A man pulls a child past a Lunar New Year decoration on display at the Qianmen pedestrian shopping street, a popular tourist spot in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. China has announced its first population decline in decades as what has been the world's most populous nation ages and its birthrate plunges. Credit: Andy Wong / AP

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In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University published “The Population Bomb,” setting off a worldwide panic about a future worldwide cataclysm caused by overpopulation. Ehrlich made note of the radically increasing global population numbers since 1900, and predicted disaster. “Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” he wrote, predicting worldwide famine as food production failed to keep up with population growth. “Nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate,” he wrote.

Since the book’s publication, the general public has accepted the basic premise behind it, namely that the world’s population will continue to grow exponentially until we run out of room, can’t feed ourselves, and society collapses as a result.

There’s only one problem: it is utter nonsense. The world does face a population crisis, but contrary to what most people believe, the crisis is an impending population collapse, not an overcrowded planet.

While global population is actually still growing, projections from professional demographers now predict that the global population will peak at just over 10 billion, and then begin to fall, and fall rapidly towards the end of this century. However, fertility rates in much of the world are already well below what is known as “replacement level,” which is the rate at which a nation’s population replaces itself and holds steady.

For the industrialized world, the replacement fertility rate is roughly 2.1 live births per woman, though that number can be higher elsewhere due to higher mortality rates from war and disease.

In Europe, things are pretty grim. The United Kingdom has a rate of 1.6 live births per woman, while the rate is 1.5 in Germany and Russia. Things are even more shocking in Spain and Italy, where the rate has dropped to 1.2 live births per woman.

Things are even worse in Asia, with both China and Japan sporting rates of 1.3 live births per woman, with some estimates actually pegging it lower). In China last year, deaths outnumbered births for the first time in six decades, and the United Nations is projecting that China will lose 110 million people by 2050, and their population will be cut in half by the end of the century.

As for the United States, according to the World Bank, we now have a fertility rate of 1.6 live births per woman, down from 2.5 when Ehrlich wrote his book, and 3.7 in 1960.

Here in Maine, things are much worse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pine Tree State now has a total fertility rate of 1.45 live births per woman, which puts us lower than every other state, except for Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

Maine’s birthrate has dropped so low that we started to see more deaths than births 12 years ago. The average age of a Maine citizen has increased to 44.8 years old as of 2020, with a full 21.7 percent of our population now aged 65 and older. The pressure this will create on the state budget in the next several decades will be overwhelming.

Is there a way out of this demographic nightmare?

In Maine, media outlets have been calling for increased immigration for years, claiming that it is the solution to many of our problems, particularly our stubborn workforce shortages. Our population is shrinking, and “new Mainers” can help plug the holes in our society, the logic goes.

Some of that hoped-for migration has taken place recently, testing the theory. We have seen a temporary influx of “COVID transplants” during the pandemic, and in just the last four months, more than 1,000 asylum-seeking individuals have come to the city of Portland alone. According to recent data, Maine has seen an unexpected spike in population, gaining 34,237 residents between April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2022, though the net increase in that period was just 22,999 people due to Maine’s higher rate of deaths than births.

But who exactly is coming, and how are they assimilating into the state? Is the influx relieving our workforce pressures? Is the quick concentration of migrants in certain areas of the state putting incredible pressure on housing?

Even if we could prove that immigration as a solution was helping, we won’t be able to rely on it very long. Our birth rates will continue to fall in Maine, as they will in the rest of the United States, and in the countries that are sending people to us now.

At a certain point in the future, the current political debates will reverse themselves, and we’ll start wondering “where have all the people gone?”

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...