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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Children, Overpopulation and Tommy Boy

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Frequently, in this space, as I’m discussing one topic, I’ll mention another, tangential topic, and declare that it “deserves a post of it’s own.” In order to help me remember, I keep a list of the topics I’ve promised to revisit, and I was looking through it recently when I realized that I haven’t done a very good job of making good on those promises, so for the next few posts I plan to, at least partially, rectify that. I’ve chosen to start with one of my more recent promises, the promise to talk about demography and population growth.

For most people the term “population growth” immediately brings to their mind the dangers and challenges of overpopulation. They may be thinking of the explosion of people which occurred during the last century, or they may be visualizing the graph of world population which looks like a giant, impossibly steep, peak rising up out the flat valley that was the world’s historical population. Or they may remember China’s recently abolished one-child policy and the tragedy of the accompanying gendercide. (Though I recently heard that China’s missing girls are not as missing as we thought and have started showing up in censuses when they get older.)

These people worry about overpopulation despite the fact that the crises predicted in the late 60’s by such books as the Population Bomb and Make Room! Make Room! (the basis for the movie Soylent Green) never came to pass. And also despite the fact that birth rates are falling everywhere and below replacement level in most of the developed nations.

In light of this, are the people who worry about overpopulation worrying unnecessarily? Do we no longer have to worry about overcrowding and famines and being forced to resort to cannibalism? (Soylent Green is people!) It’s hard to say, but this post will attempt to clarify things, with the caveat that, as always, I’m wary about any predictions of the future.

One of the first people to worry about overpopulation, or more specifically the idea that population growth would outstrip food supply, was Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and scholar. In 1798 he published his influential book, An Essay on the Principle of Population. The central idea was that food supply increased arithmetically while population increased geometrically. In the late 60’s, for someone considering a world where the population had all but doubled in the previous 50 years. It certainly must have have appeared that the Malthusian vision of mass starvation was finally about to come to pass.

But at the very same moment as the new Malthusians were predicting doom, the Green Revolution was taking root (no pun intended) all around the world and in developing countries like India and the Philippines, vastly increased food production was keeping the long predicted famines at bay.

When I was in high school I did two man policy debate and one of our topics concerned US agricultural policy. That year my debate partner and I constructed an affirmative plan around food aid to Africa. This was in the late 80’s and the Ethiopian Famine from earlier in the decade was still fresh in everyone’s mind. As we proceeded to debate this topic we encountered a lot of counter arguments involving the dangers of overpopulation. In particular some people actually argued that it’s better to let 10 people starve now than to let them reproduce resulting in 100 people starving in the future. As you can see things get twisted and dark pretty fast when you’re dealing with this issue.

By the end, after spending a year defending against these sorts of arguments I was convinced that Malthus was just wrong, food production could and would keep up with population. Additionally, even back then it was apparent that, on top of increasing food production, the world’s population growth was slowing.

As you can imagine, a high school student in suburban Utah wasn’t the first to put all this together, and while I don’t know if this belief is as widespread as the belief about overpopulation, people were starting to talk about population decline, or what some people call the demographic winter. And several decades on many countries, most notably Russia, Japan and even Germany have seen years where their total population fell. Obviously this is not unprecedented, but in the past when a country’s population declined year over year there was generally some external cause like war or disease. Historically it didn’t decline by choice.

Of course, as they say, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and the fact that population has started to decline in a few countries doesn’t mean that world population is declining, but even if it’s not, the proponents of demographic winter point to a time, not far distant, when worldwide population will peak, and after that, start to decline. In other words, when you combine the Green Revolution with the trend towards declining fertility, it’s very reasonable to take the position that we don’t need to worry about overpopulation. And indeed that is the position I myself held until very recently, but over the last couple of years I’ve started to entertain the idea that maybe things aren’t as cut and dried as I had hoped.

To begin with, predictions that world population will peak rely on fertility rates continuing to decrease, especially in Africa as the continent becomes more developed. All of this results from projecting the declining birth rates experienced by most of the developed world into underdeveloped places that still have high fertility rates. And indeed fertility rates in developing countries had been following that trend. But that trend has slowed recently, as evidenced by this quote from The Economist:

Alarmingly, population growth in Africa is not slowing as quickly as demographers had expected. In 2004 the UN predicted that the continent’s population would grow from a little over 900m at the time, to about 2.3 billion in 2100. At the same time it put the world’s total population in 2100 at 9.1 billion, up from 7.3 billion today. But the UN’s latest estimates, published earlier this year, have global population in 2100 at 11.2 billion—and Africa is where almost all the newly added people will be. The UN now thinks that by 2100 the continent will be home to 4.4 billion people, an increase of more than 2 billion compared with its previous estimate.

