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7 Billion Humans | Empty Nests in the Aging Developed World

Empty Nests: Europe, Russia and Japan are aging and producing more empty nests than offspring. Every child in Russia is precious, and valuable—the government encourages women to have a second child by paying up to $14,000, roughly equal to the average Muscovite’s annual salary and two year’s average salary outside Moscow. There were 1.8 million babies born in Russia last year, only 27,000 more than deaths during the same period. Fem Bots are coming for lonely men in Japan—obviously not propelling the population forward. The elderly-bots are coming as well since there is not enough human support for aging Japanese. Robots are being built to move in and take over, not just to carry people around the nursing home, but …

7 Billion Humans | Empty Nests in the Aging Developed World

Empty Nests: Europe, Russia and Japan are aging and producing more empty nests than offspring. Every child in Russia is precious, and valuable—the government encourages women to have a second child by paying up to $14,000, roughly equal to the average Muscovite’s annual salary and two year’s average salary outside Moscow. There were 1.8 million babies born in Russia last year, only 27,000 more than deaths during the same period. Fem Bots are coming for lonely men in Japan—obviously not propelling the population forward. The elderly-bots are coming as well since there is not enough human support for aging Japanese. Robots are being built to move in and take over, not just to carry people around the nursing home, but primarily as companions to combat Kodokushi (lonely death), in a country where nineteen percent of women die with no one around them. China is also aging with many draconian policies still in place and at the same time, the economic reality of having even one child is too much for some young Chinese couples.

According to the UN, the world’s population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011. Two hundred years ago, there were only 1 billion people on the planet. In the past fifty years, the world’s population has more than doubled.

When I began work on the story, “7 Billion,” for National Geographic Magazine, I thought I would be doing a story about carrying capacity—basically that there are not enough resources and there are too many people and we are all going to be screwed in a Malthusian way. Then I read a book about all the predictions regarding carrying capacity over the last couple hundred years and how they were all wrong. Bottom line is, you can’t really talk about how many people the planet can support when things like fertilizer keep being invented, but you can talk forever about population shift. And we do talk about it (how is that fence going along the Texas – Mexico border anyway?)

The best article I’ve read on this topic is “The New Population Bomb” in Foreign Affairs Magazine. Along with a massive amount of research, I did three long, onsite interviews with the former population minister in Uganda, the minister of immigration in Russia, and the head UN refugee agency (UNHCR) lawyer in Turkey. These interviews jibed with the Foreign Affairs article. So after the research, the interviews, and the realization that this story was about population shift and how that affects the planet, we came up with four subcategories within which to concentrate the field photography: Urbanization, Immigration, Empty Pockets (the very fertile undeveloped world), and Empty Nests (the depopulation of aging, rich countries).

These four concepts are interrelated. As the empty pockets in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere produce a huge population of young workers, the empty nests in Japan are building robots to take care of their elderly because they can’t import enough Filipinos. The obvious solution is immigration. The empty pockets need good educations and salaries and the empty nests need workers to take care of them. Like a rising tide—which you can watch from a lawn chair, willing it to stop, but it will rise anyway—immigration is an economic necessity that cannot be stopped. As the world’s population reaches 7 billion in 2011, 8 billion in 2025, and 9 billion in 2043, the repercussions for all of us will depend on how people move around our planet, how they consume, and the decisions they make as they go.

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