I think many of us have fond memories of working through an issue or two of National Geographic as a kid. One of the things I always loved, besides the interesting articles, were the gorgeous photos that adorned many of their pages. So, it seemed natural to “like” them on the Book of Face and get some of their articles beamed directly to my computer screen.
Over the past week, two articles in close succession came across with a dire warning: PEOPLE MUST BE STOPPED.
By taking those two articles, it sure looks like we’re heading towards a future of unsustainable humanity.
A.) STOP (REPRODUCING), DROP (THE FERTILITY RATE), AND ROLL (JUST BECAUSE)
Before one can understand where the UN and other demographers get their estimates, there needs to be an understanding of some key terms and how they all interrelate:
Birth Rate – the total number of births per 1,000 of a population in a year.
Mortality Rate – a measure of the number of deaths (in general, or due to a specific cause) in a population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit of time (often expressed as the number of deaths per 1,000 of a population in a year).
Population Growth Rate – the rate at which the number of individuals in a population increases in a given time period as a fraction of the initial population.
Total Fertility Rate – the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if 1.) she were to experience the exact current age-specific fertility rates through her lifetime, and 2.) she were to survive from birth through the end of her reproductive life.
Most people understand population dynamics in terms of simple growth rates, i.e. the population growth rate when you compare birth rates and mortality rates. More people being born + less people dying = more people on the planet. However, that is not the case by itself. Fertility rates are often overlooked in any given discussion, and they are actually the most important predictor when looking towards the future.
Theoretically, a fertility rate of 2.0 means that each woman will have two children during her lifetime. Considering that it takes two to tango, that theoretical value means that the population is only having enough children to replace themselves. In that situation, you would have eventual population plateau and no population growth. This is the theoretical replacement rate for any population. However, it is only theoretical, and mortality rates can edge that number upwards (sometimes over 3.0 for underdeveloped countries) because some women may die before they’ve reached the end of their child bearing years.
Birth rates and population growth actually lag behind drops in fertility for a number of reasons (known as the population lag-effect). A population at replacement rates would still grow and may take a few generations to even out until the age distribution of the population reaches equilibrium. There may be previous generations of women with high fertility rates still alive, and as we continue to push life expectancy ever upwards, there will be more generations of people alive at any given time than in previous time periods. So, eventually, you will reach a state where the number of people entering the world will equal the number of people exiting to the great beyond every year.
So, that’s where we need to be! We have to act! We have to educate! I mean, just look at global birth rates…
Well, forget that, let’s look at fertility rates! Look at all of those people coming into the world!
But, that’s still not replacement level! There will still be uncontrolled population growth…
Ok, maybe we need to rethink all of this.
B.) PUTTING NATGEO IN PERSPECTIVE
If you dig into the articles presented by National Geographic, one has to wonder if there is a bit of sensationalism going on. The title of the article suggests that 11 billion people by 2100 is the new estimate, and that it shatters previous estimates, but the subheading then casts a bit of doubt. There are dueling projections? What’s the other one? The headline doesn’t mention that there is another one or what it even projects. One has to dig a little deeper to figure that part out, but they jump right back to the extreme when they warn readers that the world “may get a lot more crowded than previously thought.”
Turns out the other projection is quite different. Whereas the UN relies on a computer model with new probabilistic ranges, the dueling study relied on canvasing experts. And it paints a slightly different picture, one where population will peak at 9.4 billion and then fall to below 9 billion by 2100. Still, with every mention of that projection, the article trips over itself with caveats, including that the UN model only sees that as having a 5% chance of occurring.
Taking the UN’s projection on its own merit, though, shows how close we are to straddling the line of population plateau and deserves its own caveats beyond the hollow “We’ll find out [who’s right] in a hundred years.” On the one extreme, you still have population growth. Towards the middle you can see the plateauing taking shape. Towards the other extreme, you have passed the plateau and started to decline. That’s quite a difference, and a world of difference at that. Adding the passing sentiment in the article from the head of the UN Population Division that they may “still be off by two billion” and one has to wonder what’s really going on and whether we need to take all of this with a grain of salt.
