Why News of Population Decline and Economic Slowdown Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing

Yves here. In a bit of synchronicity, Dr. Kevin just sent an article from New Scientist, Should you have children? The true costs and benefits of parenthood. One hates to put it in such a crass manner, but the personal payoffs are questionable, even before getting to concerns about the impact of having kids (and those kids having kids) on the planet, and whether they have the prospect of having a decent quality of life. Key bits:

In the UK, 38 per cent of people aged 25 to 34 say they don’t know if they want children or say they don’t want kids now but might one day. Around the world, birth rates have plummeted – and among those who have children, a signifi cant number regret it….

“The studies on wealthier, industrialised countries pretty much all show the same thing,” says Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas at Austin. “There is no general improvement inhappiness when you have children, which is shocking to most people.” In fact, for most, having children comes with a “happiness penalty”, says Glass. That dip in happiness is often attributed to lack of sleep, time and money, which, in turn, can depend on things like the parents’ income and stage of life….

Further evidence for money’s crucial relevance to the baby question comes from research published in 2019 by David Blanchflower at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire andAndrew Clark at the Paris School of Economics. They looked at surveys completed by more than a million people in Europe over 10 years and found that,
when money is taken out of the picture, having children does generally make people happier after all. However, this was onlythe case for parents in a committed relationship, not those who are single….

Indeed, a study from 2021 gave me more to reflect on. In it, Marta Kowal at the University of Wrocław, Poland, and her colleagues surveyed more than 7000 married people from 3countries who were asked to rate how much they agreed with questions like “Do you enjoy your husband’s/wife’s company?” or “Do you enjoy doing things together?”. The researchers found that the more children a couple have, the lower the marital satisfaction among women, but not men.

It also considers the impact of childbirth on the health of the mothers, and there are lasting costs, like shortening of telomere length.

This post addresses the big picture issue, that it’s necessary to stop population growth (particularly of the super rich who are also super consumers) and better yet, lower population levels, and contrary to widespread perceptions, some societies are adapting successfully.

By Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. Produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute

On January 17, 2023, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that the country’s population fell in 2022 by 850,000 people from 2021, which was the first population decline witnessed by the country in six decades. This has mostly resulted from low birth rates stemming from the imposition of China’s one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, as well as from voluntary family decisions, rather than deaths from COVID-19.

On the same day, the NBS reported that China’s GDP grew by only 3 percent in 2022, which is less than half the previous year’s 8.1 percent expansion pace.

International news outlets greeted these bombshells with worry bordering on horror. Time noted that “[e]xperts are alarmed” by these trends; the Wall Street Journal said the slowdown was “disappointing” and posed a “major future challenge” for China and the rest of the world—language often reserved for articles on climate change. Hardly any major news coverage explored why China’s lagging economy and shrinking population might actually be good things.

Yes, the reversal of China’s growth trends may eventually have real and unfortunate impacts on Chinese families. But much if not all of that harm can be averted with appropriate policies. Moreover, for anyone aware of environmental limits, China’s economic deceleration and population decrease are actually welcome developments.

Humanity faces an imminent survival dilemma. Not only are we destabilizing the climate with carbon dioxide released from our burning of fossil fuels, but we are also taking habitat away from other species, to the point where wild animal (including some insect) populations have declined by about 70 percent in the past 50 years. Further, humanity is depleting natural resources, ranging from mineral ores to forests, while polluting ecosystems with plastics and toxic chemicals in ever-burgeoning quantities. According to the World Bank, “Global waste is expected to increase to 3.4 billion tons by 2050.”

In 2015, scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Center calculated that, of nine critical global ecological thresholds that define “the safe operating limits of our planet,” humanity has already crossed “at least four.” A related effort by the Global Footprint Network, which tracks our “ecological footprint” (how much of Earth’s biological regenerative capacity is being used by human society), currently shows humanity consuming resources “as if we lived on 1.75 Earths”—which can only be sustained temporarily and will, in effect, result in robbing future generations of a fair chance at survival. As the human population grows (for decades we’ve been adding a billion people every 12 years), we use more land and resources. As the economy expands (it’s doubling in size every 25 years), we use more energy and therefore make it harder to reduce carbon emissions.

