The Birth Dearth

We have all been educated to the idea of a “population bomb,” the idea that the natural order which supports the human race will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. Rising populations will cause shortages of food, water, land, and every other natural resource, leading to the collapse of the eco-systems which support human life itself. This idea has been regnant in the West since the publication of Thomas Malthus's An Essay on Population in 1798. In Malthus's model, man has an antagonistic relationship with the natural order, an order that is fragile and limited. In this model, man is a predator who consumes scarce resources until they disappear, which in turn causes the disappearance of man himself. Human population is therefore locked into a cycle of growth and collapse, with misery for the many, and happiness only for the very few. For Malthus, charity and wages above mere subsistence were a threat to the natural order. Instead of working to ameliorate poverty, the authorities should increase it and work to raise the mortality rates among the poor:

Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular diseases.

Malthus based his theory on a “predator-prey” relationship. Think of the relationship between chicken-hawks and chickens: the more of the one, the less of the other. A rise in the hawk population will lead to a decline of the chicken population, which in turn will mean less food for hawks, and a fall in their population, etc. The problem with this comparison of man and predators is that man is not a predator, but a cultivator; his relationship is entirely different. Because man eats chickens, there are more chickens than the natural order would ever produce by itself. And more cattle, corn, wheat, and everything else as well.

But one might object that chickens and corn are “renewable” resources, but that other things are not, things like oil and iron, and these things must deplete as the population advances. But this is not true either, or at least not necessarily true. Man can become a “predator” in regard to non-renewable resources, but he can also be a cultivator. Indeed, 98% of all metals ever mined are likely still recoverable and usable, while there is no need to have the least efficient transportation system imaginable. The problem is not the natural limits on these things, but false ideas of happiness and economics. As long as we place our hopes for happiness in things, rather than in people, there will never be enough resources to keep us happy. As Ghandi put it, “The earth produces enough for each man's needs, but not enough for even one man's avarice.” The real problem is not too many men, but too much injustice. When 20% of the people consume 80% of the resources, the problem lies with the 20, not the 80.

Does this mean that there is no “population problem”? There certainly is, but it is the opposite problem from what the latter-day Malthusians imagine it to be. It is not the population bomb, but the birth dearth. We are entering a period of aging populations across all cultures and nations. Birth rates have fallen far below replacement rates, and this fact will cause—indeed, is causing—more problems than even Malthus could have imagined. These problems are the subject of a new film, Demographic Winter, which documents the troubling numbers. As the film points, the growth in population is itself a statistical illusion. The population of children is actually shrinking; it is only the population of old geezers like myself that is advancing. “It is not,” as the film points out, “that people are breeding like rabbits, it is that they are no longer dying like flies.” While this causes a temporary rise in population, that situation is reversing itself with dramatic consequences.

The ecological movement has often embraced the Malthusian argument, and therefore has missed the real point. They have made “people” the enemy, rather than rampant consumerism. Although they point to a real problem, the miss the real cause, and hence have difficulty offering real solutions.

Demographics lay at the heart of every other analysis of the human economy, and if one wishes to understand our situation, one must understand demographics. It has never been the case that a declining population leads to greater prosperity. Indeed, the opposite is true: depopulation always leads to poverty and social chaos. “Children are the future,” we are fond of saying. But the obvious conclusion must be that without children, there is no future.


16 comments:

Leo Friday, April 11, 2008 at 3:00:00 PM CDT  

Thanks for pointing this out. Indeed, modern society has made people the enemy, especially children, employing savage methods, even, to ensure that the numbers are fewer, i.e. abortion and birth control. Not merely this, but the literal poisons which are included in the foods people buy, paint, "preservatives" and other chemicals that cause breakdowns in the biology of the individual; and what is worse, these things are welcomed by modern society because of the culture.

The Dan Ward Friday, April 11, 2008 at 7:10:00 PM CDT  

I love this blog. It's fantastic, enlightening and stimulating. I quote it and link to it from my own blog regularly - but probably not often enough.

