Sunday, December 26, 2004

The World-Wide Population Bust.

The year 2005 will take us another year forward into the Global Population Bust. Unprecedented population decline has already started in Western Europe -- Italy may be viewed as the bust's "ground zero" with Germany not far behind -- and is now demographically inevitable over most of the world, including Asia in general and China in particular, with Japan leading the way on that side of the globe by a generation or two.

Absolute decline in total world-wide numbers won't begin for some decades yet, but as the population of tomorrow is limited by the number of young living today, one doesn't need a crystal ball to see into the future in this case.

Even the United Nations has switched from warning of the dangers of overpopulation to those of population decline, e.g. ...

United Nations projections indicate that between 1995 and 2050, the population of Japan and virtually all countries of Europe will most likely decline. In a number of cases, including Estonia, Bulgaria and Italy, countries would lose between one quarter and one third of their population. Population ageing will be pervasive, bringing the median age of population to historically unprecedented high levels...

In the next 50 years, the populations of most developed countries are projected to become smaller and older as a result of low fertility and increased longevity ...

Among the countries studied in the report, Italy is projected to register the largest population decline in relative terms, losing 28 per cent of its population between 1995 and 2050, according to the United Nations medium variant projections.

The population of the European Union, which in 1995 was larger than that of the United States by 105 million, in 2050, will become smaller by 18 million... [this publicizing this]

(The U.S. population is projected to continue growing at a modest rate due to its comparatively open immigration policy -- as immigrants both increase the population count themselves and have children at a higher rate than do native-borns.)

What we are seeing here is how the birth rate declines naturally with increasing material prosperity and a society's commercial development. In poor subsistence agriculture societies parents need lots of children to work the land and support them in their old age -- as there are no IRAs, employer pension plans or social security programs. And child mortality rates are high, so birth rates necessarily are as well. Ben Franklin, in his prescient demographic projections made in 1751 (intended to assure the mother country that it need not engage in protectionism against colonial manufactures) described the average American family as having eight children, of whom four survived.

But as a subsistence agricultural society develops into a wealthy commerce-based society children become much more of a financial cost to families -- while the time spent on them becomes an "opportunity cost" to parents, who obtain many new options to spend their time on other fun and rewarding things. And with declining child mortality parents need have fewer children born to see the family line continue. So the birth rate falls sharply, quite naturally.

This is hardly a modern development, nor a modern insight -- it has been well known throughout history. The noted economic historian Mark Blaug calls this "The universal rule of declining population growth in advanced civilizations, which dates back long before the present era".

If I recall correctly, Adam Smith wrote about it in Wealth of Nations and Gibbon did in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Augustus in the face of population decline among the prosperous higher Roman classes ordered them to have more children --providing the background for some fun plot turns in "I, Claudius".

The rise in population that accompanies economic development, such as we have seen in the last century, results not from high birth rates but from falling death rates. With economic development life expectancy rises and fewer people die. Life expectancy in the US today is nearing 80, in 1900 it was 47, and in Franklin's colonial times it was about 25 or less -- as it was near universally everywhere before the Industrial Revolution. When people begin putting off dying for so long, from an average age of 25 to 80, population rises!

But, alas, this lengthening of life expectancy is finite -- and when the limit is reached people begin dying together in large numbers. This, combined with a birth rate that has fallen sharply during the period of lengthening life expectancy, then leads to a population drop, such as is in the first stages of sweeping the world now.

The complete ignorance and disregard of this entire dynamic on the part of the Malthusian-Ehrlichian population growth catastrophists really should have just been a shameful embarrassment to them. I mean, even 1970s BBC tv show writers knew about it.

So when a respected scientist like E.O. Wilson writes in Scientific American...
The pattern of human population growth in the 20th century was more bacterial than primate.
... I wonder how he retains that respect -- and his self-respect. Or is he really saying that when bacteria expand into a richer field of nutrients their reproductive rate declines while the life span of the average individual bacterium increases?

And when Wilson goes on to try and scare us with...

The number required to attain zero population growth -- that is, the number that balances the birth and death rates and holds the standing population size constant -- is 2.1 (the extra one tenth compensates for infant and child mortality). When the number of children per woman stays above 2.1 even slightly, the population still expands exponentially. This means that although the population climbs less and less steeply as the number approaches 2.1, humanity will still, in theory, eventually come to weigh as much as Earth and, if given enough time, will exceed the mass of the visible universe.
... well, wow, that's every bit as intellectually impressive as the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare's prediction of when the Japanese people will go extinct due to their birth rate of only 1.4 per woman.

