Monday, October 31, 2011

The Population Bubble

Stephen Hawking once told Larry King "My biggest worry is population growth. If it continues at the current rate, we will be standing shoulder to shoulder by 2600." It's a very colorful description, one whose claustrophobia makes a distant future of 600 years feel all the more immediate. It was also 11 years and a billion people ago and uttered at a time when the human population had doubled in just 40 years.

Since the world's 7 billionth child is apparently to be born today, there is a deluge of Malthusian dead horse-beating. Malthus was actually a far more interesting thinker than most people give him credit for being. His tale has been told countless times in science fiction during the last 150 years, and in some ways his theories were the beginning of speculative fiction and dystopian near futures. If you've every nerded out to books by William Gibson, PD James, HG Wells, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Anthony Burgess, Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding or Stephen King -- all are direct decedents of Thomas Malthus. (For a more nuanced appreciation of Malthus work, listen to this interview.)

But that still doesn't excuse the fact that Malthus missed the mark. Most people like to criticize him for underestimating food production and the ability of technology to increase the productivity of agriculture, but Malthus may have also been wrong about the human species' capacity to continue to reproduce exponentially:

What demographers call the Total Fertility Rate is the average number of live births per woman over her lifetime. In the long run, a population is said to be stable if the TFR is at the replacement rate, which is a little above 2.3 for the world as a whole, and somewhat lower, at 2.1, for developed countries, reflecting their lower infant-mortality rates.

The TFR for most developed countries now stands well below replacement levels. The OECD average is at around 1.74, but some countries, including Germany and Japan, produce less than 1.4 children per woman. However, the biggest TFR declines in recent years have been in developing countries. The TFR in China and India was 6.1 and 5.9, respectively, in 1950. It now stands at 1.8 in China, owing to the authorities’ aggressive one-child policy, while rapid urbanization and changing social attitudes have brought down India’s TFR to 2.6.
This is absolutely fascinating. All these years we've been bracing ourselves for an over-populated Earth with scarce natural resources when, in fact, the real scare resource might soon be humanity itself.

Much of this decline in birth rate will probably be attributed to technological improvements that enhance quality of life, which was essentially the same principle that doomed Malthus' hypothesis with regard to agriculture. But the ability for humanity to suddenly collectively curb its growth could also be a part of some shared evolutionary social psychology -- an aggregate that would include variables like attitudes on child-birth, government policies, enhanced medical science, etc. -- that encourages us to shoot for some kind of population sweet spot that allows for both individual well-being and the ongoing propagation of the species.

That's a profound concept that would have immense implications on our attitudes about everything from sex, marriage and child birth to religion, immigration, national identity, labor and public health policy:
[T]he labor force has peaked or is close to peaking in most major economies. Germany, Japan, and Russia already have declining workforces. The United States is one of a handful of advanced countries with a growing workforce, owing to its relative openness to immigration. But this may change as the source countries become richer and undergo rapid declines in birth rates. Thus, many developed countries will have to consider how to keep people working productively well into their seventies.

India, the only large economy whose workforce will grow in sufficient scale over the next three decades, may partly balance the declines expected in other major economies. But, with birth rates declining there, too, current trends suggest that its population will probably stabilize at 1.55 billion in the early 2050’s, a full decade ahead of – and 170 million people below – the UN’s forecast.

Given this, it is likely that world population will peak at nine billion in the 2050’s, a half-century sooner than generally anticipated, followed a sharp decline. One could argue that this is a good thing, in view of the planet’s limited carrying capacity. But, when demographic dynamics turn, the world will have to confront a different set of problems.
That would mean our policy-makers and dystopian science fiction novelists would have to completely re-orientate their focus in the coming decades and examine a world with a shrinking population instead of an exploding one -- more Children of Men and less Soylent Green. Oddly enough, there's a tinge of Malthusian pessimism to that proposition.

How that future looks to individuals is probably little more than a cultural Rorschach test, but for the sake of leaving the reader with something provocative, let me just suggest that a future wherein the human population has plateaued or is declining is a very bad one for conservatives. If people need to live longer, health policy becomes collective issue, likely through some national health care program. If workers need to stay employed longer in life, there will likely be laws limiting the work week and provide ample vacation time during the year. (Conversely, employers will justifiably expect more productive work days.) When unemployment is low, unions suddenly have more bargaining power. Public education become critical because it would likely occur twice in many people's lives: first as a child, then again in middle age as blue collar workers transition into jobs that don't require strain on their bodies. Immigration is open and encouraged.

It's a world where individuals don't necessarily claw their ways above the unwashed masses, but one where society as a whole must care for each individual. That's not always a good thing. Devoting too much time and energy to sustaining a population means there are fewer resources left over for the development of technology and less competition to push innovation. That's how societies and their qualities of life stagnate.

So who wins in the end? Probably nobody. There's a reason why human beings look into the future and tend to see see doom and gloom. I've always thought this phenomenon was somehow connected to old people's innate hatred of all things new and that we somehow can't get over a subconscious imperative to include our own selves in any future we ponder -- a version of ourselves that is by necessity frail and weak and decaying. It seems only reasonable that that reality should influence our outlook on the rest of the world and make it a very scary place to consider.

Happy Halloween!

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