Sunday, April 29, 2012

What If A Collapse Happened And Nobody Noticed?

Every once and awhile I'll be listening to a podcast with one or the other writers specializing on the subject of Peak Oil or collapse and the subject of timetables will come up. When will the collapse finally be here, the callers ask insistently, almost pleadingly, so that they can finally justify their investments in freeze-dried foods, water purification tablets and solid gold coins. Inevitably the guest will demur, and speak more in general terms. But I'm going to be the first pundit to go out on the limb and assign a timeline for the collapse. Spread it far and wide, and let's see just how good my predictive powers are. Are you ready? Here it is:

Right now.

What do they think a collapse is supposed to look like? It seems people just cannot just cannot get past the "Zombie Apocalypse" theory of collapse. They imagine hordes of disease-ridden folks dressed in rags stumbling around and fighting over cans of petrol and stripping cans of food from shelves. That's not what collapse looks like. It never has been. In fact, there's very little evidence that a Zombie Apocalypse style collapse ever occurred in the historical record. Instead we see subtle patterns of abandonment and decay that unfold over long periods of time. Big projects stop. Population thins. Trade routes shrink and people revert to barter. Things get simpler and more local. Culture coarsens. High art stagnates. People disperse. Expectations are adjusted downward. Investments are no longer made in the future and previous investments are cannibalized just to maintain the status quo. Extend and pretend is hardly a recent invention.

No, what happens in a collapse is very much more subtle than a Zombie Apocalypse. Things tend to look pretty normal for the following reasons:

1.) People and Institutions are resistant to change.
2.) The system has a formidable array of resources to preserve the status quo.
3.) Sheer momentum.
4.) Creeping Normalcy
5.) Denial

This is how history says collapses go down, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Based on recent archaeology, it seems this is how the Roman collapse unfolded was well. Although images of pillaging barbarians looting burning cities sticks in people's imaginations when they think of the fall of the Roman Empire, this was not the experience for most people according to recent scholarship. Big events tended to come down to us in the written record, but for ordinary people, it probably seemed much less dramatic. Yes, there were some famines and plagues, as there had always been. The population declined, but there were no apocalyptic battles or mass starvation. Many of the cities appear to have been continually inhabited. There were no mass graves, ruined cities or signs of malnutrition found in excavations. Most people who survived the plagues lived right through the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity to the Medieval period with remarkable continuity, just a change of institutions and expectations. But something clearly was happening, because we know it from history. Buildings got plainer. Citizens got poorer. Trade routes shrank. Economies became local. Lawlessness increased. The old Roman Empire had been around since far before anyone could remember, and as it broke down more and more and failed to do things it had once done easily, it must have seen to some people like the world was collapsing in on them. It wasn't, but something was happening. Much depended on who you were, where you were, what your expectations were, and how much you had invested in the status quo, both mentally and in terms of status and resources.

What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%

And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives.  Russia's life expectancy fell dramatically. It's birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.

And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia:
The savage cuts to Greece's health service budget have led to a sharp rise in HIV/Aids and malaria in the beleaguered nation, said a leading aid organisation on Thursday.

The incidence of HIV/Aids among intravenous drug users in central Athens soared by 1,250% in the first 10 months of 2011 compared with the same period the previous year, according to the head of Médecins sans Frontières Greece, while malaria is becoming endemic in the south for the first time since the rule of the colonels, which ended in the 1970s.

Reveka Papadopoulos said that following health service cuts, including heavy job losses and a 40% reduction in funding for hospitals, Greek social services were "under very severe strain, if not in a state of breakdown. What we are seeing are very clear indicators of a system that cannot cope". The heavy, horizontal and "blind" budget cuts coincided last year with a 24% increase in demand for hospital services, she said, "largely because people could simply no longer afford private healthcare. The entire system is deteriorating".
Greece on the breadline: HIV and malaria make a comeback

Is that not a die-off? What would a collapse look like? What should a collapse look like? Zombies? Mad Max? Or would it look like the following statistics from this article:
In Greece, we now have record unemployment, which includes the majority of young workers. Homelessness is up 20 percent, with soup kitchens in Athens reporting record demand, and the usually low suicide rate having doubled.

Portugal has complied completely with the austerity demands it accepted for its bailout deal, but its debt is growing and its economy is shrinking, its unemployment rate continues to reach new heights, there is a crisis in medical care, and a 40 percent rise in emigration, with the Portuguese government acknowledging its own failure by actually encouraging its citizenry to leave.

In Spain, austerity has  resulted in falling industrial output and deepening debt, with record unemployment and a stunning rate of 50 percent youth unemployment. And the Spanish government's incomprehensible response is to impose even more crushing austerity.

Ireland has fallen back into recession as austerity has led to falling economic output. A better future is being sacrificed, as young workers look for work abroad, "generation emigration" expected to number 75,000 this year.

The success of Italy's wealthy technocrat government was concisely summarized in similar terms:

        Italy's austerity measures are stunting activity in the euro-zone's third-largest economy, recent budget and economic data show, suggesting the steps are backfiring.

Italy's industrial production is falling while its rate of unemployment is at its highest in more than a decade, and its priceless cultural heritage is literally crumbling. But the wealthy technocrats themselves are ensuring that they they don't have to share the suffering.

Even in the Eurozone's stronger economies, such as Holland, austerity is hurting the economy, people, and culture, and risks backfiring even more.

The austerity program of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has led to a stagnant economy, with ten consecutive months of rising unemployment and factory output stalled and business confidence in decline.

Even economic powerhouse Germany, while taking advantage of the new flood of migrant workers fleeing Europe's weaker economies, is facing an austerity backlash.

Outside the Eurozone, the austerity program imposed on Britain by the relentlessly mendacious Cameron government has resulted in an economy that keeps shrinking, with the OECD saying it is back in recession, with unemployment soaring, and the overall brunt being borne by the elderly and minorities and the very young. An additional hundred thousand are predicted to be out of work by autumn.
Greece appears to be just the dress rehearsal for the rest of the world. And Japan has been experiencing diminished expectations, lower wages, deflation and declining birthrates since 1989. And I don't think I need to restate conditions in the United States: municipal bankruptcies, school closings, foreclosures, blackouts, roads being turned back into gravel, etc. And conditions are continuing to deteriorate. See this:
So many corporate-owned politicians in Washington these days seem to be going out of their way to work side by side with the Grim Reaper. They declare unnecessary wars. They tax us (not themselves) right down to the bone. They steal all our safety nets in order to have more money to add to THEIR safety nets. They bust our unions, steal our pension plans, enable Wall Street to invent pyramid schemes that ruin our economy, encourage big health insurance companies to cut us loose just when we need them the most, and allow Monsanto to poison our food, mutilate our seed stock and kill off our bees.

In America, death seems to be coming earlier and earlier to those who vote.

And now GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come up with an even more sure-fire plan to help out his new BFF, the Grim Reaper. Now Romney wants to not only eliminate most U.S. housing subsidies, he wants to eliminate the entire department of Housing and Urban Renewal as well. That will certainly speed up the Grim Reaper’s efforts for sure.

According to Forbes magazine, “In a closed-door Florida fundraiser for donors tonight, Mitt Romney offered a rare glimpse into his policy plans if elected President. And, as NBC reports, he got quite trigger-happy.”

According to TruthOut, “Romney’s plan to eliminate HUD, assuming he didn’t shuffle its programs to other departments, would bring an end to critical programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and community development block grants. And eliminating housing assistance is even more problematic given the disproportionate percentage of veterans in the homeless population.”

But what does Romney’s latest brilliant idea actually mean in terms of you and me? It means once again that the rich continue to get richer and live longer while the rest of us just conveniently die off too soon — because homeless people have a lot shorter life span than folks happily housed in the Hamptons.

You know that senior housing complex in your town where seniors now get a rent break courtesy of HUD? That will be gone. And without HUD, frail and ailing seniors will soon be wandering the streets of your town, dying in alleyways and hogging up all the space in your cemeteries.

You know those low-income “housing projects” on the other side of your town where all the poor people now live? Those will be gone too. Too bad for them. And now desperate poor folks will be wandering around in your part of town, homeless too. And did I already mention that they will be desperate?

And all those homeless vets? There will be a lot more of them now — also wandering around your city or town.

Remember back in the 1970s when Reagan shut down all those mental institutions and suddenly we had all sorts of crazy people wandering around, hopefully taking their meds but probably not? And if Romney’s latest hot new scheme takes hold, even more of them will be back on your streets.

And physically handicapped people will have no place to live either. They too will be wandering around, trying to elude the Grim Reaper.

