Posts Tagged ‘Demographics’

Peak Human

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.

A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:

That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.

I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?

Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:

This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.

Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.

If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.

You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.

(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)

So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.

The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.

Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.

No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.

And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.

But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.

Monday Morning Linkorama

Monday, October 31st, 2011
  • Yes, Virginia: the panic that China will dominate the world is bullshit.
  • Children’s drawings become real toys.
  • The invasion has begun.
  • And sometimes people don’t sue.
  • Weekend Linkorama

    Sunday, May 15th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • A truly fascinating demonstration of the shift in population.
  • And, slowly, we lose the last of the WW1 vets.
  • More of my love of time lapse video.
  • A lovely story about an e-mail scam.
  • Political links:

  • Yer government at work: literally crying overspilt milk.
  • I wonder how the people who hate the Oath Keepers will reconcile this.
  • Remember when the President said he would make decisions based on science? That’s OK, neither does he.
  • The Curse of the Libertarian: you’re always right but no one listens. We said homebuyer tax credits would hurt more than they would help. We were right.
  • For the six thousandth time — we did not profit on the bailout of the automotive industry. Quit claiming we did, media.
  • Mathematical Malpractice Watch: Why NationMaster Sucks

    Thursday, April 21st, 2011

    Graphjam ran a graphic today apparently showing all the awful things the US leads the world in.

    It’s crap. It’s clearly produced by someone who spent a few minutes browing nationmaster.com. Nationmaster is convenient but their accuracy is, at best, suspect. There is no uniformity of data and many of the samples are incomplete or old. To be honest, you’re better off going to wikipedia. Much better off.

    But beyond that, they just haven’t thought too much. For example, the graphic has has the US as #1 in crime. This is true, but only because we are a large country and a transparent one. The UK has half as many crimes but a fifth of our population. Germany half as many crimes but a quarter of our population. The crime rate in the US is high but not tops. Same goes with rape, which they have as #1. Scandinavian countries lead the civilized world in that (although likely because they measure their rape stats differently).

    But a lot of this is the nationmaster problem. They have the US as #1 in CO2 emissions. This is actually wrong as China is #1. US emissions have actually been flat over the last few decades. The nationmaster data are 10 years old — way too far out of date. They also have the US as #1 in divorce rate. This is wrong. Russia is #1.

    Teen birth rate? The US is #1 among developed nations. But you have to exclude almost every developing nation in the world to get that ranking. Nationmaster’s data is selective and based on 1994 data. The teen birth rate has plunged since then.

    Heart attacks? I haven’t the faintest clue what they’re showing here. But heart attack survival rates have been growing massively in the US.

    We do lead the world in McDonald’s restaurants and plastic surgery. That tends to come from being the richest country on Earth. We also, unfortunately, lead the world in both prison population and incarceration rate — yet another wonderful effect of our stupid war on drugs.