According to Cecilia Boldemann, Magnus Henreksson, Stig-Olof Holm and John Tempel (BHHT), notable researchers in social science, we are facing a Malthusian disaster. To avoid this disaster, we should as forcefully as we can within the bounds of democracy and the respect for individual rights, limit population growth. This blog believes they are right, but in part for the wrong reasons.
The fertility rate is a measure of how many live births an average woman is expected to have over her lifetime. Although this measure is somewhat abstract, it is a helpful one to asses the demographic situation of mankind. Today the global fertility rate is 2,6. The replacement level is the level required to keep a population stable, and this varies from 2,1 in the OECD countries to 2,3-9 in developing countries, as offspring are less likely to reach fertile age in these countries. The global average replacement level is 2,33.
As public health improves in developing countries, the replacement level is likely to drop to 2,1 over the next few decades. However, as access to the same lifesaving techniques that push down the replacement level proliferate, fertility rates tend also to fall. Most people in developing countries, especially in middle-class families, prefer small families, or 2 to 3 children.
So why should we worry? If the trend continues, then the population should level out fairly soon. As democracy, reproductive freedom and investment in public health is rapidly proliferating in developing countries, mankind’s prospects seem bright. Alas, this view is far too optimistic. As BHHT point out, we are already depleting non-renewable resources at an alarming rate. Although it is reasonable to expect technological innovation to mitigate some of these problems, only a fool would rely only on technological development to save humanity from a Malthusian death trap. And although fertility rates are falling all over the globe, the population is likely to continue growing, even if fertility rates would reach 2,1 over the next decades, an optimistic scenario. The reason for this is that the amount of people entering their fertile lifespan is likely to be greater than ever in the near future. More fertile people means more new people, even if these people procreate at the replacement level.
BHHT fail also to consider the consequences of radical life extension. In university labs all over the world, many minds are focused on different ways of extending the human lifespan with a decade or more. In combination, these technologies may postpone senescence for most of the people in the rich world with a third of a normal lifespan within decades. If these technologies would bear fruit, then we would have yet another problem: the fact that the most resource-consuming two or three billions of mankind would be able to prolong their lives long enough to spell a disaster. No democracy is likely to be able to deny their citizens a treatment that postpones senescence, and if widely available, it would be surely consumed en masse.
There is also the issue of poverty. Economic growth is widely believed to be the only way to end the crippling poverty of the bottom billions. However, economic growth tends also to imply more resource-intensive societies. No one can or should deny poor people our living standard, but if this standard is achieved in the way that the OECD- countries gained their wealth, then we are doomed to fail.
Thus we have a quadruple Malthusian trap: rapid population growth, rapid resource depletion, dire need for more economic growth in some countries to alleviate poverty and suffering, and the likely introduction of radical life extension in developed economies in the near future. Pessimism seems the only sane option.
So what are we to do? Technology may or may not save the day. The claim that technological innovations will prove a quick fix is certainly optimistic, but perhaps not absurdly so. Most pundits fail to consider that technological development may be faster than merely linear. Although it is certainly far fetched to believe in exponential progress, we have reasons to believe that mankind’s technological tools are getting better at a rapidly accelerating pace. As more people than ever participate in the scientific community, the costs of information sharing and dissemination plunge dramatically and the amounts of data and computing power soars, we should expect innovations to play a significant role, if perhaps not a decisive one, in evading the Malthusian disaster.
Politics is perhaps our most important tool. As BHHT suggests, a global working group on population control should be established. All countries should be encouraged to sign under a declaration of intent to reduce fertility. National programs for fertility reduction have been fairly successful in Asia, and somewhat less so in Africa. Access to contraception, legal and safe abortions, information about family planning and voluntary sterilization are cheap and surprisingly effective means of fertility reduction. Politics could also play a role in reducing poverty. Public investment in infrastructure, such as water treatment, electrification, public transportation, universal health care and education should be encouraged by global financial institutions. While we are seeing an attitude shift in these issues, there still an overly sadistic tendency in financial market’s attitudes towards slashing public spending. Investment in infrastructure and alleviation of poor people’s health is financially sound and morally required. The case must be made that developing countries are, in many cases not as poor as most Europeans and Americans believe. Rather, these countries have often very unequal distribution of wealth. In many cases this inequality is produced by active political interventions that give urban elites subsidies at the cost of the rural poor.
Then there is the issue of global warming, perhaps the most pertinent aspect of our rapid depletion of the world’s resources. As this blog has argued in previous posts, the most efficient and effective way to reduce consumption, to promote innovation and to promote social equality is a revenue-neutral carbon tax. The money raised from taxing greenhouse-gas emitting activities should be distributed as a flat dividend to all citizens. In a similar manner could other resources be priced, most notably water. In many countries, water is almost free for farmers to use. This promotes farmers to plant whatever crop generates most revenue, not the one who generates most revenue per unit of water. Price water according to demand and supply, and those rice paddies in the Spanish semi desert are likely to vanish faster than you can say ”arroz con leche”.
The consequences of pricing water and greenhouse gases to a necessary extent are likely to be radical. Most of us will not afford that steak, nor will weekend-trips with Ryan air be affordable. Perhaps we will buy a new TV every decade, not every three years. On the other side, services will be relatively cheaper. As our economy is likely to grow, at least at a modest pace, over the near future, we will see consumption patterns shift towards services, such as dining in restaurants, getting your hair done, getting piano or origami lessons or engage in some multi-player on-line computer games. Perhaps this is not as bad a future as many green doom-sayers insist on.
In a long term perspective (100 years or so), the Malthusian trap cannot be avoided without considering the option of colonizing other planets. Even if population drops to 2,1, if life extension keeps people young indefinitely, the death rate is likely to plunge dramatically over the next 100 years or so. If barely no-one dies, and every woman keeps having 2,1 kids, we will see huge increases of population for every generation. Not even with the most extreme sci-fi technology will this planet be able to provide for such huge increase in the amount of wealthy and almost immortal humans. The answer is thus to expand to other planets and moons in this solar system. This could be made at a reasonable cost in 50-100 years or so. The first step to such an endeavour would be to build an elevator to Earth’s orbit, as the costs of escaping Earth’s gravity stands for a substantial part of the costs of interplanetary travel. When such an elevator is in place, something that could well be achieved in 30 years or so, our efforts to construct habitats for people on the Moon should be a priority. Unmanned drones could do much of the initial work, but eventually, humans would be needed. Mars is an obvious second candidate and over the following 1000 years the moons of Neptune and Jupiter should be considered. Only in retrospect will we know if these ideas were realistic. But I sure hope to be there to see them come true.