Monday, October 11, 2004

Spam, Birth Rates, and The End Of The World As We Know It

I received some spam today. No, really! I have had my main internet-based email account for about, oh, 9 years or more so I get a lot of spam – this one just slipped by the filters. It warned of overpopulation and encouraged me to learn more about how to keep the world from being destroyed by people.

Now, I’ve seen Soylent Green and I thought it was cool. And I’ve visited and thought it was lame. All in all, the ‘overpopulation issue’ leaves me either chuckling (at best) or angry at the gullibility of people (at worst) because there is no overpopulation issue on Earth. Never has been, never will be. As a matter of fact, I’m seriously worried about underpopulation. Here’s some quick numbers, many from the CIA factbook (you should go there) and’s won website (check it out, too).

Let’s start by mentioning a minister named Malthus. He made a basic observation about animal populations in the wild. In a nutshell, he predicted that, in the absence of predation, creatures would grow to the limit of their food supply and then the relative scarcity of food would limit population. That’s it, really. Darwin was stimulated by this concepts and it helped him formulate his theories of the origin of species. And a lot of people think it means humans will reproduce until we all starve to death. Huh? No, really, since the writings of Malthus, such ‘malthusian’ predictions that there would be too many people to support have been going strong. They really hit their stride in the 1960’s and made a big splash in a number of science fiction stories, including the afore-mentioned Soylent Green. This has led to the creation of a number of studies, think-tnaks, and groups, all focused on limiting human reproduction before we all kill ourselves with our own children. Some of the big donors to the distribution of birth control to the Third World, legal and financial backers of the push to legalize abortion and make it easily accessible, and many environmental groups are mainly focused on overpopulation.

These people focus in the horrible sufferings of the victims of famine. They point to images of starving children and demand that we limit population so there will be enough food. The trouble is, of course, that in the modern world famine isn’t about lack of food, it is about a lack of power. There is more than enough food to feed everyone on Earth a rich, varied, and sufficient diet. But some people can’t get it because they lack money and/or guns. The famine in Ethiopia was about war; Somalia about the lack of law, etc. In each case men with guns prevented people without guns from getting the plentiful food that was available. As this becomes more common knowledge, some in the anti-childbirth campaign speak of standards of living. They argue that we will use up all of the resources and we will have a meager existence of lower-lower class subsistence as the world fills up with too many people.

Problem is, the core conceit of too many people has never been an issue. At current rates, it never will be. As a matter of fact, in the same year Soylent Green was released in theaters a report by a small United Nations commission on world health predicted that the world population would peak around 2040-2050 at a sustainable level and thereafter decline. Their numbers were pretty darn good, actually. Let’s talk numbers. I know, I know – boring, right? But unless you understand the numbers, you might miss the real danger that threatens the entire world. Yep, that’s right – a world-threatening danger. Well, a world-civilization-threatening danger, at least.

The first concept I want to talk about is Total Fertility Rate (TFR); the number of children the ‘typical’ woman of child-bearing age would have in a society. Its also the average number of children per woman – same thing. In a nutshell, this indicates how much and how fast the population of a place (we’ll focus on countries) will change. Since it takes 2 to tango, the TFR should be 2 in order to maintain a steady population, right? Well, mostly. Some children will, unfortunately, die before they have their own kids, in childhood, etc. So the minimum TFR to maintain a steady population generation to generation (called a ‘replacement rate’) is roughly 2.1. I say roughly because this number is for people with access to Western medicine, hospitals, etc. In some Third World places the replacement rate can be as high as 2.4. Maybe more. But we will use the conservative 2.1 as world-wide replacement rate TFR.

So what is the global TFR right now? Last time I checked, it was 2.7. ‘Hmmm’, you say, ‘above replacement rate - so we are going to starve!’. Time for a little context. You see, the global TFR in 1990 was 3.4. In 2000 it was 2.8. And it is estimated that in 2025 it will be 2.3. This is expected to continue to decline with some blue-sky predictions showing a global TFR of 1.2 in 2100. But before you relax and think about all that land your grand-kids can buy cheap, we need to talk about 2 more number-thingys. The first is age-distribution.

Age distribution is the relative number of children, the young, the middle-aged, etc. Because we have had large TFRs in the past and they are currently dropping like rocks, the total world population won’t just start going down – it takes time to stop a train, after all. It is predicted that the world population will peak around 2050 at no more than about 9 billion people. At the same time, age-distribution means that the average age of the population will shoot upwards. In 1975 the mean global age was 22 years old. In 2050 it is estimated it will be 38 – the elderly will outnumber the young for the first time in human existence. And this is an average; the median age for Japan is expected to be 53, Italy to be 58.

