This Halloween the neo-Malthusians, many dressed up as environmentalists, will have a big scare for us – the birth of the 7 billionth person on “space ship” earth. We will hear again of the demographic disaster sure to befall us with yet another mouth to feed. But a wondrous antidote to such fear mongering is one of the best books of the last year, The Coming Population Crash, by Fred Pearce. The book begins with a sound thrashing of Malthus and satisfyingly exposes the historical and conceptual links between his failed ideas and some unsavory strains of the current environmental movement such as the Carrying Capacity Network and Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, an anti-immigrant group.
At its heart the book conveys a simple fact. The rate of population growth has been decelerating for decades – well before the publication in the 1970s of Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist, implicitly racist and dead wrong neo-Malthusian tract, The Population Bomb. It is amazing that many environmentalists are unaware of the crucial fact of slowing population growth, and that some react with hostility to it. Further, somewhere between 2050 and 2100, growth will stop and then come crashing down. It is not the sky that will be falling but the population. From Eastern Europe to Southern Italy to Singapore, that day has already arrived and sooner or later it will come to all parts of the planet. In fact, it may well be that in the next century the problem will be a population that is not large enough to be optimal; but that will be for the 22nd century humans to decide and act on.
And why has this happened? The key is the successful assault on patriarchy by women determined to control their fertility and their lives. Yes, prosperity helps; and population control programs, most notably in China have had some effect, but they are not the essential factors. In rich countries and poor, religious and secular, Isalamic and Christian, the trend is under way and irreversible. Of that there can be no doubt.
The reason is simple. In the latter half of the 20th Century the survival rate of infants increased dramatically so that women did not have to continue to have children for a reproductive lifetime to replenish the population. At the same time the sexual revolution and easy contraception came along. Now bearing children takes only 10-15 percent of the adult lifetime of a woman.
As Pearce puts it, “Women have grabbed the chance created by that change. While having children remains important to most women’s lives, it is no longer the only thing or even the main thing they do. They cease to wield power only within the home. Now they are out of the front door. Across the rich world and in much of the poorer world too, women outnumber men on university campuses and dominate entry to professions like medicine, media and the law. They run the farms and even the governments, sometimes.
The reproductive revolution has created a feminist revolution that has a long way to go. But it has already changed the world…. For thousands of years men ruled the world. Patriarchy was regarded as necessary to produce the next generation. It was deeply engrained and tenaciously defended by men,” their social institutions, both church and state, and mores that condemned lesbianism and homosexuality. “The reproductive revolution kicked away this system of patriarchy, because it was no longer necessary to sustain populations. Women have always wanted equal rights. Feminism is not a new idea And some women have always broken free. But for most women the reproductive revolution has taken feminism from the ‘realm of utopia to practical possibility’.”
So while we hear a great deal of alarmist talk about “peak oil” from certain quarters we scarcely ever hear of “peak population.” Fertility in the world peaked at between five and six children per woman in the 1950s. It is now down to 2.6 and still dropping. Replacement is about 2.1, and we are almost there.
What about the aging of this population? The other side of contemporary Malthusianism is the claim that an older population means more mouths to feed and fewer younger working hands to feed them. But that is also false. We have gone from a revolution in agriculture, where it takes an ever smaller fraction of the population, and an ever smaller amount of land per capita, to feed us, to an advanced technological revolution where, for example, productivity in manufacturing in the U.S. is growing exponentially with a rate constant of .035 per year and in all areas at an exponential rate of 0.02 per year. (Productivity here is output per person hour.) So when you hear a voice telling you that we cannot afford Social Security or Medicare benefits for all that is the voice of Malthus, always wrong, quavering from his grave.
In fact Pearce sees a great benefit in an older population. Not only will it be healthier than in the past and capable of making contributions well into the eighth decade of live. But it will be less testosterone driven, with more historical sense and more wisdom and less given to the calls of demagogues. Let us hope so.
In the end the greatest philosophical debate of the modern era may be the one between Marx (and Godwin) versus Malthus. Marx famously labeled Malthus’s views as a “slander on humanity” and its capabilities. Malthus’s views have been used, explicitly or implicitly, to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history, way beyond that of the great Irish famine. But in addition to being cruel, Malthus has always been wrong. He remains so to this day. If we ignore his false prophecies and those of his heirs, we have a very bright future indeed.
John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com