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51CX2KCW80L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ When I was younger I was very concerned with overpopulation. Today I am not very concerned. When I was younger I read books such as Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Explosion, and Garrett Harden’s The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia. It is because I read these books and internalized their lessons that I am not very concerned. You shall judge a prophet by the veracity of his visions, and the predictions of these books have not come to pass in our time. That is also the conclusion of a piece in The New York Times, The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion. In it the reporter observes just how much Paul Ehrlich got wrong, and, also exposes just how unrepentant he is. It strikes many, including myself, that his belief in his theory, his model, is far more robust than his adherence to the philosophy that one must update one’s expectations with new data. We are all familiar with the fact that evaluated over the past ~10,000 years the human population has exploded. But, over the past 50 years the growth has been far less explosive in relative terms. When Paul Ehrlich wrote his original book, The Population Bomb, in the late 1960s the global fertility rate was ~5. Today it is close to ~2.5. When I was born in Bangladesh the fertility rate was close to 7. Today it is close to 2.

cb07ae0c-5106-416c-8407-38da526923c6 The model which Ehrlich and many biologists are enamored of is that of carrying capacity, and the logistic growth curve. It is known to all biologists, and for those in fields such as ecology it permeates their understanding of the phenomena which define our world. In short, density dependent dynamics are such as that over time species reach a carrying capacity, where their numbers are held in “check” by exogenous and endogenous forces. The exogenous being resource depletion, and the endogenous being competition within the species. These are “iron laws” of nature, and it is no surprise that the logistic growth model arose in response to the verbal arguments of Thomas Malthus. Paul Ehrlich, and many of his fellow travelers in the 1970s, were basically neo-Malthusians, and Malthusian thinking is only the formalization and explication of ideas which are as old as humanity itself. Hunter-gatherers engage in birth-spacing and infanticide because of considerations of finite resources. The city-states of ancient Greece practiced anti-natalism and encouraged migration because of resource constraints.

5171uyglKoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ So where did Ehrlich go wrong? Julian Simon, Ehrlich’s nemesis, would say that his model went wrong when it viewed humans as a stress upon finite resources. Rather, humans were the ultimate resource. My friend Ramez Naam wrote a book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, which outlines a major piece of the puzzle: humans are innovators, and those innovations increase productivity beyond imagining. Without nitrogen based fertilizer there is almost no way that we’d be able to support the population we have today, to give one example. Economists have attempted to formalize this process of growth through innovation (see Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations).

But there’s another element which is often neglected. Humans seem to reduce their fertility of their own will. That is, the demographic transition. Classical economic and ecological theory would predict that as humans produce more resources, they would produce more offspring. Times of plenty result in plenty of descendants. But what happened in nations like England in the 19th century was that gains in economic production correlated with declines in fertility. Naturally the gains were not swallowed by increased numbers. Rather, each human began to consume more and more, as the size of the pie exploded far faster than the number of humans. We live in a world of resource surplus, as the Malthusian trap was torn apart, and the gap between production and population kept growing.

Which comes to the point of this post: those who dismiss the population doomsayers need to be cautious of their own hubris. First, most of the gains in global decline in poverty has been driven by economic growth in China. And, that economic growth has partially been driven by a demographic dividend derived from the favorable dependency ratio of the last generation. It has been reported that Deng Xiaoping was convinced the wisdom of the “one-child policy” after observing that the “Asian Dragon” economies all saw benefits from reduced population growth. And it has to be remembered that this policy is coercive in exactly the manner that Paul Ehrlich had recommended.

But that’s a specific, and tendentious, objection. I say tendentious because China was already going into demographic transition, and East Asian nations which did not enact coercive population control also have very low fertility. But it seems plausible that the policy and the coercion had a major effect on the margin. The fertility would have been higher, and the demographic transition less sharp, without the policy. Since China is a nation of over one billion even marginal effects are very important. The second issue is that this is specific and somewhat narrow focused. The big picture is more important.

Paul Ehrlich himself seems to employ the classic dodge that his predictions will come to pass…you just have to wait long enough. This is a laughable response, even if on some level it is logically coherent. If you wait long enough everything you predict will come to pass. Your credibility stands and falls on whether you can predict it with some level of timely accuracy. It seems that today Ehrlich is resting his case on the fact that estimates always are bracketed by confidence intervals, but if you read his earlier work you’d not get a sense of this at all. What gives? Either he was very confident in the past, and now has simply moved goal posts, or, his writings are a mix of science and ideological polemic. I suspect the truth is a mix of both. But if you talk enough sometimes you’ll land on the truth like a dart on a bullseye.

9780192807281_p0_v1_s260x420 If you have been reading me for a while you know that one of my favorite books of all time is The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins. The author is an archaeologist, and he reviews the material record, and concludes that contrary to the revisionists and exponents of “Late Antiquity,” a great civilization did fall and decline in the 4th and 5th centuries. Ward-Perkins also emphasizes the Romans of that period did not truly see the great rupture coming. The end of antiquity was a surprise to them, for their world was an eternal one. The Pax Romana had lasted centuries. True, there were interruptions in the calm, such as the Crisis of the Third Century, but they had passed. Though obviously the Roman peace did not engender an affluent consumer society, Ward-Perkins notes that the industrial production in domains such as Britain in the 4th century left evidence in the form of pollution in alluvial deposits which were not matched again until the 18th century!

The_black_swan_taleb_cover Focusing upon models such as that of a carrying capacity results in the idea of iron laws which proceed in a deterministic fashion. Neglecting the protean capacity for human innovation, the ability to transform the very parameters of the model itself, is a recipe for looking foolish. But embedded within Paul Ehrlich’s denial of the facts is the deep intuition that social chaos and collapse can come upon us when we’re least expecting it. Human ingenuity is hard to predict, but, it is inevitable. But so are panics and irrational excesses. Innovation and human ingenuity exists in a social context, and that social context may be more easily perturbed than we would like to think. Rather than a clean elegant deterministic model, we need to keep in mind the non-linearities of social processes. The human spirit is the source of our salvation. But it may also be the root of the demons which damn us.

 
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Paul Ehrlich, Population 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    In my view the interesting question is what conditions lead to a successful demographic transition. Or, to put it differently, are there major factors that make significant parts of Africa unlike the rest of the world in this respect? If not, the question arises why the demographic transition has not yet begun in those African countries whose birthrate is not much lower than that of Bangladesh once was and also currently rising.
    As for Ehrlich and Simon: they just seem to fall on different ends of the Malthusianism spectrum – with coefficients of 1 and 0 respectively. I would hope that more informative authors have come along in this century.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    it's happening in some ss-african countries. take a look


    http://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_dyn_tfrt_in&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=region:SSF&idim=country:ZAF:MOZ:AGO:BEN:BWA:NGA:NER:NAM:RWA:SEN:SDN:SWZ:LSO:TGO:GMB:TZA:UGA:ZWE:ZMB:MRT:MDG:KEN:GHA:GAB:ETH:ERI&ifdim=region&ind=false&icfg&iconSize=0.5

  2. @Anonymous
    In my view the interesting question is what conditions lead to a successful demographic transition. Or, to put it differently, are there major factors that make significant parts of Africa unlike the rest of the world in this respect? If not, the question arises why the demographic transition has not yet begun in those African countries whose birthrate is not much lower than that of Bangladesh once was and also currently rising.
    As for Ehrlich and Simon: they just seem to fall on different ends of the Malthusianism spectrum - with coefficients of 1 and 0 respectively. I would hope that more informative authors have come along in this century.
    • Replies: @ziel
    But it looks like pretty-much the only ones with reasonable fertility rates (<4) are in very southern Africa - all remnants of the British/Dutch South African colonies. The more equatorial regions still have pretty frighteningly high levels, given current populations. Nigeria's is at 6 and pretty flat - with a population close to 200 million half of which is under 14- Yikes!

    The trend is downward, granted - but I still find it greatly concerning, particularly given what I understand is also a low age of first birth as well. And note that the effects are already causing great stress on the less fertile societies to the north (Europe) as well as to the south (in South Africa).
  3. […] In “defense” of Paul Ehrlich by Razib Khan for the Unz Review.  [added 6/5/2015] […]

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    @NowForTheHardPart
    “If not, the question arises why the demographic transition has not yet begun in those African countries whose birthrate is not much lower than that of Bangladesh once was and also currently rising.”

