"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, September 23, 2005

Birth Dearth

We have noted on this blog in the past that birth rates among native-born Europeans are extremely low, and that the United States has been heading in the same direction. In an interesting review of Tim Burton's new film, The Corpse Bride, on Tech Central Station, Pinkerton considers the biological necessity of childbearing, and some of its social consequences, using insights from sociobiology and making reference to the original story on which the film was based:

. . . the ideas that animated the original "Corpse Bride" tale-tellers might animate us, too. Death at a young age doesn't loom over us today, as it did in centuries past. What we must live with instead is in a way even more mysterious and ominous -- the lack of young life.

If Edmund Burke was right -- that society is a compact between the generations; the dead, the living, and the yet to be born -- then something has gone wrong with our society. For two generations now, the world has lived in the erroneous thrall of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Only now, as argued in a spate of important books, do we see that the real problem is not an explosion of people, but rather a dearth of birth. Pat Buchanan, Ben Wattenberg, and Phil Longman -- authors who respectively represent the paleoconservative, neoconservative, and center-left camps -- have all made the case for a return to pro-natalist attitudes in the West. Each author uses the language of politics and social science to express the same primal cry: "Have children! Have them for the sake of the living, and also for the sake of the dead, especially those who could never have their own, even though they wanted to."

No wonder the Right to Life movement continues to flourish. At the most basic level -- at the level of primal needs, and primordial tales -- there's a basic baby homeostasis at work. All those Baptists, Catholics, and others have a feeling, a feeling deep inside, that there aren't enough children, that there aren't enough little feet pattering around. On this issue, at least, God and Darwin are united.

The French government seems to agree. In repsonse to falling birthrates among the native population, the national government is offering additional incentives for the formation of larger families:

The French government has pledged more money for families with three children, in an effort to encourage working women to have more babies.

France already has a generous childcare system, which has resulted in a birth rate of 1.9 children per family, well above the EU average of 1.5.

That term "has resulted" is incorrect, given that France's higher birthrate is a result of its much larger population of Muslim immigrants than is present in other European countries. Nonetheless, the government's policy is significant, as is its stated reasoning, which echoes Pinkerton's TCS article:

"The family has changed," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, himself a father of three, told a conference on the family.

"But it remains at the very heart of French society. It is a source of joy, of comfort, and a haven for its members. That is why we are announcing measures to help families in their everyday lives."

Of course, the real reason behind the French government's concern for family size is the fact that the nation's declining birth rate (it is below the replacement rate of 2.1 live births per female) makes the country's lavish social security systen entirely unsupportable, a problem that we in the United States, despite our higher rate of population growth (due to immigration) have only recently begun to consider doing anything serious about. The French government realizes that unless upcoming generations of French are much bigger than they have been lately, the Ponzi scheme that nearly every government-run social security system constitutes will lose all public support. Hence their newfound family-friendliness.


James Elliott said...

Doesn't anyone else get a sense of Chicken Little here? "The sky is falling!"

This so-called birth dearth follows two periods of population growth unheard of in Western history: The Industrial Revolution (especially the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries) and the post-World War II baby boom (as much a reality in Europe as in the U.S.). Add into this mix the utility of modern medicine in keeping us alive far longer than previously expected (double digit increases during the 20th century alone). Even these advances can't stop death, merely delay it. People who historically would have died much earlier are only now shuffling off the mortal coil.

I'm just trying to raise the possibility that what we're seeing here is an approach towards equilibrium, rather than some approaching natal apocalypse. Perhaps we cannot reach replacement rates because we simply can't sustain being as damn fecund as we were 40 or 50 years ago?

Remember, overpopulation doesn't refer to man breeding like a colony of horny ants ever multiplying, but rather to population growth exceeding resource availability and always wanting more, more, MORE! Let's just keep in mind that resource consumption has accellerated exponentially in the last 100 years, far outstripping even our population boom. Isn't it entirely possible that our available resources simply can't be replenished at a rate to sustain previous levels of population growth, and that this "dearth" is nature's way of saying, "Knock off all that breeding already! Sheesh!"

Now, I know someone will try to refute me with "But India, China, nuh uhhh!" or something far more eloquent and considered, but please keep in mind that Western resource usage (so far) outstrips all others by leaps and bounds, and their increased industrial output only exacerbates the problem of consumption.

