Contrary to Certain Claims, Decreasing Population is Not the Big Problem


Claims that population reduction, and not population growth, is our biggest problem are misleading, and only true if one ignores other trends.  I have run across several articles recently making the point that population reduction, seen in the most developed countries, is the real problem that deserves our attention, and that even in the developing countries birthrates are dropping.  In at least one of the articles it was implied that a falling birthrate, and inevitably falling population, is a problem for business.  Is this really a problem we need to address?

Populations are too high to sustain, and a decline is inevitable whether we like it or not.  I recently read the observation that the very fact that the United States is importing more than half of the fuel it needs is evidence of overpopulation.  I submit that, when our prospects for resource exhaustion, climate change, and pollution are taken into account, a population reduction would be a good thing.  I admit that it will impose a significant paradigm shift for business, but I see that as inevitable.  Our world is finite in every respect, and we need to manage what we have (or have left) with the longest term outlook possible.

It is true that populations in the most wealthy countries are stable or declining.  While immigration (including illegal immigration) is bolstering the populations of many of the top twenty countries in per capita income, the natural birthrate is insufficient to maintain the current population, and this is causing concern.  Still, if one looks around in these countries, they are already overpopulated, with urban crowding, suburban sprawl, and increasingly tenuous infrastructures dependent on incredible inflows of fossil fuel-derived energy.  While a reduction in population poses issues of adjustment to business, saying this is a significant problem is like justifying draconian legal systems (such as drug prohibition) as supporting jobs for prison guards and police.  The logic ignores the total cost to society.

Some countries are foolishly working to increase their birthrates.  Russia and Australia are notable examples of countries with declining populations who are actively trying to increase their birthrates.  This will end eventually, however, as energy and resulting food shortages decrease the quality of life for existing populations and reveal such policies to be foolhardy.

Inevitable mass migrations will solve labor shortages in most developed countries.  I understand the concern some may have for decreasing populations, but, as energy and food shortages combine with burgeoning third world populations, there will be millions looking for somewhere to go where they can find work and support their families.  I don’t think mass migrations can be prevented.  I also believe the cost of attempting to do prevent immigration in the face of mass migrations will become prohibitive, and while border patrols and anti-immigration policies will be employed in many countries, they will ultimately fail.  Meanwhile, there will be an increasing supply of immigration-fed inexpensive labor to fuel economic activity, answering the concerns of those worrying about decreasing populations.  Certainly there will be cultural changes and political battles involved, but the world will continue to change until sustainability is reached.  In the meantime it is in everyone’s interest to find the best path in that direction, however long it may take.  A decreasing population is possibly the least of our concerns.

interesting reading:
Negative Population Growth, Oct. 6, 2007, Matt Rosenberg, About.com
Population Decline, wikipedia, last modified May 21, 2008

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6 responses to “Contrary to Certain Claims, Decreasing Population is Not the Big Problem

  1. Claims that population reduction, and not population growth, is our biggest problem are misleading, and only true if one ignores other trends. 

    Why not address it. Essentially we are having a rapid increase in the ratio of elderly in society. Society is going to have to figure out how to deal with that or avoid the problem to avoid the effects of the ratio change.

    Populations are too high to sustain, and a decline is inevitable whether we like it or not. 

    Who says that the population is too high to sustain. Last I heard the Earth can support up to 40 billion people. Current predictions say the human race will reach 9-11 and then level off. This isn’t even half of the amount the planet can sustain. As for the US importing energy, I couldn’t agree that this is a problem more. However, this isn’t due to overpopulation, its due to the sources of energy we choose. A sound economist could argue that the the US could export agricultural goods (which we have a net surplus of) in exchange for energy but that doesn’t factor in environment damage from taking buried carbon and putting it in the air. But that problem again relates to the type of energy source we use, not the number of people.
     

    Who says the suburbs are due to overpopulation? The size of homes has been increasing for the last half a century. Suburbs are simply the result of everyone who could afford it deciding that they want a bigger house, with a bigger lawn, and their neighbors far enough that they are sometimes socially isolated. It doesn’t require a large number of people for a someone who can afford a mini-mansion (or a full sized version for that matter) to purchase one. In addition to sprawl this creates we are building suburbs on farmland, if there was an overpopulation problem there would be a food shortage and this land would be too important to do this to. Not a sign of overpopulation.

