Trying to Talk Sense About Demography

This is Naked Capitalism fundraising week. 965 donors have already invested in our efforts to shed light on the dark and seamy corners of finance. Please join us and participate via our Tip Jar, which shows how to give via credit card, debit card, PayPal, or check. Read about why we’re doing this fundraiser, what we’ve accomplished in the last year, and”>our current target, funding for more original reporting.

Yves here. This post on demography is consistent with the view of a large segment of the Naked Capitalism commentariat, namely, that pro-growth policies fail to acknowledge pressures on resources, like potable water and oil, and therefore policymakers and economists need to focus much more attention on the question of how to organize a low-growth society. Note that I am not completely convinced of this view. Most of the ways we organize human enterprise are terribly wasteful, from the failure to maintain municipal water systems well (which results in leakage estimated at a typical 20% to 30% loss level), to a lack of willingness to provide incentives to move away from car-dependent suburban living, to too many people eating too much food high up on the food chain.

But even allowing for the fact that it would be conceivable, say over a generation or two, to move towards much less resource-intensive lifestyles, we face a more basic conundrum: there are just too many people on the planet, and those who live in developing economies want to live a much more environmentally costly first world lifestyle.

To put it more tersely: if you acknowledge the economic and resource implications of demography, you need to favor no or few child policies. But that remains a third rail in politics and economics.

This article, in a somewhat gingerly manner, broaches the notion that no or negative demographic growth would be a good thing. The issue that he does not address is that aside from instinctive and social/cultural pressures to have children is that children also remain the best, if imperfect, social safety net for elderly people. The restructuring of society, with weaker community ties and the need to be willing to relocate to find work, fewer and fewer children are in a position to do much for their aging parents if they aren’t in the same community, and moving back is often too risky to undertake (if you are in your 50s and have what looks like a viable job, tossing that to help your parents is a choice many could not make even if they wanted to).

So perversely, if it is a societal priority to lower birth rates, much better legal and economic protection for the elderly is essential. Even with informed, involved children, the press is rife with stories of how the wishes of the aging, comparatively simple ones like dying at home or not being subjected to costly medical heroics to gains a few weeks or months of low-quality existence, are circumvented by the medical-industrial complex. What Lambert calls the “insert tube, extract rents” model becomes even easier to execute with aged people who have no family to intercede.

By Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics at Murdoch University. Originally published at The Conversation

Demography is destiny. It’s an old idea but it remains as true as ever, despite the fact that it doesn’t get anything like the attention it deserves. It’s not hard to see why: not only is there a crowded agenda of more immediate and obvious threats to our collective security at present, but you are likely to be dismissed as an eccentric “neo-Malthusian” if you raise the topic.

However, a recently released report by the UN serves as an uncomfortable reminder that, although the long-term rate of population increase may be slowing, we are still likely to end up with about nine billion people by about 2050. As the authors helpfully point out, population increase over the next 50 years is likely to be more than twice the current population of China. And China, as we know, is now the biggest producer of climate changing CO2 emissions, and currently disappearing beneath a toxic fog of its own making.

The tentative good news is that China’s population trends are actually moderately encouraging from a global perspective, which is the only perspective that actually makes sense when thinking about demography, of course. Indeed, a pretty good argument can be made that no country has actually done more to combat climate change than China: without the widely criticised one child policy, it is estimated that there would be 4-500 million more people in China that there already are, and climate change would be more advanced as a consequence.

China also highlights a critical problem with the actual make-up of nationally-based populations. In China’s case the growing imbalance between men and women threatens social harmony as men without mates vent their frustrations. So called “population bulges” raise similar sorts of challenges elsewhere, as large numbers of young men with little chance of finding rewarding employment seek other outlets for their energies and ambitions.

It is surely no coincidence that some of the world’s most intractable trouble spots also have powerful demographic and economic drivers. Palestine is perhaps the quintessential case in point. Elsewhere, fertility rates show little sign of decreasing and the capacity of governments in sub-Saharan Africa to provide work – let alone a sustainable environment – for a rapidly expanding population looks remote. Is it any wonder that so many risk everything in the hope of making a better life in Europe?

Europe is, of course, being transformed by such long-run demographic processes as a result. The declining birth rates of the indigenous populations of Western Europe when combined with large scale immigration, and the higher fertility rates of many of the arrivals, is inevitably changing the make up of European populations. At one level, this is arguably a good thing as an ageing Europe attracts eager young workers. But as the rise of the far right and domestically-generated terrorists in Europe reminds us, it is not a simple process to manage.

Nor is it without its paradoxes and contradictions. In the same week that the UN highlighted the big demographic picture, we learned that doctors in Sweden had pioneered the world’s first successful womb transplant. While details were sketchy, the cost has been estimated to be in excess of $500,000 for each procedure. Desires clearly don’t get much more fundamental than the urge to reproduce – or to make money, the cynical might say – but this does seem to say something unfortunate about our collective priorities and the value of life in different parts of the world.

I know from painful personal experience that such observations will win few friends. When I pointed out to a colleague that no matter how much recycling or solar-panelling he undertook, he’d never make as big a contribution to the environment as those of us who practice a no child policy, he didn’t speak to me for months. Reproduction remains a terribly sensitive topic and one that the overwhelming majority of the population has a personal stake in. Trying to encourage a rational debate about babies – especially white ones – is not for the faint-hearted.

The idea that we as a species are the principal cause of the planet’s problems is not a happy one nor the basis for an election-winning platform, for that matter. And yet it is not possible to think of a single global public policy or security issue that might look rather different if the world’s population was say three billion rather than seven – let alone nine. It’s not just that we’re rapidly wiping out so many other species that should concern us. The conditions that sustain our own kind are also jeopardised by our inability to limit our own numbers. If we can’t do something about it, the natural environment probably will.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Vatch

    Good article; thanks! The final paragraph contains much wisdom.

    It’s true that many societies are wasteful and do a very poor job of distributing resources fairly. But I don’t see how this can improve if our world’s population becomes 9 billion instead of the current 7.2 billion. The same problems will continue, except the stresses will be worse.

    I agree with Yves that improved social security safety nets for the elderly are an imperative — this is true whether there are fewer children or not.

    I’m very pessimistic about the future of human life on our planet, because the social, religious, political, and economic incentives for further population growth are so strong. Eventually the Earth will have revenge against our arrogance. As the economist Kenneth Boulding said:

    Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

  2. anony

    “To put it more tersely: if you acknowledge the economic and resource implications of demography, you need to favor no or few child policies. But that remains a third rail in politics and economics”

    ultra third-rail….as all the >2.2 child/woman countries are in the third-world.

    Nearly all (every???) developed country is at or below 2.0 except the US, UK and perhaps Australia. And US/UK is >2 generally for immigrant families. native-born families are at/below 2 as raising a family is so darn expensive.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Please listen to politicians and economists.

      1. They favor higher birth rates. There are subsidies for marriage and having children. Admittedly, these are now grossly inadequate. Having children is very costly.

      2. I did a lot of work on the US demographic surprise of the 1990s, that the US population and birth rose when demographers expected a decline. It wasn’t just immigration. Hispanics have higher than replacement birth rates on average. Both factors, immigration and the shift of the mix of the population, led to the change in US demographics.

      1. Michael

        What country other than Russia offers subsidies for having children?
        I support Russia’s decision to encourage child birth in a county that was destroyed by two world wars, Stalin, and his legacy.

        That is serious but understandable hair splitting with the shift in US birth rates and Hispanics. Many were first generation after Johnson’s policies in the 60s. The bump was definitely linked to Hispanic immigration. I can’t remember the details but that demographic shift had revitalized rural areas in the South.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Public education, which I support, is nevertheless a subsidy to people with children. There is tons of research showing that companies pay men with kids more than men who don’t have children and that single people are cut much less slack re getting breaks from work than parents (even if they also have family duties, namely, elder care).

          Singapore gives monthly subsidies for having children. Japan used to have generous subsidies but cut them back to fund Fukushima relief.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            If we can teach children about sharing, interconnectedness and community, it is a subside to the whole society, not just their parents.

            It’s a gift, but we have to know how to use it.

          2. Field Marshall McLuhan

            Companies love hiring parents because they’re easier to intimidate. An employee is a lot less likely to blow the whistle on bad behaviour if they’ve got a few mouths to feed.

          3. John Zelnicker

            And the tax code has at several obvious subsidies, mainly for the lower to middle income taxpayers: the Personal Exemption, the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Credit which rises with the number of children (up to three), the Child & Dependent Care Credit, as well as various education credits and deductions for post-secondary schooling.

            1. Melinda Mann

              Glad to see the tax code mentioned here. Some low-income earning families get around 30% of their annual income from the huge earned income tax credit (EITC) and child tax credit subsidies they receive. A single parent with three children can receive over $8,000 in cash if s/he earns around $22,000. Meanwhile the MAX credit that a single person with no kids can receive is $484. It is worth noting that because this is a cash grant for wage-earners only, it is also a giant corporate subsidy — allowing Walmart and the like to pay a sub-livable wage, knowing that the federal government picks up the tab in EITC, medicare, and food benefits.