And the number of homeless children will dramatically increase. A lot more little kids will be living in cars — if they’re lucky.

And all of these homeless people, millions of them, will be pouring into the streets of your city or town, herded in your direction by both corporate-owned politicians in Washington and the Grim Reaper himself — who also will have a sharp eye out for YOU.
Romney’s new housing policy: Offering the Grim Reaper a big helping hand (FireDogLake)

And this: Austerity In America: 22 Signs That It Is Already Here And That It Is Going To Be Very Painful (Economic Collapse Blog)

This is what a collapse really looks like: The poorest and most vulnerable die first, out of sight, and everyone else just does what they can to survive. Peoples' priorities change: they concentrate on getting by from day-to-day rather than planning for the future. They stop getting married. They have less children or none at all. They live for today. They work harder for less. Taxes go up even as basic services are cut. Long term unemployment has been conclusively linked to greater mortality and susceptibility to illness, physical and mental. Would many of these people not still be alive today if were not for austerity measures and declining middle class opportunity?  Isn't that a die-off? It's been said that having children is a referendum on the future. Based on global birth rates, I think the human race is collectively registering a vote of "no confidence."

Picture the ruin porn of decaying Detroit's vacant buildings, empty fields, shuttered factories, abandoned houses, crumbling overpasses, bursting water mains, rusting cars, and encroaching wilderness. Does this not look like collapse to you? If this had happened over a span of one or two years, would we even have any trouble of recognizing it as such? If you asked people twenty or thirty years ago what a global economic collapse would look like, would they not describe something very similar to what we are now witnessing? Why don't we recognize it? Because it is happening too slowly? Because we believe things will "get back to normal?" What are we waiting for, a sign from heaven?

Who you are and where you are effects this dramatically too. Your position on the hierarchy determines how well insulated you are from collapse. Are you poor already? (not middle class, everyone is middle class) Then you probably won't notice as much difference. Are you filthy rich? (if you're reading this, I doubt it) Then you have enough power to preserve your wealth or enhance it for a while (at our expense, of course). If you are in the technocratic caste that serves global corporate interests, have the privilege of an advanced education, work in certain select industries, have a vast inheritance, or are just plain lucky; you can probably safely hold on to your lifestyle for a long time to come. Your children won't be so lucky, though. For those people who wonder why they don't feel like they are in a collapse, please consider, have you gotten a raise lately? What's your home worth? Has your rent gone up? Taxes and fees? Some people may answer positively to these questions, of course, but that number has a funny way of shrinking over time.

If you live in a big city it also might be easier to get by. Cities have more diverse industries and higher tax bases,  There is more wealth in cites, more social momentum, and more resources to buffer the negative effects of a downturn. For those with social connections closest to the levers of power and the imperial courts, they can manipulate the system to keep the swag coming from their enclaves in Manhattan, Orange Country, suburban D.C., and the Hamptons. Just as in the Roman collapse where the cities were bulwarks of wealth, culture and commerce while countryside became depopulated, rural areas will be hardest hit. Indeed, rural towns that were dependent upon one major industry like farming or steel manufacturing have already become ghost towns, and much of rural America is already a lawless region with little infrastructure; a battleground for drug gangs dotted with marijuana plantations and meth labs.

We have a hard time imagining that in the midst of a collapse everything would seem so normal. That day-to-day life would go one for most of us, seemingly unaffected, and that only after vast stretches of time had passed would we notice anything different. That many of us could hold on to our modern conveniences and familiar things. That many people wouldn't even notice what's going on at all. Short of a plague situation, there are not usually piles of bodies during a collapse. Most people don't die. Here's what really happens: People move in with relatives. They barter services. They defer health care. They stop going to school. They sell off their possessions. They go on the dole, if they can. They stop caring. You see people happy to have food and warmth rather than the latest consumer toy. You see entire households supported by one breadwinner. You see homeless shelters and soup kitchens fill up and food banks empty out. You see people hanging out on streetcorners during the day and living in tents. That's what a collapse looks like. Sound familiar? In fact, much of the world never moved from this mode of  existence in the first place. Even during the worst historical collapses people still ate good food, listened to music, used the latest technology, and drank beer and wine with friends on warm summer evenings.

So then why is the collapse occurring? Is it all about debt, as we've been led to believe? Or is it about something else?

Imagine if you were the leader of one of the world's major industrial nations, with millions of people, economies worth trillions, and huge armies at your command. Now imagine that your top generals and admirals have briefed you and told you that the fundamental substances underlying modern industrial civilization were running out. That there would be shortages. Scarcity.  Resource wars. Dwindling food supplies. Decreased industrial output. A shrinking tax base. Insurrection. What would you do? Panic? Or would you do exactly what world leaders are doing right now: using economic policies to shrink the economy to a lower level and cause a slow die-off? Claim that "there is no alternative", and that once "confidence" is restored, things will be back to normal? Consider:
Last year two military planning organizations went public with studies predicting that serious consequences from oil depletion will befall us shortly. In the U.S. the Joint Forces Command concluded, without saying how they arrived at their dates, that by 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear and that by 2015 the global shortfall in oil production could be as much as 10 million b/d. Later in the year a draft of a German army study, which went into greater detail in analyzing the consequences of peaking world oil production, was leaked to the press. The German study which was released recently is unique for the frankness with which it explores the dire consequences which may be in store for us.
And see this: Energy Security: an annotated military/security bibliography (2010 update) (Energy Bulletin)

Of course, to assuage the public's anger, governments will promise an imminent return to normalcy. What they mean is, slow collapse down to a slow enough pace that it is less noticeable. And they've been saying this for four years already. Want to bet they'll be saying it four years from now? And four years after that?

Once things did "stabilize" everything would return to a sort of normal and you would be considered a hero by the public. And things will look great, because people only judge things in contrast with the immediate past, not decades before. And in relative terms, after years of "austerity", things will be "recovering." Temporarily at least, until the next crisis hits. But by that time you hope there will be another sucker sitting in the White House, or 10 Downing Street, or the Élysée Palace while you spend your retirement skiing in Zurich or sunning yourself in Monaco. And the cycle begins again. Your family members, as "elites," will be unaffected, of course. Debts can be cancelled. It's just the excuse they need.

Really, austerity makes no sense otherwise. As Steve Keen put it in a recent interview, "they think causing an accelerated economic collapse will make it easier to pay their debts." Indeed. Even some of the world's most renowned economists have declared such policies insane. If even Nobel-prize winning economists think it's crazy, then why are governments doing it? But these economists are in the main, ignorant of Peak Oil, willingly or unwillingly. They can only think in terms of reactivating "growth" in a Keynesian sense. But based on the above, it's clear world leaders know that's not going to happen. What other reason could there be? After all, capitalism requires growth, and only after enough is destroyed can growth begin again. Is what we are witnessing now not a slow destruction? Austerity is a wildfire set by the political/banking elite classes to get rid of the underbrush and start anew.

Certainly they could implement more humane options if they so desired. But most of those would require a diminution in the power of corporations and banks. They need not fear socialist revolution as they did generations ago, because everyone knows that socialism has failed and that wealth redistribution makes everyone poorer (right?). Entire populations can now be effectively controlled by the media apparatus, and if all else fails, you can bust out the tear gas and pepper spray. From now on, all we will be permitted is what we can claw from the impersonal and shrinking market. Social Darwinism has finally been given free reign by the powers that be.

Of course they could just as easily come clean with all this and initiate policies that minimize the pain and suffering of the general population. They could implement policies that allow for graceful and gradual decline and stop spending money on malignant things like prisons, security, war, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and needless consumerism in favor of public health measures, redistributing wealth, work programs, etc. They could cancel the debts. But today's governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banking establishments that control national economies, and they will have none of it. Over our dead bodies they say, we prefer your dead bodies. The real purpose of austerity and neoliberal economic doctrine is to get the remaining wealth of industrial society into their bank accounts before the shit hits the fan so they and their descendants can pick up the pieces in a post oil-crash world. They will continue to have the best of everything. Someone's going to have personalized genetic medicine and android servants, just not you or I. I myself am skeptical, however, that things will go as planned. This is why they need Authoritarian Capitalism.