It hasn’t always been this way. Humanity’s addiction to rapid growth started in the 20th century as a result of having access to enormous amounts of cheap fossil fuel energy. Abundant energy enabled more resource extraction, more manufacturing, and more food production. Once the economic growth engine revved up, industrialists, economists, and politicians decided it was an unmitigated marvel, they attributed the growth to human ingenuity rather than fossil fuels, and restructured the global economy to depend on industrial expansion continuing forever.

This was a foolish thing to do since nothing can increase endlessly on a finite planet. Ecologists have warned since the 1960s that a reckoning is in store sooner or later. The only way to avoid it is to voluntarily and deliberately reduce growth—reversing it in some instances—and aim for what pioneer ecological economist Herman Daly called a “steady state economy” that helps maximize the benefit to humanity without depleting and polluting nature.

For decades, China’s economy has grown more rapidly than that of nearly any other country. And since China was the world’s most populous nation until 2022, this breathtaking growth has had an outsized impact. China has become the top greenhouse gas emitter and the foremost devourer of natural resources on the planet. It burns more than half of the world’s coal supply each year and is busy building even more coal-fired power plants.

But China isn’t polluting out of a lack of concern for the environmental damage caused by its actions; its coal burning is part of an economic strategy in which the U.S. and other wealthy nations have been complicit. The flourishing of Chinese manufacturing resulted from a grand bargain struck by multinational corporations, in which American consumers got cheaper products (thanks to China’s inexpensive energy and massive low-wage labor pool), U.S. corporations got higher profits, and the Chinese people got more economic opportunities than they had enjoyed previously—opportunities for which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could take credit. Everybody seemed to win, except the planet and its nonhuman creatures.

But coal is not endless, nor are raw materials required for manufacturing, nor is new farmland to feed an expanding population. Therefore, the growth of offshored production, and a Chinese economy based on it, can’t go on forever. In fact, the longer such growth continues, the deeper the hole that humanity is digging for itself. Yes, we can make our consumption marginally “greener” by recycling more and building more solar panels and wind turbines. But the math tells us that any serious effort to return society to a balanced relationship with nature must eventually require less overall consumption by fewer consumers. Seen in that light, China’s slowdown both in terms of economy and population looks like an event worth celebrating. So, why the hand-wringing?

In the view of conventional economists, fewer workers and consumers mean more anemic economic output. And for growth-oriented economic theory, that’s a catastrophe. But it needn’t be. Why not reorganize the economy around human happiness and the protection of nature, as opposed to the endless expansion of resource extraction, production, consumption, pollution, and human numbers?

China’s slowdown presents the country and the world with a chance to manage a decline that must inevitably come, sooner or later. It’s a chance to identify and seize opportunities while minimizing the pain entailed in a major directional change.

With fewer people, it should be easier to ensure that everybody in China has housing and access to basic necessities. At last, officials can ease up on building new cities, highways, and shopping malls. New construction can focus on replacing fuel-guzzling technologies with more efficient renewable energy replacements. China could even stop manufacturing throwaway consumer gadgets and start making long-lasting products designed for the dawning era of eco-restoration and regeneration.

A soft landing is possible: Several smaller countries have declining population levels, including Croatia, Japan, Portugal, Poland, South Korea, and Lithuania. Each of these nations is seeing stable or rising wages and historic lows in unemployment.

True, the transition to the post-growth era won’t be easy for the CCP or the Chinese people if income and wages level off or worsen, and if a declining tax base can’t sustain an aging population. The Chinese people have tacitly accepted an authoritarian regime with great restrictions on personal freedoms in exchange for promises of material betterment. If those promises fail, political instability could follow, possibly leading to widespread hardship and loss of life. To avert that catastrophe, the CCP will have to rethink its entire economic and political strategy.

Globally, in the shift to a post-growth economy, the financial sector will face the biggest risks. Vast tranches of debt that have been incurred during the past few decades are, in effect, bets that the economy will continue to expand. If the number of workers and consumers shrinks, then our global financial house of cards could come tumbling down.

But why have we put the fate of humanity in the hands of gamblers? A major retooling of our financial system is long overdue. The deleveraging of the global economy could be accomplished largely by reducing the assets of the world’s multimillionaire and billionaire classes. There might be side benefits from doing so: Economic inequality is warping our politics and making many people jealous, resentful, and unhappy.