    Which, pray, are these African countries? I have not managed to find any African country that has rising birthrates(not as part of a significant multi-year trend, Algeria has had a slight uptick in recent years, but the current numbers, well below three children per woman, are far below the seven plus kids of the seventies). There are some, like Nigeria, where the demographic transition has not yet started even though you’d expect it to, but across the continent, even in places such as Ethipoia and Somalia, the birthrates are falling. (I am lazy and use gapminder, the numbers are not perfect but they are close enough to the “truth” to show the point)

    I am however unmoved by the argument of human ingenuity. Ingenuity has this far been reliant on raw materials and cheap energy. If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed. Since the universe was not created and level designed by any omniscient being, there is no guarantee that there exists a solution, or any solution within the grasp of our current technology and intellect.

    • Replies: @Jacobite

    If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed.
     
    I disagree with that statement. There are enough fuels available besides oil to power industrial society for centuries even at a population level of 10 billion souls. We are after all inhabitants of a planet with a molten core, lots of easily accessible minerals and fissionable material, constantly battered by powerful winds and seas, all the while circling a massive and stable fusion reactor. Indeed, one could describe homo sapiens as the massive energy exploiting species.

    I think the major risks to the maintenance of high population levels are probably satiation of wants (reflected in the frequently mentioned natural lowering of birth rates), political unrest and instability due to the unequal distribution of the fruits of prosperity, and potential breakouts of pandemic diseases, out of control self replicating nanobots, or geological and astrological disasters. You could add your own unique unforeseen threat and have a readily publishable sci-fi short story.

    In my opinion a planet with 90% fewer humans would be a lot more fun place to live than the current squalid and crowded crime ridden environment commonly found almost everywhere.

    , @Drapetomaniac
    "Ingenuity has this far been reliant on raw materials and cheap energy."

    Certainly. Up to now man's ingenuity was based on bulk technology.

    That's rapidly changing - due to man's ingenuity.
  5. ziel says: • Website
    @Razib Khan
    it's happening in some ss-african countries. take a look


    http://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_dyn_tfrt_in&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=region:SSF&idim=country:ZAF:MOZ:AGO:BEN:BWA:NGA:NER:NAM:RWA:SEN:SDN:SWZ:LSO:TGO:GMB:TZA:UGA:ZWE:ZMB:MRT:MDG:KEN:GHA:GAB:ETH:ERI&ifdim=region&ind=false&icfg&iconSize=0.5

    But it looks like pretty-much the only ones with reasonable fertility rates (<4) are in very southern Africa – all remnants of the British/Dutch South African colonies. The more equatorial regions still have pretty frighteningly high levels, given current populations. Nigeria's is at 6 and pretty flat – with a population close to 200 million half of which is under 14- Yikes!

    The trend is downward, granted – but I still find it greatly concerning, particularly given what I understand is also a low age of first birth as well. And note that the effects are already causing great stress on the less fertile societies to the north (Europe) as well as to the south (in South Africa).

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i'm concerned. but i don't think it's sustainable. malthusianism might reemerge locally in rxn to this. though global malthusianism i unlikely.
  6. Obviously his predictions were somewhat hyperbolic but I think the spirit of his argument is true. If any other species on Earth were having the effects that humans are having now we would immediately enact massive population control measures.

  7. A post defending Paul Ehrlich that is full of wisdom. Razib, you have done what I would have thought was impossible.

  8. What do you make of Peter Frost’s take on the barbarian invasions at
    http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08376389.pdf ? I am a fan of it
    because there is a prospect of actually testing it with ancient DNA once the genetics of pacification gets worked out.

    • Replies: @Sean
    As I read the paper, the key is a genetic/ ideological change that had runaway results in the elite especially, and made the Roman lack of resistance inevitable. The late Roman empire poetry of (provincial governor) Prudentius sounds a lot like the modern elite ideology.

    BBC History: For many 19th and earlier 20th century commentators, the fall of Rome marked the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction, and, not least, the rule of written law. The 'dark ages' which followed were dark not only because written sources were few and far between, but because life became nasty, brutish and short. Other commentators, who were more focused on the slavery and entrenched social hierarchies that were also part of the Roman world, didn't really disagree with these observations. But they saw the 'dark ages' as a more necessary evil - Rome had to fall to destroy large-scale slavery and make possible, eventually, a world which valued all human beings more equally.
     
    , @Razib Khan
    haven't read it in a while. but i'll recheck it. skeptical that the time frame works. barbarians didn't enter the roman army en masse until the 3rd century from what i recall.
  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Politicians and economists set policy with complete ignorance or willful disregard of the physical constraints of the planet. This spells doom for civilization and perhaps the continuation of H. Sapiens. Collapse of major ice sheets, fisheries depletion and major climatic shifts are happening, and plenty more is already baked into the cake.

  10. Does anybody contend that if we ended all public transfer payments to the Third World there would not be massive die-offs?

  11. In my mind there are two separate, and somewhat unrelated issues here: Population growth, and growth of consumption more broadly.

    While the individual distribution of increased resource consumption is different, fundamentally speaking a 10% growth in population in a nation with a static economy versus a 10% growth in GDP with a static population leads to a roughly speaking equivalent strain on natural resources. A great example of this is the depletion of fisheries globally. This has not been, for the most part, due to population growth. It has been due to increased economic growth, which has increased demand for a high proportion of diets to be seafood, as well as allowing for more efficient (and rapid) exploitation of ocean-based protein. Similarly the bushmeat trade in Africa is booming not mainly due to the African population boom, but because it’s a prestige protein in Africa, along with (related to the point above) the depletion of local fisheries due to global demand.

    You can argue I suppose it’s easier to reorient the consumption of a smaller, higher-income population than a larger, lower-income population in a way which will result in less ecological impact. I suppose over the next two generations we’ll see how effective such measures will be.

  12. Sean says:
    @harpend
    What do you make of Peter Frost's take on the barbarian invasions at
    www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08376389.pdf ? I am a fan of it
    because there is a prospect of actually testing it with ancient DNA once the genetics of pacification gets worked out.

    As I read the paper, the key is a genetic/ ideological change that had runaway results in the elite especially, and made the Roman lack of resistance inevitable. The late Roman empire poetry of (provincial governor) Prudentius sounds a lot like the modern elite ideology.

    BBC History: For many 19th and earlier 20th century commentators, the fall of Rome marked the death knell of education and literacy, sophisticated architecture, advanced economic interaction, and, not least, the rule of written law. The ‘dark ages’ which followed were dark not only because written sources were few and far between, but because life became nasty, brutish and short. Other commentators, who were more focused on the slavery and entrenched social hierarchies that were also part of the Roman world, didn’t really disagree with these observations. But they saw the ‘dark ages’ as a more necessary evil – Rome had to fall to destroy large-scale slavery and make possible, eventually, a world which valued all human beings more equally.

  13. RCB says:

    Re Demographic transition

    In the long run (many generations) it is difficult to see how low fertility could remain, because natural selection. This could operate at cultural levels: an orthodox religious commune preaching high fertility could displace everyone else, assuming they could keep their apostasy rate low enough. Or, at the individual level, individuals who are slightly “modern” would presumably out-reproduce everyone else. As long as there is some heritability here (genetic or cultural), that’s hard to beat.

    Still, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that there has been selection for higher fertility in recent generations (despite decades of evolutionary anthropologists trying and mostly failing to show that modern fertility could be adaptive), and yet fertility has fallen. So countervailing forces have beaten selection recently – but for how long?

    What evolutionary forces could stabilize low fertility? You have to look for mechanisms that can reduce mean fitness at equilibrium. One would be strong sexual selection for “modern” traits, I think. Suppose everyone wants to marry and sleep with educated, rich partners who will be able to maintain comfortable modern lifestyles. Then being non-modern hurts you in the mating market, and mating with a non-modern person hurts your kids insofar as the trait is heritable. This is Fisherian runaway. My impression is that most people do not think these indirect benefit sexual selection models are important in humans, though – we don’t do leks.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    robin hanson has proposed a malthusian future.