    2. bh2

      “And US/UK is >2 generally for immigrant families. native-born families are at/below 2 as raising a family is so darn expensive.”

      If raising a family is expensive for the native-born in the US, is it not equally expensive for immigrants to the US? And if not, why not?

  3. Mark Sinclair

    Go back to bed Malthus. No one listened 1/4 millennium ago, and no one will listen now.

    If you actually want to reduce fertility without causing massive population imbalances, give people clean water, vaccines, birth control, and education for women. The rest will take care of itself.

    Or you could go the China route and have a corrupt authoritarian government that can sort of almost enforce these things and result in missing women. There are an incredible amount of difficulties in enforcing such a rule, and much of the population was exempt anyway. Simple education on family planning as well as reducing infant mortality will do the job over time.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Google “normalcy bias”.

      The period when Malthus was not operative started with the industrial revolution.

      You seem to have missed the fact that we are on a finite planet. You can’t have ongoing growth with finite resources. Pull out a calculator and try playing with compounded growth rates.

      Humans have already killed off half the species on this planet. We have already made it unstable from a biological perspective. And we’ve only just hit 7.2 billion. Many of those people are acquiring more costly lifestyles, in environmental terms. To talk confidently about the load the planet can take at a level we’ve just achieved, with global warming clearly underway (which will reduce agricultural production, since areas that are now fertile will suffer from drought and unstable weather patterns, and the northern areas that will get warmer won’t be anywhere near as productive agriculturally because they don’t get enough sun) is remarkably naive.

      You can stick your head in the sand if you want to. Most of the readers here prefer to confront uncomfortable facts.

      1. AmirS

        Surely Mark’s point is that reducing infant mortality and educating / empowering women is a much better way of reducing fertility than any sort of policy imposed from ‘above’. There’s a pretty good inverse correlation between how developed a country is and its fertility rate. So we should be working towards lifting poorer countries out of poverty, and let people naturally choose to have fewer children.

        Wikipedia ([1] 2014 CIA factbook numbers) lists 122 countries (out of 224) which have fertility rates below 2.2 (approx replacement rate) and therefore will in time have shrinking populations. Getting the other countries developed to the point where people have fewer children should be a priority and the best way of reducing world population.


        1. Carla

          “So we should be working towards lifting poorer countries out of poverty, and let people naturally choose to have fewer children.”

          Sure. But instead, we seem to let disease take its course, and if that doesn’t do the job for us, we fall back on bombing.

          Then we stagger around, mystified, crying to the heavens, “Why do they hate us?”

        2. Fiver

          The point is that ‘bring them up to’ leaves ‘to where?’ unspecified, though we can all be certain ‘to where’ has to be on par with the developed world, which the author correctly observes is not going to work – there is simply no way, in fact, we won’t even come close to reaching the 9 billion mark given the immense damage we’ve done and will do maintaining and growing the enormous human mass maximum consumption machine. We have to re-invent the developed world to meet the developing world in a minimal-impact future or no future at all. I think China is going to very much regret building a gigantic copy of the wrong idea.

  4. jgordon

    I like where you’re going with this, but keep in mind that there is no mandate from heaven for humanity to succeed at anything, nor even any mandate that we survive much into the future. One way or another humanity will arrive at a sustainable equilibrium with the environment. That process can either be organized, if somewhat uncomfortable, or chaotic and horrific. I’m thinking that ebola is an example of the latter kind of equilibrium restoration that we will be seeing more of as we continue procrastinating.

    1. James Levy

      There is no evidence I can see that populations reach a natural equilibrium. Populations respond to external stimuli. A few good summers and mild winters and animal numbers explode. Then they starve. Then they bounce around until external factors intervene. Equilibrium is an idea whose 15 minutes should be up.

      That said, humans have the ability to manage their numbers and their impact on the environment in a way other animals cannot. And we should. But this goes smack-dab against the prevailing conception of freedom as it is understood by liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians, and almost everyone else on the American political spectrum. We see this with the Ebola outbreak. We want to imagine that money, machines, and drugs will solve the problem. What solves the problem is isolating the infected until all the people who have the disease die or recover. You can’t do that in a free market, neoliberal ideological framework (or, I must admit, in a modern civil libertarian framework). And the only mechanism we have for distributing/rationing goods is money. The rich will get what they want and the poor will suffer. What we need is “this is the amount of gasoline and electricity you get, and if we find you using any more, you’re going to jail.” But that is literally unimaginable in America. So we will waste and despoil and keep on doing so until we are broke or the environment is destroyed. I see no alternative given who we are and what our culture is.

      1. jgordon

        “Then they starve. Then they bounce around until external factors intervene.”

        That is the natural equilibrium process that I am referring to in action. Humans have been able to grossly exceed the normal range of carrying capacity values by exploiting a windfall exothermic fossil fuel energy resource. Since we have shown little inclination to replace the fossil fuel windfall (which is nearly exhausted) with another type of windfall that does not rely on fossil fuels to function, human will suffer a rapid population decline when access to fossil fuels become even more constrained than they are today. Secret government documents produced by both America and Britain estimate that that unpleasant process will begin around 2015 or so.

        “That said, humans have the ability to manage their numbers and their impact on the environment in a way other animals cannot.”

        This has never been demonstrated before in history. Before proclaiming how our great human brains make us different from the rest of the biosphere, I would consider history and see how things actually play out when humans, gifted with the giant brains that we are, go over the carrying capacity of the environment to support them. Then compare that analysis to how yeast react when they run out of agar in a petri dish. The conclusion you would likely draw is that humans are not much smarter than yeast.

        1. MaroonBulldog

          “I would consider history and see how things actually play out when humans, gifted with the giant brains that we are, go over the carrying capacity of the environment to support them.”

          Overpopulation and general immiseration + T’ai-p’ing Rebellion + Nien Rebellion + Muslim Rebellions = scores of millions dead + Malthusian correction + one generation of prosperity + one generation prolongation of the Ch’ing Dynasty. A horror of Twentieth Century magnitude, but it occurred in the Nineteenth. A case on point?

    2. Ian

      We love the babies in our family. Frankly, I’m not prepared to be “rational” about having fewer babies just to make room for other people’s babies, nor do I expect anyone else to. Evolution hasn’t stopped simply because we can have a rational conversation or plan an organized society. In the end, the next catastrophe will cull many, and in that eventuality I would rather have more children than fewer.

      What we could do — and seem to be doing already — is just make it extremely expensive to have kids.

      In the mean time, overpopulation IS a self correcting problem, and will always be so. I consider the problem therefore solved. We can have a rational discussion about not liking the solution, but at the end of the day that is the solution of last resort and will always be so, and it is impossible to evade except where we adopt something that is probably necessarily even more draconian and less conducive to life.

      On that last point, I feel like Yves is arguing here that we should be exploiting our incumbent status to prevent many from even being born so we don’t have to compete with them for resources. This incumbent rent seeking behavior is repugnant wherever it appears, whether it be in CA prop 13 or such Malthusian diatribe. Stand on your own merit. Don’t take out the other guy with a cheap shot before he even has a chance to deomonstrate his.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        That is a straw man of my position. Please reread my comment.

        I am saying that:

        1. You admit to enjoyin having babies.

        2. Have you bothered seriously considering what they might experience as adults and old people if we experience social collapse? Read Tainter and Jared Diamond. Complex societies are particularly fragile, and ours is more complex than any previous social order. Though experiment: what happens if chip shipments to the US were to fall by 2/3 in ten years, say due to an elevation of tensions with China? That’s only one example of vulnerability.

        My life would be better if groaf continues. It means higher odds of decent income. I’m arguing against interest to argue for lower birth rates. My nieces are in their teens and despite have lots of advantages, I don’t see a good life ahead for them once they get out of college, and particularly once they are older than 40. The notion that you’d have kids for your own pleasure and not care about the quality of their likely future life is telling.

        1. John Zelnicker

          I, too, worry about the future for our children and grandchildren. My daughter is about to have her first child and I fear for her well-being as she grows up in this world that is on the edge of societal collapse. At the age of 64, the fact that I have relatively few years left is actually comforting. With a bit of luck, the inevitable collapse will be put off until after I am gone. And I do see it as inevitable since I have no faith that humans will be willing to make the necessary changes to avoid that collapse.

          1. Praedor

            I tend to agree. For all the talk about the human capability to foresee the coming disaster and act accordingly to prevent it, I do not see any evidence that we actually can, or more importantly, will. Nay, as with climate change, the resistance to accepting reality is cooked in. We will not do what is necessary to stop climate change, we certainly won’t do anything about demographics, so the two conditions WILL collide in the near future and both will solve themselves regardless of human desires or wishes. I take some personal comfort in knowing that I lived my life during glory days for human existence. I saw and personally enjoyed nature full of beauty and wildlife that your grandchildren will only read of in books…then they and their children will oversee the crash of humanity into either earned extinction, or collapse into minor position in a barren hunter-gatherer existence again but with MUCH less to hunt or gather. It’s all baked in and will not be averted.

  5. MikeNY

    This was a very good read, Yves. Gave me a lot to think about. Two observations:

    1. I’m not dogmatically against all growth. But I am certainly against growth that benefits almost entirely the oligarchs, and that destroys the planet. I’m certainly against the growth mantra, recited to distract people from obscene inequality. I am against the facile conceit that growth can solve all our problems and relieves us of the need to think morally about society’s organization.