Sure, the end of economic expansion and population growth is a challenging prospect. But it’s not nearly as daunting as the crisis we are setting up for ourselves if we continue to destroy nature through wasteful consumption and pollution. China’s slowdown is a welcome opportunity for global leaders and policymakers to get our priorities straight and set ourselves on a path of sustainable happiness and well-being.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    The terror expressed by the elites at the prospect of negative population growth is almost entirely related to the dependency ratio. Its not a dropping population thats the problem, its the proportion of ‘productive’ population to retirees/children. And of course a lot of policymakers are obsessed with economic growth in absolute terms, rather than pp terms. This problem is almost certainly greater for developing countries as nearly all countries that have made the leap to high development has done so when the population demographics were favourable for growth. It seems very difficult, if not impossible to do this with unfavourable demographics (China may, or may not, prove to be an exception, the next two decades will decide).

    There should be no reason why, with a focus on increasing the ‘real’ productivity of an economy that quality of life cannot be maintained or improved even with declining demographics. Its a ‘simple’ matter of ensuring that prime age workers are actually engaged in something productive and that there are sufficient built in protections for those unable to contribute. But that of course requires some form of highly managed economy.

    1. GramSci

      And, of course, we already have a highly managed economy. It’s just that the economy is presently managed to fulfill the fantasies of the 1% by titillating the fantasies of the 99%.

      1. GramSci

        And, of course, the elites can’t titillate the fantasies of all the 99%.

        That’s the reason the elites care about the ‘dependency ratio’. If there are too many dependents, the proles might demand the personal profits of the 1% 10% be diverted to the social safety net.

        The 1% and their 9% wannabes can always print more ‘money’ and recruit ‘patriotic’ Amerikuns to build videogames and actual bombs. These will be exploded elsewhere to keep ‘democracy’ safe, while also creating more immigrants guest workers and servant-workers with tenuous claims to any safety net. As necessary, they can incarcerate and de-shelter and disenfranchise enough discontents to extend their ‘job guarantee’ to an electoral majority by hiring minimum-wage thugs who, as an additional benefit, get to satisfy their dominance fantasies as prison guards and police. (See Predictors of enhancing human physical attractiveness in today’s Links.)

        The 1% can indulge their social darwinism until they can’t, but by then, they figure IBGYBG …

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      The dependency ratio has been debunked but still is very much alive in the business press and policy circles. From Forbes:

      To illustrate just how misleading the concocted intergenerational struggle is, let’s look at what’s known as “the old-age dependency ratio,” typically tapped to underpin Millennial vs. boomer jeremiads. It compares the number of people between 15 and 64 (the “workers”) with people 65 and older (the “retired”).

      The ratio highlights the growing numbers of so-called “dependent elderly,” which some say will overwhelm government safety nets worldwide with too few workers struggling to support too many seniors.

      For example, five German workers between age 15 and 64 supported about one person 65 and older in the 1990s, but by 2060, according to estimates, there will be three German workers for every elder, a tripling of the old-age dependency ratio from 0.22 to 0.62. The U.S. had a similar old-age dependency ratio in the ‘90s and ours is expected to rise to 0.37 by 2060, a more muted, but still impressive increase of 68%.

      Trouble is, this ratio is bogus. During a recent three-day conference at Columbia University I attended, called Age Boom Academy: Global Aging: Danger Ahead?, a number of world-renowned presenters dismissed the ratio’s demographic determinism.

      Why the Dependency Ratio Is Flawed

      Among its flaws, they said: the ratio fails to capture critical changes in behavior.

      For instance, the dependency ratio assumes everyone 65 and over is dependent or not working. That certainly isn’t true in the U.S. Our labor force participation rate of workers 65 to 74 years old climbed from 16.3% in 1992 to 26.8% in 2012 and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects it’ll jump to 31.9% in 2022.

      Personally, I think the government’s projection is too conservative, since boomers are at the early stages of pursuing paycheck possibilities during their traditional retirement years and employers are only beginning to see the profitable opportunities offered by an aging workforce.

      Bussolo offered a different, and more useful metric at the conference: An adult dependency ratio.

      It compares the number of inactive people (those not working and not looking for work) with active people (those working or looking for work) in the adult population, ages 15 and older. One advantage of this measure is it captures the trend toward longer working lives; The World Bank’s Golden Aging report notes that extending work lives by 10 years between 2030 and 2060 is enough to keep current ratios more or less constant.

      What Elderly Burden?

