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Ross Is Right on Demography

7:15 AM, Dec 6, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Just for measure, I’d also add that we shouldn’t romanticize childbearing. Nearly all of the data shows that parents are less happy than non-parents, no matter how you control for the samples. As Jennifer Senior explained at length in her excellent 2010 New York Magazine essay “All Joy and No Fun,” part of the problem in our culture is that we’ve gotten to a slightly mixed-up place where happiness and fulfillment have been conjoined in ways which—how to put this delicately—run counter to the Aristotelian ideal. This might well be “decadence;” but it also might be something slightly more complicated. And to be frank, more worrisome.

(3) Part of the difficulty in discussing demographics is that it’s often difficult for people to see beyond their own parochial borders. If you live in New York City or Washington D.C., your everyday experience tells you that the world is too crowded and that there’s nothing wrong with having a huge segment of the population decide to forego childbearing. After all, Brooklyn works just great without too many babies.

But people often fail to realize that it’s a big world out there. If you put everyone into an area with the population density of, say, Paris, they’d fit in an area the size of the combined acreage of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. That’s not a particularly useful fact—it says nothing about available arable land, for instance—but it does give you a sense of scale. The bigger questions are about our environment. And on this score, there’s no serious evidence that the world faces resource scarcity. Prices for commodities have dropped steadily over the last several decades because, as economist Ester Boserup demonstrated, population increases tend to deliver simultaneous increases in human innovation. Which is why, despite the doom-saying of the last hundred years, we never hit the mass-starvations and resource shortages that have been predicted since Thomas Malthus was in short-pants.

Other environmentalists worry about pollution. That’s a valid concern. But again, the evidence suggests that human innovation has helped with this challenge. Think about the terrible environmental problems America suffered from in the 1970s—acid rain, floating trash, smog. In many respects, America’s environment has gotten healthier since then, despite our increase in population. That’s not an accident—it’s the result of conscious efforts to innovate and improve the environment.

Which leaves us with climate change, about which I’ll merely say this: If you believe that climate change is absolutely certain, man-made, and will be highly destructive, then you should also believe in the danger of depopulation. Our demographic future isn’t being projected based on ice samples and weather station readings. It’s basic math. We know how many people there are now; we know the size of the child-bearing cohorts and the fertility rates. Just as a matter of science and contingency, the chance of radical population contraction is greater than the chance of radical climate change. And as for the effects, we can already see them in countries such as Japan, Italy, and Greece. You don’t need to do much guessing. In other words, you need even less faith to believe in the dangers of population contraction than you do to believe in the dangers of climate change. Anyone who worries about the latter, but dismisses the former, is interested in something other than science and research.

Is it possible that population increases could contribute to climate change? Sure. But if you’re willing to take the leap and be worried about the ill effects of climate change, then you should also be worried about the ill-effects of population shrinkage, which are both more certain and more immediate.

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