People often wonder if the Romans knew at the time that their society was collapsing. Even if some  intelligent and literate Romans did recognize it, could they have done anything about it? We who know better at least know that we are on our own to deal with this. You know the truth. You don't have to flee to a bunker, and you don't have to die off either (of course we all will someday, but that's a different story...). Don't wait for politicians to tell you the truth about austerity, because they never will. You can see that this engineered collapse is exactly what we've been fearing all this time. No reason to fear the collapse-look around, you're already living though it even as you read these words, and you're presumably still here. Take a deep breath. Relax. Have a beer. Listen to some music. No Zombies Required.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Technology, Innovation, and the Blowback Principle

A new USGS report is the latest in a growing body of documentation tying the unusual increase in earthquakes in locales across the country to the processes associated with oil and gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Fracking has also been implicated in the contamination of groundwater supplies with benzine, a known carcinogen. In other news, several studies have shown a new link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticids and colony collapse disorder - the widespread deaths of pollinating bees. Pesticides usually work by disrupting the chemical metabolism of insects that feed on the plants. New federal data indicate that 1 in 88 U.S. children had autism or other autism spectrum disorders in 2008, up from 1 in 110 kids in 2006 and 1 in 150 in 2002. In Utah the reate is as high as 1 in 32. Higher rates of autism have been associated with greater exposure to flame retardants, plasticizers like BPA, pesticides, endocrine disruptors in personal care products, heavy metals in air pollution, mercury, pharmaceuticals like anti-depressants, and increased age of fathers. Others merely blame increased awareness of the condition. Puberty for girls is coming earlier, as early as 10 years old in some cases. Suspected culprits include obesity, endocrine disruptors like BPA, hormones in food, and family stress. The increased use of psychiatric drugs has been posited as a cause of the dementia epidemic. And a new Swedish study linked exposure to phthalates with diabetes in seniors. Previous studies linked phthalates, which are major components of plastics, to everything from low sperm counts to birth defects. The inhabitants of the Gulf Coast of the United States and Fukushima prefecture Japan continue to suffer ill effects of the massive oil spill and nuclear meltdown, respectively.*

All of these are examples what I call The Blowback Principle. The blowback principle states that any new technology is going to have unanticipated negative consequences. The point is not to demonize all science and technology, rather it is merely to point out that no new technology when introduced into a society is free of these unintended consequences. Yet this seems to be one of the biggest cognitive blindspots of technology boosters, who see technology as the solution to every problem, full stop. In fact, technology often seems to give rise to a whole new set of problems which must then be solved by inventing even more technology, ad infinitum. Meanwhile the problems seem to never get solved, and in some cases, often metastasize or accelerate. I always want to ask those who posit a technological solution to every problem, what do we do about the subsequent problem that the solution will cause? The above examples are just a few drawn from the news in just the last few weeks. I’m sure there will be many others in the near future.

Now to be clear, my point is not that we should all just abandon all technology and go back to living in the stone age, although I’m sure that’s how my technophilist friends will interpret it. Technology often does improve our lives.  My point is that blindly trusting in some new technology or innovation to solve our fundamental problems is foolish. And not considering all the effects is also foolish. If technology is invented to solve problems but causes as many problems as it solves, can it really be said to solve anything?

In one sense, technology boosters are the ultimate optimists. For example, they look at the internet and see all the wonderful things caused by mass communication among people – the ease and immediacy of communication, the dissemination of information, the elimination of gatekeepers, the variety of expression, the social connectedness, the democratization of content, efficiency, online shopping, crowdsourcing, etc.. They don’t talk about robo-trading, cyber-attacks, child pornography rings, online stalking, identity theft, compartmentalization of media, video game addiction, fraud, viruses, spam, worms, bots, spyware, malware, and a host of other maladies that could fill volumes. Many have expressed concern that loneliness and alienation are actually being enhanced by the use of the internet. Others worry that people who do not have access will be left behind. Some have even gone so far as to suspect that staring at screens all day is causing a rewiring of our brains. Our attention spans are getting shorter and our comprehension shallower, they argue. And the internet has allowed capital and information,and subsequently work, to be moved anywhere in the world leading to major winners and losers, and we've only just begun to feel the negative fallout from that.

It’s hard to imagine a piece of technology that hasn’t been corrupted by the base desires of a species whose mind is fundamentally still on the African savannah. The biggest use of the internet isn’t intellectual discourse, it’s marketing, pornography and spam. Things like Facebook give rise to bullying; "cyber-bullying" has caused several tragic suicides, as it allows social ostracism to become even more intrusive and pronounced. Cell phones lead to ‘sexting’ and accidents caused by distracted drivers (not to mention loud, obnoxious conversations with nobody). There was an iPhone app that used new media technology like Facebook and Foursquare to allow people to track nearby single women that caused such a stir it was taken down. Already, governments allied with big corporations are seizing control of the internet and determining what we see and hear, in contraversion to the idealistic and anarchic vision of the  Web’s early founders. Unrealistic images foisted upon us in our media-saturated environment have caused entirely new psychological diseases like anorexia to emerge. Insecurity, inadequacy and status anxiety are all fomented by an advertising industry to hector the public to continually spend on new products to keep economic growth going.

Doing physical work is considered “a thing of the past” and something for people to avoid at all costs. It’s been eliminated in the name of “progress.” What are the consequences? A host of health maladies including obesity and heart disease. Was that expected? So now we're tying to invent new drugs that cure obesity and heart disease. Simply bringing back physical work, working less hours, building walkable communities, or regulating unhealthy foods are not considered viable solutions. Gee, I wonder what the “side effects” of the anti-obesity pill will be. Also, it’s increasingly thought that “clean” environments that children are raised in today contribute to allergies, since children who grow up farms are much less likely to have them. Good thing we got rid of farming along with physical work. Fortunately we've got allergy pills, with only a few side effects. Hopefully you won't get drowsy while driving. And there’s even evidence that spending time in nature heals depression and boosts mood. But we’ve got a pill for that too, only 150 dollars a bottle. One piece of innovation almost universally seen as  “good” is the search for cures for illnesses like cancer and diabetes. Yet Weston Price and others have documented that these diseases were virtually unknown in pre-agricultural societies. So even that is solving an earlier problem. Mankind's first technology, agriculture, led to sicker populations, new diseases emerging (thanks to confined animals) salinization, depleted soils, desertification, deforestation, and possibly many other ills (like despotism, war, and slavery). Even the discovery of antibiotics, considered an unmitigated success, has had the blowback effects of new drug-resistant strains emerging, factory farming, and overpopulation.


When television was introduced, people imagined all sort of benevolent, even utopian outcomes. Anyone could watch the inauguration of a president, the latest scientific breakthrough, or the dropping of bombs on civilians. It was thought that this would lead to an end to war. That it would enhance politics by making the public more informed and our political dialogue more constructive. That people would become more intelligent as educational programs taught even the lowliest laborer science, history, and mathematics. How has that worked out for us? Are we more intelligent or better informed? Is our political dialogue more enlightening? Has war stopped because we can see its effects on TV (when it's not being controlled or censored)? Turned on a TV lately? I think Dancing With The Stars is on.

Similarly utopian predictions were made for the automobile. At its base, the internal combustion engine is merely a way of moving people around using fuel instead of animals. Liberated from distance for the first time in history, it was thought, a golden age would occur as people were no longer confined to the small town they were born in or the farm they grew up on for their whole lives. Even a country farmer could now travel faster and farther than the crowned heads of old Europe in their carriages. People imagined It would end class distinctions, nationalism, military conflict, and even lead to a universal language by annihilating distance. And, indeed, the automobile has been liberating and beneficial in many ways. The internal combustion engine solved many pressing problems, like where to go with all the horse excrement. It made cities cleaner in the short run. It allowed food to be transported from anywhere. It has transformed society, as its proponents claimed. But has it been exclusively beneficial? And were the knock-on effects considered, or even imagined?

In fact, an entire book could be written about the consequences. Engines in tractors allowed less people to work on farms than ever before causing vast consolidation, since now just a handful of people could farm more land than ever before. Agriculture vanished almost overnight as a way of life for most people. Unemployment and bankruptcy soared. Consumer credit was introduced to allow people to purchase automobiles, causing banking to grow and debt to increase. Prosperous people moved away from cities and into the countryside, causing a bifurcation of society. Mechanized warfare due to the internal combustion engine caused the slaughter of millions. After the war, massive sums were spent on suburbanization to boost the economy and consumption. Policies like local funding of schools, redlining, “drive until you qualify” and the bussing of minority students transformed education and urban patterns. This in turn, caused political changes such as the removal of the commons which is still playing out. Pollution and smog became epidemic. Air pollution caused asthma cases to soar, and leaded gas caused a variety of maladies before its effects were identified. Public transportation vanished in America and people stopped walking causing obesity rates to soar. Housing bubbles formed and popped, eventually causing worldwide economic crises. Automakers consolidated and then went bankrupt, asking the public for bailouts. And enormous amounts of the nation's resources were devoted to maintaining a vast and expensive driving infrastructure that needed constant maintenance and paid for by taxes. More people are killed on the world's roadways in a typical year than in all the world's wars. And I haven’t even mentioned Peak Oil and climate change. Will more technology solve all of these problems caused by technology?