    2. I believe the Earth is very likely over-populated with humans. It does my heart good to think that, by not having children myself, I have done Earth and its species some little good. I’ve heard many people voice the opinion that choosing not to have children is a selfish decision… that always struck me as the most clumsy of generalizations.

    1. Clive

      Since we’re (rightly) not afraid of sacred cows and hot button issues here, I’ll come right out and say it: from personal experience our culture today still seems to view the childless — childless for whatever reason — with at best condescension and at worst outright suspicion. Getting ourselves, collectively, over that one will take some doing I think.

      1. MikeNY

        Yes, I think you’re right. And then, there’s the whole societal organization / benefits issue Yves referred to her in original comment, which will make it even more difficult for people change their minds.

  6. Auburn Parks

    Its not like population growth is going to continue forever. All it takes is to get the birthrate down to 2, and that seems to happen as a natural result of income, education, and gender equality evolution. We should have no problem maintaining the projected 10-12 billion peak of human population. Right now, the main deterrent is money, which is an infinite resource.

    Carbon pollution a problem? spend more on renewable energy
    Population growth a problem? spend more on free health care and contraceptives for the people
    Technical and educational levels too low to solve our problems? spend more on universal college and graduate school educations.

    Notice that all of these so-called “problems” have one thing in common, not enough spending. And that wont change until the voting public understands that Govt fiat money is infinite and so should not be the thing holding us back.

    Maybe one day, we’ll spend significant amounts of money but find that our technical and intellectual capabilities are simply not up to the challenge of solving our problems. But we are so far from making a real effort its not even worth considering human knowledge failures until we get past our human social failures (austerity and conservative household budgeting)

    1. Vatch

      “We should have no problem maintaining the projected 10-12 billion peak of human population. “

      You’re joking, right? I can’t see your facial expression, or hear the tone of your voice, but this must be humor, since we’re only able to “sustain” our current population of 7.2 billion people by keeping at least half of them in dire poverty.

      1. Auburn Parks

        Now its my turn to ask “are you joking”?

        You cant possibly be so naive as to ignore the fact that operating under our current gold-standard, govt budget as a household budget insanity, is in no way an indication of our potential. Almost anything is possible given a reasonable commitment of resources. Seeing as we’ve committed almost no resources to any of these problems, its not realistic to use our recent past as a basis of judging our potential future.

        1. Vatch

          Overpopulation worsens just about every problem that I can think of, such as poverty, pollution, and the emotional stresses that lead to violence.

          Let’s solve the world’s problems at our current very high population of 7.2 billion people before we start speculating about what wonderful things will be possible when there are 10 to 12 billion people on the planet.

          1. Auburn Parks

            Everything I wrote is about how none of these problems can be solved (with 7 billion or 12 billion people) unless We spend the necessary amount of money on the problems.
            Its not about the population per se, its about the money.

            1. Vatch

              No, it is about the population. Resources on this planet are limited, and if there are more people, on average, each person will have less. Attempts to provide for more people will have more side effects, such as pollution. Currently, we’re being “sustained” by a temporary glut of fossil fuels (which happen to cause many problems of their own), and when the fossils become less abundant, it will be even harder to sustain what we have.. And what we have is a world in which most people are impoverished.

              Is it easier for a poor family to raise a large family or a small family? Is it easier for a community to provide drinking water and schooling for a large number of people or for a smaller number of people? The answer is obvious in both cases: the smaller numbers are easier to manage.

              I have to wonder where you live. Is it in the slums of Mumbai, Cairo, or Mexico City? Do you breathe the hideously polluted air of Beijing?

              You can say that it is equally feasible to solve the world’s problems whether the population is 7 billion or 12 billion. In that case, I must insist that you solve the world’s problems now, at our current population. Speculating about what wonderful things can be done when there are 12 billion of us is like wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I prefer to focus on the real world as it is now, rather than on dreams of unicorns and fairy princesses.

            2. Robert Dudek

              I’m afraid you are hopelessly out of touch with reality. Money is the not the main issue. Resources are. Collectively, our species hasn’t been able to harness resources such that the majority do not live in squalor. And we’ve had about 5,000 years to work on the problem. Suddenly we are going to figure out how to cooperate on a global level so everyone can live in dignity? Fat chance. What is going to happen is the fight over resources will become even more intense, leading to more war, famine, and more haves and have nots.

              1. peterpaul

                If we are really warring over a smaller piece of the pie (i.e. resources), it is more likely to lead to less more haves and a hell of a lot less have nots…

            3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              First, we, meaning the government, have to know how to spend money wisely.

              Which should come first, more money or wisdom to knowwhere or on what to spend?

              What happens when we don’t know how to spend wisely and, all of the sudden, have more money to spend?

                    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

                      Interesting. Thanks for the link.

                      So, we have to iterate the process – spend money, check if it was spent wisely, go back and modify spending priorities, check again…

                      If anything can go wrong, it probably lies with the checking part of the algorithm. No oversight.

      2. fresno dan

        I agree with you Vatch.
        as far as the statement
        “Right now, the main deterrent is money, which is an infinite resource.”
        So, since all it takes is some central bankers pressing some computer keys…..why are they’re STILL so many poor people????
        Just funny how when the US economy collapsed, and so many people did not have money to pay their mortgages…or buy FOOD, the money that could be created electronically went…..wait for it….wait for it….to the richest people!!!!….who also just happened to f*ck everything up.
        So pardon me if I don’t believe we can solve our problems with all the unlimited money we have.

        1. Auburn Parks


          If we used the $4 trillion worth of QE (which is not really appropriate since QE doesnt add any money or wealth), instead on going 99% renewable, do you really think we couldn’t manufacture and install enough solar panels and wind-turbines to do it?

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            We know what the little people will do with X dollars…feed themselves and buy medicine.

            We also know what the government will do with that same money – bombs, drones, regime changes, welfare for the 0.01%, etc.

          2. Fiver

            Infinite money cannot create a new energy source any easier than money shifted from military/security spending. The US could half its military budget and aim it at solving its portion and more of the global problem (as it has generated far more than its share of that problem). But will it? How about that and a low-impact ideology to go with it? Or do you believe a maximum aggregate consumption machine is a fundamental characteristic of human society? We’ve not only ripped through our stocks of key resources, but all our environmental buffers, and in fact fundamentally we must slow down and stabilize at a much lower footprint.

        2. susan the other

          The world economy collapsed, starting here with our banksters, because the whole thing was a bubble based on collateral which itself was a bubble of rehypothecations and flat-out fraud. The reason this classic growth pattern happens repeatedly (clearly indicating we are all truly insane) is because profit begets growth which begets profit. It’s so illogical to have capitalism for the sake of capitalism. There is no bubble of solutions to our human predicament – which seems to have been caused by the above described insanity we practice. So, according to current “wisdom”, limitless funding for solutions will not crash the economy.

          1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

            A wise solution involves no new money.

            Take from the rich and give it back to the poor.

        3. Carla

          “So, since all it takes is some central bankers pressing some computer keys…..why are they’re STILL so many poor people????”

          Because, Vatch, Auburn Parks, et al responders to this thread, We don’t have a money problem, or even a resources problem. We have a DEMOCRACY PROBLEM.

          1. Moneta

            One of the reasons why we have a democracy problem in the developed world is because we are consuming more than our fair share of global resources. This situation is highly unstable and promotes infighting instead of collaboration… and if our share is due to shrink, there will be even more infighting.

            The way I see the future is that either the US looks increasingly like a third world country (more likely) or either it crushes the ROW to protect itself so it can keep on consuming while other countries implode one by one.

          2. Vatch

            Carla, we have multiple problems, and a lack of democracy is one them. A shortage of fresh water is another, and if we don’t find replacements for fossil fuels in the near future, we’ll have an energy shortage. All of these problems can be alleviated by gradually reducing the Earth’s population.

    2. susan the other

      You are absolutely right AP on the logic of fiat money. It is there to be used to solve societal problems. We can pour limitless resources (aka money) into these problems and we should. Capitalism, socialism, communism have all failed to see the logic of this. Because budget, profit (whatever that is), etc. But the reality of 12 billion people is a lot of toilets flushing. A new Xmas carol in the making. I wish it were an easier subject to discuss because we can’t possibly keep up with an increasing population if we are not focused and aggressive. If we allow the world population to rise to 10 or 12 billion, what then?

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Do we give limitless money/resources to Mr. Richman and his ‘solutions?’

        Do we give limitless money/resources to the government (of/for/by Mr. Richman) and their ‘solutions?’

    3. Ed

      Sustaining the 7.2 billion depends on the continued burning of fossil fuels. Using them for transport enables food to be moved from the most productive growing areas around the world. It powers the mechanized equipment on the most productive farms, and is used in the production of fertilizers. Harnessing of coal got the world population above the 2 billion mark for the first time in the early nineteenth century. Use of oil pushed the world’s population past 4 billion, to the 7.2 billion today.

