The Future of the World


South Sudan became the world’s 193rd country this weekend. There was much rejoicing.

The celebrations marked what many hope is the end of an sixty-year long civil conflict in Sudan between the mostly Arab peoples in the north and the mostly African peoples in the south. Now each people group has their own country.

Sudan’s story illustrates an ongoing megatrend in the world that may not bode good things for our shared future.

Less than 150 years ago, when the world population was less than 2 billion people, there were only 47 nations. Now, with the world population near 7 billion, there almost 200 nations. There are six new nations in the last decade alone. The increase in the number of nations correlates to an increase in the number of wars between nations. A new study shows that war is steadily increasing along with the rise of the number of nations.

At the same time, the number of people is increasing exponentially, and correspondingly, the economic output of people is increasing exponentially. A recent chart at The Economist of a population-weighted history of the last two millennia demonstrated that 28% of the lives lived on planet Earth since the birth of Christ happened in the last 100 years, and that there have been more years lived in the 21st century already than in all of the 17th century. (This provides some nice context for the “information explosion” – maybe it’s really just a “people explosion”).

Some futurists predict we’ll reach 10 billion Earthlings in three generations.

But the line is not pointing straight up. The other factor to consider is the fertility rate, or the rate at which the world grows. Currently, a rate of 2.1 keeps the population flat, where the number of births and the number of deaths are roughly equal. (Of course this is not fixed, either, as advances in medicine and access to medical treatment increase life expectancy in First World and Third World nations.)

Thirty years ago the world fertility rate was 6.0. Now it is 2.6. Almost all the countries that are above the 2.1 demarcation are third world. Among developed countries, the only nation above 2.1 is Israel, at 2.75. (New Zealand is 2.1 and the United States is 2.05.) What does that mean? According to the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, in an article that pointed out the economic problems of low-fertility rates, “Populations increase even as fertility rates collapse, until the last above-replacement generation dies, after which the population begins contracting. The rate of contraction speeds up as each generation passes. No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population.”

In other words, nations get old. Of course, a country can reverse course and begin to have more babies, such as what happened in America’s postwar Baby Boom, when the fertility rates jumped to almost 4.0 (which is amazing). There is a point of no return on low fertility rates from which demographers believe it is impossible to recover. China is already on an alarming aging pattern, as a result of their one-child policy, which they now are vainly trying to reverse. Why? Money – there are currently 5.4 workers to support every retiree in China. In 40 years, as a result of its one-child policy, there will be only 1.6 workers to support every retiree, which is woefully insufficient.

According to these links and articles, we have two future scenarios, neither of which look good – one is the continued exponential growth of the world population, with the incumbent growth of war and natural resource depletion, or we have the leveling and decline of the world population brought on by low fertility rates, which will result in a shrinking economy and inability to sustain social programs. A new Columbia study also shows what is common sense, that the threat of resource depletion leads to war, as well: “the likelihood of war is shaped by the paths of prices and quantities.”

I am not an apocalyptic sort, but I also don’t believe humankind is going to magically start getting along better either. There’s only one planet to live on. What does this say about the future of the world, particularly from a leadership and a ministry view?