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The Depopulation Bomb

Almost 50 years ago Dr. Paul Ehrlich published a book called The Population Bomb. Today, demographic hysteria concerns too few people.
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University of Illinois-Chicago campus. (Photo: elegeyda/Shutterstock)

University of Illinois-Chicago campus. (Photo: elegeyda/Shutterstock)

Illinois is dying, suffering from acute demographic decline. Explanations for the exodus abound, ranging from political corruption and high taxes to globalization and NAFTA. A sanity check:

“People like to say population growth is faster in Wisconsin and Indiana than in Illinois. Which is true,” says Darren Lubotsky, a labor economist at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “But all three of those states rank pretty low in terms of population growth. There are issues that Illinois needs to confront, but I don’t think we should be using the population data as the measure of whether we are doing well or not.”

If people are leaving (i.e. a diminishing population), then the typical refrain laments that something must be wrong with the place. Ironically, New York City, with its growing population, leads the United States in outmigration. If federal policy cut off immigration, then the Big Apple would be dying. So would most cities. Local and state policy would fail in the face of demographic doom.

Once upon a Rachel Carson, a booming population defined demographic doom. During the late 1960s and early '70s, people fled from urban cesspools of density. All that was wrong with the world was in the city.

The Pied Piper for the the zero population movement was professor Paul Ehrlich. Humans would overpopulate themselves to death. Ehrlich issued dire predictions such as “England will not exist in the year 2000.” The chickens did not come home to roost. Ehrlich is still waiting for Godot.

So too will the Chicken Littles of demographic decline wait for Godot. We stand at the ready to repeat the mistakes of Paul Ehrlich's cult. This time, we age into oblivion.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.