I could go on. Has air conditioning caused a political realignment of the United States as people moved to the sunbelt? Has television caused the murder rate to increase? Do video games make people more violent? Have digital effects ruined the ability to tell a good story? Does living in high rises in crowded cities increase mental illness? Is artificial light destroying our circadian rhythms? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Jet air travel and urbanization cause pandemics to quickly spread around the world. An unintended consequence of efficiency is the increased use of whatever you make more efficient. Entire books could be written, and probably have been, about these effects.

Considering all the effects above,my question to the singularitarians and other technophiles is: what makes them so sure that future technology will not give rise to these same unintended effects? To the same blowback? Kant once said "out of  the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Why do they assume that suddenly our technology will all of the sudden make things straight when it never has before?

Probably the most extreme current example of technophilia are proposals to "geoengineer" the biosphere. Proponents of “free markets” like to point out that no single entity or institution has enough knowledge or wisdom to manage the complexity of a modern economy. Yet somehow people believe we have the knowledge and wisdom to engineer the entire planet to our whim and not suffer unintended consequences. That we can “manage” causing artificial changes to the environment on a planetary scale that will allow us to continue the damage caused by earlier technology. What happens if we shoot chaff into the atmosphere to cool things down and a major volcano erupts? I find it supremely ironic that often the very same people who argue against central planning of the economy will advocate geoengineering the planet itself to meet the needs of the economy.

And furthermore these technophiles claim that soon we’re going to interface our consciousness with machines, plug our brains into the internet, become cyborgs, design our DNA, travel through time, and even make ourselves immortal! They claim that not only do we have the knowledge and wisdom to do this, but that there will be no unintended consequences. Really? To cite one specific objection, geneticist Spencer Wells points out in Pandora's Seed that many of our most brilliant artists, scientists and thinkers have suffered bouts of mental illness. What happens if we gain the ability to "engineer" mental illness away? Will we lose some essential part of our minds, of our selves? And clearly having people who never die on an already overcrowded planet opens up such a host of problems as to make your head spin. The bigger and more ambitious the technology, the bigger and more irreversible are the consequences. Are we too smart for our own good?


The ends to which a technology will be put are largely determined by the type of society into which they are introduced. Francis Bacon claimed that three innovations changed the world of his time - gunpowder, printing and the magnetic compass. Although he did not know the origins of these inventions, they all came from China. Obviously they had very different effects when introduced into Europe than they did in China. The same is true considering the effects of the steam engine in the classical and modern worlds. The nature of the society dictates how technology will be used, and who will benefit. Thus when you introduce television into a capitalistic society, you get wall-to-wall advertisements, pandering, manipulation by elites, and lowest common denominator forms of entertainment. Similarly, in a society of wealthy against poor where the ruling class sees people as cows to be milked for money, it is certain new technology will be used to negative ends. For example, using digital cash: there’s currently a push to eliminate all paper money in favor of virtual money. Who controls the virtual money? Banks and the government, that's who. What happens if you run afoul of one of these institutions? What if you visit the wrong website, buy the wrong book, or contribute to the wrong cause? They’re already tracking your online movements and assigning you a "credit score" that determines what you can buy, and even where you can live or work. What happens when the elites who own the banks and run the government can zero out your balance or credit score with a few keystrokes. When all records are electronic, can they just make you into a nonperson? What happens when we get chip implants? Will they be able to read your thoughts? Will they screen for subversive thoughts? Will you be denied health insurance, or even a job because of a genome scan? Will workers' DNA be engineered for docility and pliability? Couldn't we argue that some of these technological "innovations' will make the masses easier to control and might, just might, make things worse for a lot of people?

Technology is in some sense neutral - it can make things better or worse, depending on the society it is introduced into. Technology like machines that replace workers can lead to higher profits for the the few, and higher unemployment and destitution for the many, or it can lead to higher productivity, higher wages, and more leisure for everyone. In both instances the technology is exactly the same, it is only the social and economic arrangements that have changed. You can think of society as the software that runs the hardware of technology. The hardware can behave very differently depending on the software installed. An unhealthy society will use technology in unhealthy and oppressive ways. A healthy, well-adjusted society will use it positive, life-enhancing ways. If we are not using technology in healthy, life-enhancing ways, shouldn’t we be asking whether the problem is technology at all? Technology doesn’t create such societies, people and institutions do. If society isn’t fixed, adding new technology won’t make it better, in fact it will proably might make it a whole lot worse. The internet, supposedly the great equalizer, is already being taken over by governments and corporations who use it to spy on their citizens and control what they see and hear. Will nuclear technology light schools or build bombs? Will plants be built safely or for the lowest possible cost? How will the waste and pollution be dealt with, and who will pay for it? Is it safe? Are we sure? Who is telling us? Currently we just introduce technology into society with no oversight or control, like running an experiment every time, with all of us as participants.

Permaculture, agroforestry and organic agriculture are innovative enough, but we tend to only see innovation in terms of high-tech measures like genetic engineering or new chemical pesticides. Instead of waiting for the next Facebook or something like it to put people back to work, why not just put people back to work? Shortening working hours or government job creation are considered impossible to implement because we're told that such measures will actually somehow stifle innovation. Yet that's impossible - they are innovations, just not technological ones. They're social innovations, and they solve problems directly, instead of waiting for some future technological innovation that on one can quite specify. Instead of a way to keep tractors running at all costs, why not put people back to work as organic small farmers? It solves three problems at once - our unemployment problem, our obesity problem ,and out food/environmental problem (and might even help depression, too). Instead of trying to invent a carbon-harvesting machine, try biochar, or just plant a tree. Instead of frantically coming up with enough energy to keep everything running, why not use less of it? We already waste so much with no real boost in happiness or living standards. Yet none of these innovations are considered "progress." All these innovations all have two things in common - they're not predominantly technological, and they don't boost the profits of the already wealthy. Thus we have to ask, is innovation truly what the elites are after at all? Or are they after more control power and profits in the guise of innovation? There are numerous more innovations today than we had in 1950 (no cell phones or personal computers!) Yet unemployment is much higher, and well-being lower than it was then. We’ve already created innovations like the iPod and iPad, hybrid cars, MRIs, and genetic sequencing, but they haven’t changed the overall direction of the economy toward lower-paying service jobs and un/underemployment. In fact, many such innovations have done a better job at creating jobs for China’s economy than for ours. What makes us think this won’t be as true for future innovations? People have benefited from the use of the products, but not by more jobs, better pay, more free time, etc. We've never pinned more hopes and placed more focus on growth and innovation than we do today, and yet a pervasive sense of doom hangs over society. Why do we insist that future innovation will automatically make our lives better and cure our social ills?

Science is understanding. Technology is application. Yet it seems we ignore the conclusions of science, in favor of technology. Science tells use that we're permanently and irreparably damaging the environment by our industrial and agricultural output, that oil is running out, that the climate is changing, that mass extinctions are occurring, that many chemicals are poisonous, that the world has limits, and that we cannot grow exponentially forever. Science tells us that materialism doesn't cause happiness, that inequality harms societies, that lifelong social ties are essential, and that modern lifestyles are wrecking our health. It's even showing us that gene expression can change based upon such things as prenatal nutrition and social class! Yet the only science we are allowed to implement is that which produces more technology to increase the profits of the already wealthy. Technology has already made it easier to control populations and concentrate wealth. More technology will probably not fix these problems. The only thing that will solve them is solving them. And that’s the point - Innovation is used an an excuse to let problems fester and as a miracle cure. We've already solved most of the basic vexing human problems with our technology. We have indoor heat, hot and cold running water, sanitation, antibiotics, refrigeration, adequate food and nutrition, cooking fuel, entertainment and diversions, communication at light speed, and transportation to anywhere in the world in a day. What new innovation are we truly lacking? The problem is distribution - most people still don't have access to many of these things. Or we don't have time to enjoy them. Do we need future technical innovations to solve that? And why haven't they been solved already? After all, what is the end goal of all this technology? Is there one?


All that being said, here are my 10 rules of technology:

1. If one of the assumptions behind the adoption of a technology is human infallibility, then it's probably a bad idea.

2. Just because we can, doesn't mean that we should. Will the adoption of a technology will make society better, or worse? The Amish are not anti-technology, they are just pro-choice (no pun intended). They actively decide what to adopt and what to reject based upon the effects the technology will have. If the technology conflicts with their values, they reject it. Of course, this assumes a society has values. Predictably, every social malady we find in technological societies are much less pronounced or nonexistent among the Amish. That doesn't mean we should all become Amish, just that there may be a lesson here.

