Empty Planet, John Ibbitson & Darrell Bricker: Book Review

Empty Planet - Book Review - Chris Stoate
Empty Planet, John Ibbitson & Darrell Bricker: Book Review
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About the Author

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Toronto. He founded and operated LaserNetworks, an international IT services firm in the print space with a significant environmental contribution. Chris has an interest in public education and served on the Halton Learning Foundation Board and the United Way Board, chairing the Oakville United Way campaign in 2012. He has also been an Oakville Town Councillor.

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Empty Planet – the shock of global population decline is a fascinating read as many of us contemplate the future of human life during this pandemic, wondering how our world will respond to the next train bearing down on us, whether it be dying oceans, another pandemic, climate change, or something we have yet even to imagine.


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John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail and Darrell Bricker of IPSOS Reid analyse changing reproductive behaviour and conclude that within a couple of decades population growth will begin to reverse.  The drivers are urbanization (because children are an expense and not an asset as they were in a rural society), the accompanying education of women and their desire to fulfill themselves outside the home, greater longevity and the decline in organized religion with its patriarchal structures and go forth and multiply imperatives.

Empty Planet is convincing, and especially for Canadians, optimistic.

However, at the same time it suggested for me a different causal chain.  I have long thought that our ideologies evolve along with our survival strategies and the economic systems that emerge to support them.

In Europe we developed a feudal system, in which the Church and Nobility held sway when our means of survival were agricultural.  This provided protection for those working the fields and a hope in an afterlife to compensate for the hardships of short and very basic lives on earth.  Once commerce began to show its ability to increase prosperity and support a richer survival for more than an elite noble few, the merchant classes overthrew the Catholicism of feudalism and Protestantism emerged, where amassing capital was democratised and an ideology which supported seeking comfort in this life was needed to support the emerging new survival strategy.


As long as most people still worked in agriculture, and even after the industrial revolution when labour was unskilled and manual, more and more people were needed to ensure survival, support for the elderly, and because life expectancy was limited.  Our belief systems (religion or ideology) aligned with that survival imperative, encouraging large families, and maintaining strong taboos against contraception, abortion, masturbation and homosexuality.  Sex was for reproduction, for the survival of humanity, and the spread of religion.

Is it possible that today our ideology is evolving to align with a new survival imperative, which we have taken on board in our collective unconscious?  One in which we recognize that our prosperity challenges the carrying capacity of our planet unless there are fewer of us?  Could that be partly why we are now so accepting of small families and tolerant of alternative lifestyles to the point where gay marriage is sanctioned, education on contraception called sexual health and government funded, gay marriage is legal and in many places safe abortion is permitted, pornography has moved into the mainstream and LGBTQ communities celebrate with pride marches, are represented at the highest levels of government?  Could it be why these views are far more prevalent in urban societies where they contribute to prosperity and less accepted in rural societies where children remain an economic asset.

Like all major changes a declining population will have unintended consequences—aging societies present different challenges than young ones do.  On the whole though, this is a virtuous circle where fewer people continue to have more comfortable lives using less of the planet’s non-renewable bounty as we transition to more sustainable sources of energy, goods and food production—just as the middle class revolutions and evolution of ideology in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries lifted more people out of poverty, increased education and medical knowledge, improved longevity, developed democracy and in turn positioned humanity not only to survive but to prosper…until the livability of the planet came under threat from the fossil fuels and economic systems that underpinned that survival and prosperity.

The dynamics that Ibbitson and Bricker identify can I think be traced to our common instinct for survival, which has over many generations moved us from hunter-gatherers to farmers and to capitalists, with the innovations in belief systems and social conventions that suited and supported each stage.

Given the strength of that instinct, which translates into survival past our own deaths in our descendants, I think we needn’t fear that populations will dwindle to an unsustainable degree.  We will evolve new economic systems and ideologies to support ever more prosperous and sustainable survival strategies for humanity.

Ibbitson and Bricker’s Empty Planet makes fascinating reading and a compelling argument…well worth the read, confinement or not!



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