      Looked at this way, the odds are the elderly “burden” won’t increase much — if at all — in coming decades. What’s more, if women’s labor force participation rates converge with men’s, dependency ratios will actually decline.


      1. David

        Yes, this has had yet another airing with scare stories in France about the “dependency ratio” to justify raising the pensionable age to 64. Critics have pointed out however that (1) a significant percentage of 55-65 year-olds are not working anyway, either because employers prefer younger and cheaper workers (often casual immigrants) or because modern stressful working conditions have led to an epidemic of physical and mental problems that mean that many working-class people of that age-group are on long-term sick leave, or disability payments and (2) you can only fill jobs that exist: they don’t magically appear. There is at the moment a labour surplus in France, in part because so many jobs have been exported or simply destroyed, and around 20-25% of the 18-25 age group is completely or mostly economically inactive, a figure substantially disguised by very high levels in enrolment in further education for no good purpose. So a shrinking younger population means that the supply of jobs will come back into balance with the demand for them, which only the employers’ associations think is bad, because it will lead to rising wages. And it’s very common for higher-paid professional workers (doctors, lawyers, journalists) to work well into their seventies anyway.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        That’s interesting – I follow demographic discussions closely if at a distance and while its always a given that real world activity is more complex than a simple breakdown of age, I’ve never seen it argued that the dependency ratio is a myth. Any observer (not least Japan) will see that many people don’t just stop working at age 65 when there is a worker shortage, but I think its a huge stretch to think that this covers up a shortage of prime age workers. That said, I know quite a few people who have kept very busy at work well into their late 70’s or beyond, mostly through choice – most were senior managers or professionals.

    3. Lexx

      ‘Its a ‘simple’ matter of ensuring that prime age workers are actually engaged in something productive and that there are sufficient built in protections for those unable to contribute.’

      Thank you for winking around the word ‘simple’. I almost suspected you of trolling, there was so much class bias in that sentence.

    4. spud

      its the free trade stupid, and i am glad the author realizes it. this is the first article i have seen that was not written by a do-gooder who throws everything onto the backs of the deplorable, totally ignoring the economic model that has super charged climate change, resource depletion, increasing massive poverty and indebtedness. kudos’s for him!

      the above is exactly why the bancor will never work. trade must be massively curtailed, and protectionism, tariffs and capital controls are a must.

      we must go to a buy what you have to, sell what you can, and try to barter all that you can, to be self reliant as you can economy globally.

      this will force much of what is being constructed in human and environmental degradation countries, then shiped all over, to actually have it made really close to home, and made for a long lasting life.

  2. Alexander W

    Some major omissions and fictions in this Malthusian article, first and foremost it’s omission of any real, material analysis of carbon footprint, which time and again proves it is the wealthiest individuals/nations that contribute the most to emissions, not the millions of Chinese or people elsewhere in the Global South who choose to have families. The subsequent construction boom is a result of development, and distinguished by enormous investments in public transport, housing, poverty eradication, and green technology, something largely absent in the West, both in their development and post development phases.

    The projection, “with fewer people, it should be easier to ensure that everybody in China has housing and access to basic necessities. At last, officials can ease up on building new cities, highways, and shopping malls. New construction can focus on replacing fuel-guzzling technologies with more efficient renewable energy replacements” conveys a serious lack of understanding of non-Western development. This is a fiction.

    Finally, describing Croatia and Poland as a soft landing is absolutely ludicrous. Both experience massive labor and population outflows due to declining economies and very little domestic employment opportunities. The former has staggering unemployment, especially among youth.

    1. Catchymango

      Well said. I appreciate the idea to look beyond “growth”, and Yves’ intro brings up good points about the gender division of labour and the impact that has on women, including childbirths impact on their health. But I feel that there is a ridiculous amount of “overhead” that is being smuggled into such discourse whenever it speaks in general of “post growth” without any concrete engagement with the predatory consumption patterns of the global north, or the breathtaking venality of capitalism specifically.

      How many shoes are produced globally every year, and at the same time how many ppl don’t have any shoes? I’m much more interested in critiques which do not take as a given the austerity mindset of the neoliberals. Structural factors which serve to produce and maintain poverty within society need to be scrutinized, instead of de facto conceding that “post growth” should be based primarily on a declining number of workers and consumers. The world is far too polarized for me personally to be entirely comfortable with that idea.

