Photo: azadam via flickr
Well, here we go again. Five decades-plus and counting. At the New York Times, Thomas Friedman raises the issue from one perspective. At the (subscription required) Wall Street Journal, William McGurn responds with an opposing perspective. The issue? The same old “population bomb” and its “explosion” that either places the entire human race at peril or is a simple extrapolation that does not take potential science and technology advances into account. Whatever, the critical point is that there continue to be many global analysts fixated on this one variable.
God alone knows how many books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, web commentaries, blog posts and so forth have been written on this topic over the last five decades or so. In my discussions with folks of all backgrounds, this is an “issue” they all have heard about. Although the information most remember is from the past and is now out-dated, the issue remains in most folks’ minds as one that stands alone.
I have no intention of getting involved in the dispute between Mr. Friedman and Mr. McGurn. I have been working in so-called “developing nations” all my life and I am well aware of population growth and how it affects economic development. I am also aware of the rapid and historically unprecedented fall in birth rates in nearly all of these nations in the last two or three decades. Dr. Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is justly famous for summing up major global trends visually to help everyone understand what has been happening over time and he does it well on this issue, as can be seen at YouTube.
But we can also get an idea of what’s been happening by looking at the chart below, demonstrating the fall in global growth and comparing it to several large developing nations. NOTE: You can place your cursor on any nation’s name and see its line highlighted. You can place your cursor on any line at any point in time and get that year’s growth rate.
The “explosion” is slowing substantially and those who extrapolate will tell you that the global population will hit a stable level at some point in this century, possibly declining after that. But those are just extrapolations. One truly global pandemic and things could change rapidly.
In any case, Mr. Friedman and his friends keep stressing their belief that global resources cannot withstand the pressure of a larger population, even if the growth rate is falling. I will not argue that. I will leave it to Mr. McGurn and his friends.
But I do take issue with the impression that birth rates are the sole primary variable in determining future resource needs. There is another variable and it is not on a decline. Indeed, it is strengthening. However, although it is well-known, I never see it applied to concerns about resource depletion. It is the other “population explosion” and it makes a louder bang every year. I refer to the increase in lifespans.
Let’s take a look at another graph, this one showing changes in lifespan for different nations over the last five decades. As above, you can place your cursor on any nation’s name and see its line highlighted. You can place your cursor on any line at any point in time and get that year’s lifespan estimate.
Once again, we see dramatic changes and a substantial reduction of the difference between the “developed” economies and the “developing” economies. In 1950, the difference in expected lifespan between Sweden and Indonesia was more than 31 years. That has now fallen to just a bit more than 10 years. That is a huge shift and that kind of shift is evident among other nations as well.
So here’s your other population explosion and it’s just getting bigger every year. It’s the explosion in the oldest age groups. Do older humans use resources? You bet they do.
I could write several thousand more words on this topic, but I will leave you with a few general remarks.
– I would like to think that all parties to this “debate” might ask themselves if their total focus on “poor” nations having too many babies might be self-serving. As the tag line or sub-title of Mr. McGurn’s article puts it, “When the experts tell you there are too many people, they don’t mean too many Swedes.”
– Would they please settle down, do their research, and try to determine the impact of birth rates on resource utilization and the impact of lifespans on the same utilization? (They might be surprised to find that the latter has had as much an effect as the former, perhaps even more so. I don’t know, but I certainly will not be surprised if that is the case.)
– If they find that the results of increasing lifespan are as much or more of a “crisis” as the results of decreasing birth rates, are they willing to call for a movement to decrease lifespans?
I will not waste my time on this research. I have plenty of other research that interests me. As far as I’m concerned, nations are doing a pretty decent job of dealing with birth rates and they are not about to make some incredibly dramatic shift now. Likewise, nations are doing a pretty decent job of dealing with lifespan extension and they are not about to stop that either. Barring the unexpected, I see no reason for either of these well-established trends to shift direction any time soon. I accept them and I accept the only “solution” that makes sense to me – I depend on human ingenuity.
If that fails, then we fail, but the blah-blah-blah talking about poor people having too many babies and threatening the world is old, tired, inaccurate, and grossly over-simplifies a multi-variable situation by focusing too tightly on only one variable. How many other articles have you read on lifespan as a primary variable and how does that compare to the number of articles you have seen on population growth as the sole primary variable? The gap is so extreme that this is not focus…it is tunnel vision.
We need to spend less time complaining about trends we cannot stop and more time supporting the human ingenuity that will get us all through this successfully.
[For those who would like to play with the graphs above, just click on “explore data” in the lower right-hand corner of either one.]
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