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  • Rainey Knudson

Sim City in Reverse: Depopulation Edition

In the video game Sim City, you start out in a wilderness landscape of forests and wild animals, and you slowly build a city. Play it long enough, and eventually you go from a town with a few streets to a teeming metropolis with huge skyscrapers, and all the challenges that come with big city life.


There are many popular video games based on the premise of building civilization from scratch. Minecraft, Animal Crossing, Civilization: it is somehow incredibly satisfying to start with raw “nature” and gradually build up your farming or trading or warring empire. You get to craft a whole society and cultivate prosperity—or destruction. Create happiness or despair, your choice.


A Sim City town in the early stages

This compelling fantasy, or a version of it, might actually be coming true for our species, according to a slew of recent articles about human population beginning to plummet later this century (the most thoughtful and least hysterically apocalyptic such article, by Dean Spears, was published in September 2023).

 

In short, birth rates around the globe are falling below the baseline population replacement level of roughly 2.1 children per mother. People are just having fewer children. It’s incredible to consider: no catastrophes, just fewer babies and soon, way fewer people, and maybe all our problems are solved! Traffic, crowds, pollution, the existential hopelessness that nothing you do matters because there are so many people on the planet that nobody will notice your efforts: gone!

 

Of course, our depopulated descendants will live, as we do, with the residue of their forebears’ adventures and handiworks. (As Spears notes in his article, depopulation won’t affect climate change, which is happening much faster.)

 

So these future humans will not be starting from scratch, like in a video game. Quite the opposite. It will be Sim City in reverse: you start with a big, robust city and all of its big city problems, and you move towards fewer people, not more.



Imagine a Sim City based on population decline, the speed of which you could determine as part of game play (slow decline = easy setting; fast decline = hard setting). What does successful play in such a game look like? If you live in a big city (which is where the majority of humans currently live), how do you win the game if the population is declining?

 

City building games are all about growth. The manifest destiny is so baked-in, it’s invisible. You take a forested wilderness, and you turn it into a metropolis. What else would you do? This mindset is so central to our species’ worldview—that the growth of human society is good, even healthy, and that the natural world exists for us to make use of it—that it is difficult, even bizarre, to consider a different take on things.



But imagine a world of non-expansion—contraction, actually. Imagine a human culture that is not predicated on the growth of the species, but rather its diminution, and hopefully someday, its sustainable, orderly cohabitation and symbiosis with many other species on this planet.

 

A friend recently told me that she thinks of Earth as one big, biological entity. From this view, Earth has arguably been gripped with a fever for the last 5,000 or so years, and the fever is about to break. For the most part, this fever break is happening naturally. We humans and everything we build are nature doing its thing, and as a species we may be naturally coming to the end of a particular way of functioning, namely to make as many babies as possible and dominate the planet.



 

If the projections come true, in roughly two centuries we will arrive at around 110 million people. That was the global population in the year 1,000 B.C. But just because we return to the number of humans in antiquity does not mean that we return to an antiquity standard of living. It means whatever we imagine it to mean.

 

So let’s imagine a reverse Sim City game. What do beautiful and successful depopulated cities look like?

 

What do we do with the empty buildings? The stadiums, the airports, the 24-lane highways?  Will we bulldoze the suburbs? Will we tear down the skyscrapers? Will we consciously try to dismantle our unused constructions, or will we abandon mountains of IKEA furniture to let nature cover it over, like the Yucatán hillocks that hide ancient Mayan temples? 


Mayan temple at Chichen Itza, 1892 (top), 2020 (bottom)

How will money and business work without growth? How will we care for the old and the poor? Will there even be poverty, or could this be our chance to eliminate poverty and homelessness? All the material wealth of 8 billion people could buoy up an entire planet of 110 million. Things of scarcity and value could become less scarce and less valuable. I can see it now: “You get a luxury apartment, You get a luxury apartment, YOU get a luxury apartment!!” 

 

And what culture should we preserve? What do we do with the schools and universities, the libraries and museums? How do we educate the young? How will technology help or hinder us?

 

Also, what does this mean for the global ecology? Is there a way to recover wilderness, the loss of an earthly frontier that’s not in outer space? Will depopulation mean we get to press the reset button on exploring this planet, or will we continue the race to Mars, assuming we are able to?

 

If the depopulation predictions come true, I suspect that as much as things will radically change, they will also fundamentally stay the same. There will still be beauty, and there will still be ugliness. There will still be cruelty and mercy both. There will still be community, and loneliness, and a yearning to connect to something greater than ourselves.

 

Writing this, I was tempted to download the old Sim City and play it again. But I’d rather play my version of the game, where instead of managing a society of unlimited growth, you do the opposite. I’d love to try to win that game.


Alfred Street in Detroit's Brush Park neighborhood (shown in 2013) looks a lot like Sim City in the early stages.

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