      After all, in Radhika Desai’s new book she brings up a good point about how the last couple decades have failed to restore capitalism’s productive vigour, and during this time of anemic growth exploitation of the planet has only intensified.

    2. aarike

      The epithet “Malthusian” is a dead giveaway for the type of pseudo-scientific economic thinking typical of cornucopian capitalists — the type of thinking that allows Nobel Prize winning economist William Nordhaus to claim that a 4 degree C. temperature rise by 2100 is “optimal,” and will only cause a 3% drop in economic output. Of course, all serious geophysical scientists will tell you that a 4 degree C increase will likely mean the end of civilization due to drought, famine, extreme heat waves, sea level rise, etc.

      Fact is, Malthus was right — there are “limits to growth” — and the only reason the UK and Europe didn’t slam hard against these limits in the 19th century was colonialism and the growing exploitation of fossil fuels. The famous MIT “Limits to Growth” study in the early 1970s was also called “Malthusian” — and yet its predictions have been borne out in every replay of the simulation model since. How can anybody can think that adding another billion humans every 12 years is not some dangerous, freakish, and unsustainable anomaly?

    3. Piotr Berman

      I guess you learned economic geography in your youth and did not update it enough. China consumes at least 1/3 of world’s fuels, with a higher percentage in coal category. A substantial part of it is for investments, housing, infrastructure etc.

      in the last 40 years, the percentage of rural population dwindled from ca. 80% or 35%. China need of rapid urbanization is in the past. I would say that China reached a mature stage in which growth is a secondary consideration, and quality of life is primary, and less overlapping with growth as before.

      1. Catchymango

        I am not super plugged into Chinese policy due to language barrier, but I follow closely enough to have noticed a few months ago some articles and discussion about the government shifting priority toward “rural revitalization schemes”, where there is a lot of attention being paid to creating economically and ecologically sustainable rural economies that are appealing to young people. Of course a lot of that seems to be oriented around domestic tourism as of now (which for some might be a low-hanging fruit strategy), but some of their big tech companies have been touting their CSR work under such schemes where they help small farms integrate drones, big data etc. into farming practices. I remember one example where an elderly farmer no longer had to manually check every pig for health issues, with some kind of monitoring system having been implemented. Anyways, it does seem like they have shifted toward focusing more on quality and balance of growth, having specifically denounced “the disorderly expansion of capital.”

        Meanwhile here in my native Canada it feels like there has not been any sense of ambition or even purpose from government throughout my (admittedly brief) lifetime aside from “endless growth”, potential disorder be damned (look at Uber’s impact on public transit, labour rights). so if China is looking to move in a different direction I will be interested in seeing how that plays out.

  3. GramSci

    And, of course, we already have a highly managed economy. It’s just that the economy is presently managed to fulfill the fantasies of the 1% by titillating the fantasies of the 99%.

  4. Lexx

    ‘Its a ‘simple’ matter of ensuring that prime age workers are actually engaged in something productive and that there are sufficient built in protections for those unable to contribute.’

    Thank you for winking around the word ‘simple’. I almost suspected you of trolling, there was so much class bias in that sentence.

  5. Leftcoastindie

    “The flourishing of Chinese manufacturing resulted from a grand bargain struck by multinational corporations, in which American consumers got cheaper products (thanks to China’s inexpensive energy and massive low-wage labor pool), U.S. corporations got higher profits, and the Chinese people got more economic opportunities than they had enjoyed previously—opportunities for which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could take credit. Everybody seemed to win, except the planet and its nonhuman creatures.”

    No everybody did not win. The American worker got screwed. Just ask the people who lost their jobs how much winning they have been doing.

    1. some guy

      And indeed, goods at a ” China price” are not cheap to those Americans who have been put on a ” China wage”, and are even more not-cheap for those Americans who have been put on ” no wage at all.”

      If America could somehow conquer for itself a few decades of respite and relief from the International Free Trade Rules Based Order and rebuild its own survival-economy at a middle-wages and middle-income level, most Americans would be okay-off and many would be better off than now. Those pro-Free Trade Capitalist-Americans who didn’t like it could move themselves and their money to Russia, China, or some other Free Trade paradise of their Capitalist dreams. ( How much could we shrink our American economy if we didn’t have to support any of that kind of people any more?)

      ( And just possibly such an America might also be driving few or no ordinary Americans into exile the way the current ownership of America currently is).