C.) CURRENT TRENDS, SHMURRENT TRENDS
The projections are all, of course, based upon current trends. Even so, the current trends are ones of constantly declining birth and fertility rates. The plateau seems to be occurring on its own as the world advances, so it should be more of a question of when that will happen and how many people will be here when it does, not if it will happen. And to do that, we obviously can only go by the numbers we have.
There is a problem with that, though, as a demographer looking at a graph in 1600 could probably attest.
Unfortunately, current trends are just that: taking a snapshot of today and pasting it over the future. That is, however, assuming that the world won’t look any different in 100 years. So, there are inherent problems with trying to view sustainability in 2100 based upon current economics, medicine, and scientific advances.
Actually, if there is one historical truth that we can gather from human history, it’s that no one has ever thought that the then current population was sustainable. And they were inevitably horribly wrong. Some of the oldest examples:
“There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide-dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed Earth, and Zeus saw it and had pity and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing Earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Ilian war, that the load of death might empty the world. And so the heroes were slain in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass.” –Stasinos, 776 – 580 BC
“Excessive (population) growth may reduce output per worker, repress levels of living for the masses and engender strife.” –Confucius, 551 – 479 BC
“One would have thought that it was even more necessary to limit population than property…The neglect of this subject, which in existing states is so common, is a never-failing cause of poverty among the citizens; and poverty is the parent of both revolution and crime.” –Aristotle, 384 – 322 BC
“The strongest witness is the vast population of the Earth to which we are a burden and she scarcely can provide for our needs.” –Tertullian, 160 -220 AD
It wasn’t an ancient problem, though, as the other National Geographic article points out. One only has to look at Thomas Malthus’s predictions in 1798 of mass starvation (since he posited that food production would only increase arithmetically as opposed to geometric population growth), which hasn’t happened. Or Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb that warned of mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. Which hasn’t happened. Obviously one can’t say that that makes current predictions wrong, but humans certainly don’t have a good track record of predicting our own mass extinction because we, as hard as it is to believe, can’t predict the future state of technological advances.
Part of the reason we’ve been so fantastically wrong over the years is because we constantly see the world as if we have somehow reached its carrying capacity. We see places where there are legitimate humanitarian crises and think we’ve surpassed the limit of what the Earth can handle. However, scientific advances have constantly redefined what that limit is, we constantly misunderstand what that limit is, and we continue to think we’ve reached it even after being wrong for millennia.
D.) REGIONAL, NOT GLOBAL
Another interesting thing that comes out of the National Geographic articles is that it speaks grandly of global population, but deep down it is talking regionally. The truth is, the industrialized world and first world countries have already hit that plateau and global population increases are going to come mostly from very specific areas. We can’t, in fact, paint the world with a Nigerian brush.
When we see modern plight, and then come to the conclusion that we can’t sustain our current population, the trouble isn’t often times a lack of resources, but rather resource distribution and waste. The United States is a net exporter of food, and in some cases, like wheat, we export about as much as we actually consume. The United States also wastes a stunning amount of food. 141 trillion calories of food go to waste each year in the United States. On top of all of that, we actually don’t produce food at full capacity because of various domestic economic factors. So, the trouble today is more about getting food from one side of the globe to the other, and not being wasteful jerks about it.
Energy is another X-factor. We have a tendency to view the world based upon current trends, again, but recent events should also give one pause. People making energy predictions as little as ten or fifteen years ago were probably thrown for a loop with the recent shale gas production numbers. We could argue about the environmental impacts of that energy source all day, but the fact remains that we constantly surprise ourselves with how dramatically things change.
All of that being said, population doesn’t run away on its own, which is part of the problem with the predictions of Malthus and Ehrlich. There is a constant fear of runaway population growth, but what we’ve seen over the years is that population changes react to the conditions on the ground. It is more likely that population changes as the ability to sustain it changes. As basic sanitation, medicine, science, education, etc. change, so does the number of people we can sustain. And, as we CAN see from current trends, this has naturally led us down a path of slowing population growth. We can hold more people, and we make less people as time goes on. Still, we need to view that all regionally, since much of the world has already reached that point.
