The way Yoshihiro Shibata recently described to the Los Angeles Times what has become of his village made me think of some of the saddest cities in the interior United States.

Only about 250 occupied homes remain, he said. When it comes time for a traditional cultural festival, no one can find enough young men to hoist the float that should be carried around, so it just sits on the ground.

But Shibata wasn’t merely describing a town whose main industry was lost to time and technology, like some Appalachian coal mining village. He was describing the leading edge of a depopulation wave sweeping across his nation.

This isn’t the story you’re used to hearing — the one about how overpopulation is going to destroy the planet. We’ve heard that one since Thomas Malthus miscalculated the future in 1798 when he wrote, “An essay on the principles of population.”

This is the opposite.

Since 2010, Japan’s population has dropped by about 900,000, with much more to come, the Times said. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that wave eventually will wash over the rest of the planet, including Utah, where critics once derisively compared the birthrate to India’s.

If that ever was true, it isn’t today. Utah’s birthrate is 2.3 children per woman. India’s is 2.45. But both are on the decline, and that’s the real story.

A recent Deseret News report quoted Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, outlining the problem. Utahns are living longer and having fewer children. The same can be said for the rest of the United States, much of the developing world and even some of the Third World.

A few years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Last, whose book, “What to expect when no one’s expecting,” was causing a stir. He said the United States was counting on immigrants from south of the border to prop up its falling birthrate. But even that is beginning to fail.

Mexico’s fertility rate is, at 2.25, lower than Utah’s. A report in The Economist wondered what happens “when the niños run out.” The answers to that aren’t mysterious, but they are grim.

For starters, as a nation loses people, the population begins to skew much older. In the United States, that would mean fewer workers to prop up Social Security and Medicare and an even more overburdened health care system. It also would mean the growing national debt would be harder, if not impossible, to control.

But that’s just the start. Buildings would fall vacant, businesses would struggle with diminishing sales, schools would close and infrastructure would crumble as governments decide which programs to curtail because of budget cuts.

Worse than that, innovation would cease. Last argues innovation, conservation and invention are tied to a steady population growth. That explains how, despite Malthus’ dire claims more than 200 year ago, life has gotten much better and, on average, longer.

Experts tend to agree that a replacement-level birthrate is somewhere around 2.1. The United States has an estimated current rate of 1.86, which is virtually identical to that of Norway and Sweden. Niger leads the world with a 6.62 rate, but except for a handful of impoverished nations, few others come close.

So why is the population still rising in the U.S.? For one thing, this is still an attractive place for immigrants. For another, experts say real declines don’t begin until the last generation with a positive fertility rate dies.

20 comments on this story

Vienna-based demographer Wolfgang Lutz told Germany’s Der Spiegel he believes the planet will begin to shrink by 2060 or 2070.

This doesn’t have to happen, but solutions are hard to find. Denmark has a public service campaign urging couples to have children. Other nations now offer incentives. China has raised its legal child limit from one to two per couple.

Some point to France as an example of how generous parental leave policies might help. But even France’s fertility rate, at 2.07, is below replacement levels.

The first step, as always, is to recognize the problem, which is something many Japanese no doubt wish their leaders had done years ago.