trap” ensures that, once having one of two children becomes the norm, it stays the norm. Couples no longer see having children as a duty they must perform to satisfy their obligation to their families or their god. Rather, they choose to raise a child as an act of personal fulfillment. And they are quickly fulfilled.

One solution to the challenge of a declining population is to import replacements. That’s why two Canadians wrote this book. For decades now, Canada has brought in more people, on a per capita basis, than any other major developed nation, with little of the ethnic tensions, ghettos, and fierce debate that other countries face. That’s because the country views immigration as an economic policy—under the merit-based points system, immigrants to Canada are typically better educated, on average, than the native-born—and because it embraces multiculturalism: the shared right to celebrate your native culture within the Canadian mosaic, which has produced a peaceful, prosperous, polyglot society, among the most fortunate on earth.

Not every country is able to accept waves of newcomers with Canada’s aplomb. Many Koreans, Swedes, and Chileans have a very strong sense of what it means to be Korean, Swedish, or Chilean. France insists its immigrants embrace the idea of being French, even as many of the old stock deny such a thing is possible, leaving immigrant communities isolated in their banlieues, separate and not equal. The population of the United Kingdom is projected to continue growing, to about 82 million at the end of the century, from 66 million today, but only if the British continue to welcome robust levels of immigration. As the Brexit referendum revealed, many Brits want to turn the English Channel into a moat. To combat depopulation, nations must embrace both immigration and multiculturalism. The first is hard. The second, for some, may prove impossible.

Among great powers, the coming population decline uniquely advantages the United States. For centuries, America has welcomed new arrivals, first from across the Atlantic, then the Pacific as well, and today from across the Rio Grande. Millions have happily plunged into the melting pot—America’s version of multiculturalism—enriching both its economy and culture. Immigration made the twentieth century the American century, and continued immigration will define the twenty-first as American as well.

Unless. The suspicious, nativist, America First groundswell of recent years threatens to choke off the immigration tap that made America great by walling up the border between the United States and everywhere else. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government not only cracked down on illegal immigrants, it reduced legal admissions for skilled workers, a suicidal policy for the U.S. economy. If this change is permanent, if Americans out of senseless fear reject their immigrant tradition, turning their backs on the world, then the United States too will decline, in numbers and power and influence and wealth. This is the choice that every American must make: to support an open, inclusive, welcoming society, or to shut the door and wither in isolation.

The human herd has been culled in the past by famine or plague. This time, we are culling ourselves; we are choosing to become fewer. Will our choice be permanent? The answer is: probably yes. Though governments have sometimes been able to increase the number of children couples are willing to have through generous child care payments and other supports, they have never managed to bring fertility back up to the replacement level of, on average, 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain a population. Besides, such programs are extremely expensive and tend to be cut back during economic downturns. And it is arguably unethical for a government to try to convince a couple to have a child that they would otherwise not have had.

As we settle into a world growing smaller, will we celebrate or mourn our diminishing numbers? Will we struggle to preserve growth, or accept with grace a world in which people both thrive and strive less? We don’t know. But it may be a poet who observes that, for the first time in the history of our race, humanity feels old.

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Open and Shut

Open and Shut

Why America Has Barack Obama, and Canada Has Stephen Harper
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Tom Paine was mad.

The English writer and polemicist had considered Edmund Burke a supporter and friend. In his writings and from his seat in parliament, Burke had championed the Americans in their struggle for independence. Paine, while living in the United States, had written Common Sense, the bible of that revolution.

Now there was another revolution, in France, but this time Burke was vehemently opposed, arguing in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “A perfect democracy is the most shameless thing in the world,” in which the masses exercise “an unnatural, inverted domination.”

When Reflections was published in November 1791, Paine read it in a day and started writing his rebuttal the day after. He finished Part One of The Rights of Man the following February; the publisher had it out in March.

“What are the present Governments of Europe but a scene of iniquity and oppression?” Paine thundered. “ . . . [A] general revolution in the principle and construction of Governments is necessary.”