3. Every benefit has a cost. What is the cost? What is the benefit? Is the cost worth the benefit?

4. Cui bono? To who's benefit is the adoption of a new technology? Who are the losers, if any? The Luddites were upset not at technology, but at the loss of their livelihoods. If the benefits and profits of the new technology had been broadly shared, would they have smashed the machines? I doubt it.

5. Does it really meet a need? If we're putting massive resources into inventing new antidepressants, shouldn't we be wondering why we're so depressed in the first place? What does it say about the world we've created for ourselves that many of the long-awaited future innovations cited by technology boosters - virtual worlds, immersive games, cybernetic bodies, etc., are all pretty much ways of fleeing from reality.

6. Is there another simpler, low tech way to accomplish the same thing? One with fewer negative consequences? With fewer side effects? With less environmental damage?

7. With apologies to Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. What are the ends to the technology you are introducing? Health? Happiness? Convenience? Profit? It seems like we're inventing new needs just to find some technology to satisfy them, rather than the reverse.

8. Don't think of innovation as just technology. Let's look at other types of innovation - political, economic, social, and ask if that solves our problem better than some techno-fix.

9. If a person cannot articulate exactly why they are using a technology or how it makes their life better, or if it even makes them unhappy, it is merely a status symbol, an addiction or a fetish.

10, If you think the invention of [insert technology here] will bring about a utopia, then you're probably wrong.

When people from technologically advanced societies visit primitive Amazonian tribesmen and remark that they are the happiest people they've ever seen, you've got to wonder how good technology really is at making us any happier. We feel we would be absolutely miserable without out television sets, our DVD players, our iPods, our cell phones, our cars, our computer games, our books. Would we be? If they went away, we'd miss them, but that's different. That's missing something you're accustomed to, and even that would fade in time. The human psyche is resilient and can accustom itself to nearly anything; even people who lose limbs return to the same set point of contentment. How can we say a primitive existence will make us permanently unhappy? If if a even primitive existence won't, certainly giving up a small thing or two here and there won't either. Isn't it all relative to what's around you? How can we miss what we don't know exists? Who says "I'm unhappy today because I don't have something that's going to be invented a hundred years from now?"

Consider me a techno-skeptic. A skeptic isn't anti, he's just skeptical. I'm really a fan of technology as well as a user (this is on the Internet, right?). I like DVD's, indoor heat and anesthetics. I just think we're fooling ourselves if we think that more technology and innovation is the best, or even the only solution for many of our most pressing problems. And I think we do ourselves a disservice if we think of innovation purely in terms of new technology. Do you really need that solar-powered electric coffee grinder? Technology is a teriffic servant but a poor master. Keven Kelley wrote a book called What Technology Wants, contending that technology has wants and needs of its own accord. Isn't it time to stop giving technology what it wants, and start having it give us what we want?


Friday, April 13, 2012

The Depopulation Bomb

Last week I downloaded a Long Now Foundation talk by Phillip Longman. It was fascinating listening. Longman is the author of several books, but is best known as a demographer and author of a book with the provocative title of The Empty Cradle. Longman's talk was about what effects depopulation would have on the economic and social fabric of the world. That's right, depopulation. Even though world population is increasing precipitously, birth rates are actually falling all over the world, even in places you least expect it like the Middle East, much of East Asia, and even Latin America.While we worry a lot about overpopulation, Longman talks about the effects that shrinking birthrates and lengthened life spans will have on world economies. Essentially, it leads to a graying population - the population continues to increase, but it's the elderly who are driving the increase. There are less children than old people. Just as the rise in population is a feedback loop because you have more breeding pairs, the decline also feeds upon itself, since you have less breeding pairs with every iteration if you have a lower than replacement birth rate. Longman goes through a laundry list of concerns about this, some expected, some not (such as fundamentalists outbreeding the 'normal' population).

David Brooks covered much of the same ground in a recent column - The Fertility Implosion:
Usually, high religious observance and low income go along with high birthrates. But, according to the United States Census Bureau, Iran now has a similar birth rate to New England — which is the least fertile region in the U.S.

The speed of the change is breathtaking. A woman in Oman today has 5.6 fewer babies than a woman in Oman 30 years ago. Morocco, Syria and Saudi Arabia have seen fertility-rate declines of nearly 60 percent, and in Iran it’s more than 70 percent. These are among the fastest declines in recorded history.

The Iranian regime is aware of how the rapidly aging population and the lack of young people entering the work force could lead to long-term decline. But there’s not much they have been able to do about it. Maybe Iranians are pessimistic about the future. Maybe Iranian parents just want smaller families.

As Eberstadt is careful to note, demographics is not necessarily destiny. You can have fast economic development with low fertility or high fertility (South Korea and Taiwan did it a few decades ago). But, over the long term, it’s better to have a growing work force, not one that’s shrinking compared with the number of retirees.

If you look around the world, you see many other nations facing demographic headwinds. If the 20th century was the century of the population explosion, the 21st century, as Eberstadt notes, is looking like the century of the fertility implosion.

Already, nearly half the world’s population lives in countries with birthrates below the replacement level. According to the Census Bureau, the total increase in global manpower between 2010 and 2030 will be just half the increase we experienced in the two decades that just ended. At the same time, according to work by the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, the growth in educational attainment around the world is slowing.

This leads to what the writer Philip Longman has called the gray tsunami — a situation in which huge shares of the population are over 60 and small shares are under 30.

Some countries have it worse than others. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has managed the trick of having low birthrates and high death rates. Russian life expectancy is basically the same as it was 50 years ago, and the nation’s population has declined by roughly six million since 1992.

Rapidly aging Japan has one of the worst demographic profiles, and most European profiles are famously grim. In China, long-term economic growth could face serious demographic restraints. The number of Chinese senior citizens is soaring by 3.7 percent year after year. By 2030, as Eberstadt notes, there will be many more older workers (ages 50-64) than younger workers (15-29). In 2010, there were almost twice as many younger ones. In a culture where there is low social trust outside the family, a generation of only children is giving birth to another generation of only children, which is bound to lead to deep social change.
Here's a Canadian columnist saying pretty much the same thing:
The world is on the threshold of what might be called “peak people.” The world’s supply of working-age people will soon be shrinking, causing a shift from surplus to scarcity. As with “peak oil” theories – which hold that declining petroleum supplies will trigger global economic instability – the claims of the doomsayers are too hyperbolic and hysterical. These are not existential threats but rather policy challenges. That said, they’re very big policy challenges.

About 11 per cent of the world’s people are over 60 at the moment. In the next 25 years that will double, to almost a fifth, and one in six of those people will be over 80, according to a forthcoming book, Global Aging in the 21st Century, by sociologists Susan McDaniel of the University of Lethbridge and Zachary Zimmer of the University of California.

While this is affecting every country and region – even sub-Saharan Africa is now seeing a very fast rise in its proportion of seniors – some countries are being hit very hard. While 12 per cent of Chinese are now over 60, in two decades, there will be more than 28 per cent. Brazil faces a similar blow. It will be very difficult for countries that are only just emerging from poverty to suddenly face huge elder-care costs.

Peak people will be an age when jobs compete for workers rather than vice versa. The cheapest labour will vanish. We’re already seeing this: Because China is aging very fast, its dwindling working-age population is turning down the lowest-paid jobs and pushing up the minimum wage sharply, as well as the once-minimal costs of social services: Stuff from China will stop being cheap, because the Chinese aren’t young.
Here is another pro-growth take on this trend:
Like other prejudices, the belief that more humanity means more misery resists compelling evidence to the contrary. In the past two centuries, the number of people living on earth has nearly septupled, climbing from 980 million to 6.5 billion. And yet human beings today are on the whole healthier, wealthier, longer-lived, better-fed, and better-educated than ever before.

The catastrophes foretold by Malthus and his epigones - some of them in bestsellers like "The Population Bomb," which predicted that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now" - have never come to pass. That is because people are not our greatest liability. They are our greatest asset - the wellspring of every quality on which human advancement depends: ambition, intuition, perseverance, ingenuity, imagination, leadership, love.

True, fewer human beings would mean fewer mouths to feed. It would also mean fewer entrepreneurs, fewer pioneers, fewer problem-solvers. Which is why it is not an increase but the coming decrease in human population that should engender foreboding. For as Phillip Longman, a scholar of demographics and economics at the New America Foundation, observes: "Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation."