      Oil and coal reserves are finite, and the cost of extracting a barrel of oil has been rising since humans have already gone through all the cheap stuff. Plus the burning of coal in particular affects the biosphere, eventually the the point where it can’t support any life. So the current 7.2 billion is sustainable only so long as the coal and oil reserves hold out, and use is kept at levels below which the biosphere gets poisoned. Even then the increased cost of extraction means increased impoverishment, for everyone put the people strong enough to grab whatever surplus exists. This paragraph explains what has been happening in the last ten years in a nutshell.

      There are people who agree with the above, but argue that substitute technologies are available or can be developed, nuclear if you are on the right, solar and wind if you are on the left. I strongly suspect that neither of these can be scaled safely, and that if they could be scaled this would have happened already, since the use of oil has been becoming uneconomical in 2005, plus the elites have been warned about this dynamic since at least the early 1970s.

      Incidentally, I was originally going to post that Yves should make the underlying essay some sort of sticky, to be always accessible in the right hand column. Its the most important that that has been posted here in awhile.

      1. Vatch

        “Yves should make the underlying essay some sort of sticky”


        Rather, make that +7,200,000,000.

    4. jgordon

      We can always print money and buy water. And if scarcity starts making water more expensive, easy fix: just print up more money and buy it. In fact, no matter how dear water becomes there will always be more money to buy it with.

      This in fact is proof positive that your ideology will work: using the power of unlimited free money to end the crippling and destabilizing California drought: all we have to do is print up as much money as we need to buy water from every part of the US, and then print more money to commandeer whatever means of transportation it takes to transport that water. Then, we pour every drop of the water accumulated by such workings on the parched CA ground. And viola, with the power of fiat all of California’s drought problems will instantly be solved. How obscenely insensible it is for the powers that be to not do that. Don’t they care about California?! Ah well. I guess California residents and industry will just have to suffer due to the unreasonableness of the powers that be.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Another scenario is the same as you have described, except Mr. Money has exacted a big lake with a lot of fresh, potable water somewhere in the state, from the people of California, enough to quench all Californians.

        Instead of taking water from that lake, we should print more money to buy water from elsewhere.

    5. Irrational

      More people need more energy.
      No matter where our energy comes from, we can neither generate nor convert with 100% efficiency. The waste product, heat, will result in further warming of the planet until it becomes inhabitable and worse.
      This would suggest that there are physical limits to growth – which cannot incidentally be fixed with fiat money – and this planet therefore cannot support an ever-increasing number of people.

    6. different clue

      Fiat money is infinite but worth and value are not infinite. If we issue an infinite number of money-units, each individual money-unit will become worth infinitely little.

  7. John

    We should leave doom and gloom arguments to Fox News. What is slowing down environmental fixes or adaptations are mostly political. Sustainable growth is possible.

    As for China, I happened to breathe the pollution and can say Chinese leadership opted for environmental disaster and ultimately economic disaster. They should not be given a pass as so many wish to give them. Sacrificing health as a cost of trying to win the capitalist game with the USA was a conscientious decision. We focus on the failure to prosecute financial crimes, we should also hold accountable those who commit environmental crimes at the expense of health and safety.

    But there is another staggering issue with China that gets no attention. The economic impact from chronic diseases is a tsunami that is ever growing. This weighs heavily on their healthcare systems, families & national budget. The capitalist model they chose is hurting a lot of people. China is not the only country in this predicament, it is just the size and scope is enormous.

    On GHG emissions, this could have been a manageable problem back in the ’90s. There were only a handful of emitters with the USA being the biggest. The USA could have led the effort to reduce CO2 emissions and therefore stave off some of the harmful effects we are now experiencing with reduced polar ice. Unsurprisingly, capitalists forces were at work in the ’90s. Mr Bill Clinton authorized China in the WTO and this has had a deleterious impact on getting agreements on GHG reductions.

    Recommend following Jeffery Sachs. He is the only prominent economist discussing sustainable growth in a ‘sustained’ way.

    1. Vatch

      Yes, Jeffrey Sachs, because he did such a “good” job of advising the Russian government in the 1990s.

        1. Vatch

          You might be right; I really don’t know. A few years ago, Natalie Klein thought that he really hadn’t repented for his past as a shock doctrinist:

          “A lot of people are under the impression that Jeffrey Sachs has renounced his past as a shock therapist and is doing penance now. But if you read The End of Poverty more closely he continues to defend these policies, but simply says there should be a greater cushion for the people at the bottom.”

          1. Michael

            I’m glad I’m not the only one who does not trust Sach. I have a visceral reaction when I see his name. I’ve followed some of his work on the environment and I do not think that it’s very noteworthy other than the degrees he carries.

            What do you think of the people running the Rocky Muntain Institue?

            As for a food crisis, aquaponics and insects can feed a lot of the people which limits the impact of the food issues but the resource restrictions, the real limits IMO, will only get worse in the future.

              1. different clue

                I ordered some jellyfish from a chinese restaurant once. The sauce was interesting but the jellyfish itself was rubbery-chewy and leather-tough. I didn’t expect that from a thing called “jellyfish”.

            1. gordon

              I’ve had a lot of time for the Rocky Mountain Institute ever since I read their 1999 book “Natural Capitalism”. They have a new book out on efficient energy use – “Reinventing Fire”:

              From the website blurb:
              “To shrink U.S. energy use while GDP grows 158% is not a fantasy; in nine of the 36 years through 2009, the U.S. economy actually did raise energy productivity faster than GDP grew. Chapters 2–5 show how to do that every year, with major competitive, security, health, and environmental advantages, simply by using energy in a way that saves money, modulating demand unobtrusively over time to match en ergy’s real-time value, and optimizing supply from the cheapest, least risky sources. This transition won’t be easy, but will be easier than not doing it”.

              In a way, this is an extended discussion of Yves’ initial comment about waste – specifically, waste of energy.

              1. Carla

                Far as I can tell, the Rocky Mountain Institute is all about creating sustainable Capitalism. Bunch of narcissistic rich f**ks. Good luck with that.

                If you’re looking for the real deal in sustainability, try Herman Daly and the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy:

                1. skippy

                  Carla the problem with Daly is he wants to treat money like bullion and is quite rooted classical narrative. Just the switch from ecological science to environmental economics…. is a wee bit of a tell.

    2. lakewoebegoner

      “Sustainable growth is possible.”

      For human civilization to survive for the next 10,000 years at 8, 9, 10+ billion people requires some big technological and political breakthroughs.

      The technology side I’m optimistic (or at least not pessimistic if you’re willing to eat GMO food and test tube meat—-which many obviously aren’t), the politics? not so much.

      1. jrs

        The food point is a good one, we don’t have enough food to feed people a truly healthy diet as is (no I’m not talking people going hungry that does have a large political side, I mean even those who do eat sufficient calories). And then think: when all seafood stocks plummet ever more etc..

  8. Sufferin' Succotash

    This entire subject is not only a third rail in politics and economics; it also reaches deep into some bedrock cultural assumptions, such as the nature of “wealth” and what constitutes the “pursuit of happiness.” One can almost understand the increasingly desperate efforts by the dominant elites to stave off a day of reckoning. When it happens, the consequences could be as widespread and as explosive as the French Revolution, the Reformation Era, and the Industrial Revolution combined.

    1. economicminor

      Religion is a real problem for sustainability. Most all of them promote growth in population.. Go forth and multiply… And then reap the rewards in tax free tithing.

      That is a joke about printing money to solve problems isn’t it? You don’t just create wealth out of the air. Oh, I forgot, Big Ben and the Neo-Keynesians changed how people, companies, governments and economics work. Wealth can be transferred from those who actually work to those who have connections with money printing but so far I have not seen actual wealth created via printing. Thus adding new energy structures, aquaponics or even modernizing our electric grids or efficient train transportation of goods to our system via money printing would be something very new. And WHY will TPTB allow this, even if it would work?

      Currently Politics reflects the corporate religion of trickle down greed is good and Central Planning is wonderful as long as those with the power get all the benefits and none of the consequences. How are WE going to institute a new paradigm shift to something that actually makes sense when dealing with people who have absolutely NO common sense, ethics or integrity and are paid to be that way?

  9. fresno dan

    I posted an opinion piece from Bloomberg from a physicist which pointed out that we live in a finite world of oil and energy.

    The very next day, we get this from that nobel winning economist:
    “A few days ago Mark Buchanan at Bloomberg published a piece titled “Economists are blind to the limits of growth” making the standard hard-science argument. And I do mean standard; not only does he make the usual blithe claims about what economists never think about; even his title is almost exactly the same as the classic (in the sense of classically foolish) Jay Forrester book that my old mentor, Bill Nordhaus, demolished so effectively forty years ago. Buchanan says that it’s not possible to have something bigger — which is apparently what he thinks economic growth has to mean — without using more energy, and declares that “I have yet to see an economist present a coherent argument as to how humans will somehow break free from such physical constraints.”

    Of course, he’s never seen such a thing because he’s never looked. But anyway, let me offer an example that I ran across when working on other issues. It’s by no means the most important example of how to get by with less energy, and in no sense enough by itself to make that much difference. But it is, I think, a useful corrective to the rigorous-sounding but actually silly notion that you can’t produce more without using more energy.”

