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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Depopulation Bomb?

Should we be worried about depopulation?:

The coming population bust, by Jeff Jacoby, First of two columns, Boston Globe: Thomas Malthus has been dead for 170 years, but the Malthusian fallacy - the dread conviction that the growth of human population leads to hunger, shortages, and a ravaged environment - is unfortunately alive and well:

  • America's congested highways are caused by "population growth wildly out of control," the group Californians for Population Stabilization laments in a new ad. So are "schools and emergency rooms . . . bursting at the seams." And with every additional American, immigrant or native-born, "comes further degradation of America's natural treasures."
  • In a new documentary, Britain's Prince Philip blames the rising price of food on overpopulation. "Everyone thinks it's to do with not enough food," the queen's husband declares, "but it's really that demand is too great - too many people."

Like other prejudices, the belief that more humanity means more misery resists compelling evidence to the contrary. In the past two centuries, the number of people living on earth has nearly septupled, climbing from 980 million to 6.5 billion. And yet human beings today are on the whole healthier, wealthier, longer-lived, better-fed, and better-educated than ever before. ...

True, fewer human beings would mean fewer mouths to feed. It would also mean fewer entrepreneurs, fewer pioneers, fewer problem-solvers. Which is why it is not an increase but the coming decrease in human population that should engender foreboding. For as Phillip Longman, a scholar of demographics and economics at the New America Foundation, observes: "Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

And depopulation, like it or not, is just around the corner. ...

Human fertility has been dropping for years and is now below replacement levels - the minimum required to prevent depopulation - in scores of countries, including China, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Turkey, and all of Europe. The world's population is still rising, largely because of longer life spans... But with far fewer children being born today, there will be far fewer adults bearing children tomorrow. In some countries, the collapse has already begun. Russia, for example, is now losing 700,000 people a year. ...

By mid-century, the UN estimates, there will be 248 million fewer children than there are now. To a culture that has been endlessly hectored about the dangers of overpopulation, that might sound like welcome news. It isn't. No society gains when it loses its most precious resource, and no resource is more valuable than the human mind. The coming demographic winter will chill us all.

Will it? I don't know world demographic history all that well, but in the cases where depopulation is correlated with falling prosperity, what caused the population declines? War, disease, famine, something like that? Were population declines the result of falling prosperity, or were population declines the cause of declining prosperity? In the present case, the (anticipated) population decline appears to be an individual or societal choice, it is not being driven by some other factor such as those listed above. For that reason, the correlation between prosperity and population could be quite different than other cases in the historical record.

Update: Andrew Leonard has more on population declines and the standard of living:

...I'm ... interested in the assertion that "Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

Is that really true? I am reminded of a startling section from Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O'Rourke's "Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium," concerning the consequences of the Black Death for the European economy.

Drastic depopulation in Western Europe appears to have led to a dramatic improvement in the living standards of the surviving working class. Total production, is is true, declined overall, but there was a significant rise in "per capita real income and wealth, since land and physical capital remain unchanged and the livestock population was apparently unaffected by the plague."

With less labor available, surviving workers were able to command a premium.

... The data suggest a sharp rise in English real wages from the middle of the fourteenth century. Real wages continued rising for about a century, so that by the middle of the fifteenth century laborers were earning more than twice as much in real terms as they had been doing on the eve of the Black Death...

I will concede that there is some cognitive dissonance to be mined in the concept of the Black Death having an upside. It's not exactly a strategy one would recommend to labor organizers, for example. But the fundamental premise is provocative: a world with fewer people competing against each other could mean a better life for the workers who do end up getting born.

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 12:42 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (82)


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