And depopulation, like it or not, is just around the corner. That is the central message of a compelling new documentary, "Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family." Longman is one of numerous experts interviewed in the film, which explores the causes and effects of what may be the most ominous reality of 21st-century life: the fall in human birth rates almost everywhere in the world.

In 1965, the population of Italy was 52 million, of which 4.6 million, or just under 9 percent, were children younger than 5. A decade later, that age group had shrunk to 4.3 million - about 7.8 percent of Italians. By 1985, it was down to 3 million and 5.3 percent. Today, the figures are 2.5 million and 4.2 percent.

Young children are disappearing from Italian society, and the end isn't in sight. According to one estimate by the UN's Population Division, their numbers will drop to fewer than 1.6 million in 2020, and to 1.3 million by 2050. At that point, they will account for a mere 2.8 percent of the Italian nation.

Italy isn't alone. There are 1.7 million fewer young children in Poland today than there were in 1960, a 50 percent drop. In Spain 30 years ago, there were nearly 3.3 million young children; there are just 2.2 million today. Across Europe, there were more than 57 million children under 5 in 1960; today, that age group has plummeted to 35 million, a decline of 38 percent.

The world's population is still growing, thanks to rising longevity. But fertility rates - the average number of children born per woman - are falling nearly everywhere. More and more adults are deciding to have fewer and fewer children. Worldwide, reports the UN, there are 6 million fewer babies and young children today than there were in 1990. By 2015, according to one calculation, there will be 83 million fewer. By 2025, 127 million fewer. By 2050, the world's supply of the youngest children may have plunged by a quarter of a billion, and will amount to less than 5 percent of the human family.

Even in the United States, where birth rates are still (barely) at replacement level, there are hints of the dislocations to come: In Pittsburgh, reports The New York Times, deaths now outnumber births and hospitals are closing obstetrics wards or converting them to acute care for the elderly. Pittsburgh's public school enrollment was 70,000 in the 1980s. It is 30,000 today - and falling.

By mid-century, according to one UN estimate, there will be 248 million fewer children than there are now. To a culture that has been endlessly hectored about the dangers of overpopulation, that might sound like welcome news. It isn't. No society gains when it loses its most precious resource, and no resource is more valuable than the human mind. The coming demographic winter will chill us all.
The Coming Population Bust - Jeff Jacoby (

A World Without Children - Jeff Jacoby (

Here's Longman himself:
It's true that the world's population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion, according to the U.N. Population Division. But this will be a very different kind of population growth than ever before -- driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. Indeed, the global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of midcentury, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion. How did the world grow so gray, so quickly?

One reason is that more people are living to advanced old age. But just as significant is the enormous bulge of people born in the first few decades after World War II. Both the United States and Western Europe saw particularly dramatic increases in birth rates during the late 1940s and 1950s, as returning veterans made up for lost time. In the 1960s and 1970s, much of the developing world also experienced a baby boom, but for a different reason: striking declines in infant and child mortality. As these global baby boomers age, they will create a population explosion of seniors. Today in the West, we are seeing a sharp uptick in people turning 60; in another 20 years, we'll see an explosion in the numbers turning 80. Most of the rest of the world will follow the same course in the next few decades.

Eventually, the last echoes of the global baby boomers will fade away. Then, because of the continuing fall in birth rates, humans will face the very real prospect that our numbers will fall as fast -- if not faster -- than the rate at which they once grew. Russia's population is already 7 million below what it was in 1991. As for Japan, one expert has calculated that the very last Japanese baby will be born in the year 2959, assuming the country's low fertility rate of 1.25 children per woman continues unchanged. Young Austrian women now tell pollsters their ideal family size is less than two children, enough to replace themselves but not their partners. Worldwide, there is a 50 percent chance that the population will be falling by 2070, according to a recent study published in Nature. By 2150, according to one U.N. projection, the global population could be half what it is today.

That might sound like an appealing prospect: less traffic, more room at the beach, easier college admissions. But be careful what you wish for.
Think Again: Global Aging. Phillip Longman, New America Foundation

So are we talking about the wrong problem? Is the problem too few people? Is that a good thing or a bad thing, or both?

I think saying that birthrates are too low is a bit silly. Birthrates have to shrink sometime. They cannot go on increasing forever, as this article points out:
Back in “Fruits of Philosophy,” Knowlton used grade-school math to demonstrate the problem with sustained population growth. He imagined what would happen to the number of people on earth—at that point, around a billion—if it continued to increase “without check.” By the nineteen-thirties, it would reach eight billion. A century later, it would reach sixty-four billion.

Global population is expected to hit eight billion around 2025, which is to say about ninety-five years later than Knowlton predicted. No one in his right mind supposes that it could reach sixty-four billion without horrific consequences, except perhaps a few economists.
So we have to stop growing birthrates sometime. Why not now? If not now, when? It seems to me that now, with the earth's population already projected to head up to ten billion in a world of depleting resources, climate change, and mass extinctions it seems to me like now's is the perfect time to slow the birth rate. My question to Mr. Longman would be: if not now, when? And it's being accomplished without coercion, which is wonderful. People were envisioning some sort of draconian Chinese-style program to limit population growth. Instead, it's happening of it's own accord, and accompanied by things like women's rights, better education and prosperity. Increasing living standards should theoretically occur for shrinking populations, since there is less competition for resources. What's not to like? Imagine asking a five-year-old if they want to share a cake with five other kids or twenty. Then you've just figured out what any five year old knows but no economists can seem to grasp: there's more to go around for everyone.

Another rather silly objection is that the earth will depopulate and the human race will vanish. This is just plain silly. At any time we can increase birthrates very easily, and begin the upward curve again if the situation were to become so dire as to lead to an extinction of the human race.

Let's look at some of the false assumptions at play here. Let's start with this one about Japan:

"In Japan, where the fall in fertility rates began early, the working-age population has been a diminishing share of the nation for 20 years. Yet for much of that period, unemployment has been up, not down, and an economy that for a while was the envy of the world -- the Japanese Miracle, it was called -- ran out of gas more than a decade ago."

It seems we're damned if we do, damned if we don't. If you have more children, there's more competition for jobs and unemployment goes up. If there's less children the economy shrinks and there's more unemployment. Some of the wealthiest countries in the world have tiny populations: Luxembourg, Iceland, Norway. Some of the poorest have enormous populations: Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh. Wasn't Japan's stagnant economy supposedly triggered by a housing bubble? Isn't that more common with lots of people and limited land? Is the Japanese miracle going to recur if one of the world's currently most crowded counties starts producing more children? Why? During the Edo Period, Japan maintained its living standards while keeping population steady for a hundred years. And relative to the whole world, the Japanese still have a very high standard of living.

Can we at least say that the relationship between prosperity and population is hardly as simple as the author makes it out to be?

"Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics who appears in the same film, emphasizes that nothing is more indispensable to growth of any society than "human capital" -- the knowledge, skills, and experience of men and women. That is why baby booms are so often harbingers of economic expansion and vigor. And why businesses and young people drain away from regions where population is waning."

Population growth has only coincided with rising prosperity since the advent of the use of fossil fuels. Prior to that, it has always accompanied a decline in the standard of living, even in the face of better technology. See this fascinating Wikipedia article on Medieval demography. And the use of fossil fuels fed both "innovation" and population growth, so the connection between population growth and prosperity is not what it seems. I think there's a "correlation does not equal causation" fallacy here somewhere. Living standards would have risen drastically even if population growth had remained steady, perhaps even moreso.

“Never in history have we had economic prosperity accompanied by depopulation.”

Patently untrue. Related to the above, Andrew Leonard takes this one on:
I am reminded of a startling section from Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O’Rourke’s “Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium,” concerning the consequences of the Black Death for the European economy. Drastic depopulation in Western Europe appears to have led to a dramatic improvement in the living standards of the surviving working class. Total production, is is true, declined overall, but there was a significant rise in “per capita real income and wealth, since land and physical capital remain unchanged and the livestock population was apparently unaffected by the plague.” With less labor available, surviving workers were able to command a premium.

