May 2, 2012 — Of all the fantasies indulged in by a society speeding toward self-destruction, none is as consequential as the idea that continuing growth — both in population and size of our economy — has a happy-ever-after ending. Yet, when overpopulation is discussed at all, it is discussed as a problem limited to the developing world. Indeed, a growing chorus of “pro-natalist” or population growth ideologues insists that, in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world, population stability or decline represents a demographic crisis that needs to be reversed.
In order to ignore the patently obvious fact that unlimited population growth is neither environmentally or socially sustainable, one would have to be prepared to explain how a resource-gobbling U.S. of 500 million or 700 million people would work. (If you’re not prepared to do so, you’ve already accepted the reality that some limits exist and that the only question is what those limits should be.)
If, though, you really believe that predictions of overpopulation-induced catastrophe have been overblown, there are still two critical questions to be addressed, both of which are currently verboten as a matter of public debate.
First, even if ever-increasing population were survivable, is it really desirable? Second, are we really so inflexible that we can’t figure out any adaptations (beyond permanent crowding and permanent austerity for most citizens, that is) to enable a society that is becoming older to be economically and socially robust?
In fact, more isn’t better, and there are both market-driven and state-driven alternatives to be pursued.
Smaller has its advantages
In a well-reported and chilling article on Nigeria's population explosion two weeks ago, Elisabeth Rosenthal quoted a Nigerian demographer: “If you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing — there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.”
U.S. society doesn’t face imminent collapse, but aren’t many similar considerations at play? Despite the glut of unsold homes, we are still under-housed, and competition for housing in the most desirable housing markets has made life increasingly unaffordable.
Demands on infrastructure — transportation, water, schools — have already reached or passed a breaking point in some parts of the U.S. (just ask any suburban school district whether it is sanguine about the prospect of increased enrollment).
As anyone who is old enough to recall the 1960s or 1970s can attest, there just aren’t spots available like there used to be. Spots in schools that used to be merely competitive are now virtually impossible to get into. Spots in secure, well-paying jobs are no longer available except to an increasingly small minority.
The population of the U.S. — currently estimated at 313 million — was 179 million in 1960 and 203 million in 1970. Does anyone think those were periods when the country was “too small” or economically weak?
Adapting to the demographic shift
Most of the secular hysteria that is generated against consideration of the advantages of stable or falling populations concerns the phenomenon of aging populations. As people live longer, a greater percentage of the population is older, and there are, relatively speaking, fewer young “productive workers” to support everyone else. Just this month, the cries of alarm have included one op-ed piece asserting that, “Population decline poses a danger to the developed world,” and another describing Japan’s declining population as creating “grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.”
(Japan, by the way, is the poster child for those who want to sell the idea that only a growing country can be prosperous. Conveniently left out of the picture is Germany, whose economy is currently the envy of Europe, and whose demographics, my colleague Michelle Mayer has confirmed with the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, include a fertility rate of 1.4 children per mother, one of the lowest in the world; a death rate that, since the 1970s has continuously exceeded the birth rate; and a population projected to shrink to 65 or 70 million from the current 82 million.)
If one steps back from the panic, what comes most clearly into focus is the fact that the pro-natalists' assumptions proceed from the basic premise that all economies and all societies always need to be organized in the same way. Once one begins to imagine alternatives, a future where fewer people are forced to engage in fierce, dog-eat-dog competition becomes very desirable indeed.
The pro-natalist concern, in truth, is not that there won’t be sufficient young people to do the work, or that “there are just some jobs that Americans won’t do.” Rather, it is that with labor in greater demand, the work won’t be able to be had cheaply. There is nothing “natural” about someone in a parasitic profession (like much of investment banking) earning a lot of money and someone doing necessary but menial work (like garbage collection) earning much less. Where a society is really forced to “incentivize” the latter, the market will dictate a lower-than-current value for the derivatives trader and a higher-than-current value for the sanitation worker. That revaluation may make some people uneasy, but their complaint isn't really that such a change in unworkable; it is that they find the prospect of different people than usual having to adapt outrageous.
The nature of work, too, would likely be reorganized. Once, six-day work weeks were routine, as were 10 to 12 hour work days. Pressure from labor caused the developed world to adapt. If, by the middle or latter part of this century, workers who perform hard manual labor can only be secured by offering shorter-than-eight-hour days, we’ll have to adapt again. Jobs designed in lockstep at a time when households most typically had one, full-time (male) wage earner might have to become more flexible (something that is already overdue) to facilitate the part-time participation of older workers in the labor market not as an act of desperation but rather in a way that, consistent with any age-based constraints, facilitates participation in productive activity.
And, yes, it would cost more as a society to support those who are not working. (News bulletin: it will cost more in any scenario, even if we insist on punishing more older people with decades of life not much better than subsistence level). The question will be the old one, and one that should be easy to answer for a society that, unlike most others, remains remarkably wealthy: is maintaining massive inequality of wealth on an individual level more important than trying to maximize the quality of life for most citizens?
Better now than later
For a long time, India, whose population now exceeds 1.2 billion people, did not act. Its population is estimated to grow to somewhere between 1.5 billion and 1.9 billion people in coming decades.
As an article on more recent Indian attempts to control its birthrate pointed out, “Indian leaders recognize that [those massive growth scenarios] must be avoided.” The article quoted a demographer who said, “It’s already late…It’s definitely high time for India to act.”
The U.S. has the opportunity to be a lot more prescient, but we will have no chance to be unless we begin to discuss all of the consequences of being a country that continues to grow, and allow ourselves to imagine the potential benefits of alternative futures.