    Some countries are foolishly working to increase their birthrates.

    They have very real reasons for doing so. Russia, which you mentioned, has vast tracts of unsettled or lightly populated lands. It also has a border with China that man someday look to annex than that. One way a nation solidifies a claim to a piece of land is to colonize it. If large regions of land on the border of another state are unsettled that makes it easier for the second state to move its own colonists or military into that land and seize it outright. This is an issue that Russia likely feels relates to its national security. Its also illogical to attempt to argue that a sparsely populated area is somehow overpopulated.

    Inevitable mass migrations will solve labor shortages in most developed countries.

    There are a few issues with this. I have nothing against immigrants but mass migrations aren’t inevitable and are caused by problems in a given area, frequently little in the way of an economic future (joblessness or low pay, which is sometimes increased or decreased depending on what a nation does). A labor shortage in a nation directly implies that there is a shortage of people, not overpopulation. In addition it still doesn’t deal with the environmental problems caused by the fact that developed nations both consume and pollute a great deal (the direct cause of global warming is more the US than Bangladesh). Environmental damage in developed nations don’t relate to population levels but do relate (directly) to the vast numbers of machines, electronics, and the multitude of other toys that developed states (and the people who live in the regardless of how many or few) choose to have without regard to the environmental effects. The number of coal power plants in developed and rapidly developing nations (such as in China) has been increasing at a rate far faster than population growth meaning there is not a strong correlation (if any) between the two. But I would be very interested in seeing if the ratio of electronic devices to power plants has changed.

  2. I should have looked over my typing for typos. Sorry about that, though my points on each issue are still valid and worth noting.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Nathaniel.

    As regards the baby boom generation growing old, it will be interesting to see if increased longevity results in a problem, or if the standard deviation of lifespans is broad enough to spread out the elder care issue. I confess to not having that information. (I hope to be in the middle of it. ;-)
    I do wonder what you mean by “avoid the problem” … soylent green??

    When I say populations are too high to sustain, I am taking a very long view. Suburbs and sprawl are evidence of inefficiency, waste, and a lack of long range planning, it is true, but that is still part of the problem. Even in the United States, the current population is supported at a huge cost in energy resources, and those resources are going to be used up in the next century or less. At that point, in absence of major changes or advances in technology, food will become scarce, and sustaining our huge city populations will become a serious problem.

    There are multiple aspects to the world population capacity. I don’t know where you got the 40 billion figure. I’ve been studying available sources for years and haven’t seen a scientifically-substantiated number like that anywhere. About 8 years ago I saw a synopsis of a multi-disciplinary study that suggested the earth can produce enough food for about 7.5 billion people. While improved technology may have increased that somewhat since then, we still rely heavily on fossil fuel, which will become increasingly scarce over the coming decades, not to mention the pollution penalty for continuing to use it as rapidly as we currently do.

    The real collision is between population and energy supplies. Per capita energy consumption is increasing at an incredible rate in the developing countries, and everyone wants to live like North American residents. Reports I’ve seen say this just can’t happen – there aren’t enough natural resources to do that for the people we have now, let alone 40 billion.

    I’m not arguing that any sparsely-populated area is overpopulated, but that our situation and future prospects require a global perspective if we are to avoid much tougher times. I do understand why various groups want to increase their numbers, but the reasons are nationalistic, selfish, and without global perspective. In the end, they are not doing themselves or their descendants any favors.

    I don’t agree with your assertion that mass migrations aren’t inevitable. Population movement is already going on, mostly South-to-North, on both sides of the Atlantic, and it can be expected to continue to increase until standards of living (availability of work, etc.) where the migrants came from are better than at their destinations. With globalization and rising energy costs reducing the standard of living in North America, that may come about sooner than we expect.

    I recognize that there are labor shortages in the developed countries, but they exist at the lowest wage levels, and costs of living make them attractive mostly to the poor of the underdeveloped countries, thus driving immigration.
    I don’t understand why you don’t see population as part of the environmental equation. Certainly energy use (and pollution generation) patterns are part of that equation, but if less people were using the same amounts of energy there would be less pollution, so population must be considered. While China’s population growth rate has been reduced the energy use per capita (the other part of the equation) is still growing rapidly, driving demand for power plants and increasing pollution.