… The data suggest a sharp rise in English real wages from the middle of the fourteenth century. Real wages continued rising for about a century, so that by the middle of the fifteenth century laborers were earning more than twice as much in real terms as they had been doing on the eve of the Black Death…

I will concede that there is some cognitive dissonance to be mined in the concept of the Black Death having an upside. It’s not exactly a strategy one would recommend to labor organizers, for example. But the fundamental premise is provocative: a world with fewer people competing against each other could mean a better life for the workers who do end up getting born.
Which is not to say that depopulation is necessarily desirable, only that they are not always connected. Economist Mark Thoma comments:
I don't know world demographic history all that well, but in the cases where depopulation is correlated with falling prosperity, what caused the population declines? War, disease, famine, something like that? Were population declines the result of falling prosperity, or were population declines the cause of declining prosperity? In the present case, the (anticipated) population decline appears to be an individual or societal choice, it is not being driven by some other factor such as those listed above. For that reason, the correlation between prosperity and population could be quite different than other cases in the historical record.
"The catastrophes foretold by Malthus and his epigones - some of them in bestsellers like "The Population Bomb," which predicted that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now" - have never come to pass. That is because people are not our greatest liability. They are our greatest asset - the wellspring of every quality on which human advancement depends: ambition, intuition, perseverance, ingenuity, imagination, leadership, love."

"In the past two centuries, the number of people living on earth has nearly septupled, climbing from 980 million to 6.5 billion. And yet human beings today are on the whole healthier, wealthier, longer-lived, better-fed, and better-educated than ever before...True, fewer human beings would mean fewer mouths to feed. It would also mean fewer entrepreneurs, fewer pioneers, fewer problem-solvers. Which is why it is not an increase but the coming decrease in human population that should engender foreboding."

In other words, increased population means more "problem solvers". We'll produce more Einsteins and Edisons, or someone who'll invent a miracle way to make electricity flow from thin air or circumvent the laws of thermodynamics.

First of all, people living better lives is untrue: some are living better lives, many are living worse. A recent study found out that medieval European peasants were better off than the poorest of today's Africans, many of whom live in crowded cities and lack running water and basic sanitation. Many people around the world live on less than a dollar a day and are being kept alive and malnourished by cheap carbohydrates. They are hardly thriving. Wanting everyone to have an extremely high "American" or even "European" or "Japanese" standard of living and continuing population growth are mutually exclusive - Western lifestyles are dependent upon others being poor. This is not only because the teeming third world masses are a source of cheap labor, but because it would take several planet earths to secure such a standard of living for the people already extant today, never mind population growth.

And believing that we will permanently outrun a Malthusian catastrophe no matter what is more faith than fact. It like the jumper who says "so far so good" as he passes each floor.

Not to mention we already have more than enough tools to solve every problem we face right now. We just can't implement them. Already many of our "solutions" are being obviated by none other than population growth! When you propose alternative, sustainable agricultural methods like organic agriculture and Permaculture, you're told "we have to feed ten billion!" When you propose reducing carbon emissions by using wind and solar power, you're told "it can't provide enough power for everybody!" When you say that we need to move to a degrowth economy not based around debt, you're told "we need to provide jobs for a growing population!" When you suggest biofuels as an alternative to gasoline, you're told "it can't scale - we can't keep all the cars currently on the road running on them." In other words, we're already developed the damn solutions, it's just that our constant need for growth makes them impossible to implement. Yet more growth is supposed to solve them?! Insane!

Population increase is the very reason we've turned to fossil-fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, factory farming, deforestation, and pumping aquifers dry. I don't think that trying to come up with potential solutions to our problems by randomly producing more people who might come up with solutions is a winning strategy. In fact I think the "solution" that these future humans are liable to come up with is "stop population increase."

As for all those wonderful human qualities named above, they have a nasty habit of receding as people fight over scarce resources. For an extreme example, see the Ik people of Uganda. Scarcity of resources nearly always engenders war and conflict, which tends to put a damper on "ambition, intuition, perseverance, ingenuity, imagination, leadership," and especially, "love." Here's Andrew Leonard again:
Never mind that by mid-century, there will also be about 2.5 billion more people in total on the planet than there are now, which some people think will probably be quite sufficient to provide all the problem-solvers we’re likely to need. If Thomas Malthus really was wrong, as Jacoby confidently asserts, we’ll find out soon enough. How the World Works doesn’t rule out the possibility that human ingenuity will find ways to squeeze continued prosperity out of a shrinking planet, but I am also unconvinced by the argument that just because a couple of hundred years of technological progress have allowed us to escape the consequences that befall every other biological population that expands too quickly, we are guaranteed unlimited growth and prosperity, ad infinitum.
In fact, we know we've been able to outrun the Malthusian catastrophe by our use of fossil fuels. I think the global decline in population can best be explained by this chart:

It's a blunt calculation, but illustrative. Fossil fuel use per capita has been declining since the 1970's. The 1970's was also the last great population boom, engendering the vaunted "youth bulge" of the Arab spring and the ant tribes that make Chinese factories hum. Yet not only are fuel supplies not increasing as quickly as population anymore, they may actually start to decrease. Certainly the EROEI is set to decrease, along with the flow rate; that is, the actual energy readily available to world economies. With much of the world industrialized or industrializing, it is impossible to imagine increased living standards and increased population coinciding, even with improvements in efficiency. The current soaring population levels and economic growth both coincided with the use of fossil fuels. It is difficult to believe they can be magically decoupled, and we will enjoy ever-higher living standards in a "knowledge and service" economy divorced from energy considerations where we walk each other's dogs and write iPhone apps. If living standards are to be maintained the population has to decline. In fact, a shrinking population may be the only thing that will head off a catastrophe. Here's John Michael Greer:
... Still, it's important not to jump to the conclusion that this means current global population levels are sustainable. What William Catton, in his classic work Overshoot, called "ghost acreage" - the vast boost to the means of subsistence that comes from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels in growing, storing, and distributing food - has allowed the world's human population in the last few centuries to balloon to between three and four times what the earth can support over the long term. As the industrial age winds down, the surpluses of food and other resources and the infrastructure of public health that made this expansion possible will wind down as well, with predictable impacts on the size of the human population.

So far, this supports the catastrophist model, but there's a catch. The winding down of the industrial age isn't a fast process. The peak of worldwide conventional oil production may well have already happened - the best figures I've seen show that production rates reached in the fall of 2005 have not been equalled since - and the overall peak, including nonconventional sources such as tar sands and natural gas liquids, probably isn't far away. What too few people seem to have noticed, though, is that the Hubbert curve is shaped like a bell, not like a sawtooth.

That bell-shaped profile means, among other things, that about as much oil will be pumped out of the ground on the downside half of the curve as was pumped on the upside. It also means that production rates along the downside will be roughly commensurable with production rates at points on the upside the same distance from the peak. If peak production comes in 2010, in other words, the amount of oil produced in 2030 will likely not be far from what was produced in 1990; production in 2060 will be somewhere near production in 1960, and production in 2100 will be around production in 1920. Even after the peak comes and goes, in other words, there will still be a great deal of oil in circulation for many years to come. The same will likely be true of most other energy resources, and of energy as a whole.

Does this mean peak oil is nothing to worry about? Not at all. The fact that the "ghost acreage" that supports our huge global population is going away gradually, rather than all at once, does not change the fact that it's going away. Historically speaking, both a slow decline and a fast collapse produce population loss; the difference is that in a slow decline, depopulation tends to be a much more complex process, subject to major regional and temporal variations.

It actually doesn't take that much to change an expanding population into a contracting one. Modest changes in birth and death rates will do the trick, and such changes are predictable consequences of the twilight of the industrial age. We've already had a preview in the former Soviet Union, where the implosion of Communism launched a classic cycle of catabolic collapse in the 1990s followed by partial recovery in this decade.
It seems to me that this poses a challenge to our economic system more than anything else. Much of our economy is designed around the pyramid model, in which you have a larger population of young, and the amount of people of succeeding ages shrinks as you head toward the apex of the pyramid. But if that model changes, then things fall apart. Everything seems tied to that, economic growth, increased consumption, debt repayments, and of course, social programs (e.g. Medicare, Social Security in the U.S., pensions in Europe). Health "insurance" is certainly predicated upon that - and that's a topic I want to explore in more depth in the future. But of course, the problem is never assumed to be in the way we've structured our economic systems, it is always we who must conform to it, not the other way around. Missing in all this is any discussion of the effects on the planetary ecosystem. You always hear "yes, this is good for the environment but..." But? Come on now, really, why is this a tradeoff? The real problem is setting up an economy where you require constant population growth and an ever larger cadre of young workers in perpetuity. Because you won't always have that. Period. See this article from The New York times: Are The Good times Never Coming Back?:
The paper, entitled “Disentangling the Channels of the 2007-2009 Recession,” will be posted on the general conference Web site Thursday afternoon. The authors argue that the slow pace of recovery reflects a long-term deterioration in economic prospects. Specifically, they estimate that the trend growth rate of gross domestic product fell by 1.2 percentage points between 1965 and 2005. The economists who wrote the new paper, James Stock of Harvard and Mark Watson of Princeton, contend that the key reason for the faltering pace of growth is that the work force is expanding more slowly. Population growth has slowed, and so has the pace at which women are entering the labor market. “These demographic changes imply continued low or even declining trend growth rates in employment, which in turn imply that future recessions will be deeper, and will have slower recoveries, than historically has been the case.”