The next thing to discuss is the mortality rate, or how fast people die off. While global mortality rates were dropping for decades, the global mortality rate is increasing again. This is due to a combination of factors, mainly the resurgence of malaria, the AIDS epidemic, and the transmission of diseases to new areas. So people are dying a little faster than they did 20 years ago. Mortality rates are, for related reasons, highest in regions with the highest TFRs. Because of these changes in mortality rates, which were expected to drop faster than they are, the most-supported world population total is about 7.6 billion people in 2050, followed by a sharp decline.

So where is the threat to global civilization? You just read it. Underpopulation is a serious threat to global civilization as we understand it. One of the big reasons is the fact that local TFRs vary a great deal. The lowest are in Europe (Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, many others) and Asia (Singapore and Japan). These nations have a TFR of 1.5 or less, with Bulgaria at the lowest of 1.1. This means that the next generation will be no more than 75% the size of the current generation, maybe only 50%. This means that the population will continue to become (on average) much older very rapidly. As a result the care of the elderly will consume more and more of the time, energy, and resources of the entire working population. By some estimates Japan will suffer first. With one of the longest average lifespans in the world, excellent medical care, and a rapidly dropping population, some predictions so that in the year 2040 35% of all Japanese workers will be engaged in care for the elderly. This will be a staggering drain on the workforce, effectively forcing Japan to import millions of workers or face the problem of not having enough workers to staff factories, law firms, etc. Globally, in 2050 there will be more people between the ages of 65 and 80 than between the ages of 0 and 10. The political impact of the majority of voters being over the age of 65 means that younger generations will probably be completely unable to exercise control of democracies in the West.

And this will be repeated globally. Nations will either face massive immigration in order to meet staffing needs or simply not have enough people to work. It will be like the staffing crunch of the late 1990’s but in every sector with no relief in sight. Even with increases in automation, there will also be a decline in consumers (especially as the elderly begin to die). By 2050 a globally shrinking economy will be the norm. Concepts like ‘pension’, ‘retirement’, and ‘limited work week’ could vanish in the face of a shortfall of tens of millions of workers per country.

Certain social, cultural, and political factors are making this problem even worse. Some Asian cultures place a premium on male children at the expense of females. Access to in utero gender identification and abortion means that there is a resulting slant towards more males being born. South Korea, for example, has a TFR of about 1.8, but the most recent group of school children is not 50% male, but 60%. This is more acute in China where there are legal limits to childbirth. Some estimates place the youngest Chinese at a male to female division of 70%/30%, making China’s TFR effectively 1.4, not 1.8. The implications of a future with millions of young men with no potential spouses at home include mass emigration, the ‘importation’ of brides, and a radical change in the racial and cultural makeup of these countries.

The change in ratios of populations in regions is pretty significant. In the early 1900’s Europe had 3 times the population of Africa. In 1990, the populations were even. In 2040 Africa will have three times the population of Europe. Of the 12 most-populous countries of 1950 only 6 will remain on that list in 2040. New additions will include Nigeria, Zaire, Ethiopia, and Iran. No European nation or former Soviet republic will have as many people as the Phillipines.

Other implications are pretty sobering, as well. The earliest impact will be in Europe (including Russia and its former republics), where TFRs are lowest currently. Italy, for example, has a TFR of 1.2 and dropping; the UN estimates that its total population will decline by 25% by the year 2050. Russia and Ukraine are in worse shape with an estimated 40% decline in the same period. The result will be an elderly population dependent upon immigrant labor for care and a nation requiring the same immigrants to main more and more critical areas. There is a serious concern that some cultures and nations will simply vanish as they die out and are replaced by waves of immigrants. And if they ban or severly limit immigration they face simple extinction through lowered birth rates – Italy, for example, theoretically reaches a population of zero in the year 2150. Some theorists also point out that immigrants tend to quickly mirror the TFRs of their new homes, global TFRs may drop more rapidly than expected.

Perhaps the most sobering projection is a simple projection of global TFRs stabilizing in about 2040 at roughly 1.7 or so. This projection by the UN shows a population peak in around 2040, a worldwide decline in population of about 85 million people by 2050 – and then a decrease in population of 25% every generation. If this is stable, meaning if TFRs stay at that level, by 2100 the world population will be roughly 4.5 billion people. By 2200 population projections show a global population of about 1.45 billion, and by 2300 a global population of 450 million people, or less than the projected population for the U.S. alone in 2040.

Now, we cannot make too many assumptions – population projection is tricky. There are a huge number of variables, many of which are not well understood. The current projections have been very accurate for over 30 years and (for a variety of reasons) I expect them to remain valid probably until about 2100 in broad terms. Some population experts expect global pop to stabilize around 1.8-2.2 billion around the year 2250. I am not trying to replace an ‘everyone starves to death’ scenario with an ‘everyone dies’ story.