    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/09/poor-folks-do-smile.html

    i suspect some form of tight eusociality may be our only LONG TERM 'hope'. but long term > at least a few centuries into future.
    , @Pithlord
    I wonder how the long-run dynamics play out if we assume that technology keeps progressing. You must be right that any heritable tendency to want larger families would be selected for in a post-malthusian world with reproductive choice. Presumably, our current psychology about how many children we want given our resources, etc. evolved because it was adaptive in a Malthusian world with limited reproductive choice. So, in the long run, if evolutionary changes made people want bigger families and that pushed us back towards a Malthusian situation, then countervailing selection pressures would start to emerge. Or maybe there would be political or social forces that would restrict reproductive choice (as in China in the late twentieth century). If technology is still improving, do we ever go back to Malthus? Maybe it is *ultimately* inevitable, but how ultimately?

    I don't know how many generations in the future people really care about what happens. This might be kind of like a heat death of the universe type problem for our moral psychology.
  14. @RCB
    Re Demographic transition

    In the long run (many generations) it is difficult to see how low fertility could remain, because natural selection. This could operate at cultural levels: an orthodox religious commune preaching high fertility could displace everyone else, assuming they could keep their apostasy rate low enough. Or, at the individual level, individuals who are slightly "modern" would presumably out-reproduce everyone else. As long as there is some heritability here (genetic or cultural), that's hard to beat.

    Still, the evidence I've seen suggests that there has been selection for higher fertility in recent generations (despite decades of evolutionary anthropologists trying and mostly failing to show that modern fertility could be adaptive), and yet fertility has fallen. So countervailing forces have beaten selection recently - but for how long?

    What evolutionary forces could stabilize low fertility? You have to look for mechanisms that can reduce mean fitness at equilibrium. One would be strong sexual selection for "modern" traits, I think. Suppose everyone wants to marry and sleep with educated, rich partners who will be able to maintain comfortable modern lifestyles. Then being non-modern hurts you in the mating market, and mating with a non-modern person hurts your kids insofar as the trait is heritable. This is Fisherian runaway. My impression is that most people do not think these indirect benefit sexual selection models are important in humans, though - we don't do leks.

    robin hanson has proposed a malthusian future.

    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/09/poor-folks-do-smile.html

    i suspect some form of tight eusociality may be our only LONG TERM ‘hope’. but long term > at least a few centuries into future.

  15. […] Khan has a defense of him. But not a very robust one. As I noted to Razid on Twitter, while we are certainly capable of […]

  16. Razib,

    What are your thoughts on Steve Sailer’s current concern that sub-Saharan Africa’s comparable population explosion will lead demographic “swamping” of Europe? Can that be considered an analogy with Ward Perkin’s book?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    i don't believe the projections. nor do i think that europe will let them all in, though some will get in. there isn't evidence in most of the roman empire of massive demographic influx, though there was some. i talked to peter ralph a lot about his paper on IBD segments in europe. you see a lot of migration into the balkans with slavs. some into england. but the effect in the rest of the european roman empire (and probably most of the rest) is a minor effect, if at all. italy for example seems to preserve A LOT of deep structure.
  17. Erlich have to be lucky once, his opponents have to be lucky always…

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    in the long run we'll go extinct. if it's 100,000 year from now i'll call ehrlich a bullshitter even if he's technically right.
  18. @RCB
    Re Demographic transition

    In the long run (many generations) it is difficult to see how low fertility could remain, because natural selection. This could operate at cultural levels: an orthodox religious commune preaching high fertility could displace everyone else, assuming they could keep their apostasy rate low enough. Or, at the individual level, individuals who are slightly "modern" would presumably out-reproduce everyone else. As long as there is some heritability here (genetic or cultural), that's hard to beat.

    Still, the evidence I've seen suggests that there has been selection for higher fertility in recent generations (despite decades of evolutionary anthropologists trying and mostly failing to show that modern fertility could be adaptive), and yet fertility has fallen. So countervailing forces have beaten selection recently - but for how long?

    What evolutionary forces could stabilize low fertility? You have to look for mechanisms that can reduce mean fitness at equilibrium. One would be strong sexual selection for "modern" traits, I think. Suppose everyone wants to marry and sleep with educated, rich partners who will be able to maintain comfortable modern lifestyles. Then being non-modern hurts you in the mating market, and mating with a non-modern person hurts your kids insofar as the trait is heritable. This is Fisherian runaway. My impression is that most people do not think these indirect benefit sexual selection models are important in humans, though - we don't do leks.

    I wonder how the long-run dynamics play out if we assume that technology keeps progressing. You must be right that any heritable tendency to want larger families would be selected for in a post-malthusian world with reproductive choice. Presumably, our current psychology about how many children we want given our resources, etc. evolved because it was adaptive in a Malthusian world with limited reproductive choice. So, in the long run, if evolutionary changes made people want bigger families and that pushed us back towards a Malthusian situation, then countervailing selection pressures would start to emerge. Or maybe there would be political or social forces that would restrict reproductive choice (as in China in the late twentieth century). If technology is still improving, do we ever go back to Malthus? Maybe it is *ultimately* inevitable, but how ultimately?

    I don’t know how many generations in the future people really care about what happens. This might be kind of like a heat death of the universe type problem for our moral psychology.

    • Replies: @RCB
    The puzzle is that people in modern economies today - particular the richest - can afford to have more kids than ever before in history. Were it legal, Elon Musk (or any other billionaire) could have an enormous harem - buy out an apartment complex and pay poor women by the thousands a reasonable salary to have his kids. Even a woman of modest means could pump out kids nonstop: have a baby, put it up for adoption, repeat. But we have fewer kids than many of the poorest countries. The evolutionary question of interest is why the greatest growth in economic history has been accompanied by a voluntary reduction in mean fitness among rich nations. If Malthusian conditions returned, that would presumably only strengthen selection toward lower birth rates.

    The classic hypothesis among human behavioral ecologists, btw, was the quantity-quality tradeoff. Basically, the idea was that having fewer kids meant you could invest in each one, and therefore boost their ability to make money, get mates, and have kids of their own. Skills are important for modern economies, after all. So, the prediction was that fewer kids would ultimately turn into more descendants down the line. From what I've read, this is mostly refuted in modern societies. The first test I know (among New Mexican men, done by a guy who wanted it to be true, I believe) found that there was a linear positive relationship between # of children and # of grandchildren. A more recent study found that, indeed, the people who had the most kids in Sweden four generations ago still had the most descendants today. I don't know of any study in a modernized economy showing anything different, but I may be behind the times.
  19. @galileounderground
    Erlich have to be lucky once, his opponents have to be lucky always...

    in the long run we’ll go extinct. if it’s 100,000 year from now i’ll call ehrlich a bullshitter even if he’s technically right.

    • Replies: @galileounderground
    I often feel the optimists are similar. If we wait long enough economical fusion power will be realized...
  20. @Riordan
    Razib,

    What are your thoughts on Steve Sailer's current concern that sub-Saharan Africa's comparable population explosion will lead demographic "swamping" of Europe? Can that be considered an analogy with Ward Perkin's book?

    i don’t believe the projections. nor do i think that europe will let them all in, though some will get in. there isn’t evidence in most of the roman empire of massive demographic influx, though there was some. i talked to peter ralph a lot about his paper on IBD segments in europe. you see a lot of migration into the balkans with slavs. some into england. but the effect in the rest of the european roman empire (and probably most of the rest) is a minor effect, if at all. italy for example seems to preserve A LOT of deep structure.

  21. @ziel
    But it looks like pretty-much the only ones with reasonable fertility rates (<4) are in very southern Africa - all remnants of the British/Dutch South African colonies. The more equatorial regions still have pretty frighteningly high levels, given current populations. Nigeria's is at 6 and pretty flat - with a population close to 200 million half of which is under 14- Yikes!

    The trend is downward, granted - but I still find it greatly concerning, particularly given what I understand is also a low age of first birth as well. And note that the effects are already causing great stress on the less fertile societies to the north (Europe) as well as to the south (in South Africa).

    i’m concerned. but i don’t think it’s sustainable. malthusianism might reemerge locally in rxn to this. though global malthusianism i unlikely.

  22. @harpend
    What do you make of Peter Frost's take on the barbarian invasions at
    www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08376389.pdf ? I am a fan of it
    because there is a prospect of actually testing it with ancient DNA once the genetics of pacification gets worked out.

    haven’t read it in a while. but i’ll recheck it. skeptical that the time frame works. barbarians didn’t enter the roman army en masse until the 3rd century from what i recall.

