Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Great Pause Week 60: Demographic Time Bombs

"Worrying about the economy keeps techno-cornucopians and unicorns up at night. Us back-to-the-landers, not so much."

Oiled collage after images by Adnan Abidi / Reuters




Sitting barefoot beside the Indian River on Earth Day 2021, Tesla and Space X founder Elon Musk told Singularity University and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis that the population problem will become a crisis by mid-century. I was expecting to hear him say overpopulation was killing the planet. 

“We’ll need more people,” he said.

Musk was pointing out that over the next 80 years, in almost every country, population will shrink. According to a 2017 “Global Burden of Disease” study published in The Lancet, some of the largest nations’ populations will halve, while Nigeria will overtake China as the second most populous. Other African countries will also continue to densify. 

Outside of Africa, women are having fewer children. In 1950, the average number a woman produced was 4.7. By 2017, it was 2.4. Well before 2100, the Lancet authors predicted, it will fall below 1.7. And that is a magic number, something Thomas Malthus would not have predicted absent a globe-shattering famine.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, has calculated that together with the rise in deaths — up by about 18 percent from 2019 — the drop in births is contributing to the aging of the American population: A total of 25 states had more deaths than births last year, Dr. Johnson said, up from five at the end of 2019.

The New York Times

It is comforting to think the drop in births is due at least in part to the pandemic, and historically, births do tend to dip after economic crises, but the Times observed:

The rate among women in their early 20s is down by 40 percent since 2007, the government said. Teenagers have had the sharpest decline, down by 63 percent since 2007, the data showed.

Once women have fewer than 2.1 babies each, population declines. In fact, the researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted the world’s population will max out in in 2064 at 9.7 billion and fall to 8.8 billion before century’s end. “Falling to 8.8 billion” makes me wince. One needs to grasp what that dimension of human flesh will mean for fish and fowl. It is like accepting 2 degrees as a climate goal.

Paired with an aging population, endemic zoonosis, gender reveal, plastic pollution, and other mega-trends, Musk called it a “demographic time bomb,” warning we could reach a time by mid-century when there aren’t enough young people to support the economy, or the older generations. 

Worrying about the economy keeps techno-cornucopians and unicorns up at night. Us back-to-the-landers, not so much.

Professor Holly Jean Buck, in her book, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, relates that science journalist Leigh Phillips, in his book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry, and Stuff, equates austerity and degrowth as “mathematically and socially identical.” 

To solve the global biocrisis, more is needed: more growth, progress, industry, and civilization. He asserts that “it will require significant ingenuity to engineer a reverse of the processes we have inadvertently set in motion, likely even some way to produce a carbon-negative economy for a period,” with hundreds of innovations that will come from the most advanced research laboratories and factories. “By turning its back on the possibility of such technologies, on the very idea of progress, green anti-modernism actually commits us to catastrophic climate change.” 

Some think we should try to avert this problem by encouraging fertility. Given the perfect storm of climate change, biodiversity loss and resource depletion, my feeling is that we should not be thinking of ways to reverse the trend. We have to look at the future like a lineup of surfers looking at incoming sets. National economies and elderly welfare, as important as they may be, are not more important than innumerable species extinctions, our own included. Degrowth is a wave we could learn to surf. And, like zoonotic pandemics, it is a wave we know is out there.

According to the projections, China will halve its population this century. Some 23 countries, including Japan and Italy, will drop even faster and farther. 

Sitting in a Beijing Pizza Hut with ecovillage pioneer and CEO of a quasi-governmental scholarly exchange program Alice Wang a few years ago I asked why China ended its one child policy.

“We didn’t need it,” she said.
She went on to explain that during the years that policy lasted, it was incredibly difficult to administrate and had scores of exceptions and provisos. But more importantly, people tended to lavish attention on their sole child. When those children grew and started having children of their own, they did the same. Even though the restrictions were lifted, most people who had grown up as sole children wanted to have their own small families like that so they could lavish education, travel, gifts, and love on their one child. It was an enormous cultural shift that took place in just one or two generations. 