Yes, Wilson does skeptically note that birth rates have fallen in many places -- but comes up with an explanation expertly, wonderfully fitted to flatter the sensibilities of his university liberal peers -- while maintaining dire risk of population catastrophe. You see, it's because of ...
... the empowerment of women. The freeing of women socially and economically results in fewer children.
So kudos to liberals for preaching feminism and the empowerment of women. We are saving the world from itself! But beware...
Reduced reproduction by female choice can be thought a fortunate, indeed almost miraculous, gift of human nature to future generations. It could have gone the other way: women, more prosperous and less shackled, could have chosen the satisfactions of a larger brood...
Especially with all those unenlightened cultural conservatives still out there in all parts of the world, extolling the virtues of big families.

... Demographers of the future will, I believe, point out that on the other hand humanity was saved by this one quirk in the maternal instinct.
Humanity saved by a lucky quirk! That's a nice hand-wave dismissal of what's been known by the likes of Blaug, Smith, Gibbon, Augustus, novelists like Robert Graves and the BBC's tv-writers.

But no, it sure looks a lot more to me like basic economics in action -- children are much less necessary and much more expensive in a developed commercial economy, so people have fewer of them. Q.E.D.

Yet wait a minute! ... Does Wilson really believe that humanity has been saved due a lucky quirk in the instincts just of women? Not of men? Men have nothing to do with it?

If so, I want to ask a question of all the men of Wilson's Harvard community, starting with E.O. himself. To wit:

"How many of you Harvard men really want to have eight or more children as in Ben Franklin's day, and would actually have had them if your empowered women hadn't restrained you, refused, and prevented you from doing so"?

I expect the answer would be along the lines of "Precious darn few of us!", and suspect Wilson knows that darn well.

In which case, when Wilson speaks of people reproducing like "bacteria" what he's really saying is....

"We educated, enlightened, liberal western males of course have no problem restraining our reproduction to an admirable less-than-2.1 each. But all those third-world males will continue to reproduce like bacteria if we can't get their women to stop them..."

And what do we call that?

But I digress. This was meant to be just a short post pointing to two new essays on the world population situation recommended by David Brooks...
I've decided to create the Hookie Awards. Named after the great public intellectual Sidney Hook, they go to the authors of some of the most important essays written in 2004...

The global decline in fertility rates has likewise prompted some astonishing essays.

Phillip Longman published "The Global Baby Bust" in Foreign Affairs, noting that while we have images in our heads of throngs of unemployed young people in the Middle East, fertility rates are falling faster there than anywhere else on earth. Over the next half-century, Mexico's median age will rise by an astounding 20 years. By 2050, Mexico will be an older society than the United States.

Nicholas Eberstadt writes about what the graying population means for Asia in "Power and Population in Asia" in Policy Review. Eberstadt argues that it is better to get rich and then get old than it is to get old first. Thus, while Japan should be able to adjust to the new demographics, China will face huge problems. In China, the pension system is the family, but nearly a quarter of seniors will have no living son to rely on for sustenance.
If you're interested in this subject they're worth looking at -- and if you're not interested in it you'd have stopped reading this post long ago, I'd suspect, so there we are.

For the record, I'll note that my own favorite newspaper-type article on the subject appeared in the Times itself some while back, from which...

... If there is a ground zero in the epidemic of low fertility it would have to be in the northern Italian city of Bologna, where women give birth to an average of fewer than one child (in 1997, the number was 0.8). The city has more highly educated women than any other in the country. Produce is cheap, food is wonderful and living is generally easy.

The local population has dropped steadily for two decades, but 1,500 people turn 75 every year.

Fewer children and more elderly mean a greater need for health care programs and specialized housing and transportation. But that does nothing to encourage young couples to have families. This year the budgets for retirees and children are roughly the same in Bologna, a city of 375,000. Next year 5 percent will be shifted from the young to the old. And that will happen every year for the next decade as the city becomes filled with elderly and starved for children.

How did Italy, a largely Catholic country that has always been seen as the stereotypical land of big, close-knit families, attain the world's lowest level of fertility?

"Prosperity has strangled us," said Pierpaolo Donati, professor of sociology at the University of Bologna ...
"Prosperity has strangled us"? Not "empowerment of women has saved us from destruction"?

Maybe someone in the sociology department at Bologna should call in this message to the biology department in Cambridge, Mass.