    Hopefully we will see a new lifestyle paradigm emerge from the decline of standards of living in the developed countries as fossil fuels become scarcer, and with the rise of living standards in the developing world.

    Corporations will sub-optimize the situation for their own individual ends, and will not work positively for change without both long-range thinking and profit-related incentives. Governments will need to address pollution and energy shortages much more effectively and establish much longer-ranged plans. We all need to help our representatives understand that. Give yours a call or write them a letter or email. If we don’t tell them, they won’t know, and will remain focused on the next election.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. You’re welcome and I’m glad you noted them.

    As regards the baby boom generation growing old, it will be interesting to see if increased longevity results in a problem, or if the standard deviation of lifespans is broad enough to spread out the elder care issue.

    Actually the solution I thought of would be nations encouraging more youth in order to maintain a higher ration of young people old. I hadn’t thought of soylent green but so long as many aspects of humanitarianism is out the window I guess labor camps could be used too.

    When I say populations are too high to sustain, I am taking a very long view.

    How are waste and inefficiency not part of the long view? You said that “even in” the US we have a huge cost in energy resources. I would say “especially” rather than even in. The US is perhaps the worst waster, energy user, and consumer in the world. To say “even” makes it sound like we are somehow better than average when we are among the worst of the worst in reality. One of the notable things about many other nations is that they support populations with far less energy use per person. Before looking at population as the problem I would encourage examining waste, especially when we live in a nation where it (in comparison to elsewhere) is massive.

    There are multiple aspects to the world population capacity. I don’t know where you got the 40 billion figure

    I actually got it from Bill Nye on a show where he promoted population control. His statement was that we could support that many people but we would all be eating gruel. One of the things that put me off during the show was the comment that everyone could live like an American if the population was limited to (I think) 2-3 billion according to the show. Considering the massive waste I just referred to I took that as getting rid of (killing) alot of people in order to keep driving SUVs, not a good trade nor one truly made for the sake of the environment. I do know that I came across someone who referred to UN stats to argue for a 30 billion top capacity for the earth, still a higher number than current projections say the current would population will level off at. I’ll keep looking for that commentary because I think his sources had a link (I should have kept better track of it).

    The real collision is between population and energy supplies. Per capita energy consumption is increasing at an incredible rate in the developing countries, and everyone wants to live like North American residents.

    That is a strong reason for why US residents should cut back on consumption and energy use and the rest of the world shouldn’t try to reach current levels. Not population control. In addition it and pollution are strong reasons for us to look for alternative energy in addition to cutting back-something the US appears to have been doing in only a lackluster manner. I’ve heard it stated that the US could move 2/3rds of its energy generation to renewable resources for half of what it costs for us to be in Iraq (a war others may say occurred, in part, due to energy demands).

    I’m not arguing that any sparsely-populated area is overpopulated, but that our situation and future prospects require a global perspective if we are to avoid much tougher times.

    That is what Russia has alot of though. Population limitation is only a global goal if you assume that is the only way to preserve the ecosystem and humanity-not a manner everyone agrees on. Also looking from 2 different (and possibly contrary) perspectives it is understandable if a nation tries to look after its interests (though sometimes in attempting to do so it is also overaggressive and counterproductive, but the goal they have is understandable). From the other point of view China, I’ve heard, used population control in order to assist in preserving the current authoritarian (in political terms) government. It does so by allowing more benefits to be allocated to city rather than rural residents, then allowing rural residents to have more children (2 rather than the urban 1) in order to create a constant drift toward the cities. The ability to have legal status inside the city is then used as a form of social control-it may be changing but this was part of a process of not allowing (recognized) freedom of movement for its citizens. In a strange could relate to an internal illegal immigration system (compared to US and Mexico of today).

    I don’t agree with your assertion that mass migrations aren’t inevitable.