I hope you get a million readers and people stop looking at me funny when I say I'm a distributist.

B. Y. Clark Monday, April 14, 2008 at 8:45:00 AM CDT  

I have long believed that the number of people is not our problem. The problem as you aptly point out is how the people on the planet consume what is here. A good part of the current food crisis is that millions of people are getting wealthier in the developing world (China and India in particular) and are demanding food products that are more resource intensive. It takes far more resources to get a pound of beef than an equivalent number of nutrients and calories from plant matter. I'm not saying we all need to go vegetarian (as I'm a happy omnivore) but our livestock industry is a huge drain on real food stocks. Not to mention the petroleum requirements and water requirements necessary for that beef or pork. And let's not forget the methane production as a result of livestock, which is a large contributor to global climate change.

John Médaille Monday, April 14, 2008 at 9:24:00 AM CDT  

@ B. Y. Clark, my understanding is that it takes 20 pounds of vegetable protein to make one pound of beef protein. But this is not actually the problem. Cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens are machines for turning low-quality, inedible proteins into high-quality, edible proteins; these animals turn grass and garbage into human food. However, when we feed them grainstocks that are already human food, we decrease rather then increase the supply of food.

One need not be a vegetarian to address the problem; rather one must insist that cattle not compete with humans for the same food.

B. Y. Clark Monday, April 14, 2008 at 2:17:00 PM CDT  

You are right... livestock can be good, but most of the ones we eat in the US are grain fed, not grass fed, and thus we have a problem. And this trend is spreading as the demand for beef and other meats increase. I cannot see this problem going away any time soon.

P.M.Lawrence Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 3:58:00 AM CDT  

"In Malthus's model, man has an antagonistic relationship with the natural order, an order that is fragile and limited. In this model, man is a predator who consumes scarce resources until they disappear, which in turn causes the disappearance of man himself."

That isn't actually Malthus's model, you know. He fully understood the idea of sustainable and renewable resources, and the idea that ever more and more resources could be brought into play. What he argued was that, without "checks" like misery and vice, population would tend to increase at a greater rate than the resource base until eventually the checks cut in. As an Anglican clergyman of that era, he would have counted birth control under the heading of vice, so one really can't argue that his model isn't operating. All the same, it does help not to reinforce a common error by inadvertently repeating distortions of his views.

John Médaille Monday, April 28, 2008 at 9:44:00 AM CDT  

@ P.M. Lawrence: I stand by my description of Malthus. And to speak of Malthus's "understanding of renewable resources" is simply to project modern concepts onto antique figures; it is the essence of "whig history": re-writing the past to support whatever ideology you happen to support.

Population dynamics work exactly the opposite of the way Malthus thought they did. For example, the poor have more children rather than fewer; prosperity is the greatest factor in birth control. Further, small and elite populations tend to be more environmentally destructive than large ones. Our environmental problems do not trace to too many people, but to too many Americans and Europeans consuming beyond there needs and wasting more than the environment can sustain.

P.M.Lawrence Monday, April 28, 2008 at 11:54:00 PM CDT  

I mean no disrespect, JM, but things are not as you suppose. For instance:-

- Speaking of Malthus's "understanding of renewable resources" is not simply to project modern concepts onto antique figures; it is using modern descriptions and terminology, much as you did yourself.

- '[T]he essence of "whig history": re-writing the past to support whatever ideology you happen to support'; that is indeed that school of history, but not what I was doing. I am sorry if it resembled that in your eyes; can we agree to look at what was really there rather than be left with an association of ideas?

- Population dynamics work precisely the way Malthus thought they did; only, that is not what you think his views were. For example, the poor have more children rather than fewer, just as he supposed - and, unless their poverty is relieved, at some point they have greater child mortality and so on ("misery", in his terminology).

- It is not true that prosperity is the greatest factor in birth control, unless you admit artificial methods of birth control into the discussion. Doing that is just precisely what you accused me of, projecting today's values onto the past. As I already pointed out, Malthus was bound to have bracketed artificial methods of birth control under the heading "vice".