  23. Sean says:

    It is possible to overthink this. There is evidence that ‘ a higher death rate in a particular species ultimately increases the size of its population’, and the death rate that is too high and leads to extinction is quite close to the rate that leads to increased growth . In the linked article Abrams says the converse can be true reducing the death rate can cause the population to shrink. Japan has the greatest life expectancy, and there are more adult than baby diapers being sold in Japan.

    There is a book Architects of Annihilation which says that the Nazi (and Soviet) mass killing, were influenced by an economic analysis of rural overpopulation. What would the population of Russia be now if there had been no 20th century German attempt to move into living space in the east?

    On a global scale there already is a type of global eusociality inasmuch as there are expanding and contracting populations. The rare developed counties without mass migration (like Japan) make that obvious.

  24. RCB says:
    @Pithlord
    I wonder how the long-run dynamics play out if we assume that technology keeps progressing. You must be right that any heritable tendency to want larger families would be selected for in a post-malthusian world with reproductive choice. Presumably, our current psychology about how many children we want given our resources, etc. evolved because it was adaptive in a Malthusian world with limited reproductive choice. So, in the long run, if evolutionary changes made people want bigger families and that pushed us back towards a Malthusian situation, then countervailing selection pressures would start to emerge. Or maybe there would be political or social forces that would restrict reproductive choice (as in China in the late twentieth century). If technology is still improving, do we ever go back to Malthus? Maybe it is *ultimately* inevitable, but how ultimately?

    I don't know how many generations in the future people really care about what happens. This might be kind of like a heat death of the universe type problem for our moral psychology.

    The puzzle is that people in modern economies today – particular the richest – can afford to have more kids than ever before in history. Were it legal, Elon Musk (or any other billionaire) could have an enormous harem – buy out an apartment complex and pay poor women by the thousands a reasonable salary to have his kids. Even a woman of modest means could pump out kids nonstop: have a baby, put it up for adoption, repeat. But we have fewer kids than many of the poorest countries. The evolutionary question of interest is why the greatest growth in economic history has been accompanied by a voluntary reduction in mean fitness among rich nations. If Malthusian conditions returned, that would presumably only strengthen selection toward lower birth rates.

    The classic hypothesis among human behavioral ecologists, btw, was the quantity-quality tradeoff. Basically, the idea was that having fewer kids meant you could invest in each one, and therefore boost their ability to make money, get mates, and have kids of their own. Skills are important for modern economies, after all. So, the prediction was that fewer kids would ultimately turn into more descendants down the line. From what I’ve read, this is mostly refuted in modern societies. The first test I know (among New Mexican men, done by a guy who wanted it to be true, I believe) found that there was a linear positive relationship between # of children and # of grandchildren. A more recent study found that, indeed, the people who had the most kids in Sweden four generations ago still had the most descendants today. I don’t know of any study in a modernized economy showing anything different, but I may be behind the times.

    • Replies: @Pithlord
    But there would be a lag between what was adaptive in pre-modern societies and what is adaptive now (see type 2 diabetes). I have no doubt that the Duggars are highly likely to have more descendents than I am into any number of generations in the future, so having Duggar-like attitudes towards reproduction is adaptive now. So it will become more common in future. But surely it must be the case that this selection pressure is historically new (possibly because in the past the quality-quantity tradeoff was different), and it plausibly is because of mass affluence and reproductive choice.
    , @Sean
    Extremely high fertility, such as completed marriages in Walden Mass in the 1730's with 9.7 children, has not been instinctive, it was the result of people striving to live up to an ideological ideal. There has been a long standing strain of apparently principled celibacy among the educated in the West. Ehrlich was tapping into that in secular liberals. The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests, but that status thing was part of the attraction that Erlich's zero population growth had as well. People always like to kid themselves that they have transcended their base evolutionary programing. But it is very rarely so.
  25. Razib, I am surprised you did not mention the work of that guy over at UBC, William Rees, who helped to originate the “ecological footprint” measure. I know that was way back in the early nineties, but conceptual revision of the carrying capacity model has generally replaced these simplistic Malthusian ones – at least in ecological economics. http://eau.sagepub.com/content/4/2/121.full.pdf+html

  26. @RCB
    The puzzle is that people in modern economies today - particular the richest - can afford to have more kids than ever before in history. Were it legal, Elon Musk (or any other billionaire) could have an enormous harem - buy out an apartment complex and pay poor women by the thousands a reasonable salary to have his kids. Even a woman of modest means could pump out kids nonstop: have a baby, put it up for adoption, repeat. But we have fewer kids than many of the poorest countries. The evolutionary question of interest is why the greatest growth in economic history has been accompanied by a voluntary reduction in mean fitness among rich nations. If Malthusian conditions returned, that would presumably only strengthen selection toward lower birth rates.

    The classic hypothesis among human behavioral ecologists, btw, was the quantity-quality tradeoff. Basically, the idea was that having fewer kids meant you could invest in each one, and therefore boost their ability to make money, get mates, and have kids of their own. Skills are important for modern economies, after all. So, the prediction was that fewer kids would ultimately turn into more descendants down the line. From what I've read, this is mostly refuted in modern societies. The first test I know (among New Mexican men, done by a guy who wanted it to be true, I believe) found that there was a linear positive relationship between # of children and # of grandchildren. A more recent study found that, indeed, the people who had the most kids in Sweden four generations ago still had the most descendants today. I don't know of any study in a modernized economy showing anything different, but I may be behind the times.

    But there would be a lag between what was adaptive in pre-modern societies and what is adaptive now (see type 2 diabetes). I have no doubt that the Duggars are highly likely to have more descendents than I am into any number of generations in the future, so having Duggar-like attitudes towards reproduction is adaptive now. So it will become more common in future. But surely it must be the case that this selection pressure is historically new (possibly because in the past the quality-quantity tradeoff was different), and it plausibly is because of mass affluence and reproductive choice.

    • Replies: @RCB
    Yeah, that's almost certainly true.

    I guess I didn't answer any of your questions. Yes, it would take a long time ("many generations") before selection started having noticeable effects on mean family size. How long depends on heritability of trait, and how that changes through time, I suppose.
  27. @Pithlord
    But there would be a lag between what was adaptive in pre-modern societies and what is adaptive now (see type 2 diabetes). I have no doubt that the Duggars are highly likely to have more descendents than I am into any number of generations in the future, so having Duggar-like attitudes towards reproduction is adaptive now. So it will become more common in future. But surely it must be the case that this selection pressure is historically new (possibly because in the past the quality-quantity tradeoff was different), and it plausibly is because of mass affluence and reproductive choice.

    Yeah, that’s almost certainly true.

    I guess I didn’t answer any of your questions. Yes, it would take a long time (“many generations”) before selection started having noticeable effects on mean family size. How long depends on heritability of trait, and how that changes through time, I suppose.

  28. Razib, I guess if you were born in Bangladesh (160+ million in an area equal to a mid sized state in the US) , it was hard not to notice and be concerned about overpopulation

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    over twice the population and much wealthier and healthier. is that your point?
  29. @Anonymous
    @NowForTheHardPart
    "If not, the question arises why the demographic transition has not yet begun in those African countries whose birthrate is not much lower than that of Bangladesh once was and also currently rising."

    Which, pray, are these African countries? I have not managed to find any African country that has rising birthrates(not as part of a significant multi-year trend, Algeria has had a slight uptick in recent years, but the current numbers, well below three children per woman, are far below the seven plus kids of the seventies). There are some, like Nigeria, where the demographic transition has not yet started even though you'd expect it to, but across the continent, even in places such as Ethipoia and Somalia, the birthrates are falling. (I am lazy and use gapminder, the numbers are not perfect but they are close enough to the "truth" to show the point)

    I am however unmoved by the argument of human ingenuity. Ingenuity has this far been reliant on raw materials and cheap energy. If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed. Since the universe was not created and level designed by any omniscient being, there is no guarantee that there exists a solution, or any solution within the grasp of our current technology and intellect.

    If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed.

    I disagree with that statement. There are enough fuels available besides oil to power industrial society for centuries even at a population level of 10 billion souls. We are after all inhabitants of a planet with a molten core, lots of easily accessible minerals and fissionable material, constantly battered by powerful winds and seas, all the while circling a massive and stable fusion reactor. Indeed, one could describe homo sapiens as the massive energy exploiting species.