E.) MISANTHROPY AND “SOLUTIONS”
I am in no way saying that my opinion is any more likely to be more correct than the various models and predictions that are out there for the same reasons as I stated above: uncertainty. I have a more positive view of our future than some, though, based upon the evidence I’ve gathered. The thing that stunned me the most about those National Geographic articles, however, wasn’t the content (which was pretty much expected), but rather the comments associated with them. Here is just a smattering:
“We are a virus on this planet and she will give us viruses to kill us and save herself….. Thank the stars. 😉
This might sound awful also birth control and sterilization are amazing for places where population swells beyond its resources.”
“stop having babies for your own ego.”
“Oh please stop having kids!!! Surely one or two is enough!!! You are adding to the problem!!!”
“Force women to get fixed after 2 kids.”
“Global population control.!!!”
You get the general idea. It flows with the tone of the articles themselves, painting population decline as the “rosy” scenario.
The level of hatred for humanity is rampant. It doesn’t take an article like this to see it. The level of misanthropy feels like it has hit critical mass at times, which can be seen by the sheer number of people that shed more tears for an injured pet than a dead human being. There are always two funny things that come about with this modern misanthropy when it comes to population, though: hypocrisy and elitism.
First, all of these calls for population control in one form or another are the height of hypocrisy. I would venture to guess that most people who hold this view believe that certain procedures to limit family size are a reproductive right. There is a large notion that it’s a woman’s choice, it’s her body, etc. Keep your hands off my womb! Government has no right to encroach on that sacred territory!
Oh, you want to have more than two kids? Get the government so far up their collective uterus that there is no room for any more babies!
You can’t have it both ways. Reproductive rights are universal, and if a woman has the right to limit her family size because it’s her body per your view, she has the right to have a large family for the same reason. Otherwise, the right is a sham.
Secondly, misanthropes always feel that they are the enlightened ones and that the poor, uneducated masses need brought under control. The funny thing is that control requires a controller, and they just so happen to be in the class of the controller because of how smart they are. You will never see someone with these views sit around and go “Gee golly, I think I need someone else to have more control over me right now.” Rather, there is always the hint of an elite controlling class, and they always feel they are a part of it. They are enlightened, you are not, and you need to be controlled by them. There is never a sense of limiting their own freedom, but rather controlling the freedoms of others.
The closing paragraphs of the one National Geographic article sum it up rather nicely.
“No one knows, neither he nor us, what’s going to happen,” Zlotnik says. “In order to get to a different future, you have to change the now.”
No one knows what will happen, but we need to change that NOW. It is a misuse of terms, though, to claim you are changing something that is unknown, because it’s impossible. You have to start with something that is known before you can venture towards turning it into something different. Rather, what you are really doing is guiding (or, more bluntly, forcing) the future into what you want it to be, and none of us are going to be alive by the time any of this plays out. Essentially, we must act with urgency on fuzzy math and details to avoid an unknown future that may be fine on its own.
Unfortunately, that elitism I mentioned above shows where many want that future guided: a world of control. Combined with global climate change policy debate, which seeks to (rightly or wrongly) control economic activity to limit human effects on climate, the two issues together would pretty much spell almost complete control of the individual. Which is ok with the misanthropes, because there is a subconscious realization that there is no one to control the controllers and they will be immune to their own fiats. Let them eat the cake of our policy decisions.
Certainly that is a solution, I suppose, although a pretty horrific one if you think about it. How can you possibly enforce actual control over population? What happens when that couple with two kids finds out that they are pregnant with a third and they, shockingly, want to have a third child? Would there be some preemptive measures? Seem to be an awful lot of people who don’t mind forced sterilizations and population control of undesired segments of the population. That isn’t new, either, as any research into eugenics would show.
There is a different path, though. Why don’t we stop focusing on control, and start focusing on how we can help those in need? Human problems are always interesting because they are solved by human solutions. As I stated above, resource distribution and access is more of an issue than actual hard limits, and that may continue to be the case as we move forward. Why not put our heads together to solve current human suffering rather than run down the path of absolute control over our fellow man? Do we need to destroy life to save it, or can we just simply save it? Perhaps if we embraced a culture of life, one that supports it and seeks to celebrate humanity, we could actually strive to solve problems in today’s world rather than just merely contain them.