- "Further, small and elite populations tend to be more environmentally destructive than large ones. Our environmental problems do not trace to too many people, but to too many Americans and Europeans consuming beyond there needs and wasting more than the environment can sustain." True but irrelevant, if you are attacking Malthus's argument, just as when an alcoholic dies in a car accident, that is no proof that alcohol was not doing damage to him - only that something else got to him first.

Fundamentally, it is hard to disprove Malthus's arguments because they have few falsifiable predictions. There are some, but they haven't been tested by current problems. Why not google for Malthus's work? I believe Project Gutenberg has it as an etext.

John Médaille Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:50:00 AM CDT  

All of Malthus's predictions have been falsified; not one stands. And this was true even in Malthus's day. For example, population growth from 1820 to 1870 was 0.79%/year, but per capita income growth was 1.26%/year, an effect contrary to the predictions of the theory.

In Malthus's theory, rising population should depress wages, which in turn depresses births. But this is not at all how it works. In fact, the opposite is true, and demonstrably true. Nor is chemical birth control entirely responsible for this effect, since it was true even in Malthus's day, when the rich had fewer children than the poor, an effect contrary to the theory.

The persistence of this theory contrary to every single observable fact of demographics is one of the strangest phenomena in intellectual history. It can only be attributed to prejudice and ideology.

P.M.Lawrence Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 7:33:00 PM CDT  

"All of Malthus's predictions have been falsified; not one stands". Please read his material. It is available here.

"And this was true even in Malthus's day. For example, population growth from 1820 to 1870 was 0.79%/year, but per capita income growth was 1.26%/year, an effect contrary to the predictions of the theory." This is a misreading of his theory. On that reading, population could never grow in the first place! He contended that there was a limit of a dynamic sort, that could be pushed back indefinitely and was merely looming in his day but which would eventually cause problems, that he feared was close. Finding out that it was not as close as he feared did not falsify his theory.

"In Malthus's theory, rising population should depress wages, which in turn depresses births" - that is plain wrong. The mechanisms he described would have worked through mortality ("misery") or birth rates ("vice"). And "wages" should be understood in terms of being relative to "acceptable levels of comfort", too; it's possible for this to fall even while the real wage is still rising.

"In fact, the opposite is true, and demonstrably true" - yet I see no demonstration.

"Nor is chemical birth control entirely responsible for this effect, since it was true even in Malthus's day, when the rich had fewer children than the poor, an effect contrary to the theory" - no, it is not contrary to the theory. Malthus fully recognised the effects of later marriages, differing standards of comfort and - as I have already pointed out - how differing mortality rates would eventually cut in. That would only be a valid objection if Malthus had claimed that the problems had already hit and there was no slack left.

"The persistence of this theory contrary to every single observable fact of demographics is one of the strangest phenomena in intellectual history. It can only be attributed to prejudice and ideology." Please bear in mind, it persists at the level I have been presenting it - as an open question that has not been resolved one way or the other empirically, has not been countered on theoretical grounds, and has revealed no internal inconsistency. To me it appears remarkable that so many are willing to reject it without reading it and indeed on the back of distorted versions of it - which they then perpetuate. The concept of "vincible ignorance" comes to mind.

If I get the chance, I will find specific material of Malthus's and post it in rebuttal of specific points.

John Médaille Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:17:00 PM CDT  

@ Lawrence: You are wrong about what Malthus's theory says, and if you were right the theory would be even more wrong. That is, if you are trying to change it from a theory about fluctuations in population to a theory of fluctuations in "misery" and "happiness," there is even less evidence to support the theory. Further, the theory would no longer be falsifiable, since there is no measurable standard of happiness and misery.

There simply is no evidence that crowded Hong Kong is more miserable than spacious Hunan; that the thin population of West Virginia leads to more happiness than the thick population of New Jersey.

And yes, Malthus did claim that the effects of his theory were already taking place in his own day, and this in a rather amusing way. In the first edition of his Essay, he claimed that the falling population of England was irrefutable proof of his theory. When it was pointed out that the population was, in fact, rising, he put in his second edition that this was irrefutable proof of his theory.

