Several countries around the world are seeing their populations shrink as families choose to have less than 2.1 children – the normal replacement rate required to keep the population constant. What was once the problem of rich countries like Japan, the UK and Germany is now spreading to middle income countries like Thailand and Iran. This thought provoking piece in The Guardian explores the impact of this growing trend: “In Iran, a birthrate of 1.7 children per woman has alarmed the government; it recently announced that state clinics would no longer hand out contraceptives or offer vasectomies.
Thanks to this worldwide pattern of falling fertility levels, the UN now believes that we will see an end to population growth within decades – before the slide begins in earnest.
An influential study published in the Lancet last year predicted that the global population would come to a peak much earlier than expected – reaching 9.73 billion in 2064 – before dropping to 8.79 billion by 2100. Falling birthrates, noted the authors, were likely to have significant “economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical consequences” around the world.”
In fact, 23 countries are expected to see their populations halve before the end of the century. This includes “Spain, Italy and Ukraine. China, where a controversial one-child per couple policy – brought in to slow spiralling population growth – only ended in 2016, is now also expected to experience massive population declines in the coming years, by an estimated 48% by 2100.”
As countries see their populations houses, villages and whole regions empty out. Japan has already seen this. This brings unexpected changes. In Japan “Sightings of Asian black bears have been growing increasingly common in recent years, as the animals scavenge unharvested nuts and fruits as they ripen on the bough.”
Elsewhere, forests and wild animals are taking over large swathes of many European countries whose populations are shrinking: “France, Italy and Romania are among countries showing the largest gains in forest cover in recent years, much of this in the form of natural regrowth of old fields. “Models indicate that [afforestation of this kind] will continue at least until 2030,” Benayas said.
Rural abandonment on a large scale is one factor that has contributed to the recent resurgence of large carnivores in Europe: lynx, wolverines, brown bears and wolves have all seen increases in their populations over the last decade. In Spain, the Iberian wolf has rebounded from 400 individuals to more than 2,000, many of which are to be found haunting the ghost villages of Galicia, as they hunt wild boar and roe deer – whose numbers have also skyrocketed. A brown bear was spotted in Galicia last year for the first time in 150 years.”

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