Indeed, recent growth has actually outpaced their expectations. “The current recovery in employment is actually faster than predicted,” they write. “The puzzle, if there is one, is why the recovery was as strong as it has been.” This general theory about the power of women has been propounded before, notably by the economist Tyler Cowen in his recent book “The Great Stagnation.”

In the current context, however, it is also deployed as a rebuttal to the many economists who regard the slow recovery as a consequence of the unusual nature of the recession. One such view holds that financial crises are particularly traumatic. Another common theory holds that high levels of debt are restraining growth. Both of these views carry the implication that the good times will return.
To which this comment made the most sense:
It is still striking to me that economists never consider the price of energy in their analysis.

From 2000 to 2003 the global price of oil (Brent) was between $24.5 and $28.8. The climb then began:

2004 - $38.25 2005 - $54.57 2006 - $65.16 2007 - $72.44 2008 - $96.94.

In 2011 it was $111.

So from 2003 until 2011 it went up by a factor of 3.8

And it never seems to occur to them that the price of energy could be strangling the economy. Look at these prices and then re-look at the first graph in this analysis.

Economic growth requires cheap energy. Liquid fuels are especially important due to their use in transportation and construction. Standard measure of such fuels - the EIA Crude and Condensate for instance - show little growth over the last 8 years. Is a flat economy culling demand for oil? Or is a plateau in oil production choking economic growth? Interlocking feedbacks, its tough to untangle.

Seems to me that both theories are true. We will not in this generation get back to the debt dueled halcyon days of the massive worldwide credit bubble... It just isn't possible. There is no doubt that 2003 to 2008 was a freak anomaly. But also there are demographic reasons why we will have slow future growth including less women entering the work force, an eviscerated middle class with continued pressure due to global wage arbitrage and US policies that favor capital over labor, and worst of all an aging baby boom generation that will soon retire, needing to draw down their savings (I.e investments) putting a crushing load in our safety net. That said, it is not surprising that we see these demographic issues combined with a credit bubble. The fed encouraged the bubble precisely to hide these symptoms from the average American. Without the bubble Americans would have revolted 10-20 years ago. The bubble allowed the greatest transfer of wealth (away from middle class to the hyper wealthy) ever imagined in the history of earth. The transfer is almost complete. Now they raid Medicare and the two prizes... Social security and 401k plans.
In addition to the common culprits - Urbanization, industrialization, better education and rights for women, and the need for decades of schooling to secure employment, here are some of the other major reasons population is declining:

1.) Lack of jobs. This is the big one. In the Middle East, a slang term based on the Arabic word "wall" has been applied to youth who have nothing else to do but lean against walls all day. In China, the massive amounts of graduates are compared to a tribe of ants and sleep several to a bedroom to make ends meet. In Europe, unemployment is endemic - as high as fifty percent for youth in some places. The same is true for the United States. The Japanese have seen their employment prospects dwindle for a generation already. Nowhere on earth is there a surplus of jobs. This is especially true for males, whose traditional tasks have been displaced by machines and computers.

2.) Declining Living Standards. When people see that their children will no longer be better off than they were, they are less likely to have them. It's finally sinking in after a generation that most Americans can look forward to nothing more than falling living standards, and working ever harder to keep what little they do have. Such trends are happening worldwide, even in "expanding" economies where people are working ever harder and there is no safety net.

3.) Extreme Inequality. People at the bottom see how the game is rigged against them and their children. The wealth is being hoarded at the top, and the benefits of increasing wealth accrue to an ever-smaller number of "owners" in the winner-take-all economy. Since the rich can set up their children never to fail and take up the few remaining good and rewarding jobs, the poor realize that their kids have no way to get ahead, so they don't have any.

4.) Temporary and uncertain employment. If your job could disappear in a puff of smoke anytime, how can you justify having an expensive child that you will need to take care of for possibly decades, no matter what? How can you be assured you can take care of a child, much less ensure his or her future success? By some measures, the cost of raising a middle class child has risen by 40 percent over the past ten years. Who doesn't want their children to be middle class?

5. Poor Social Services. Only true for some countries. Americans (and most third-world countries) get no support for daycare, child care, scant maternity leave, nonexistent paternity leave, little paid time off, etc. A tax credit for children is the extent of support, and this is less and less of an incentive. The opportunity cost of having a child is high, and if people decide they need that money just to survive, they will not invest it in a child whom they believe has no future thanks to all of the above. Even though social services in many industrialized countries are excellent, it is still not enough given the above factors.

6.) Lack of time. Monster hours on the job, the long commute, scant vacation, paying the bills keeping up the house, who has time for kids?

7.) Diversions. With so many other potential things to do with one's time, and so many other outlets for one's energies, there is less incentive to have kids.

So we see that people are doing the right thing - responding exactly as you would expect given the economic conditions in which they find themselves. In addition, we see that all of the above are caused by conservative policies! No amount of exhortation is going to change the trend, minus a change in the above conditions. In the age of "austerity", that seems increasingly unlikely. And maybe that's how it should be. Here's one commentator to the Brooks article.
Conservatives have the tendency to blame the individual for sweeping global trends. No one decides to jump on the low-birth-rate bandwagon. It's not a movement; it's a response to a perceived uncertainty about the future. Conservative governments are in large part responsible, as oligarchs hoard wealth while the rank and file worker gets little. There have been recent reports that Iran has an epidemic of un- and under-employed young men, many with higher education but no job prospects. How are they to marry and afford to raise children?
And another commenter:
It's possible that, in a finite world where we have long assumed limitless growth was forever possible, the world economy is trying to level off. No one controls this complex system we live in, and its behavior may be independent of our intentions on the level of policy decisions. If it's occurring, the leveling off of economic activity will not be painless or easy, but it may be the only viable option. Infinite growth in a finite world makes little sense.
Humans modulate their birthrates according to the environment and circumstances, and they know when those circumstances are not good. Depopulation always accompanies a collapse (e.g the end of the Western Roman Empire). Does anyone think the Russian economy will magically improve if people start producing more kids? No, most likely the other way 'round: people will have more kids if the economy improves. There are theoretically more than enough people in Russia now for that to happen. Without that simply exhorting people to reproduce will be to no avail. It's one of the paradoxes of capitalism - one of the many internal contradictions that cause its breakdown. It needs an ever-larger pool of workers and consumers to exploit, but it creates conditions nonconducive to having children. This is caused by increasing urbanization, automation, overproduction, and a "race to the bottom" in wages. Since children are a liability rather than an asset as they would be in agricultural societies, there is less incentive to have them. Extended family units are broken up by the need to move around the country or to other countries in search of work. Finally, with the entry of women into the workforce, there is no time to care for children. The novel method method of paying strangers to take care of your child seems to be receding, as few people can afford it anymore. Deteriorating economic conditions accelerate all these trends.

So to sum up, slower population growth will give some relief to the planet, eventually. Overall, populations will not shrink for some time yet. In the meantime it will present economic challenges our Ponzi-oriented economy in dealing with a high ratio of aging people who require expensive medical care with a smaller working-age population. This is a situation which logic dictates we would have to face at some point. I think this trend is one of the few pieces of good news we've had in a while.

And see this: Population growth isn't really our problem (BoingBoing):
Global population is going up, Pearce writes, but that's not the same thing as saying that birth rates are going up. And, in the long run, that distinction matters. Around the world—not just in the West—human birthrates are decreasing. And they've been decreasing for a really long time.

What I really like about this essay, though, is how well Pearce articulates the real problem, which is over-consumption. Population and consumption might appear to be intrinsically linked, but they're not. As Pearce points out, global consumption is increasing far faster than global population and the average American family of four uses far more land, far more water, far more energy and produces far more emissions than an Ethiopian family of 11.

This is important. I've heard many, many Americans express their fears about population growth over the years. Pearce's essay makes it clear that, when you do that, you're pretty much being a concern troll. The population problem, while still real, is well on its way to solving itself. The consumption problem, not so much. Population growth is a problem of the poor. Consumption growth is a problem of the rich (which, from a global perspective, includes pretty much everyone in the United States). So when you ignore consumption and pin the blame for global sustainability issues on population, what you're doing is blaming the 99% for the mistakes of the 1%.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player