Of course, I could be wrong. I don't think so, but I'm open to the possibility.

Kathy Hutchins said...

James -- I apologize that I don't have time right now to get you the figures; I'll set that right later. Here's the OTTOMH answer: first, you are wrong about the population growth figures. In the US, the rate of natural increase reached its peak in 1825 and has been declining ever since. People argue about date of onset of the industrial revolution, but no one places it that early. France's experience parallels the US. The rest of Europe experienced the initial decline starting later, post IR, but there was no "boom" after IR, it was fairly level and then started dropping about 1900.

Second, the post WWII "baby boom" was a tiny upward blip interrupting 150 years of decline in population growth rates (not including immigration.) It was not in any sense a period of historically significant population growth. I'll post a graph for you later so you can see.

Define what you mean by "resource" and how you define "use" and "exceeding resource availability." Name five "resources" that you think are depleted by population growth. We will talk past each other unless we define terms.

James Elliott said...

Natural resource: Something that is useful to humans and exists independent of human activity.

Use: The consumption of said resource.

Exceeding resource availability: The consumption of a resource beyond the ability to renew or extract further deposits at replacement levels.


1. arable land
2. trees
3. clean water
4. fossil fuels
5. clean air

Kathy Hutchins said...

Of your five examples, four are in greater supply now than in 1960, and I would argue that the status of the fifth is at best ambiguous.

Hunter Baker said...

You're in dangerous territory, James. Paul Erlich made a bet with Jude Wanniski about the value/scarcity of various raw materials after a period of years and lost big. He was exactly wrong in his doomsday predictions, not that you went that far.

The other interesting thing here is that I've heard about the role abortion supposedly plays in reducing crime. What about the role of abortion in depleting our stock of contributors to the social security system so we can pay for the Boomers?

StatGuy said...

Your site doesn't have a trackback facility, so I'm placing in amongst the comments. Hope that's OK.


According to the stuff I've read, James Elliott has his head in the sand. Population is already falling in eastern Europe, especially Russia. Western Europe's population is aging rapidly, as is Japan's; both are set to decline rapidly by 2050. Likewise, Canada and China. There is no "equilibrium" in sight. If fertility rates do not recover to replacement level, population will fall. It's as simple as that. See also this post and links therein.


(Pardon the shameless self-promotion.)

mindflame said...

I believe that "Birth Dearth" is a problem but only civilization wide it is something that the West is doing to itself. That is what France has discovered, if your ethnic group is unwilling to produce children enough to repopulate and sustain your society another society will gladly do it for you. In the case of France, that is the Muslims. In the case of the United States it will be Mexico (although it is not as if Mexico has a child surplus or anything they are only just above ZPG themselves). Abortion is bad evolution, it is natural selecting against yourself. If you thing global overpopulation is self-evident think about this, Africa is the second to least populated continent but the poorest. While Holland is doing fine but has more people per square mile than India’s “teeming masses”.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Sorry, Hunter, not trying to be a stickler or purist, but just to correct the record, Ehrlich's bet was not with Wanniski but with Julian Simon.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Wonderful article, Sam, thank you so much.

There's a Jewish superstition against saying exactly how many children one has, but I have at least two of each gender, plus one boy and one girl grandchild.

It's almost insanely counterintuitive to have LESS children in a world that offers so much MORE in transportation, communication and information than ever before.

Now add those amazing bonanzas to a dose of humility, and admit that the past had people of greater wisdom (so far), and you can really launch your kids, well-equipped to face - and enjoy - an astonishing world.

James Elliott said...

Thanks for the statistics links, all. It would appear I'm wrong on the population balance question. That's okay by me. I don't know about my head being in the sand, since I indicated that I was open to being corrected, so apparently Statguy just enjoys being a dick.

Linking the discussion to abortion is rather ridiculous, but hey, go there if you want. "ABORTION MEANS WE'LL DROWN IN A SEA OF BROWN PEOPLE!!" appears to be the meme there...

StatGuy said...

Yeah, it's true, sometimes I enjoy being a dick. But I always regret it later. So, James, sorry I got carried away, and I'm glad you amended your view in light of the statistics.

