May 5, 2012

“Bracing for Demographic Winter: The “Overpopulation Crisis”

A new round of calls for punishing austerity and depopulation strategies have sprung up in the wake of a Royal Society report ringing the alarm on the so-called overpopulation crisis. The report, entitled “People and the Planet” was published on April 26th and followed up by a flurry of articles by the usual suspects dutifully parroting the society’s dire warnings about the future of humanity in a crowding world. Paul Ehrlich was even trotted out to chastise the Society for not going far enough in their report, instead intimating that 5 billion people would have to disappear from the face of the earth for the population to be at a “sustainable” level.

The irony is that this is the same Paul Ehrlich who was crying wolf about the “Population Bomb” 45 years ago and was proven wrong on almost every prediction he made at the time. In 1968 Ehrlich predicted that “hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death” in the 1970s, but he was wrong. In 1969 he predicted that “smog disasters” were going be killing 200,000 people per year in cities like New York and L.A. by the mid-70s, but he was wrong. Also in 1969 he actually claimed he “would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Last we checked, England is still here. In 1975 he envisioned that “food riots” in America in the 1980s would lead to the dissolution of Congress, another prediction that failed to come to pass. The next year he argued that “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” Wrong again.

Unfortunately we don’t have to dig very deep to see the dark side of this Malthusian bent. In 1969, Ehrlich stated that if voluntary birth control methods did not curb population growth fast enough for his liking, governments might have to consider “the addition of a temporary sterilant to staple food or to the water supply.” In 1972 UN climate guru Maurice Strong argued that governments should license couples to have children. In 1977, Obama “science czar” John Holdren co-authored with Ehrlich a tome called “Ecoscience” that mused once again about the possibility of forced abortions and sterilants in the water supply as a way of curbing population growth. In 2002, the editor of the Earth Island Institute’s online magazine lamented the introduction of electricity to Africa. The Malthusian philosophy is the perfect false front for an ideology that bemoans economic development and technological progress.

Quite contrary to the projections of the Malthusians, the very real danger to the economy and the species itself is the very real demographic shift that happens in a shrinking population. This phenomenon is referred to as demographic winter and has been understood by demographers for decades. Population is still growing because of high fertility rates in previous generations and longer life spans, but declining fertility rates will turn into population decline in a number of nations within the century should these trends hold. The countries of the developed world, with their fertility rates already in decline, will be the first to experience the effects of this transition. Countries like Greece, Russia, Taiwan, Lithuania, South Korea and others that already have a fertility rate below 1.5 and little influx of immigrants are either already declining in population or are expected to within a decade.

Other economic effects of the greying population will begin to make themselves felt in the coming years, as well. Real estate and stock market declines are inevitable in a society with an increasing number of aging retirees cinching up the purse strings and fewer young couples buying houses or investing in the markets. Declines in saving rates, outputs per capita and living standards are all likewise projected as inevitable in a world of shrinking population. Given the immensity of the problems generated by this demographic transition, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Malthusians have placed the problem of the “population bomb” on its head: the real “Population Bomb” of the 21st century is not the problem of too many people, but too few.

The Malthusians tend to argue that their end goal is that imagined state of “sustainability” by which the economy of the future will not be predicated on growth, but instead will be a static system that will maintain itself via renewability. Whatever one thinks of the viability or desirability of such a system, the stark fact is that such a system is impossible in the paradigm of declining fertility rates. In fact, in order to achieve sustainability, the human race would have to find a way to reverse the fertility decline. It’s an irony that aging doomsayers like Ehrlich and Holdren may not live long enough to behold come to fruition in their lifetime, but to achieve the very goals they claim to be aiming toward, there may be only one hope for the human species: Bring on the babies.”

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