So which is it? Is overpopulation still a concern? Or is the population in decline? If it is in decline might that also be a problem? (Particularly when you consider that the modern world was built around an expectation of an ever-expanding workforce.) Where do things really stand at this point?

Of course so far when speaking of overpopulation I’ve mostly focused on whether we can feed everyone, but there are obviously a lot of people for whom the problem of population is much greater than just whether or not people are going to starve. For example many environmentalists are desperately concerned about the ecological impact of the people we already have without even factoring in whether world population is going to continue to increase. (Fun fact, the most extreme example of this is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.) Once you turn to looking at the environmental impact you quickly realize that there are a lot of contradictory dynamics in play.

It is widely agreed that the trend of falling fertility is powered by modernization, development, urbanization, etc. Thus, people have speculated that one of the reasons birthrates, in places like Africa, haven’t fallen as much as expected is that development has slowed. From this it seems logical that we should do what we can to speed up development, but development comes with a large environmental toll. For starters more developed countries emit significantly more CO2 on a per person basis than less developed countries. This creates something of a Catch-22. We can have a lot of people whose individual impact on the environment is low, or we can have fewer people whose environmental impact is a much greater.

To show you what I mean let’s take the country of Kenya as an example. If we look at the graphs provided by the United Nations, we see that, taking the low estimate, the Kenyan population starts leveling off around 2100 at slightly more than 100 million people. Up from approximately 50 million right now. If we assume that in order to keep Kenya's population at the lower end of the estimate that Kenya has to become at least as developed as, say, Brazil, then in the process of doubling its population it will also end up increasing its per capita emissions by eight times the current level.

In other words, following these assumptions, emissions for the entire country of Kenya will increase to 16x their current level, even though the population only doubles. If on the other hand it’s per capita emissions remain constant then it’s population can increase by 16 times without the actual level of Kenyan emissions being greater in this scenario than in the more developed, lower-population scenario. The actual high-end estimate is that Kenya ends up with 220 million people by 2100 which means the population would only be about four and a half times its current level, so well below the 16x increase required for this option to have the same emissions as the lower population/higher per capita emissions scenario.

Of course this is a crude estimation and doesn't take into account the fact that better technology should hopefully lower carbon emissions across the board. But even these back-of-the-envelope calculations show that if carbon emissions were your only standard then it’s better for Kenya to be fecund and poor than barren and rich. The colonial overtones of this section have probably already gotten me in trouble. But I wanted to illustrate some of the competing priorities that come into play when you talk about this issue. And this is part of what I was aiming for in my post on global warming. That there are a variety of complex situations facing us in the future and they’re all interconnected. But despite all of the complexities. Everyone agrees that population growth is bad. And that while implementing repressive programs to curb the population, like China’s one-child policy (which I mentioned earlier) are also bad. That, if people, naturally, and of their own choice, start having fewer children that’s great.

But does everyone truly believe this? Or are there some people who actually believe that population growth is good?

I think there is such a group. A group that speaks frequently about the importance of having children. A group that further might even use the word “multiply”, when speaking of child-bearing, as in the phrase multiply and replenish the earth. And while I am loath to speak on their behalf, I don’t think I’m stretching things to claim that they strongly support bringing more children into the world. (Though they get hung up on wanting to make sure these children have two parents who are married.) If you haven't already guessed I’m talking about the leadership of the LDS Church.

If you do a search on this topic on you’ll find that there are numerous talks which reemphasis, what is often called, the first commandment. The command to multiply and replenish the earth. A commandment given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elder Boyd K. Packer gave particular emphasis to this commandment in the last talk he gave before his death:

The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth has never been rescinded. It is essential to the plan of redemption and is the source of human happiness. Through the righteous exercise of this power, we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fulness of joy, even godhood. The power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it is the plan of happiness; it is the key to happiness.