    Unfortunately, he doesn’t show his work when he makes the statement that we can ship as much as we ever did even with ships going slower, because we just build more ships to carry more stuff! I guess the iron ore just digs itself out of the ground, smelts itself, and forms itself into massive container ships, without much energy used at all…and let’s not think about all the energy to maintain the extra ships either…..

    Of course, being a pundit means getting to have your cake and eat it to
    “So what are the implications of the recent rise in commodity prices? It is, as I said, a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources. ”
    So the good nobel prize winning economist actually acknowledges that there are finite resources…..
    And with regard to no relationship between energy and gdp, I find that an astounding statement for a supposedly well read economist to make
    as well as:

    As they say, a reformed alcoholic is the greatest prohibitionist (my past, but now conceded belief in the failures of the market), and I guess that’s why I have such a strong reaction to the notion that the “market” and “growth” will solve the profound problem of a ever growing human population.

    1. Ed

      Its really just bad logic.

      The claim is that economic growth is a function of energy extraction. Energy extraction has finite limits (due to the need to use fossil fuels), so there are limits to economic growth as well.

      To argue against this, you have to argue that economic growth is NOT a function of energy extraction, as Krugman does. Or that there are no limits to energy extraction, which is the red state viewpoint. Both these arguments are none-sense. There is a third argument that can be made that the limits will be hit at a far off time in the future, but not now, and that world population will decrease by people limiting their family sizes before we reach that point. This is a coherent argument, but unfortunately the actual information we have on the state of the world indicates that its simply not been happening.

  10. ]{umar

    Are you serious ? Let me call out for what it truly is, closet racism and extension of the white mans burden. I do not doubt that humanity and its actions have had a impact on the earth and we are directly responsible for climate change and extinction of species on an epic scale. But controlling human population is absolutely not the answer. I like the idea that we should move beyond earth (to mars and other asteroids / moons) much better. Call me a super optimist, but I do believe the solution lies in dramatically improved energy capture, storage and utilization. Those kind of scientific disruptions are completely non-linear and unpredictable in when they are discovered and how they will be exploited. We have done this in the past (moved from burning wood to coal to petroleum) The cars today are much much more efficient than cars 50 years ago and that’s incremental improvements. When the truly breakthrough non linear improvements happen, it will be several orders of magnitude more efficient and we will take those things for granted.

    Killing people (by not giveing them the choice and conditions to reproduce and provide for their families) to solve really big global problems is NOT the solution.

    1. Vatch

      No rational advocate of a smaller population wants to kill anyone. What we want is a lower birth rate, which would be very life affirming.

        1. Vatch

          It’s irrelevant. Is having 3, 4, or more children more life affirming than only having one or two?

          1. Garrett Pace

            Definitely not irrelevant. Ask any fifth child who rather likes existing.

            You should define “life affirming” more specifically. Is abortion life affirming, too? If we’re just talking about a freedom from commitment to other humans by preventing their existence, then a nuclear bomb is extremely life affirming. Or at least enough ambient radiation that no one can have kids.

            1. Vatch

              Abortion, huh? You do realize that the best way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancies?

              Anyhow, our planet is finite. I prefer to reduce the birth rate. The alternative is to let things continue as they are, and we’ll have famines, pandemics, and more resource wars. Fun times, you may think, but I don’t think so.

              1. Garrett Pace

                This discussion isn’t about Roe-Wade, it’s whether you think measures that are destructive of life are nonetheless “life affirming”.

                Since one fat rich western baby is going to consume tens of times as much as a Bangladeshi one, there are factors other than just birth rate that are going to move the needle more, even in the long term, our virtuous 1.5-something birth rate is still way worse than 4, 5, or 6 in Angola.

                Furthermore, having children makes me care a whole lot more about the world I leave behind. I’m not certain if it’s true in all cases, but I observe that people’s consumption is constrained by the resources they control, not the mouths they feed, so telling people, “consume what you want and you’re okay, just don’t have kids” is going to have to wait many decades for any payoff. And it leaves behind a culture of consumption and selfishness for whoever’s kids inherit the earth.

                1. Yves Smith Post author

                  It is not “life affirming” to subject sentient beings to a life of misery and violence, which is what happens when societies compete for scarce resources.

                  Have you ever visited Chaco Canyon, in the Southwest? It was a flourishing civilization in its heyday.

                  It last days show evidence of widespread murder and cannibalism.

                  The Buddhists also have a very different view of life than you do, that the human condition is about suffering. The idea that your pleasure in being a parent is necessarily replicated in your child’s experience of being a child is not a given. Narcissists, who are often particularly proud of being parents, do a miserable job of parenting.

                  1. Garrett Pace

                    Buddhists may tell us that human beings are unwilling receptacles of unnecessary suffering, though that is not as depressing as what economists think people are.

                    I haven’t experienced enough suffering to either learn to praise it or cry it down, but when I meet people who have, they don’t usually talk like you do. Though some do. The one-way ticket out of life is always available, and anyone who hasn’t yet availed themselves of it is “affirming life” in some way at least.

                    I believe that life has a purpose of which suffering is only a part. This generates an optimism and hope for the future, and a belief that even our worst problems will be solved, by us or for us. If that makes me delusional and narcissistic in your eyes, so be it.

                    1. not_me

                      The one-way ticket out of life is always available, and anyone who hasn’t yet availed themselves of it is “affirming life” in some way at least. Garrett Pace

                      Yep. And if I’ve heard correctly, what the ancients feared was not pain but non-existence.

                      Anyway, having children or not should be a personal decision and in a just society (including old age and disability protection via just asset distribution and the lack of government subsidies for private debt creation) those decisions should be sustainable.

                    2. not_me

                      If that makes me delusional and narcissistic in your eyes, so be it.

                      Also self-interested in that LDS males essentially breed their own kingdoms over which they are Gods?

                    3. Garrett Pace

                      Not really the way you say.

                      There’s a truth about privilege, authority, power, and “god-hood” in the New Testament. Mark Chapter 9:

                      33 ¶And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?

                      34 But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest.

                      35 And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.

                      Parenting is definitely one way to be “servant of all”, but there are plenty of other ways.

                    1. different clue

                      Third world people are a problem. If they adopt Western lifestyles they become more of a problem.

                      First World people are a problem. If they adopt Third world lifestyles they become less of a problem.

                      Actually the problem is numbers-overshoot AND consumption-overshoot. People can fix it gracefully or nature can fix it brutally.

                    2. Vatch

                      And many Third World people desire a western lifestyle. Who are you to insist that they remain impoverished? Such arrogance is simply wrong.

                    3. Garrett Pace

                      This isn’t about clean water or palatable food, it’s about big dumb cars and big dumb houses.

                      This discussion isn’t going anywhere fruitful. Good day to you.

  11. Clive

    In many ways, the future is here, and it’s been visible to anyone who cares to look — in Japan since about 1990.
    Falling population in real terms / decline in fertility — check
    Hitting a hard limit on resource (in Japan’s case, habitable land mass. Also safe “affordable” energy) — check
    Social changes
    Profound social impacts which are either correlated or having a causal relationship to the above two factors — check (amazingly, there has been no serious analysis done, for example on the phenomenon of hikikomori outside Japan)

    It is very interesting to me to watch how this is played out within Japan itself and vicariously in the developed world, especially the US.

    Internally, the biggest negative consequence has been foisted on women, mostly by men, especially those women of child-bearing age, who are “blamed” for not having children. Yet only cursory self-examination is done about why so many women are choosing not to have large families, and the inference is clearly that they are making the “wrong” choice. I wonder if history might revise this verdict.

    Externally, Japan is blamed (I’d single out the US a prime culprit, but western media is all to often complicit in this by not challenging it or coming up with its own assessments) for not being able to figure out some sure-fire formula to “fix its problems”. Oh, and the usual calls for “reforms” with little evidence based arguments for what, exactly, should be “reformed” and why. With, of course, the TPP being used like some kind of voodoo magic stick.

    1. Jim Haygood

      It’s not just Japan. Russia, Italy, Germany … the list goes on of nations which have entered into demographic decline.

      Apparently, reaching a middle class per capita income is the only policy that’s needed to cap population growth in most places — but not the U.S., owing to immigration.

      If further policy incentives are needed in the U.S. (which the Census Bureau projects to reach 400 million population in 2051), making the cost of K-12 schooling explicit via vouchers would be one approach to raise awareness. Currently, you can have five kids and collect about $1 million in ‘free’ public education. Breed like bunnies; gov’t will pay!

      1. Vatch

        Becoming middle class isn’t the only way to stop or slow population growth. Interestingly, Bangladesh has made good progress in recent years. Their numbers are still growing, but not at their former rate, and the country is still very poor. If people are aware of contraception and its value, they will use it. Some charitable organizations such as The Population Media Center use radio and television soap operas to educate people about these issues. They’re not currently working in Bangladesh, but other people have produced similar kinds of soap operas in Bangladesh. Brazil is another relatively poor country in which overpopulation awareness is not dependent on a major middle class transition.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Perhaps becoming middle class is not a perquisite.

          It, or more specific, less wealth inequality, will only further the cause, I believe.

          Additionally, I see old age security as a critical factor in reducing excess growth and addressing overpopulation (see my comment below, 12:51PM).