In fact, there are no proofs of his theory, and all events, without exception, since its publication have refuted it. You claimed I gave you no demonstration, even though I cited the statistics from Malthus's own day. I don't know what else to do but use the numbers. And there are no numbers on Malthus's side of this debate. If you know of some, please cite them.

P.M.Lawrence Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 2:00:00 AM CDT  

Sigh. I will clearly have to cite chapter and verse from Malthus himself to show you where you are going wrong. Meanwhile, in partial reply and just to be going on with, consider that your statistics can be entirely accurate but if they do not address Malthus's argument, they do not refute it. Similarly, inasmuch as the events you describe do not touch on Malthus's hypothesis, there has been absolutely no refutation of it by the events between his time and ours. He might still be wrong, or there might be much more slack than he supposed (which is probably true even if he were correct), but quite simply there has been no natural experiment to check these things, and you should not describe what has happened as refuting him.

I will forbear for a while until I have his material convenient to work from. Please bear in mind, I am not now nor will I later be attempting to reinforce or support his position, but rather to show that it is still an open question. You go too far in claiming it has been refuted.

John Médaille Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 9:43:00 AM CDT  

Lawrence, you will have to, as you say, cite chapter and verse. More than that, you will have to cite a single example. Our discussion recapitulates 200 years of discussion on this issue, with one side saying "it's true! it's true! it's true!" and the other side saying, "Where? When?"

You claimed that Population dynamics work precisely the way Malthus thought they did. But if they always work this way, then it should be easy to cite a single instance of it working this way. Yet no such instance exists, which is why no such instance is ever cited.

But after claiming Malthus describes population dynamics, you then say it doesn't, it only describes a misery index. Yet, the same question arises: Where? When?

Malthus's theory is a cop-out; we do not attribute misery to injustice and exploitation, but to an "iron law" of population that we can do nothing about. How convenient; we can attribute the whole problem to nature and not to our own actions. We can even, as Malthus did, assert that it is counter-productive to try to do anything about poverty. We can preach, as Malthus did, continence to the poor and profligacy to the rich.

Thank-you, but I want no part of that.

P.M.Lawrence Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 7:55:00 AM CDT  

"You claimed that Population dynamics work precisely the way Malthus thought they did."

I claimed no such thing. I claimed that it was still an open question, as against your claim that Malthus had been refuted.

"But after claiming Malthus describes population dynamics, you then say it doesn't, it only describes a misery index". Again, I claimed no such thing. You speculated that that might be where I was coming from - and by now, that seems to have fixed itself in your mind as a claim I made.

"We can preach, as Malthus did, continence to the poor and profligacy to the rich" - curiously (or perhaps not) I haven't come across anything like that yet.

John Médaille Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 8:53:00 AM CDT  

Lawrence, the portion in italics was a direct quote from you. If you meant something else, I would have no way of knowing that.

As far as it being an "open question" goes, three points are in order. One, it has been an "open question" since 1798; if two centuries of careful statistics cannot confirm this theory, it is safe to assume that it will never confirmed.

Two, it is not treated as an "open question," but as a dogmatic truth, and preached with an air of science, even though science cannot confirm it.

Three, the burden of proof is on the affirmative, but there has never been any proof to affirm this theory, and all the numbers we have contradict it.

P.M.Lawrence Friday, May 2, 2008 at 2:04:00 AM CDT  

On "Lawrence, the portion in italics was a direct quote from you. If you meant something else, I would have no way of knowing that", I owe you a partial apology; I did indeed write that. Only, I did not write only that; I qualified it. I took your point in that quotation just there as meaning that I was asserting that Malthus's theories are 100% accurate when I myself actually have reservations here and there (I would say they are true but not the whole story), and that I agreed with your description of Malthus's views.

I will leave the rest of your points there until I have more time (library computer session ending now...), but I will repeat, the numbers we have do not contradict Malthus's arguments, because unfortunately no natural experiment testing his ideas has occurred; they therefore do not address them.

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