A very similar phrase is found in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. So, as I said, I don’t feel like I’m stretching anything to call this the official position of the Church.

Interestingly as I was going through the talks I came across one given by Elder Joseph W. Sitati titled Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Subdue the Earth. Elder Sitati is from Kenya, which is the reason I used Kenya in my example above. Whatever colonial overtones may be present in my discussion of these issues, I hope you’ll agree that he suffers from no such handicap.

Now does all this mean that the leaders of the Church are advocating for unchecked population growth? What might essentially be called “the more the merrier philosophy”? I don’t think so, though I did find a quote from Elder Dallin H. Oaks where he said, back in 1993, that you should have as many children as you can care for. That aside I don’t think LDS Leaders are pushing to have as many people as possible. I think rather that they understand that not wanting to have children is a sign of an unhealthy society.

What do I mean by this? Well as usual the answer can be found in that greatest of all American movies, Tommy Boy. At one point in the movie the advisers are urging Tommy’s father (played by Brian Dennehy) to wait it out, and he tells them that he can’t because, “In auto parts, you’re either growing or you’re dying. There ain’t no third direction.” As it is in auto parts so it is with humanity. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there ain’t no third direction. Perhaps you think I’m being flippant, but let’s take a moment and break it down.

As we have seen it’s fairly easy to have a growing population. Such has been the case for all of human history up until a few years ago, and is still the case in much of the world. Apparently it’s also fairly straightforward to get to a level of progress and development where your population falls. In fact, it’s alarmingly straightforward. There doesn’t appear to be any special trick or policy, nor do you have to be especially advanced. Countries from Azerbaijan to Brazil have below replacement fertility. Even though one’s a post-soviet, 98% Muslim, central European country of 10 million people and the other is a religiously and ethnically diverse, Latin American country of 210 million people. Evidently we’ve mastered growing and dying, but what about the holding steady. Is there a number of people such that when we reach it we’ll just start having kids at exactly the replacement rate?

I don’t know that there is. Certainly countries who are experiencing a declining population and below replacement level fertility rates have tried various policies to encourage people to have more kids but these policies have largely been ineffective. The most extreme example of falling birth rates is Singapore which has a total fertility rate of 0.82. (Replacement rate is currently 2.1.) They have tried a number of policies aimed at increasing their birthrate including sponsoring a National Night party in which Singaporean couples were euphemistically encouraged to “let their patriotism explode” in order to give their country “the population spurt it so desperately needs.” (The party was sponsored by Mentos: the Freshmaker!)

Some of these tactics have been modestly successful, but none have come even close to raising fertility to the point where the population would be stable. And as you can imagine going from 0.82 to 2.1 is going to be very, very difficult, and involve huge societal changes in everything from marriage, to work, to the underlying culture. If Singapore is the future (and many people think that it is) then the challenge humanity faces is not that of bumping a 1.9 total fertility rate up a few points to 2.1, it’s a matter of taking a world that “naturally” wants to be at 0.82 (or even lower) and then somehow figuring out how to increase that by two and half times.

To return back to the LDS leadership, they encourage people to have children because they want society to be healthy, and a society that stops having children is unhealthy because it’s dying, and by definition that’s unhealthy. As I said above, I’m generally loathe to speak for the Church and it’s leadership, but I’m certain they think that poverty and starvation are bad. And insofar as those follow from overpopulation I imagine that they think that overpopulation is bad too, but there are lots of people who are worried about that. It’s well covered territory, even now, when fertility is falling. What isn’t being talked about is the myopia and selfishness present in a society that has stopped having kids. Perhaps that accusation seems unfair, but I don’t think that it is.

The accusation of myopia, interestingly enough, relates back to last week’s post. For those that need a reminder, I talked about human happiness deriving from being part of a community of sufferers. Beyond the obvious jokes about children causing suffering to their parents, traditionally this suffering has centered around raising and providing for a family. We suffered because we wanted a brighter future, and without children there was no future. These days the future seems pretty well taken care of, and suffering has largely been eliminated (at least in those countries with low birth rates.) Thus there’s no need to worry about the future, and certainly no need to undergo any suffering for it.

