News Analysis by Kip Hansen – 25 May 2021

The headlines are stark and worrisome and the rhetoric even more so:

“Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications“

“Fewer babies’ cries. More abandoned homes. Toward the middle of this century, as deaths start to exceed births, changes will come that are hard to fathom.”  “All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.”

So begins a recent article in the New York Times written by Damien Cave, Emma Bubola and Choe Sang-Hun. 

The article goes on to state “Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.”

Wow!  It’s only been fifty years since:

The Population Bomb … a best-selling book written by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich (who was uncredited), in 1968. It predicted worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth. Fears of a “population explosion” existed in the 1950s and 1960s, but the book and its author brought the idea to an even wider audience.”

Most of us lived through the 1970s and the 1980s and there was no worldwide famine.  Instead, the world prospered and the West and most of Asia grew rich and human life expectancy continued to rise:

The longest record is from the UK, the world trace (brown) has been highlighted.  It is this trend that has the demographers worried.  People are living longer everywhere. 

And people worldwide are having fewer children:

In the map below,  in many places — all the countries that are shown as light yellow — are below what is known as the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per family.  Yet, there are still parts of the world with rapid population growth:

Those countries colored the first shade of orange (2-2.5) have very slightly more births than deaths, which would include most of Latin America and southern Asia (including India, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and much of Southeast Asia).  The Middle East is a hot spot for population growth and almost all of Africa still has high to very high birth rates. 

Here is the chart once more, with those countries with VERY LOW birth rates re-colored blue:

That one country with very low birth rates in SE Asia is Thailand.

So what’s the big deal?  We’ve had censuses in both the United States and China – both “world powers”.  Here’s China:

While China’s population is still growing – having reached nearly 1.5 Billion – the growth rate has been dropping and is now less than 0.5% per year.  At the same time, its population is aging.  “A decline in the birth rate and an increase in life expectancy means there will soon be too few workers able to support an enormous and aging population, the academy [Chinese Academy of Social Sciences]  warned.” [ source ]

And in the United States:

The press declared:

U.S. Population Over Last Decade Grew at Slowest Rate Since 1930s

With immigration leveling off and a declining birthrate, the United States may be entering an era of substantially lower population growth, demographers said. . . . . a remarkable slackening that was driven by a slowdown in immigration and a declining birthrate.”

Why are demographers worried?  It is because they are making the same mistake that Paul and Anne Ehrlich made in the 1968:

“The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.”  [ source – repeating the NY Times link ]

Funnily enough, the link in the article shows no such exponential spiral:

[ for larger image in a new window click here ]

The different colors refer to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – and how population projections will change as these goals are met – or not.  Regardless of the SDGs, there was no spiral of exponential growth and no spiral decline, just a steady increase or decrease.  The thicker blue trace is the expected population path if we continue as we are going now – “business as usual” — with improvements in female education and contraception needs being met – again, with no exponential decrease – no death spiral of decline.

The NY Times journalists exhibit a decided lack of mathematical understanding when they use the term “decline … spirals exponentially”.

Exponential growth (or decline – flip vertically) looks like the green trace below:

 The repeated mis-use of the fear-inducing “exponential” – which has been attached to every possible future disaster scenario — has led to a very loose popular definition which just seems to mean “big” — both with increases and decreases. 

Yet, in the United States, there is this: The Federal government will pay people to have babies – sort of. 

Looking back at the NY Times article, the authors state:

“The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old. It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older. Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.”

Why a decline in population might require a “reconceptualization of family” escapes me — and I am used to these kinds of crazy rhetorical whims of fancy — and I can not even imagine what he authors might mean by that.

Let me point out that the use of the term “fertility” in all of this does not refer to the ability of any one man to impregnate any one woman – or the ability of any one woman to bear a child.    That’s how we use the word “fertility” in everyday English – when we use the term  “Fertility Clinic” – a medical establishment which helps men and women who are having trouble conceiving a child to do so.  In demographics, fertility means the number of children actually being born to each woman of child-bearing age (statistically).  It has nothing whatever to do with the women’s individual ability to conceive children.  Fertility thus can be altered by the increasing the availability of contraceptives in a society in which women would prefer to have fewer children or increasing access to abortion.  Fertility has been shown over time to be related to Standard of Living – as a nation’s Standard of Living improves, birth rate (fertility) falls.

The well-developed nations of the world have less-than-replacement-level birth rates.  The still-developing nations have high birth-rates.  Hidden (or, maybe not-so-hidden) in this story of concern is the specter of racism – not just white-black-brown racism, but anti-immigrant racism both in the East and in the West.  As the home-grown population ages and declines in the US, Europe, Korea and Japan, the need for young workers to take the entry-level jobs needed to keep society running often requires that “foreign workers” be imported – and those workers are not “us” but rather “them”. 

In the United States, for example, thousands upon thousands of immigrant laborers —  both those arriving through approved, legal, channels and those illegally entering the country across porous borders — cook, clean, do yard care and landscaping, build houses, butcher chickens and pigs in slaughter-houses and harvest America’s crops – in every part of the country.  Managers in almost all industries now need to speak Spanish if they are in positions which supervise laborers.  I have shopped in a WalMart in which I had trouble finding a floor  employee that spoke English.  Over time, if our society resolves its identity-politics stance, these Spanish-language speakers will become just “my next-door neighbors, the Sanchez’s”.  (I grew up in such a neighborhood in 1950’s Los Angeles – and could swear in Spanish before I could do so in English.)

It is odd to hear misanthropic progressive voices now begin to complain about low birth-rates after decades of denigrating the nuclear family and pushing contraception and abortion to fight “runaway population growth”.  

Bottom Line:

There are reasonable concerns about populations falling below the replacement rate, just as there were (and still are) reasonable concerns about populations with unsustainable population growth in nations without the resources to support such large populations. . 

Neither population growth nor decline, however, is a looming disaster.

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Author’s Comment:

My wife and I have four children, all long grown-up and out on their own.  We consider children both as an integral part of our 50-year relationship and a blessing – to us and the world.  We have two grandchildren so far and are ever so grateful for them – and hope for more. 

Societies instituting anti-family policies are mis-guided in so many ways and will reap the eventual consequences. 

What the world does not need is another hopped up scare – though maybe the de-population meme will encourage couples to bring children into the world. 

Address comments to “Kip. . .” if speaking to me.

Thanks for reading.

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May 25, 2021