A year after I had that conversation with Alice, I visited my sister who lives in central India. I couldn’t help but be grateful I’ve spent most of my life living in rural settings. Apart from The Farm, the villages of my life were not so small that everyone could know everyone’s name, but they were small enough that you could find a space in the forest where you could listen to fox kits yapping somewhere down the valley, or watch pileated woodpeckers in their mating ritual, racing like squirrels up, down, and around the trunks of trees, or float on your back in water and stare up at the clouds in near total silence, with only chirping birds and croaking frogs.

The Lancet study predicted that India, whose total fertility rate dropped below replacement in 2018, would peak before 2050 and fall to 68% of its former population by the end of the century, although it would still remain the most dense and populous nation on Earth. India’s present Covid experience seems bent on speeding up the Lancet’s timetable.

Over the coming decades, Nigeria will grow to around 800 million and become the second most populous. The USA, now with its lowest birthrate in 35 years, will remain a dominant power only if it allows more immigration, meaning, for the most part, more Nigerians and Indians. By virtue of stronger, better educated, youthful and feminist urban populations, it could be that Mumbai and Lagos will become epicenters of innovation and art this century.

Is the Lancet piece right about global contraction? Is Musk’s concern well placed? My sister described to me what life may be like for many in the world’s most populous nations — India, Nigeria, China, USA, and Pakistan, in that order — in the not-too-distant future:

“People who are members of the same family or just friends think nothing of sharing a hotel bed — my objection to this has been incomprehensible to others. A college boy might share a bed with his mother, nobody thinks twice about this. 
“High density in Indian homes and public places is the norm rather than the exception. The polite social distance in public places (aside from Covid times) is smaller than in the West and even less in private to the point of being nonexistent, except around strangers, foreigners, or when protecting females of reproductive years.
“Many homes have no furnishings, which facilitates high density. A cloth or woven mat like a tatami is rolled out on the floor for mealtimes. Thin futons are rolled up in the daytime and unrolled at night. Or there is no futon, just a sheet or blanket. If there is a bed, it is shared by Mom and Dad plus the youngest tots or maybe given to frail elderly, and it’s no more than 3 feet wide. (The ability of Indians to sleep on hard surfaces is a wonder. They’ll buy a bed and then insert a piece of plywood under the mattress rather than enjoy the springs.) No pillows, or hard ones. If a friend is passing through your town and you offer shelter, this may consist of a sheet for the floor or on un-cushioned carpet; lacking a bed is no barrier to hospitality. The arrival of molded plastic lawn chairs changed this some. They are ubiquitous indoors and out now. Tables are rare. There are trays. There are no closets, people have never heard of them, and only rich people have architects. 
“Hostels for college students have the bunks spaced closely together with a small suitcase or footlocker as the only storage. Nobody expects to have their own space.”
“One pressure that is a big population-growth factor is the Hindu-Muslim tension. The more educated a Hindu couple, the fewer children they have. But Muslims of all education levels and social strata feel it is their duty to reproduce abundantly to increase their numbers as a repressed minority.

I did not realize it at the time, but there in that Beijing restaurant, ecovillager Alice Wang gave me a complete solution to the climate, biodiversity and population emergencies. Faced with a demographic shift to 5 billion people this century that would have made the density in the favelas of Mumbai and Sao Paolo pale in comparison, the Chinese radically cut fertility. Not because of anything they feared — although that was the starting point — but because it made their lives better, and that is how, in the end, the one child policy succeeded. 

A teenage girl in Jakarta or Nairobi with TikTok on her iPhone and western soaps on the TV, each in their own way showing independent, liberated women role models, does not yearn for the life of her grandmother, held captive by religion and male-dominated culture. She probably finds most of the boys her age are pretty dumb about that. She is going to be different.

When Musk started selling his first edition Tesla Model-S at privileged elite pricing, he kept the daring young company going not because people feared climate change and wanted to get rid of their old gas-hogs, but because it was a better ride if you could afford it. You set the power switch to “Insane” and boom! The G-forces pushed you deep into that leather seat (Tesla vegan leather only arrived in 2017). We should all remember that when critics start saying the Paris climate goals are too ambitious. The zero carbon and sustainable development goals won’t succeed because we are frightened. They will succeed because life will be infinitely better.


 The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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