Burke versus Paine. We’re still sorting it out.
The Rights of Man was a best-seller, and perhaps the greatest of an extinct literary genre, the political pamphlet. From the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, these quickly written and published polemics thrived wherever a reasonably free press was permitted, to be read and argued over in the ubiquitous coffee houses — at one point in the 1700s, London alone had more than five hundred — where everyone and their friends met to exchange gossip, get the news, and debate the folly of the powers-that-were.

By the mid-nineteenth century, pamphlets were in decline, eclipsed by newspapers, which were cheaper, more timely, and more reliable. Today, the political pamphlet is the last refuge of the to-the-ramparts! youth activist or the grim anti-abortionist on his determined corner.

Bloggers often argue that their postings are the new political pamphlet, and the Internet, the coffee houses of our time. But there is a profound difference between the daily — or hourly — musings of a political blog and a sustained argument of several thousands of words swiftly composed, and swiftly — by conventional standards — published, that seeks to draw lessons from the great events of the time.

Which is what I’ve set out to do with Open & Shut.

This book is an argument and an invitation. The argument is political. Canada and the United States each held federal elections in late 2008. The United States had been through eight years of calamity and mal-government. The administration of George W. Bush handled the worst terrorist attack in history, Hurricane Katrina, and a financial panic with even-handed incompetence. The forty-third president left his country in a shambles.

But America is the most resilient of nations. Just as it has produced disastrous presidents, so, too, it has responded to those disasters with great presidents. Right after taking office, President Barack Obama moved swiftly and emphatically to prevent a crippling recession from sinking into depression, while retooling the economic fundamentals of the federal government, seeking to curb America’s contribution to global warming, launching landmark reforms in health care and education, and reversing the restrictions on stemcell research. The opening days of his administration rivalled Roosevelt’s.

Three weeks before the American election, Canadians went to the polls. The result of the fortieth Canadian general election was as flaccid as the campaign itself: a strengthened Conservative minority government, accompanied by the dispatch of what is turning into the annual leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

But excitement was soon to come, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, misreading both the economic and political times, ignored the financial slough the nation was falling into and instead tried to hobble the opposition parties’ fundraising abilities. He almost lost the government as a result. Now he faces a new challenger, public intellectual Michael Ignatieff, who shares with Obama more than a name with many vowels. Once again, instability is the order of the day.

The elections and their aftermaths tell us two things. For all its many faults, both structural and cultural, America’s political fundamentals remain robust and renewable, allowing the nation to shake off the worst of its own excesses and put itself back on the right track. But in Canada, something has gone wrong. The always-fragile national will has atrophied, revealed in a political culture that, at the federal level, smells of decay.

Predicting the breakup of Canada is like predicting Armageddon. Every generation, febrile zealots take to the street corners, shrieking themselves hoarse with their prognostications of doom. But the appointed date for the end of the world, or the country, passes once again without incident, and the prophets shuffle home as a new batch takes their place on the soapboxes.

Canada, however, has had a few close calls with the apocalypse in recent decades: the 1970 FLQ crisis, the rise to power of René Lévesque in 1976, and the near-death referendum of November 1995. To stave off Confederation’s oblivion, the federal government, under both the Conservatives and the Liberals, has steadily devolved many of its powers to the provinces. For the main, this has been a good thing: Ottawa is notoriously incompetent at managing social programs; the provinces needed the mandate and resources to do their job.

But things have gone too far. Ottawa is in the midst of a crisis of competence. The political class is a wraith of its former self. There is not a shadow of the statesman left in our politicians, nor much notion of public service in our public servants. The federal power is steadily weakening, losing legitimacy, surrendering a national vision to parochial interests.

After the inauguration, Michelle Obama visited various departments of the federal public service to thank the workers there for their efforts and to explain her husband’s plans and priorities. At every gathering, the reception was rapturous. The wife of the president mingled with an enthused and rededicated public service. At the same time in Ottawa, a demonstrably incompetent government — or so the events of November and December 2008 suggest — huddled resentfully in the catacombs of the Langevin Block, while a moribund and hostile public service waited for someone to come along who could give it something to do. This is a really good way to wreck a country.