    I think the major risks to the maintenance of high population levels are probably satiation of wants (reflected in the frequently mentioned natural lowering of birth rates), political unrest and instability due to the unequal distribution of the fruits of prosperity, and potential breakouts of pandemic diseases, out of control self replicating nanobots, or geological and astrological disasters. You could add your own unique unforeseen threat and have a readily publishable sci-fi short story.

    In my opinion a planet with 90% fewer humans would be a lot more fun place to live than the current squalid and crowded crime ridden environment commonly found almost everywhere.

    • Replies: @bomag
    In my opinion a planet with 90% fewer humans would be a lot more fun place to live than the current squalid and crowded crime ridden environment commonly found almost everywhere.

    Brazil uber alles.

    Added population may not give us a complete collapse of civilized institutions, but there are losses to be tallied; mainly the loss of "autonomy": we have to stand in longer lines; fight more traffic; our hunting and outdoor privileges are reduced; etc.
  30. Sean says:
    @RCB
    The puzzle is that people in modern economies today - particular the richest - can afford to have more kids than ever before in history. Were it legal, Elon Musk (or any other billionaire) could have an enormous harem - buy out an apartment complex and pay poor women by the thousands a reasonable salary to have his kids. Even a woman of modest means could pump out kids nonstop: have a baby, put it up for adoption, repeat. But we have fewer kids than many of the poorest countries. The evolutionary question of interest is why the greatest growth in economic history has been accompanied by a voluntary reduction in mean fitness among rich nations. If Malthusian conditions returned, that would presumably only strengthen selection toward lower birth rates.

    The classic hypothesis among human behavioral ecologists, btw, was the quantity-quality tradeoff. Basically, the idea was that having fewer kids meant you could invest in each one, and therefore boost their ability to make money, get mates, and have kids of their own. Skills are important for modern economies, after all. So, the prediction was that fewer kids would ultimately turn into more descendants down the line. From what I've read, this is mostly refuted in modern societies. The first test I know (among New Mexican men, done by a guy who wanted it to be true, I believe) found that there was a linear positive relationship between # of children and # of grandchildren. A more recent study found that, indeed, the people who had the most kids in Sweden four generations ago still had the most descendants today. I don't know of any study in a modernized economy showing anything different, but I may be behind the times.

    Extremely high fertility, such as completed marriages in Walden Mass in the 1730’s with 9.7 children, has not been instinctive, it was the result of people striving to live up to an ideological ideal. There has been a long standing strain of apparently principled celibacy among the educated in the West. Ehrlich was tapping into that in secular liberals. The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests, but that status thing was part of the attraction that Erlich’s zero population growth had as well. People always like to kid themselves that they have transcended their base evolutionary programing. But it is very rarely so.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    stop lecturing people. the person you're talking too did post-doctoral research on some of these topics.
    , @Jacobite

    The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests
     
    While the ascetic monk in his cell was certainly not uncommon for those of common birth, aristocratic second sons were more frequently abbots, bishops, and popes. These prelates were often quite worldly, engaged in politics at the highest levels, famously fathered children, and even commanded troops; Abbot Arnaud Amalric and Pope Leo X being prime examples of the type.
  31. @Sean
    Extremely high fertility, such as completed marriages in Walden Mass in the 1730's with 9.7 children, has not been instinctive, it was the result of people striving to live up to an ideological ideal. There has been a long standing strain of apparently principled celibacy among the educated in the West. Ehrlich was tapping into that in secular liberals. The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests, but that status thing was part of the attraction that Erlich's zero population growth had as well. People always like to kid themselves that they have transcended their base evolutionary programing. But it is very rarely so.

    stop lecturing people. the person you’re talking too did post-doctoral research on some of these topics.

    • Replies: @EAFCMM
    I've been reading your blog for some time. It is always interesting. But one thing frequently puzzles me. The prose in your main posts is always so reasonable and persuasive that I am surprised by your surly, intemperate responses to some of the commenters. Often, as in your reply to Sean, you totally ignore the commenter's remarks and simply "go postal." Whether or not Sean has completed "post-doctoral research" really has nothing to do with the quality of his remarks.
  32. @andy
    Razib, I guess if you were born in Bangladesh (160+ million in an area equal to a mid sized state in the US) , it was hard not to notice and be concerned about overpopulation

    over twice the population and much wealthier and healthier. is that your point?

    • Replies: @IBC
    Have you ever damaged your keyboard or tablet when you compose these responses? You seem like you'd be the sort of teacher who'd throw chalk at his students.
  33. @Razib Khan
    over twice the population and much wealthier and healthier. is that your point?

    Have you ever damaged your keyboard or tablet when you compose these responses? You seem like you’d be the sort of teacher who’d throw chalk at his students.

    • Replies: @Robert Ford
    LOL, apologies to Razib but i had to laugh at the thought of him throwing chalk at me:)

    FWIW: Hopes that Africa’s dramatic population bulge may create prosperity seem to have been overdone
    http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21598646-hopes-africas-dramatic-population-bulge-may-create-prosperity-seem-have

    i feel bad about habitat loss for animals in these situations. their future seems bleak
    , @Razib Khan
    a lot of commenters are subject to

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect
  34. @Sean
    Extremely high fertility, such as completed marriages in Walden Mass in the 1730's with 9.7 children, has not been instinctive, it was the result of people striving to live up to an ideological ideal. There has been a long standing strain of apparently principled celibacy among the educated in the West. Ehrlich was tapping into that in secular liberals. The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests, but that status thing was part of the attraction that Erlich's zero population growth had as well. People always like to kid themselves that they have transcended their base evolutionary programing. But it is very rarely so.

    The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests

    While the ascetic monk in his cell was certainly not uncommon for those of common birth, aristocratic second sons were more frequently abbots, bishops, and popes. These prelates were often quite worldly, engaged in politics at the highest levels, famously fathered children, and even commanded troops; Abbot Arnaud Amalric and Pope Leo X being prime examples of the type.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    yep.

    no more blather from people who barely know what they're talking about.

  35. @IBC
    Have you ever damaged your keyboard or tablet when you compose these responses? You seem like you'd be the sort of teacher who'd throw chalk at his students.

    LOL, apologies to Razib but i had to laugh at the thought of him throwing chalk at me:)

    FWIW: Hopes that Africa’s dramatic population bulge may create prosperity seem to have been overdone
    http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21598646-hopes-africas-dramatic-population-bulge-may-create-prosperity-seem-have

    i feel bad about habitat loss for animals in these situations. their future seems bleak

  36. @Jacobite

    The medieval celibate priests or friars (who were often from wealthy families) got the social status of being altruistic and not following their individual interests
     
    While the ascetic monk in his cell was certainly not uncommon for those of common birth, aristocratic second sons were more frequently abbots, bishops, and popes. These prelates were often quite worldly, engaged in politics at the highest levels, famously fathered children, and even commanded troops; Abbot Arnaud Amalric and Pope Leo X being prime examples of the type.

    yep.

    no more blather from people who barely know what they’re talking about.

  37. @IBC
    Have you ever damaged your keyboard or tablet when you compose these responses? You seem like you'd be the sort of teacher who'd throw chalk at his students.
    • Replies: @Robert Ford
    what about those of us that know we don't know anything yet comment a lot anyway? What effect is that? The Dumbass Effect?
  38. @Razib Khan
    a lot of commenters are subject to

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    what about those of us that know we don’t know anything yet comment a lot anyway? What effect is that? The Dumbass Effect?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    dumbasses who know they're engaging in dumbassery are less annoying that dumbasses who think they're intelligent. the former are. the latter are annoying.
  39. Sean says:

    Sorry, I like to think out loud. I’m willing to be enlightened but have the impression that trying for maximal fertility is not an objective that people left to their own devices ever actually had, even men with the resources to do it without impacting their lifestyle were quite moderate relative to the possibilities.

    Ehrlich wasn’t writing hundreds of years ago, and ecology showed even with dumb animals it wasn’t that simple; the Paradox of enrichment for instance. Not such a great puzzle that things went the opposite to the way he predicted.

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    Sorry, I like to think out loud. I’m willing to be enlightened but have the impression that trying for maximal fertility is not an objective that people left to their own devices ever actually had, even men with the resources to do it without impacting their lifestyle were quite moderate relative to the possibilities.

    what were the possibilities? i.e., how many offspring do you think charlemagne could have had? how many did he have?

    as for thinking out loud, the thoughts need to informed. as noted by jacobite celibate religious orders have a pretty clear materialistic explanation, though that can't explain all. that is, those without means of supporting a family and without family or professional possibilities can be taken up by these orders. e.g.,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hongwu_Emperor#Early_life

    , @RCB
    I agree that the opportunity to have enormous amounts of children (and have them survive) in the past was probably very limited. That probably explains, in part, why we don't do just pump out babies today, even though we could technically afford it - it's just not something we humans evolved to do. That's what Pithlord was arguing above, I think.