I don't see the racial angle to the abortion discussion: different races and ethnic groups around the world are having abortions. But I agree that's a side issue in this context. The main issue, in my view, is the decline in population now underway and which, according to the best estimates presently available, will continue at an increasing rate for the foreseeable future.

Tlaloc said...

Even Kathyadmits that the world population according to current trends is heading for a peak of over 9 billion people.

Do any of you really believe that the environemtn not to mention natural resources can withstand an additional 3 billion people on the planet?

If so I'd have to say you really just aren't paying attention. Water is already becoming a critical issue, not only in third world countries but in here in America. Ample water is only tenuously available for Industry, agriculture, landscaping, people use and the environment at our current levels.

China is facing a huge crisis due to the depletion of the tibetian glariers which provide their main supplies of water both for human use and for running the hydroelectric dams.

That's just a single example.

Tlaloc said...

"Of your five examples, four are in greater supply now than in 1960, and I would argue that the status of the fifth is at best ambiguous."


Here's the list JFE provided:

1. arable land
2. trees
3. clean water
4. fossil fuels
5. clean air

You think four of these have INCREASED in the last forty years?

Trees: Just talking rainforest alone we've lost close to 80 million acres a year. Surely you don't think that we've planted 80 million and 1 acres of replacement trees somewhere else? So much for trees.

Water: Already discussed above. May wish to read this BBC report. There is a finite amount of water and a geometric growth of industry and agriculture use of it. Do the math.

Clean Air:
"Once primarily an urban phenomenon in industrial countries, air pollution has spread worldwide. More than a billion people--one-fifth of all humanity--live in communities that do not meet World Health Organization air quality standards."
From here.

Arable land:
"Land degradation has affected some 1900 million hectares of land word-wide. In Africa an estimated 500 million hectares of land have been affected by soil degradation, including 65% of the region's agricultural land. The rate at which arable land is being lost is increasing and is currently 30-35 times the historical rate. The loss of potential productivity due to soil erosion world wide is estimated to be equivalent to some 20 million tons of grain per year. And this is happening worldwide, not just in Africa or Asia (UNEP, 1999)."
From here.

And of course we've already discussed fossil fuels.

The real problem of course that while each of these problems is getting worse they also make the others worse. Loss of trees leads to worse air and water quality. It also helps speed land degradation. Land degradation results in more polluted waterways. Water and air degradation leads to lower tree growth. And so on.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Just to clarify: since we were discussing the countries where the fertility rate has declined below replacement, and whether increased per-capita resource consumption in those areas, my claims were also confined to those areas. I am aware of the environmental problems of the Third World; that they are increasing there, even as they are decreasing in those areas where, according to James,

resource consumption has accellerated [sic] exponentially in the last 100 years, far outstripping even our population boom.

indicates that the problem seems to be neither the size of the population nor the rate of the resource use. I'd suggest a healthy dose of Western-style property rights might be what's lacking.

Tlaloc said...

It's a combination of both increasing population and increasing ecological footprint. China for instance has slowed population growth but is racing toward the waseful American style lifestyle. Their country is suffering for it.

Hopefully it's obvious though that it's much better to control population and allow people to live a better than third world existence than it is to continue growing the population and require everyone to live in a shcak with no running water.

Jay D. Homnick said...

New people equals new ingenuity. More ingenuity equals more resources or getting more out of existing resources.

Most assuredly we can welcome three billion more folks to the party. Let's not go cheap now in the world's most expansive moment.

Tlaloc said...

"New people equals new ingenuity. More ingenuity equals more resources or getting more out of existing resources."

A nice theory but in the real world it simply isn't the case. For one thing Thermodynamics explicitly limits just how much you can get out of a resource. There's no getting around it. There are simply physical barriers to the concept that you can advance indefinitely offsetting the costs of growth. Furthermore we haven't even seen the advances that should be carrying us toward that wall where we can't get any further.

Are our cars now substantially more efficient than they were in the 50s? No they are not even though our population has skyrocketted. Every environmental indicator is getting worse which clearly indicates your supposed ingenuity isn't capable of keeping up with out population pressure.

Blind faith in your simplistic economic mottos is going to get us all killed.

Tlaloc said...

Jay please explain how ingenuity will overcome the issues of limited land area, loss of species diversity, lack of clean water, land erosion, and the energy crunch.