    2. spud

      agreed, i forgot about that one. if you have to give up your standard of living and technology, than free trade did not give us cheap trinkets. free trade is, and has been very expensive for the many. a boon for just a few.

  6. KD

    Why not reorganize the economy around human happiness and the protection of nature, as opposed to the endless expansion of resource extraction, production, consumption, pollution, and human numbers?

    Because humans are consumed by a will to power and a desire to resist or impose domination on others, and the endless expansion of resource extraction, production, consumption, pollution and human numbers are integral to that struggle. Man + Ring of Power –> Nazghul.

    1. KD

      If you look at the cycles of human civilizations, they expand, they collapse, sometimes for internal reasons, sometimes due to exterior forces, and sometimes as a result of ecological crises. The idea that you can hold the process in some kind of perpetual stasis–there is no evidence that anyone can actually pull that off, and there is no telling what the unintended consequences of that attempt might create. Its not the way nature actually works.

      I’m deeply skeptical that climate change is going to create some massive destruction of the world. It is going to totally destroy certain localities on the planet, but it will improve other regions. The Carboniferous Period, when all those fossils got laid down, was massively fecund. Not to mention that you have technologies for carbon containment and other strategies for managing the effects of higher carbon. Further, there is plenty of energy that can be liberated from the atom to feed and house billions more than currently exist on earth. Climate change is a serious threat, extremely disruptive, but its not going to end the world. Maybe such a world of 80 billion people will suck, but I don’t see how its not technically feasible.

      Further, at the end of the day, the question of whether you should have children or not should have nothing to do with some macro theory of the future. Its a question of whether you enter into a process that transcends the bounds of your own existence, and leave a little piece of yourself in that process, or whether you live like a candle, burning down the wick until it is extinguished. Its true that some, like Shakespeare, leave some enduring work of art that shapes future generations, but the overwhelming majority of us are not Shakespeare and never will be. Reproduction represents a small and modest means of transcending death.

    2. KD

      “Population decline” is primarily accomplished by people high in IQ and high in conscientiousness and low religiosity. These traits have genetic correspondence. Long term, “population decline” means gene selection in favor of religiosity, high fertility, low IQ and low conscientiousness, and will ultimately reverse itself. Coerced population decline (to avoid structural changes to the gene pool) will run you right into deeply held beliefs of major identity groups in the world, resulting in the predictable outcomes of policies like banning Russian schools in Ukraine. You are just creating an existential threat to the way of life of millions, if not billions of people, and then you are going to need population and production to subdue your enemy.

  7. Rob

    Even in a world with finite resources, there is already enough material wealth to provide a comfortable life to all 8 billion-+ people living on the planet. The problem lies with gross maldistribution of resources due to the familiar capitalist paradigm of the “rich getting richer” always being operative. Redistribution of wealth is, thus, an absolute necessity but is probably harder to achieve than getting people to love one another.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      The key is defining “comfortable”. It can mean many things to many people. For some people a 3000 sq ft house is “comfortable”. For others a 1000 sq ft condo is “comfortable”. For some a giant SUV is “comfortable”. For others a moped is “comfortable”. And so on. While the 1% make easy targets, the comfortable middle classes are not off the hook. Their consumption levels are also too high.

      1. some guy

        Let’s tear the 1% down to a comfortable middle class lifestyle. If that is not enough net conservation, then lets tear the 1% and the confortable middle class down to an acceptable lower middle-class lifestyle. If that is still not enough, then lets tear them down by one further level. And so on till a systainable level of consumption is reached.

        But till the 1% is put on the hook first, I won’t lift a finger to put the comfortable middle class on the hook.

        “Sacrifice” either starts at the top or it starts nowhere at all.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      Even in a world with finite resources the current material wealth would be sufficient to provide a comfortable life to all 8+ billion people living on the planet. As you point out, there is a ‘problem’ with the gross maldistribution of resources. But I believe you are deliberately ignoring the further problem that many of the world’s finite resources are gone after they are consumed. Fossil fuels are gone after they are burned for energy. Mineral ores are gone after they have been mined and recycling is more myth than reality. The finite resources of tomorrow’s world will not support the lives of 8+ billion people.

      1. Rob

        If we are to delay exhaustion of natural resources, overall consumption will have to be trimmed whether or not there is redistribution of wealth. But then there is is always hope of a technological game-saver, such as commercially viable fusion energy, which is quite possibly a complete pipe dream that, in a best case scenario, will not be ready for 50 years.