    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely. Most preindustrial societies seem to have a positive correlation between wealth and reproductive success. You'd think that, all else equal, growth in mean wealth would imply growth in mean fertility. But that hasn't been the case. So I can see why we don't breed like rabbits - but why decrease fertility as wealth goes up? Most evo anthro's would say that we still don't quite know.

    (Within modern populations, there is a negative correlation between wealth/education and fertility among women. But I've seen a few studies showing that it is weakly positive among men in some modern populations. The reason is that, although rich married men have smaller families than poor married men (somewhat puzzlingly?), rich men are much more likely to get married in the first place. The total effect is a small positive benefit to rich men.)

    I think my interests and points are quite far afield from what the original post is about (Ehrlich's stuff), so maybe I'm talking past people. I've never even read Ehrlich...
  40. @Sean
    Sorry, I like to think out loud. I'm willing to be enlightened but have the impression that trying for maximal fertility is not an objective that people left to their own devices ever actually had, even men with the resources to do it without impacting their lifestyle were quite moderate relative to the possibilities.

    Ehrlich wasn't writing hundreds of years ago, and ecology showed even with dumb animals it wasn't that simple; the Paradox of enrichment for instance. Not such a great puzzle that things went the opposite to the way he predicted.

    Sorry, I like to think out loud. I’m willing to be enlightened but have the impression that trying for maximal fertility is not an objective that people left to their own devices ever actually had, even men with the resources to do it without impacting their lifestyle were quite moderate relative to the possibilities.

    what were the possibilities? i.e., how many offspring do you think charlemagne could have had? how many did he have?

    as for thinking out loud, the thoughts need to informed. as noted by jacobite celibate religious orders have a pretty clear materialistic explanation, though that can’t explain all. that is, those without means of supporting a family and without family or professional possibilities can be taken up by these orders. e.g.,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hongwu_Emperor#Early_life

  41. @Robert Ford
    what about those of us that know we don't know anything yet comment a lot anyway? What effect is that? The Dumbass Effect?

    dumbasses who know they’re engaging in dumbassery are less annoying that dumbasses who think they’re intelligent. the former are. the latter are annoying.

  42. @Razib Khan
    stop lecturing people. the person you're talking too did post-doctoral research on some of these topics.

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time. It is always interesting. But one thing frequently puzzles me. The prose in your main posts is always so reasonable and persuasive that I am surprised by your surly, intemperate responses to some of the commenters. Often, as in your reply to Sean, you totally ignore the commenter’s remarks and simply “go postal.” Whether or not Sean has completed “post-doctoral research” really has nothing to do with the quality of his remarks.

  43. The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) is a classic novel of science fiction by A. E. van Vogt in the space opera subgenre.

    A huge globular spaceship, manned by a chemically castrated all-male crew of nearly a thousand, who are on an extended scientific mission to explore intergalactic space, encounters several, mostly hostile, aliens and alien civilizations. On board the spaceship during its journey, both political and scientific revolutions take place.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_the_Space_Beagle

    We build a ship and make the former guys into a fighting space squad to save civilization.

    Beam me up!
    The starship Enterprise arrives at planet M-113 for medical exams of Professor Robert Crater and his wife Nancy. Captain Kirk, Chief Medical Officer Dr. McCoy, and Crewman Darnell beam down, and Kirk teases McCoy about his affection for Nancy Crater ten years ago. Nancy arrives, and each of the three men see her differently: McCoy as she was ten years ago, Kirk as she should look age-wise, and Darnell as a totally different, attractive younger woman. Kirk sends the dazed Darnell outside and when Nancy goes out to fetch her husband, she beckons Darnell to follow her. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Trap

    Ms. Jenner is going to save us all.

  44. The forthcoming disaster which will, inevitably and certainly, unravel in subsaharan Africa over the course of this century – the first tremors of which are already rocking Europe – will prove both Ehrlich and Malthus right.

  45. WhatEvvs [AKA "Prada Yada Yada"] says: • Website

    The linked article mentioned Fred Pearce, whose book about the coming population crash I will read.

    Let’s say Pearce is right. What percentage of that smaller population will be fervently religious? I would suggest you take a look at Eric P. Kaufmann’s book about religious fecundity. I know you’ve dealt with this many times, but his conclusions are extreme – and to me, convincing.

  46. Ehrlich was correct that unlimited population growth would ultimately result in starvation and a population crash. The Earth, of course, is sphere with a finite surface area. Where Erhlich went wrong was in not realizing the economic growth, female emancipation and education, and other such factors would bring about the demographic transition and thereby prevent the runaway population growth he obsessed over in the late 1960’s.

  47. Sean says:

    I think it is fair enough if an author spends time on the posts but is brusque in rejoinders to comments. Most people don’t read the post carefully enough and go off on pettifogging tangents in the comments. I was exaggerating wildly, lots of people have had tried for more or less maximum possible fertility. I suppose the Chinese Emperors were the greatest example of that. I don’t think though, it is certain that the fall in fertility in China would have gone as low as it has without the million strong birth police. And in Japan Eamonn Fingleton who knows the place, says the falling birthrate is the result of a deliberate and long standing policy. Kyle Bass the investor has a massive bet on the Japanese economy collapsing because of their lack of new workers. I have a feeling Bass is going to be talked about in a few decades in the same way Ehrlich’s wager is now.

    Few predicted the falling of birthrates in the developed world falling, let alone them falling below replacement fertility. However, I think if you look back in history there was a period in which (according to Tellenbach as cited by Kevin MacDonald) rich young men did give up everything

    During the 13th century, the mendicant friars were typically recruited from the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and other affluent families. Their parents often disapproved of their decision, presumably because, like most parents, they wanted grandchildren. “It was a nightmare for well-to-do families that their children might become friars.”13 These families began to avoid sending their children to universities because of well-founded fears that they would be recruited into a religious life.

    There was also the Knights Templar, which if I remember rightly an applicant had to donate substantially to. Did not last, this chastity thing, but it held sway for a time.

    I have read that Ehrlich had an effect of the fertility of the more educated and socially progressive sectors of the population, for a time. He himself may have been a an example of what in the post Razib calls ” panics and irrational excesses“. Rich highly educated people restricting their fertility at Erlich’s behest. On reflection, I agree with the post: “Innovation and human ingenuity exists in a social context, and that social context may be more easily perturbed than we would like to think”.

    • Replies: @Roger Sweeny
    The literarily fecund environmentalist Bill McKibben has one child and wrote a book urging everyone else to have one or fewer, Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (1999).
  48. jeff says:

    Maybe with population the precautionary principle should dictate social policy.

    Julian Simon says people are the ultimate resource. Yes, they are. People are excellent at inventing new things and they are also great at inventing killing systems. One need only look to Mao’s actions in the famine, to the Holodomor, to the Holocaust, to the Armenian genocide and to others to see that people will invent argumentation for killing off people they don’t like or want. I think it is a fair assessment to say that population density played a role in some of these. Even if the function was not overpopulation, it was certainly mixed population (be it ethnic or economic) in finite spaces. Since the genetic distance between people in the USA seems to be increasing, and if people show more affinity to close relations, then it would seem changes to demography, via differential population growth, are planting the seeds for very bad things. To bat, what if the present diversity system is increasing the role of psychopaths in society while also fueling the surveillance state? There was a great article in Slate on the role of district attorneys in politics and how that position has gone from backwater to a launching pad for national prominence. Anyone familiar with District Attorneys might rightly assume that a substantial fraction are psychopaths who pursue convictions in the absence of evidence and who intimidate the innocent into pleas. What is emerging now is a system in which the prosecutor runs rampant, because society is so uncooperative and dysfunctional that there are few controls. What happens in the future when a plague or other widespread disease hits and these psychopaths now occupy even higher office. How will they act? Will they be like Mao and Stalin and just kill off their people? Is such decision-making anything other than the inventiveness of humanity in action: arguing why it is morally acceptable to sacrifice so many? What will happen with drones and autonomous killing machines? The speed of advancement in this realm is simply beyond the scope of anyone’s understanding. The rise of drones in the past two years at the consumer level is frightening. How many downed jets, how many murders committed by bots, armed with precise facial recognition software, before significant retraction occurs? How much more likely is this type of action to happen in a heavily-populated diverse land than in a land filled with only a related population and low overall density?