That may not be how you see the state of our nation. It may not be how you see it even after you have finished reading this little book. Maybe you have ideas of your own about where we are, how we got there, and where we should go next. That’s where the invitation comes in.

The Globe and Mail has partnered with McClelland & Stewart to host an Internet forum for Open & Shut readers. At the end of this book, I’ll explain how you can become part of a discussion based on the ideas and questions raised in the following pages. The goal is for you to advance the argument, or maybe to reshape it. I’ll be reporting the results in an article for the Globe. Together, let’s show the world that the art of the political pamphlet hasn’t been lost after all.

We’ll be looking together at what last fall’s elections told us about the political cultures of Canada and the United States. We’ll track the deterioration of both the political parties and the bureaucracy in this country. We’ll examine the sorry state of the Canada—U.S. border. And we’ll consider the shape of our cities and our schools, where the Americans also have something to teach us.

One of the most effective, if hypocritical, Canadian strategies is to criticize the United States with smug superiority and then steal its best ideas. It’s time to repeat the exercise. Canada needs to strengthen its national government and renew its political culture by borrowing from some of the better angels of the American political nature. And we need to do it now, before it’s too late.

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The Big Shift

The Big Shift

The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future
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The Polite Revolution

The Polite Revolution

Perfecting the Canadian Dream
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Sometime, not too long ago, while no one was watching, Canada became the world’s most successful country.

It might have happened in the late 1990s, when this nation perfected the unique and virtuous circle of low interest rates, low inflation, balanced budgets, and paid-­up pension funds. Or perhaps it emerged in 2001, when the latest census revealed we had become possibly the world’s most urban country (80 per cent of us live in cities);1 that nearly one Canadian in five arrived here from somewhere else; that Toronto, with 44 per cent of its population foreign-­born, was more diverse than Miami, Los Angeles, or Sydney; and that by 2017, when Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, one Canadian in five will be a member of a visible minority.

It might have been celebrated in any of those years over the past decade when the United Nations Human Development Index ranked Canada as one of the world’s most desirable countries in which to live. For the culturati, 2002 was a particularly good year: three of six finalists for the Booker Prize for best new novel were Canadian — our Yann Martel won for Life of Pi — and Margaret Macmillan’s Paris 1919 was praised on both sides of the Atlantic as the best non-­fiction book in years, while jocks rejoiced over Canada’s gold medal in hockey at the Winter Olympics. Pop-­music buffs may insist Canada reached its zenith in 2005, when Spin magazine, the New York Times, and TIME Canada all declared that Montreal offered the most influential independent music scene in North America.

Canadians fret about the country: about its regional and linguistic divisions; about a lack of identity, whatever that may mean; about being perpetually overshadowed by the United States; and, of course, about the weather. But while there’s not much we can do about the weather, the progress of the nation in the past generation has been simply astonishing. This country works better than it has ever worked before. Choose an area of endeavour: business success, standard of living, culture, scientific discovery, and you’ll find that Canada is almost invariably performing at a level equal to or surpassing that of most other developed countries.

In 1904, Sir Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed that, while the nineteenth century belonged to the United States, the twentieth century would belong to Canada.6 He was a tad off the mark. It is obvious that this country will never boast a population and economy sufficient to warrant Great Power, let alone superpower, status. But greatness can be more than strength of arms or size of gdp. Canada’s greatness, which we are only now beginning to fully realize, lies elsewhere.

Here is a prediction: A century from now, historians and anthropologists will cite Canada as the harbinger of a new age. This new age will be marked by a steep reduction in intolerances so deeply ingrained in human culture that for millennia we have shaped our caste systems and fought our wars based on them, to the point in the last century where we came close to destroying ourselves. It is the intolerance of the clan, which stipulates that the further a person is removed from your own family, tribe, village, the likelier that person is to be alien and threatening. It is intolerance toward the other, whose God is not yours, whose economic system is not yours, whose sexuality is not yours, whose language is not yours. September 11, 2001, demonstrated once again the horrors of which modern technology married to barbarous hatred are capable.

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