As far as selfishness, in countries with a below replacement level fertility, what have people traded their children for? I understand that childless adults get to travel more. I hear from my friends who are childless that they’re able to play more video games. Not having children obviously increases your disposable income and it also unquestionably increases your discretionary time. Both the additional money and the additional time can be used by individuals to pursue personal fulfillment. How is all of this not selfish? I understand that I am simplifying things enormously, but I also think that being selfish is more clear-cut than many people want to admit.

Returning to overpopulation, I am not blind to the potential problems, but neither am I convinced that a society which is still growing is less healthy that one that is atrophying. The more I dig in and discuss these issues the more convinced I am that there are some deep malignancies present in modern society. And that in our pursuit of material comfort that we have profoundly damaged our souls.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved...

I mentioned that kids are expensive, well I have four, so consider donating. And if you don’t have any kids, and this post upset you, you should also consider donating, I mean think of all the money you’ve saved.


  1. I've often wondered if the danger of overpopulation is over because I read so much about declining birth rates. I like the concept of if you're not growing your dying and the link into personal selfishness. I think that's true - most people seem to skip the joy of being a parent because they see it as limiting their choices. I agree selfishness is simpler than people think...

    1. Yeah, as I thought about it, it seemed kind of absurd that there would be a day when we just magically maintained the population we wanted. But I should have known. All wisdom exists in Tommy Boy if you just look hard enough.

  2. Enjoyed the post, definitely the question of overpopulation is more complicated than what one might first imagine. Predictions of overpopulation and the resulting problems are numerous as you point out, and often overshadow the demographic decline that is occurring in many developed nations. I think the actual situation is more complicated than a binary choice of one or the other (overpopulation or population decline). We're likely to see both happen at the same time and in fact we are already seeing that happen. Underdeveloped countries continue to experience unsustainable population increase and all the problems that go with it (political instability/violence, famine disease, etc.), while developed countries are starting to see the instabilities caused by demographic decline (financial collapse, restless immigrant population, etc.). I don't know what the end result will be, but I don't think it will turn out well for civilization as a whole. With richer countries shrinking and poorer countries bursting at the seems, the status quo is unsustainable. As they say nature abhors a vacuum. The default solution is immigration, but there are obvious problems with that. The first is finding the right amount of immigration, too little immigration and the country collapses from a shrinking labor pool, too much immigration and at best the country survives but is subsumed by the immigrant culture. As you pointed out in your post on immigration, large scale immigration to America wasn't such a great thing for the Native Americans. The second problem is all the challenges of integrating a poor immigrant community, the cultural and language barriers that inevitably lead to tension and political unrest. At best you end up with a new underclass seething with resentment, but more likely you end with the kind of political instability that brings down governments. I think Europe (and the whole developed world) is in the precarious position of a man dying from thirst whose only option is to drink from a large waterfall, the water that sustains him is just as likely to sweep him away, drown him or give him dysentery.

    1. I definitely take your point that it's oversimplifying things to model the entire world population as either growing or dying, but I think within individual countries and cultures it's more accurate, that we don't have an example of a developed country that has somehow struck the ideal balance between the two. As you say immigration is one of the key factors and for all intents and purposes it's the course Europe especially has been pursuing, and as is becoming clear (and as you point out) it's proving to be a very rocky road.

      I do like the metaphor of the man drowning of thirst, though I think you may summon the thought police with the addition of dysentery into the example... ;)

  3. Yeah.. I probably should have left that out. I tend to push my allegories a bit too far. Immigration is a sensitive issue and I wasn't trying to argue that immigrants bring actual diseases into the country. I was really trying to allude to more of the political destabilization of immigration something that slowly weakens a country by eating away at the social bonds that hold communities and even nations together. It's easy to blame the problems on people being bigoted or just not welcoming enough to immigrants, but even if that's true it doesn't erase the fact that there will be tensions and a fraying of social trust. If the change is slow enough it's probably manageable but I think the current refugee crisis has shown that too much leads to social breakdown. So far it's mostly been a schism between urban and rural but that may be just the start, especially as this is likely just the beginning of the flow of people.

    1. The post I'm currently working on goes a little bit into this. For example the idea that the current schism seems unhealable. One of the things I need to learn more about is how it all ended the last time around with the radicalism in the late 60's early 70's. I guess the combination of ending things in Vietnam and the impeachment of Nixon ended things? But that seems too simple. Still as you point out, this time around having a huge immigrant population on top of everything else creates a dynamic that didn't exist back then.