    I have no comment on the resources. What is of prime interest are the tens of millions of murdered souls by their government. A good social policy, would do whatever it could to reduce repeats of that behavior and to make sure that we have a population that can support the institutions to help us be fair and to deal with bad events likes plagues and flus. I am sure there are many canaries in the coal mine, but I know firsthand just how bad things are getting. I used to work in international motorsport at the highest levels and I have a close associate of the highest caliber in aviation. It is absurd to think that the USA could ever mount a team to compete with the Germans or Japanese in racing; the task is simply incomprehensible because we have lost a significant ability to work together compared to them. Consider how bad are other massive projects: the F-35, the F-22, the 787, all dismal compared to expectation. At the same time, we have the rise of the government snooping and the complete tracking of our digital footprint by third parties. This is a recipe for disaster: a consumer orientated nation with failing institutions, partially run by psychopaths who track your every move at a time of rapid increases in autonomous technologies.

    I read the NY Times article, it was laughable how they just gloss over Julian Simon’s assertion that things will get better. Our crumbling institutions suggest that things are getting worse, not better. Our fat asses suggest that things are getting worse not better (what man prefers fat chicks, what woman prefers fat men). Our inability to design and manufacture a leading edge jet close to the anticipated time-scale shows things are getting worse. Look around. Everyone is completely and utterly screwed. If Monsanto crops fail, everyone is in deep, deep trouble. Surely, many of these problems are related to our burgeoning population, unfortunately our growing population fuels the wealth of the upper class who should be our stewards in following the precautionary principle. One need not predict when something is going to happen in the future, the mere fact that your enemy is building-up arms is reason enough to proceed with caution.

  49. Ehrlich missed an important phase transition. There was the green revolution which dramatically increased food production and there was the feminist revolution which allowed women to choose the number of children they would have. Both of these require organized societies and attitudes open to modernization. In many ways, our response to the population bomb has been a triumph, technological and moral.

    There are two big flies in the ointment.

    There is the “band of war” north and south of the equator, regions of low grade conflict, often in regions where the necessary transitions have not taken place. There are failed states, ethnic conflicts, and plenty of killings. By the standard of WWII, these don’t even seem to be wars, but this is how war has looked for most people for most of history.

    There is also the fact that population is still rising, and the heroes of the green revolution need to do what they did once at least one more time. We have a handle on the nitrogen bottleneck with the Haber process, but there are other essential elements. There is the matter of water. There is the matter of resistance. The problems aren’t insurmountable, but they will take time and cost money.

    Ehrlich recognized a real problem and extrapolated. There was a need to ring the alarm bell. His predictions were bosh, but the forces were quite real.

  50. RCB says:
    @Sean
    Sorry, I like to think out loud. I'm willing to be enlightened but have the impression that trying for maximal fertility is not an objective that people left to their own devices ever actually had, even men with the resources to do it without impacting their lifestyle were quite moderate relative to the possibilities.

    Ehrlich wasn't writing hundreds of years ago, and ecology showed even with dumb animals it wasn't that simple; the Paradox of enrichment for instance. Not such a great puzzle that things went the opposite to the way he predicted.

    I agree that the opportunity to have enormous amounts of children (and have them survive) in the past was probably very limited. That probably explains, in part, why we don’t do just pump out babies today, even though we could technically afford it – it’s just not something we humans evolved to do. That’s what Pithlord was arguing above, I think.

    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely. Most preindustrial societies seem to have a positive correlation between wealth and reproductive success. You’d think that, all else equal, growth in mean wealth would imply growth in mean fertility. But that hasn’t been the case. So I can see why we don’t breed like rabbits – but why decrease fertility as wealth goes up? Most evo anthro’s would say that we still don’t quite know.

    (Within modern populations, there is a negative correlation between wealth/education and fertility among women. But I’ve seen a few studies showing that it is weakly positive among men in some modern populations. The reason is that, although rich married men have smaller families than poor married men (somewhat puzzlingly?), rich men are much more likely to get married in the first place. The total effect is a small positive benefit to rich men.)

    I think my interests and points are quite far afield from what the original post is about (Ehrlich’s stuff), so maybe I’m talking past people. I’ve never even read Ehrlich…

    • Replies: @Roger Sweeny
    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely.

    Talk to young couples. You will find most of them want children but most of them also feel that the children will be kind of a burden. They will need day-care or one of the parents will have to quit work or they'll do some frazzled parenting-in-shifts. The kids will be expensive and the parents will have to move somewhere "the schools are good." Romantic vacations for two will disappear.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.

    Evolution makes people want to do things that in the past led to more surviving offspring. Many of those wants can now be satisfied without children, e.g. non-reproductive sex. In fact, children can actually frustrate those wants. So people respond by having fewer.
  51. Sean says:

    ‘[R]ich married men have smaller families than poor married men (somewhat puzzlingly?)’ One possibility is that poor married men are more testosteronised than rich married men. If you are very rich you can get a women relatively easily, but maybe poor men need animal magnetism. I believe there was a study that showed a surprising correlation between a masculine digit ratio and number of children here.

  52. Razib, have you seen Geoffrey West’s TED talk on city and company scaling? 1.5 minute punchline – cities have super-linear productivity from creatives feeding off of each other, but they (I think – I don’t know whether he’s talking about cities or civilizations at that point, but from the context it seems like civ.s) ultimately collapse, and you can stave that off only with exponentially exponentially bigger and faster innovation. If you haven’t seen his talk, you really should watch that short clip.

  53. @Razib Khan
    in the long run we'll go extinct. if it's 100,000 year from now i'll call ehrlich a bullshitter even if he's technically right.

    I often feel the optimists are similar. If we wait long enough economical fusion power will be realized…

  54. @Jacobite

    If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed.
     
    I disagree with that statement. There are enough fuels available besides oil to power industrial society for centuries even at a population level of 10 billion souls. We are after all inhabitants of a planet with a molten core, lots of easily accessible minerals and fissionable material, constantly battered by powerful winds and seas, all the while circling a massive and stable fusion reactor. Indeed, one could describe homo sapiens as the massive energy exploiting species.

    I think the major risks to the maintenance of high population levels are probably satiation of wants (reflected in the frequently mentioned natural lowering of birth rates), political unrest and instability due to the unequal distribution of the fruits of prosperity, and potential breakouts of pandemic diseases, out of control self replicating nanobots, or geological and astrological disasters. You could add your own unique unforeseen threat and have a readily publishable sci-fi short story.

    In my opinion a planet with 90% fewer humans would be a lot more fun place to live than the current squalid and crowded crime ridden environment commonly found almost everywhere.

    In my opinion a planet with 90% fewer humans would be a lot more fun place to live than the current squalid and crowded crime ridden environment commonly found almost everywhere.

    Brazil uber alles.

    Added population may not give us a complete collapse of civilized institutions, but there are losses to be tallied; mainly the loss of “autonomy”: we have to stand in longer lines; fight more traffic; our hunting and outdoor privileges are reduced; etc.

  55. @Sean
    I think it is fair enough if an author spends time on the posts but is brusque in rejoinders to comments. Most people don't read the post carefully enough and go off on pettifogging tangents in the comments. I was exaggerating wildly, lots of people have had tried for more or less maximum possible fertility. I suppose the Chinese Emperors were the greatest example of that. I don't think though, it is certain that the fall in fertility in China would have gone as low as it has without the million strong birth police. And in Japan Eamonn Fingleton who knows the place, says the falling birthrate is the result of a deliberate and long standing policy. Kyle Bass the investor has a massive bet on the Japanese economy collapsing because of their lack of new workers. I have a feeling Bass is going to be talked about in a few decades in the same way Ehrlich's wager is now.

    Few predicted the falling of birthrates in the developed world falling, let alone them falling below replacement fertility. However, I think if you look back in history there was a period in which (according to Tellenbach as cited by Kevin MacDonald) rich young men did give up everything


    During the 13th century, the mendicant friars were typically recruited from the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and other affluent families. Their parents often disapproved of their decision, presumably because, like most parents, they wanted grandchildren. "It was a nightmare for well-to-do families that their children might become friars."13 These families began to avoid sending their children to universities because of well-founded fears that they would be recruited into a religious life.
     