  8. Susan the other

    The most at-risk system is the financial system because it is dependent on debt service with a long horizon. This means expanding growth. That long duration of mortgaging was certainly seen as a form of security and insurance for the capitalist system itself. A scaffolding that keeps it all together. But it might be a good idea to look at disappearing profits, or ones that are created by bookkeeping tricks and tax evasion, etc. Without real gains somewhere in the financial system it will be impossible to maintain capitalism. And to my thinking, all the profits from the exploitation of Nature have vanished. We are on the brink of collapse. So is “capitalism” so cherished an idea that we cannot see past it to a new system that will actually work to reclaim lost value? I doubt that. Especially when it comes to China. China is amazingly practical and adaptive. Capitalism could be salvaged as the great consumer of equality and the restoration of natural systems everywhere. It is a question of choices. Some pretty obvious ones.

  9. Matthew G. Saroff

    I would note that the greatest improvement in living standards in history occurred following the Black Death in Europe, despite the best efforts of the aristocracy to regulate wages to keep them low.

    In fact in some places, like Poland, we know that they were hit by the plague only by the wage spikes and rules meant to suppress wages.

    Productivity soared, wages for ordinary people soared, and job mobility soared.

    As an aside, this transformation had a lot do with the now debunked claims that Geoffrey Chaucer was a rapist. What they thought were rape charges (“Raptus” in Latin) against him by a woman servant have now been found to be charges against both of them by her previous employer for poaching her services using the 1351 Statute of Laborers. (Sorry, had to get my history geek on)

  10. Laura in So Cal

    I just wanted to comment on Yves’ introduction about the impacts of becoming a parent. I married in my early 30’s and had my son (and only child) at age 38. He isn’t an easy child with some developmental issues as a toddler and mental health problems as a teenager. I can say that while being a parent probably didn’t make me happier, it absolutely made me a deeper, more thoughtful, and more unselfish person.

    I’m not sure how they are measuring “happiness”, but just because something is hard or difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I married very late. It proved an unhappy and stressful marriage that ended in divorce and saddled me with over a decade of child support payments based on my income at the time of divorce. My job was anything but secure. I spent over a decade of worry and maneuver doing everything I could to remain employed at a my less and less satisfying job.

      My children cost me much time and money. I was fortunate to have them every weekend and most holidays and I obtained de facto custody when they were young teenagers, one just starting high school and the other in middle school. I have had many problems and worries raising my children. They are both adults now and gone — and I miss them. Star-Trek’s Captain Picard as Kamin in “The Inner Light” expresses how I feel about my children: “I always believed that I didn’t need children to complete my life. Now, I couldn’t imagine life without them.”

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I know women my age or close to my age who don’t seem to have bad temperaments, yet their children behave appallingly towards them. One with lots of money, the other with no money and probably won’t even be able to afford a car to live in.

  11. disc_writes

    I generally like Heinberg and I read two of his books, but I do not think that he thought this one through.

    Fertility rates decline for many reasons, but generally because a) children become more expensive to raise and b) are less productive for their parents. Fertility is high where children are cheap to raise and where they provide income for their parents. Fertility is low where children are spoilt, do not work until they are adults and will not take care care of their parents in their old age.

    In other words, fertility declines when we can get machines to do the things that children used to do for their parents. Machines pollute and require the gargantuan industrial infrastructure to work. It does not sound like a victory for the environment when we replace humans with machines.

    Heinberg seems to realize it, too, but disguises it as a “soft landing”: countries can have strong economies and bad demographics. To me, that means that you can have fewer people, yet increase the amount of work done by machines. That is not something to celebrate and it pushes us further towards the Earth’s limits.

    It is not that population growth and economic growth (=pollution) are not related. They might very well be inversely related. According to some economic theories, lower fertility is what kick-starts capital accumulation in poor economies. Such economies start polluting more the moment they start having less children.

    Finally, most of the fertility decline in China took place before the one-child policy. The one-child policy only managed to stabilize it at around two children per woman, and in the first few years even caused fertility to rise, not fall. It was all but a resounding success.

    Low fertility is not environmentally friendly: it is the poisoned chalice of the fossil fuel age. It is only possible when you have plenty of cheap energy that you can use to build up modern infrastructure.

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