What I am talking about is a big change in human life on a global scale. Shifting from a growing, young population to a shrinking, elderly population will cause massive societal changes that we can only guess at. A shrinking consumer base combined with a shortage of workers could very well force a number of companies completely out of business. It will certainly have a big impact on distribution of wealth and political power. A global deflationary economy is possible, changing marketing and savings patterns. And the massive drain on manpower and money needed over the next 50 years as the majority of the population ages rapidly will certainly hurt.

Let’s add in that many ‘developed’ nations could end up with a wealthy, well-educated native elite with an average age in the 60’s being served by a youthful, poor, relatively-uneducated workforce of immigrants. The potential for strife is huge. At the same time, many developed nations will have too few young people to field an army of respectable size, while many poor nations will still have plenty of young men – all during the time that may represent the period of greatest economic and political unrest in human history. Disturbing concepts.

Another thing to consider is the pattern of births. Devout members of ‘fundamentalist’ Judeo-Christian religions have a higher TFR than their non-devout, non-fundamentalist, and secular peers. This is particularly true of Catholics and Mormons. Thus, while Italy and Spain, both nominally ‘Catholic nations’, have some of the very lowest TFRs in the world this seems to be because they are heavily secularized. Devout populations of Catholics in both countries seem to be the reason that their cumulative TFRs are not even lower. Among Jewish, Catholic, and Mormon women, TFR increases correspond almost directly with religious participation. Put simply, Jewish, Catholic, and Mormon women that attend church/temple more regularly have more children. Participation in volunteer activities within these religious groups also increases TFR. Interestingly, while Islmaic TFRs are above the global average, they are dropping rapidly and have no similar correspondence with religious activity.

Another interesting aspect of fertility among the (for wont of a more convenient term) devout is that it does not necessarily follow what everyone believes trends in fertility should be. Advocates of family planning from Planned Parenthood to Negative Population Growth urge education and development as a panacea for reducing fertility. The basic argument is that as populations become more prosperous, more women enter the workforce, more women get higher education, marriage is delayed – as is childbirth, and women ‘naturally’ have fewer children. Trouble is, this isn’t always the case.

American studies show that American Catholics in the 1950’s and ‘60’s had more children when they had more education. Similarly, Mormon women with higher education have more children on average than their less-educated co-religionists. Israeli research mirrors this in Jewish women. The Israeli study, by far the most detailed, showed another factor – from barely-observant to devout Jewish women TFR was just as tightly linked to cultural origins as it was to religious participation. For example, secularized Jewish women descended from North Africans have a higher TFR than secularized Jewish women descended from Russian immigrants. And the correlation extends through to devout Jewish women.

One possible conclusion is that the decline in birthrates among ‘more educated’ women has more to do with the absorption of cultural and societal values than with education in and of itself. Because not only do highly-educated religious women have a higher TFR than their secular peers, in Europe and North America the differences in TFR between high-school graduates and those with a bachelor’s degree are far less than similar positive trending amongst the devout. In other words, it seems that it is not higher education in and of itself but rather a “secularized Western” worldview that leads to declined TFRs. The decrease in TFRs seems to have more to do with exporting cultures and values than with improving education.

Another issue is the increase in commitment among young Catholics. By far the largest single religious group on Earth, the Catholic Church seemed to suffer a decrease in members who could be called ‘devout’ during the last 40 years. At the same time, however, total numbers grew until approximately 1/6 of the world is at least nominally Catholic, or about 1.1 billion people. An interesting trend seen recently is a rather sharp increase in the number of young Catholics attending religious services regularly, volunteering at church activities, etc., especially in the developed countries. In other words, as measured here young Catholics are becoming more devout. At the same time, outside of Jewish youths, Catholics have the highest average level of education in developed nations. This seems to open the possibility of developed nations becoming more and more devout as non-devout women have fewer and fewer children while their devout neighbors have more and more. And the ‘undeveloped’ regions that currently have high TFRs also have expanding and devout Catholic populations, especially Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

More interesting extrapolations are possible, aren’t they? What happens if by 2100, when world population has dropped to about 4.5 billion with a large percentage of them being devout Jews, Catholics, and Mormons? Devout members of these faiths tend to be much more homogeneous in their voting habits than their more-secular co-religionists and are overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, conservative. What will be the results of an increasingly religious population worldwide? Other point is the fact that a large number of the elderly population of the next 30 years, especially in the West, is largely anti-religion in its viewpoints?

One outcome that I see as possible combines all of these elements; in the theory or vision the Earth of 2040 has a population of about 7.5 billion people, a majority of Westerners are over 50, anti-religious, or both. The workforce that cares for and supports them is young, devout, and from somewhere else. The societal pressures of a relatively small, poor, devout workforce being under the economic and political thrall of an elderly, wealthy, secular elite will be stunning. If even half of this comes to pass I will be shocked if there are not major changes in not just geo-politics but the very structure of political power and the global economy.