    2. Carla

      “Internally, the biggest negative consequence has been foisted on women, mostly by men, especially those women of child-bearing age.”

      Omigod. Pray tell. What else is new?

      This is not to mock you, Clive. But Omigod.

      What else is new?

      And I did consider your qualifier “mostly by men,” and appreciate your understanding of the fact that women do it too. We all do. Foisting negative consequences on women, especially those of child-bearing age, is our specialty, as a species.

  12. JL Furtif

    I think it was J.D. Alt, who posted a nice article here on NC stating that if we granted people the same acreage as the average Indian farmer family (they are not rich, but getting along as long as they stay away from GMO seeds), we could put all of humanity in the US, leaving all of Europe, Asia and Africa human-free.

    So it is not that there are too many of us, it is there are too many chasing too few resources. If we stop the chasing (big if – not gonna happen) we don’t need to do the killing against the ‘too many’.

    1. Vatch

      Here’s a link that I’ve posted before, but it’s worth looking at the graphics again. You’ll have to scroll down a bit, I’m afraid. If everyone on Earth lived like the average person in China, we’d need 1.1 Earths to sustain ourselves. If everyone on Earth lived like the average person in Costa Rica, 1.4 Earths would be needed. Like France? 2.5 Earths!

      The Big Squeeze

      We need to remember that much of the world’s surface is unsuitable for human habitation or for agriculture. We can’t use all of it.

      1. TarheelDem

        We also need to remember that developers are chewing up arable land at an alarming rate, even as potentially arable land lies unused in cities like Detroit and Chicago because of ownership issues and the investment required to rebuild clean usable topsoil.

        Suburban land in the US has potentially many acres that could be available for growing food and timber crops (trees and bamboo) that are today unused.

        Current patterns of development are ad hoc, not very well thought through or designed, and aimed at stripmining the resources instead of ensuring continuing productivity. There is much that we can do in a fairly short period of time to offset a potential global population size of 11 billion if resources were focused on doing that instead of continuing to raid nature’s savings account.

        All of that before dealing with attitudes regarding family planning, which have gone in reverse in the United States under the political campaign of the so-called “pro life” politicians, who are now taking aim at conventional means of contraception, including condoms. Forced marriage, forced birth creates overpopulation.

        1. different clue

          Of course all that suburban land is inhabited by suburbanites. The suburbanites could transform themselves into suburbustanis and transform their lots and yards into high-density high-yield permacultures. There is certainly the labor force to manage such permacultures, living right there in suburbia.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Potable water is the resource that is most constrained, not food. We start having problems on current trajectories around 2050. And that’s NOT allowing for damage to aquifers from fracking.

  13. Peppsi

    It would a somewhat powerful gesture for all of humanity to commit suicide as one, for the sake of the planet, rather than killing it for the sake of ourselves.

  14. washunate

    Great read. I think population is a very interesting topic. Maybe it’s a third rail among older Americans and Europeans? Younger people have created smaller family sizes for a long time. It’s almost as if our species has a broadly shared understanding that there are, collectively, too many of us for this planet of ours. It seems like a pretty logical conclusion from the unprecedented population explosion of the past century and a half or so.

    It seems pretty clear that over the past few decades across cultures, once people have a basic level of economic security, they embrace family planning quite dramatically, from older marriage ages to more use of condoms and birth control to wider access for abortion to voluntary surgical sterilization. Birth rates have fallen from Korea and Japan to Germany and France to the US and Canada. The US just hit the milestone of falling below replacement level for white Americans in 2012 I think.

    On growth, to me it’s all how you define it. If GDP or a similar construct is the measure, then I find it comical to suggest that small increases (or decreases) mean much. Much of what GDP captures is looting, not wealth, while much of what GDP ignores is actually what makes life worth living. But if we measure growth in terms of justice and leisure time and art and exploration of the universe and our place in it and so forth, I think we can grow in that way as a species for a long time.

    1. hunkerdown

      Is it too conspiratorial to suggest that birth control policies of any government might be manipulated to cook “very important” books? In other words, might the GOP or the Pharisee televangelists shill for pro-birth policies when financial indicator growth falls below a certain threshold, such as when long-term productivity gains aren’t sufficient to meet growth targets? And, now that productivity growth is tapering off, we’re being asked to breed to help oligarchs win their size wars?

  15. Working Class Nero

    There seems to be a very sound argument to be made that if you really want to combat global warming then a reduction in the number of people living in the high consuming first world would be a good thing. But what quickly follows from this idea is that third world immigration into the first world is a catastrophe for the global environment because you are taking low consuming but high reproducing people and placing them in the first world where they become high consumers and worse, will create many, many more high consumers.

    But of course the problem is the very same people most alarmed by global warming are also emotionally committed to mass third world immigration into the first world. When forced to make a choice; they inevitably choose mass third world immigration.

    Europe is, of course, being transformed by such long-run demographic processes as a result. The declining birth rates of the indigenous populations of Western Europe when combined with large scale immigration, and the higher fertility rates of many of the arrivals, is inevitably changing the make up of European populations

    So this is a very true statement but surely is a disaster as the indigenous people of Europe are basically suffering population replacement by rapidly breeding third world immigrants. Sure, these third world immigrants typically don’t reach the same standard of living as the indigenous people but they come fairly close, and consume much more than they would have back in their home countries. But it seems while the author is brave enough to for the indigenous people to lower their birthrates, he balks at calling for an end to third world immigration into Europe.

    At one level, this is arguably a good thing as an ageing Europe attracts eager young workers. But as the rise of the far right and domestically-generated terrorists in Europe reminds us, it is not a simple process to manage.

    Sooooo, I don’t get it. Europeans should limit the number of children they have but at the same time bring third-worlders into their countries and let them breed like rabbits?

    If America had never opened the immigration spigot back in 1965 there would probably only by a little of 220,000 Americans. The US carbon footprint would be so much smaller. But to even discuss this fact is considered by many a hate crime.

    And so I commend the author for being brave enough to at least discuss a reduction in first world demographics. But the message is totally compromised by wimping out on any calls for a reduction of third world immigration into the first world.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Perhaps First World Exceptionalism has some validity, and that’s why it’s automatically assumed that Third World people wish to go there.

      But then we’d be remised if we then don’t think imperialism, colonialism/neocolonialism, and neoliberalism have anything to do with that one-way migration.

      The war against all those isms is to be fought in the Third World. We need to restore the Third World back to what it was before all these – a livable world, homes, sweet homes to people there.

      The strategy should not be to just let them go to the First World, as wage slaves, so they can bring home money to improve their countries.

      That’s the low way.

      The high way is to stop stealing their natural resources and stop bombing their homes, so that the Third World is also ‘exceptional’ like the First World.

      Until we restore international justice, stop exploiting the weak countries, it’s just arrogance to think people would desert their homes because our homes are ‘exceptionally better’ and stop our thinking there, without asking why it is so.

  16. tim s

    As insignificant as recycling one’s plastic bags and putting up solar panels are on a personal level, choosing to not have kids is about the same, at best. What is the significance of reducing the world population from 7,000,000,000 to 6,999,999,997? Practically none at all.

    If it is a matter of simple reducing the numbers of eaters & consumers, then we must pragmatically admit that mass murderers are more beneficial to the planet than we are. Even greater than that would be our MIC and politicians who continue add to the endless wars we wage, as well as the Suits who undermine the economy for their personal gain and drive many to suicide.

    For those who choose to not have children, that is a personal choice and I respect that, but lets not harbor an illusion that they are saving the planet. By entertaining that, the implicit assumption is that the individual who does have children is destroying the planet.

    On the flip side of the coin, I think that the planet would be much better off if one or more of the new people on Earth were mini-Yves’s (for example), who would grow up with the strength and spirit of the parent and have that as the foundation of their lives going into the future, carrying on the work in some form or fashion long after the parent is gone.

    1. jrs

      Haha. One can’t actually make one’s kids turn into mini-me. And the impact on the population is one person who doesn’t reproduce leading to quite a bit less people generations down the line from not reproducing, although this might still be small in a population of 7 billion.

      1. tim s

        You’re right, you can’t make kids into anything that they are not. You also can’t change the fact that they are direct recipients of your genetics, and the fruit does not fall far from the tree. You can’t make them LESS like you either.

        Your generational thinking is similar to saying that if you pull one weed from a weed patch periodically, that eventually the weed patch will disappear because each weed pulled cannot go to seed. It doesn’t work that way, because if there is a healthy spot for another weed, one will grow there, the only difference is that the seed will have come from another plant. No different with humans.

        1. hunkerdown

          Maybe the infantile, socially-inculcated obsession with seeing one’s genetics reproduced is part of the problem?

          Weeds are not self-directing. They don’t typically roam the world (plantago being one exception), and they don’t have enough sentience or perception not to seed, or even to know when seeding isn’t the best idea. Humans do. Humans have the capacity to do something in between starving and multiplying. Humans also imitate one another, when suitable traits are found to imitate.

          Though, if what you’re actually suggesting is that humans aren’t any smarter than weeds for reasons that cannot be overridden by good sense, some days I might think you’re right.

