Shannon and I have been contributing for nearly seven and a half years to the Demography is Destiny blog. During those years we have done a few things. We have got married and welcomed three children into our family. Other highlights have included me gaining a permanent position at the university where I work and as a family living in Montreal for a few months. One lowlight has been watching our second child go through cancer treatment this year.
On the demography side of life there have also been some changes that we have noticed. The most prominent one is that the news stories that feed much of the public consciousness of the issue have changed their scope and tone. When we first started writing in 2011, the news stories were largely premised on the conclusions of the Population Bomb: there were far too many people on this Earth; we are having far too many children; we will not be able to feed or water or deal with the pollution of so many people; and basically the world is in danger because of our over fecundity.
Much of what inspired us to write on demography was this narrative: we thought that it was dangerous and incorrect (or, at the least, incomplete). This overpopulation narrative failed to take account of the fact that, overall, our population growth is slowing and that indefinite growth is not on the cards – at some point this century the world’s population is predicted to peak. Additionally, the overpopulation viewpoint was blind to the immense progress that had been made in combatting poverty and hunger and disease at a time when population figures were rapidly rising. Overall, the world is the healthiest and longest-living it has ever been, despite there being the greatest number of people ever alive at one time upon this green Earth. Neo-Malthusian pessimism also reduces each person being born to a “mouth to feed” without acknowledging that people are also producers, thinkers and entrepreneurs who might have a solution to any problems facing an expanding population.
Further, this attitude has failed to differentiate between countries’ differing population outlooks. Many of the overpopulation fears were implicitly or explicitly about teeming multitudes in Africa or Asia having too many children. In order to defuse the population bomb, something would have to be done about those people “over there”. In the meantime, we in the West are free to continue our resource-intensive lifestyle (have you thrown out last year’s iPhone and bought this year’s model yet?).
The drumming up of fear of overpopulation was dangerous in our view since it could lead to demands that the government do something; and it could lead to a view that limiting the number of children was a good that might justify coercive measures. (One news presenter in New Zealand, after introducing a story about the barbarities of the coercive child planning policies in China including forced abortions and sterilisations and deaths of mothers, commented “but at least their population was smaller by 400 million”.)
But the narrative is changing. The news media are becoming more concerned with the grey tsunami that is threatening many rich western countries: Japan, Germany and Italy to name the three most notable examples. It is reporting more on the falling numbers of children that couples are having in the West, even when those couples want to have more children. Coercive family planning policies are being loosened – China now has a two-child policy. We hear less about doomsday scenarios of a filled-to-capacity Earth, although of course they still pop up, particularly in relation to climate change and, lately, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge setting a bad example by having a third child.
Indeed, the news reporting has changed so much when it comes to demographics that occasionally we even hear stories that praise the idea of an expanding population! A prime example comes from the New Zealand Herald, in which one of its (more lighthearted) columnists, Matt Heath wrote this week of how lucky we are to live in the early twenty-first century. He quoted from Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science Humanism and Progress:
“Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10 per cent of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37 per cent in extreme poverty and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.”
Heath notes that over the last 25 years 1.25 billion people have escaped from extreme poverty. Around the world, more people are now dying because they overeat rather than because of famine. The reason we don’t usually hear this news is partly from nostalgia for old doomsday narratives, and partly because good news is not interesting; it is non-news. The famines, wars and diseases that did not happen aren’t likely to fill our news columns. In view of our soon-to-be declining global population, Heath argues:
So don't listen to the joyless people who say we hurt the planet when we reproduce. We actually need kids to look after the massive bubble of old people rocking through.
Not that lots of humans is a bad thing in itself anyway. I hope there's heaps of us for a very long time. There would be little point to this planet without us running our minds over it. Thirty billion sparks of consciousness in the universe would be cool if we could feed all of us. The cockroach earth would suck… As Steven Pinker points it out: ‘We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there's no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.’
Amen to that. And Amen to a change in the way that the public understands demographics and population. It will be interesting to chronicle future developments in the public debate on demographics for the next seven and half years on Demography Is Destiny.