Peoplequake by Fred Pearce – A review & discussion

In Peoplequake, Fred Pearce, the English author and journalist, explores the massive demographic transition that this planet is undergoing, as the human population grows exponentially beyond the realms of anything seen before. His book strives to set out the facts of population growth, the consequences, and give an assessment of these respective trends from a variety of angles.

First things first, as a reader it’s important to have the right perspective on population growth; not as a linear course rising to an inevitable point of no return, but as something less consistent. Upon first review of the UK’s peak fertility rates during the post-war 1960s, a knock-on exponential increase in this figure would make sense in the future. However, birth rates have in fact been falling ever since – mostly due to reasons surrounding the emancipation of women and changing social expectation. Add an average lifetime of 70-80 years on to that peak fertility period and the scenario becomes evident – a peak population summit. Transferring this pattern onto a global scale, and 2070 marks the natural peak for the world’s population, after which the population will begin to decrease. Fred Pearce illustrates this with his forecasts for current generations:

If you are over 45, you have lived through a period when the world population has doubled. No past generation has lived through such an era – and probably no future generation will either. But if you are under 45, you will almost certainly live to see a world population that is declining – for the first time since the Black Death almost 700 years ago. 

Pearce observes that in some parts of the world, specifically in developed nations, population is beginning to decline, as fertility rates fall to – or below – replacement level. In extreme cases, nations like Italy and Germany face losing over 80% of their native inhabitants. Iran too has an unsustainable fertility rate of just 1.7 children per woman and Russia is losing half a million people each year due to natural decline and emigration. On the other hand, the USA’s population is still growing, but this is only due to the migrant influx, which is likely to decline under the Trump administration. This is of course the irony of the circumstances. Despite the anti immigration sentiment and rhetoric that is coming to the forefront of many developed countries’ agendas, many nations will soon be crying out for young workers to help keep the wheels of industry turning in the coming decades, and prevent unsustainable dependency ratios.

Some might consider Pearce as overly optimistic – claiming that there is still a battle on to turn back the self-destructive global sentiment present in today’s media and governance. However, the dwindling global populations we are expected to see may help amass support for his suggestions. Nevertheless, the issue of saving the planet from ourselves must move on from pointing the finger at developing countries, whose efforts to industrialise in a modern world are resulting in rapidly expanding populations. Instead, we must start to challenge the priorities of a whole world population system, which is so integrally conflicted.

In conclusion, Pearce looks at a myriad of topics from population to urbanisation, the deserted farming towns of East Germany, and whether it is in fact the consumerism and exuberance that is straining the planet so much, rather than population increases alone. Ultimately, Pearce leaves it up to the reader to draw clear cut conclusions, making Peoplequake an excellent book for open-minded intellects who can come to terms with societies’ unavoidable future predicaments and develop their own viewpoints on such issues.

By Harry Ellis

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