          1. tim s

            socially inculcated? Reproduction is at the foundation of human nature, and all of the rest of nature as well Any number of exceptions must pale in comparison with the numers of life forms that reproduce themselves. I don’t see as much as a divide between humans and the rest of life as some people do. I think that people tend to overestimate human’s free will, as well as underestimate the intelligence of other life forms

            Maybe this will not be the case some time in the future, but I don’t see it coming. Show me a human society anywhere that hormones don’t hit during the teenage years and I might start to believe that this divergence is happening.

            One thing that I do think that there is data for are advanced civilizations in the past where the options for successfully supporting the offspring through to adulthood are reduced due to decline, as well as the burden that is placed on adults in a declining society just making it day to day may seem so large that the addition of offspring would potentially back-breaking. Humans also have a psychological propensity to justify their actions to themselves to try to maintain a mental balance. Just a couple of thoughts. I don’t have links to back them up – I apologize for not giving my hypothesis real legs.

            Weeds will propagate to the limits of their surroundings. These limits are found by new growth failing at the edges – could be caused by stronger weeds, lack of nutrients, or goat. it seems that humans will do the same, or should I say have done? Reproduction, struggle, evolution,… – it’s the whole of our history, with the variety being only in the details.

  17. Left in Wisconsin

    World Bank has fertility rates by country here:

    The data seems clear that more family wealth/income/opportunity, esp for women, leads to fewer children. I think almost all of the wealthy countries of the world are approaching or below 2 births per women – even the U.S. (Israel seems to be the only big outlier at 3.0) While there are poor countries with low fertility rates, all the countries with really high fertility rates (above 3) are really poor.

    The big question is can you raise income/opportunity and thus lower birth rates in an environmentally sustainable way?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I believe we can make further progress with a better Old Age Security.

      And a better Old Age Security comes after less income/wealth inequality.

      Less Income/Wealth inequality —> better Old Age Security —–> needing fewer children.

      So, we are back to the issue of income/wealthy inequality again.

    2. not_me

      The big question is can you raise income/opportunity and thus lower birth rates in an environmentally sustainable way?

      Sure you can. Please remember that our current implicit social contract is to steal from the poor and other non so-called creditworthy and to provide them with jobs and nice, cheap consumer goods in exchange. People were driven off healthy, sustainable family farms and businesses, their birthright, with their own stolen (albeit legally) purchasing power and given wage jobs in factories and nice, mass produced consumer goods in return.

      The solution is thus land and other asset (because productivity gains have not been justly shared) reform to reverse the theft which should reverse the need for massive consumption as people return to healthy, dignified lifestyles and without the need to produce large families as a form of social security for the old.

      The solution is thus justice.

      But as for destroying the environment per se, recycling and modern technology are surely reducing the damage per capita with the possible big exception being energy production (eg. fracking). However, fusion reactors (or modern thorium reactors until fusion is practical) could eliminate the need for fossil fuels completely via the synthesis of carbon-neutral hydrocarbons.

    3. Roland

      The outlier in Israel is caused by heavy direct government subsidies to the religious fundamentalists colonizing the West Bank. The Haredi get paid to have kids, and get partly spared from taxes and conscription.

    4. frosty zoom

      unfortunately, one child in a rich country uses WAY more resources and creates WAY more pollution than a whole herd of humans from somewhere poor.

      clothes dryer, air-conditioner, car, car, car, meat, meat, meat, airplane rides…

  18. not_me

    It’s usury (any positive interest rate) that REQUIRES growth (to pay the interest) and it’s government backing for private credit creation that DRIVES people into debt because that backing upsets the natural balance between saving and borrowing.

    So how about we set our minds to abolishing the rat-race and it’s co-commitment to destroying everything to pay usury?

    “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Henry David Thoreau

    1. not_me

      There is way to do profitable lending WITHOUT interest and that is to slightly over-collateralize the loan such that a loan default PROFITS the lender; those who do not default pay NO interest. This appears to be the ancient Hebrew method to lend without usury and accounts for the system of indentured servitude in the case of the borrower having no collateral except his own labor.

      Think about it, a system where ONLY loan defaulters suffer and everyone else can borrow interest-free!

    2. not_me

      Also, growth does not necessarily mean destruction of the environment. Suppose everyone has all the essentials of food, clothing and shelter and the economy consists largely of education. What environmental harm then is there, for example, in teaching people to play the piano?

  19. drb48

    It is an inescapable fact that the living standard enjoyed by those of us in the “developed” world has been created and sustained by extractive technologies and finite resources that cannot be maintained in the long run even for the numbers that currently enjoy it, much less the additional billions that aspire to it. And, it is becoming increasing clear that we’re destroying the planet in the effort. Yet any attempt to point out the obvious fact that growth can’t continue forever will meet resistance and get you branded as a luddite – or worse. It’s pretty clear to the unbiased observer that we’ve already exceeded the sustainable population level yet the population will continue to grow. Bad things are going to happen. Dystopian scenarios seem extremely likely. I’m skeptical that anything will be done to avoid them. And those here that argue that sustainable growth is possible are wrong IMHO. Best case scenario is that if we do everything right, we postpone the inevitable. We’re running out of arable land, potable water, breathable air and the oceans are in trouble. Global warming is going make the problem worse. Why people have their heads in the sand about this I really don’t know.

      1. hunkerdown

        So how much “arable land, potable water, breathable air and the oceans” would you have us give up in order to satisfy your religious directives to multiply like rabbits?

  20. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    The restructuring of society, with weaker community ties and the need to be willing to relocate to find work, fewer and fewer children are in a position to do much for their aging parents if they aren’t in the same community, and moving back is often too risky to undertake (if you are in your 50s and have what looks like a viable job, tossing that to help your parents is a choice many could not make even if they wanted to).

    Whose parents?

    The wife’s?

    The husband’s?

    That’s another issue.

  21. Garrett Pace

    “To put it more tersely: if you acknowledge the economic and resource implications of demography, you need to favor no or few child policies. But that remains a third rail in politics and economics.”

    This is another version of white man’s burden, since Western society is already the serpent eating itself.

    This is about imposing enlightenment on Europe’s former colonies.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, it is VERY important for the US to participate. We represent only 5% of the world’s population yet consume 25% of its energy. People in advanced economies have the most costly lifestyles and are the biggest resource hogs. Getting their population down is important.

  22. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    So perversely, if it is a societal priority to lower birth rates, much better legal and economic protection for the elderly is essential.

    I happen to think this is a Very Important Issue (VII).

    Often, people don’t know when to stop (being part of the War on Nature army). What happens, individually, is that one would continue to generate one’s share of GDP contribution, because one’s uncertain what one needs at old age.

    Moreover, with the Old Age Uncertainty, one also tends to over-train one’s child(ren) for War on Nature, who are themselves uncertain what they will need to save for old age, and tend to overcompensate for that, with the result of over-zealous participation in the War on Nature (i.e. GDP generation), from one generation to another.

  23. Banger

    I’ve weighed in on this debate many times. The problem we have is not the number of people in the world but the dominant culture. Since I’ve lived, at various points in my life, with next to nothing in terms of resources I can tell you it is no worse than any other ways of living I’ve experienced. In fact, genteel poverty (once possible in the US) tends to be more convivial since there isn’t much to do other than hang out with people and have fun with flesh and blood interaction. But that isn’t the point I want to make.

    What I want to say is that the problems we have with over population is that we don’t allow people to provide the wisdom and guidance because we don’t develop them as human beings and don’t provide them with I structures that allow human creativity to flourish. Instead we have a grim world dominated by selfishness and greed where a minority lives well and the rest eat shit. I’ve travelled and been around all kinds of people and know the extraordinary richness that is the human experience if we’d only open our eyes and our hearts.

    I would rather die than live in a world where populations are limited to those that share the current deformed and perverse Western values of ego and “achievement.” I’m sure those that favor limiting population will eventually sign onto some form of virtual genocide–maybe the new “diseases” to come will do the job–I know a lot of serious research has been done in that area and don’t think it isn’t continuing.

    1. Vatch

      “I’m sure those that favor limiting population will eventually sign onto some form of virtual genocide”

      That’s one of the most offensive things I’ve read in a long time. Name a population advocate who supports such a horror. In other words, provide some evidence. And don’t pick someone who simply has warned that widespread death will likely occur if the world’s population continues growing.

      One of the reasons that I support population reduction is to prevent epidemics, droughts, pollution, and genocide.

    2. Bluntobj

      The paranoid part of me points out that you are behind the times. Population control is already underway with the shifts in gender dynamics and demographics. Disease is riding their coattails; even now two population limiting diseases are in exponential growth phases (EV-D68 and Ebola:Zaire).

      Further, don’t worry about decadent western culture. It should be extinguished fairly well in 20 years or so.

  24. Bluntobj

    Quick comment on municipal water systems, sewer systems, and their maintenance or replacement.