    After a certain situation arises you frequently correct. However, the manner and series of events that occur prior to a mass migration can be affected by what is done to either promote or prevent migration. One of the surprising socio-political reasons S. Korea may want to invest in and develop certain places in N. Korea is for those points to serve as more localized migration destinations in the case of a N. Korean governmental collapse-the result of which may be a sudden movement from North to South (in relation to the Koreas). Most of the migration you refer to relates to economic reasons, and economics (by either accident or design) is frequently shaped by human hands/goals and thus can be manipulated/modified.

    I recognize that there are labor shortages in the developed countries, but they exist at the lowest wage levels, and costs of living make them attractive mostly to the poor of the underdeveloped countries, thus driving immigration.

    That still is an increase in the demand for some type of labor.

    I don’t understand why you don’t see population as part of the environmental equation.

    I see the equation as having two flaws. First, it is too focused on indirect rather than direct reasons for pollution. I would argue there is a direct relationship between the number of coal power plants and the amount of coal used, cars and gasoline used, factories and industrial exhausts. There is not a direct relationship between the number of people and the number of coal power plants, cars, and so on. As the equation does no direct dealing with pollution sources they go unrecognized and efforts to lower pollution based on the equation would likely prove ineffective.

    In addition (and I apologize if I’m being too harsh now) the equation appears as if the person who first made it assumed humans where sources of pollution without ever looking to actual/direct sources of pollution-this could happen with a bias towards population control and it essentially becoming a solution in search of a problem.

    The second problem I have with the equation promotes the idea we could just have “less people were using the same amounts of energy”. One of the things many parts of the world are indicating today is that people are capable of and willing to use greater amounts of energy-like in China. If you use Solow’s economic model increased energy use could even be promoted by limiting population growth. This a slightly altered version I came across in macroeconomics stated that the growth rate of capital per worker (and thus real GDP per worker) = savings * output per unit of capital – savings * depreciation – the population growth rate. (For a reference this was in pages 55-62 of the most recent edition of Macroeconomics: A Modern Approach by Barro, Robert J. and published under the Thomson Corporation, otherwise variations of the formula can be found online). Thus lowering the population growth rate allows/encourages savings to be put towards investment in new capital machinery (something that includes new factories and power plants). The reason population growth is factored in as a negative is because those savings for investment would have been spent on caring for, paying, and educating the next generation. Thus there is the possibility that some direct sources of pollution could end up being encouraged by population limitation.

    Hopefully we will see a new lifestyle paradigm emerge from the decline of standards of living in the developed countries as fossil fuels become scarcer, and with the rise of living standards in the developing world.

    It would be a great thing if the new lifestyle paradigms were both ecologically sustainable and more equal across the world. Though two worries of mine would be if higher worldwide development levels end up consuming and polluting at incredible and higher rates, and if by the time energy resources are scarce enough (notably fossil fuels) the amount of ecological damage done and in terms of global warming would be a good deal more severe than they are now. I don’t want to be too pessimistic the face of such a good possibility so here’s to hope.

    Governments will need to address pollution and energy shortages much more effectively and establish much longer-ranged plans.

    I think we have deep levels of agreement that last point.

    Thank you for your quick reply.

  5. Thanks again, Nathaniel. You make some interesting points (though it’s hard to respond effectively to such a long post). I think we agree on most of this. I never disagreed that per capita energy use and pollution aren’t a big variable in the situation, and totally agree that a new paradigm around personal energy use will develop – is developing – as fossil fuel costs rise at an increasing rate (without substitutes available in sufficient volume to be of help).

    There’s also no question that there will be big differences between regions as far as government policies, energy use, pollution generation, and population changes. I do think that eventually, within a century or two, a lot of the differences will be reduced and the global situation will become more and more … global. It will be interesting to see how well people get along as the realization sinks in that we are all in this together on “lifeboat earth”.
    Tnx agn – Tim

  6. Population is a huge problem the world is facing. It should be at the top of the list off issues to take care of and it is currently not being taken care of. the worlds population problem stems off into many other problems. people are having alot of kids, these kids are for the most part reaching adult hood and the majority of the time they reach their elder years in life. If population is not addressed it will just lead to more job loss, less land, less recources and a steady decrease in overall quality of life for the planet and everything on it. The earth is not growing our population is. even if we are only half way to the planets “max capacity” It will not take long before we reach the max capacity and double it at the rate populations climbing.

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