    I work with over a hundred small towns, cities, and water/sewer districts. The facts in regard to these service systems, and their related leakage, are that:

    1. Utility rates are not high enough to reserve adequate amounts for future replacement. Users must pay more.
    2. Higher utility rates affect those with limited fiscal means to pay for them.
    3. Political pressure arising from advocacy groups keeps rates down. People vote their blind anger.
    4. Funds must be borrowed, usually from USDA or a bond, typically at 40 year terms.
    5. Federally funded projects also require prevailing wage, non-local contractors, extensive engineering work, and very high costs. (example: replacing a sewer system for a 500 connection community cost $4.2 million a year ago)
    6. Interest on such a large debt means that utility rates must usually double. Most councils are shocked when I tell them that. They don’t believe me, don’t raise their rates, at least incrementally, before hand, and then have to consume their reserves before they will think of a rate increase. Not even dissolving their city will help, as it will be converted to a water district that will still have to pay the debt and will double their rates anyway.

    Those are the facts, and you can apply those to electric, water, sewer, and garbage utilities. Either people pay more now, or they will pay more later, with strings attached.

  25. Roland

    Global fertility rates have been dropping more rapidly than anyone ever anticipated was possible. Human beings have never been more collectively anti-natalist, the world over, than they are today. We’re actually going to have way less of a population problem than we once feared.

    However, both wealthy and poor countries are going to struggle with a 30-50 year Grey Crisis, as they transition from a pyramidal to a more columnar age distribution.

    Also, one should bear in mind that population per se is not as much of a problem as resource consumption. Short form: if you want to save the environment, Austerity is more important and more useful than anti-natalism. Austerity for whom, and austerity in what, are the tough political questions, because they concern distribution.

  26. alex morfesis


    the world was over extended when it had 500 million, a billion, 2 billion, three billion, and when it will be at 15 billion, it will “finally” be over extended but it actually wont..

    native people have been killing each other and fighting long before columbus made it to the bahamas and central america…
    during ww2, there were eleanor roosevelts victory gardens with smart use of available space and most people found a way to make it work.
    anyone who bothers to look at the rural and framing history of the US of A will find that the great farming fields of today were nothing but scrublands 150 years ago. We waste water flushing and watering lawns with fresh water. If every home from here forward had TWO sets of water pipes, which would be at fairly minimal extra cost considering the average cost of a new home, then for toilet use, washing clothes and lawns we could use non potable water…so its fairly easy to fix the water issue, especially if we remember how much fresh water is handed off to industry and farming that does not really need fresh water. The world wastes resources in how waste is dealt with. Earth enriching yard waste is dumped in florida instead of shipped to haiti, why is that so…other than various special interest groups who are not going to allow smart waste redirection. Instead of watching the desert continue to grow in australia could we not redirect again, the yard waste and organic waste to stem the flow…oh…but wait, I am sure the 12 people who can afford to “fly into” the desert and enjoy the “natural” setting would get their comeuppance and make a mess of any plans that does not suit the plutocratz. And the American Dust Bowl in the great depression eventually went away by smart planting of certain plants to keep the soil in place. Seriously, most of this fear mongering is for people who have a limited spectrum of knowledge in respects to the history of land management…concrete pavement in the USA has only been a part of our lives since the late 19th century. and for all who fear some world ending ebola type bio destruction…just please take a moment to honestly review the effects of the spanish influenza after ww one…it was awful, and the world had nothing that comes close to even a bad third world country today in respects to medical capacities…and it mutated itself out of existence….just like a virus will mutate, so will our body chemistry change to fight it…lucky for those folks back then, they did not have hollywood filling peoples mind spaces with these implausible fears…like the woman in high heels who runs away from the crowd on the main street and into a dark alley so that the person chasing her can somehow magically catch up to her, where she is running and the monster is dragging its bum leg but yet…somehow IT is catching up…run jessica run….

  27. craazyman

    Man this is depressing. First there was the Lord of Death just a few days ago, And now this. This Post is worse for your depression than that Ingmar Bergman movie The Seventh Seal where Death shows up as a character with a cloak. What kind of sicko would have thought of something like that? What kind of sicko would write a post like this? Maybe death is a butterfly. Maybe If you think the right sequence of thoughts, it all goes away and nothing happens!

    What if we’re not the cause of the earth’s problems, whaat if the earth is the cause of our problems? What if the earth is like a mouth and humans are food? Food tthat get puked up through a womb and then eaten back into the ground. Like a bulimic disorder where the earth is a neurotic and insane puking chewing mouth . Humans have to break free. That’s why they have logic and imagination, so they can power plants and figure things out and build space ships and fly away to other stars where sane planets wait, where you don’t get eaten and puked up. Were you just float around like a butterfly in the sun

    Why not? It could be reality. You never know!

  28. Raymond Robitaille

    One day we will become polarized between those who contend that we cannot afford to be so numerous and those who believe that we cannot afford to have very wealthy people. Eat the rich. Wealth should be part of the commons.

  29. charles 2

    Few Points :
    @Yves : Potable water all boils out to energy : once decently cheap energy is available, it is possible to use it to purify water, mine and recycle stuff, etc…

    @MyLessThanPrimeBeef : a) we cannot “restore the Third World back to what it was before all these – a liveable world, homes, sweet homes to people there” with their population as of today. To give you an example : Pakistan 37million in 1950, 180 million today : the horse has left the barn long ago…
    b) There are two sources of problems regarding sustainability : either the promotion for extensive growth, or the promotion of consumption. On the other hand, there is only one source of solution : the promotion of intensive growth by creating the technological and social capital enabling fewer people to produce more with more sustainable resources (what I call “sustainable productive capital”). It actually requires few – not zero ! – children who are given the educational and business/career opportunities to create that capital. This challenge is already daunting by itself. You cannot on top of that saddle these children with the responsibility of caring for an over bloated elder generation, or to care for their generational siblings who can’t care for themselves . Therefore, I am sorry to tell you that not having kids is the easy part of one’s commitment to sustainability, the hard part consists of accepting to leave the stage of life earlier than expected, so as not to consume the resources that should be devoted to the sustainability investment. Go and watch the Ballad of Narayama to understand what I mean.
    I readily admit that it is especially hard to accept with the obscene display of conspicuous consumption by the so called “elite” of society. Frugality for the poor or even the middle class up to the point of self-sacrifice cannot happen without a genuine commitment by the rich to be equally frugal and devote most of their productive effort to the constitution of sustainable productive capital.

  30. KJO

    It’s an important topic, but 148 comments with one mention of ethics, and that only parenthetically, and no discussion of the unintended consequences of statutory mandates to force/encourage a reduction in birth rates (or an increase in death rates) would indicate that commenters are thinking about this only superficially at best. Even the original piece by Beeson had an I’m-just-sayin’ quality.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Was anyone talking about statutory mandates?

      Social values are extremely powerful. I know many women who were/are hectored by parents and inlaws to have children. Some of the women so hectored weren’t so keen about having them. There is also not much discussion of the very real phenomenon of women getting pregnant to try to save a marriage that is on the rocks. A shift in value to a more child-neutral posture would have more of an impact than you imagine.

  31. TG

    Kudos! About time this site started to pay more attention to demographics.

    One is reminded that John Maynard Keynes was first and foremost a disciple of Malthus, and that he believed that demographics trumped finance. How did we let that slip away from us?

    But it should be emphasized that excessive population growth is not an accident – it is due to specific government policies aimed at lowering wages for the many and boosting profits for the few. It gets almost zero press, but if you dig deeply enough you generally find that behind every population explosion there were government policies that started it.

    Like Mao’s policy in the 1950’s that maximized population growth, the Chinese communists only switched to the opposite extreme after their country nearly collapsed into chaos. Still, that one event by that one government for just a decade or so probably increased the global population by nearly a half billion over what it would have been had Mao simply let the Chinese people alone to decide how many children they could reasonably support…

    And while most of the worlds current population growth is due to the demographic momentum of past pro-fertility policies, even today we have leaders insisting on packing in ever more people. In Iran and Turkey and Russia, governments are pushing for more population growth. In India, there are half a billion people suffering from chronic malnutrition – and the government thinks that’s great, just look at all that young and affordable labor, we have to keep encouraging this.

    We are literally letting the rich breed us as if we were cattle, for their own convenience, and letting them get away with it without comment.

  32. McWatt

    It is good and right that each of us support population control efforts to help end suffering and
    poverty all over our planet. In the end, however, Mother Nature will find a way of controlling
    population far and above our poor understanding of it.

    ” Catch-22 says they can do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Heller

  33. Fiver

    A single example makes the point – we cut down half the planet’s forests just between 1970 and 2010 (note: Canada, not Russia or Brazil, leads the world in this vast malpractice). The great forests will cease to be forests well before the last tree is turned into a grave marker for a civilization based on maximum consumption of everything now. Forests and oceans and open plains and air are the world. They are life. They are everything in and to us. To imagine for even a moment we can somehow offset or adapt to what even 20 more years of this is going to do to our world is in my view a flight from reality.

  34. rijkswaanvijand

    “those who live in developing economies want to live a much more environmentally costly first world lifestyle”
    That’s a non sequitur at least. I recently saw a documentary about African farmers being pushed of their lands by coppermining corporations. The people weren’t too happy about it. It seemed the most enthousiastic push for ‘higher standards’** of living seemed to come from the western exploitationists eager to start mining the area.

    ** higer standards apparently meaning a 50% increase in house-size, while at the same time being stripped of any means of self-provision which they possessed previously.

Comments are closed.