    There was also the Knights Templar, which if I remember rightly an applicant had to donate substantially to. Did not last, this chastity thing, but it held sway for a time.

    I have read that Ehrlich had an effect of the fertility of the more educated and socially progressive sectors of the population, for a time. He himself may have been a an example of what in the post Razib calls " panics and irrational excesses". Rich highly educated people restricting their fertility at Erlich's behest. On reflection, I agree with the post: "Innovation and human ingenuity exists in a social context, and that social context may be more easily perturbed than we would like to think".

    The literarily fecund environmentalist Bill McKibben has one child and wrote a book urging everyone else to have one or fewer, Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (1999).

    • Replies: @Sean
    McKibben is interesting. I think he may be articulating the views of those temperamentally inclined to have small families anyway. Ehrlich may have tapped into that. I don't want to go all 'Report from Iron Mountain', but Ehrlich was not exactly a voice in the wilderness, as the need for reduction of population growth was conventional wisdom among some parts of the policy elite. Bush the elder was dubbed "Rubbers Bush" because he was so keen on supplying contraception. Here is the future 41st President's address to the house in 1968.

    MR Speaker … Sitting as I have on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which has responsibility for social-security legislation, I have heard almost endless testimony to the effect that our national welfare costs are rising phenomenally, prompting me to wonder how we can take basic steps to arrest it. But the problem is by no means wholly financial; it is emphatically human, a tragedy of unwanted children and of parents whose productivity is impaired by children they never desired. [..]

    The federal government, along with many state governments, has taken steps to accelerate family-planning activities in the United States, but we need to do more. We have a clear precedent: When the Salk vaccine was discovered, large-scale programs were undertaken to distribute it. I see no reason why similar programs of education and family-planning assistance—all on a voluntary basis—should not be instituted in the United States on a massive scope. It is imperative that we do so: not only to fight poverty at its roots, not only to cut down on our welfare costs, but also to eliminate the needless suffering of unwanted children and overburdened parents.
     
  56. Brazil uber alles.

    Brazil has a total fertility rate of 1.8 and falling.

    • Replies: @bomag
    Brazil has a total fertility rate of 1.8 and falling.

    I was using Brazil as a modal example of the future: demographic melting pot/ethnic enclavism; urbanizing of the environment in the service of economic growth; etc. The favelas are not particularly pleasant.
  57. @RCB
    I agree that the opportunity to have enormous amounts of children (and have them survive) in the past was probably very limited. That probably explains, in part, why we don't do just pump out babies today, even though we could technically afford it - it's just not something we humans evolved to do. That's what Pithlord was arguing above, I think.

    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely. Most preindustrial societies seem to have a positive correlation between wealth and reproductive success. You'd think that, all else equal, growth in mean wealth would imply growth in mean fertility. But that hasn't been the case. So I can see why we don't breed like rabbits - but why decrease fertility as wealth goes up? Most evo anthro's would say that we still don't quite know.

    (Within modern populations, there is a negative correlation between wealth/education and fertility among women. But I've seen a few studies showing that it is weakly positive among men in some modern populations. The reason is that, although rich married men have smaller families than poor married men (somewhat puzzlingly?), rich men are much more likely to get married in the first place. The total effect is a small positive benefit to rich men.)

    I think my interests and points are quite far afield from what the original post is about (Ehrlich's stuff), so maybe I'm talking past people. I've never even read Ehrlich...

    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely.

    Talk to young couples. You will find most of them want children but most of them also feel that the children will be kind of a burden. They will need day-care or one of the parents will have to quit work or they’ll do some frazzled parenting-in-shifts. The kids will be expensive and the parents will have to move somewhere “the schools are good.” Romantic vacations for two will disappear.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.

    Evolution makes people want to do things that in the past led to more surviving offspring. Many of those wants can now be satisfied without children, e.g. non-reproductive sex. In fact, children can actually frustrate those wants. So people respond by having fewer.

    • Replies: @Jacobite

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.
     
    Because wealth has grown hugely, some of us can afford to do all those fun things with our children and our grandchildren. In fact, those things are a lot more fun when shared with friends and family.
    , @RCB
    Yes, there's lots of hints to be gleaned from the behavior of people today. Personal experience, even. I'm a 28 year old married guy in a dual income marriage. No kids now nor on the immediate horizon. Why? Many of the reasons you mentioned. My wife, especially, has little desire at the moment.

    I still find it puzzling that evolution would lead to a situation in which people enjoy romantic getaways more than they enjoy having children, since the latter is presumably a better indicator of fitness. Why wouldn't we take enormous pleasure in raising children, more so than lying on sandy beaches? How could this have happened in this past? Maybe one way is if selection acted more strongly on wealth (material and social) and mate accumulation than on fertility motivation itself. That is, it may be that in the past, when birth control was largely absent, sex drive was enough to ensure frequent birth - there was no need to be baby crazy. What mattered was one's ability to attract mates and/or keep one's children alive. Having wealth and social connections would help here.

    Presumably, then, our instincts to acquire wealth and power would be stronger than our love of having babies. Perhaps, once the economy started growing enormously in recent centuries, this drive for wealth and power was applied to a maladaptive extent: by prioritizing education and foreign vacations over reproduction.

    Not sure quite how to test this idea.
  58. @Roger Sweeny
    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely.

    Talk to young couples. You will find most of them want children but most of them also feel that the children will be kind of a burden. They will need day-care or one of the parents will have to quit work or they'll do some frazzled parenting-in-shifts. The kids will be expensive and the parents will have to move somewhere "the schools are good." Romantic vacations for two will disappear.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.

    Evolution makes people want to do things that in the past led to more surviving offspring. Many of those wants can now be satisfied without children, e.g. non-reproductive sex. In fact, children can actually frustrate those wants. So people respond by having fewer.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, some of us can afford to do all those fun things with our children and our grandchildren. In fact, those things are a lot more fun when shared with friends and family.

  59. RCB says:
    @Roger Sweeny
    For me, the puzzle remains that fertility would drop as wealth grew hugely.

    Talk to young couples. You will find most of them want children but most of them also feel that the children will be kind of a burden. They will need day-care or one of the parents will have to quit work or they'll do some frazzled parenting-in-shifts. The kids will be expensive and the parents will have to move somewhere "the schools are good." Romantic vacations for two will disappear.

    Because wealth has grown hugely, there are lots of fun things to do without children. Having children means giving those things up.

    Evolution makes people want to do things that in the past led to more surviving offspring. Many of those wants can now be satisfied without children, e.g. non-reproductive sex. In fact, children can actually frustrate those wants. So people respond by having fewer.

    Yes, there’s lots of hints to be gleaned from the behavior of people today. Personal experience, even. I’m a 28 year old married guy in a dual income marriage. No kids now nor on the immediate horizon. Why? Many of the reasons you mentioned. My wife, especially, has little desire at the moment.

    I still find it puzzling that evolution would lead to a situation in which people enjoy romantic getaways more than they enjoy having children, since the latter is presumably a better indicator of fitness. Why wouldn’t we take enormous pleasure in raising children, more so than lying on sandy beaches? How could this have happened in this past? Maybe one way is if selection acted more strongly on wealth (material and social) and mate accumulation than on fertility motivation itself. That is, it may be that in the past, when birth control was largely absent, sex drive was enough to ensure frequent birth – there was no need to be baby crazy. What mattered was one’s ability to attract mates and/or keep one’s children alive. Having wealth and social connections would help here.

    Presumably, then, our instincts to acquire wealth and power would be stronger than our love of having babies. Perhaps, once the economy started growing enormously in recent centuries, this drive for wealth and power was applied to a maladaptive extent: by prioritizing education and foreign vacations over reproduction.

    Not sure quite how to test this idea.

  60. @Anonymous
    @NowForTheHardPart
    "If not, the question arises why the demographic transition has not yet begun in those African countries whose birthrate is not much lower than that of Bangladesh once was and also currently rising."

    Which, pray, are these African countries? I have not managed to find any African country that has rising birthrates(not as part of a significant multi-year trend, Algeria has had a slight uptick in recent years, but the current numbers, well below three children per woman, are far below the seven plus kids of the seventies). There are some, like Nigeria, where the demographic transition has not yet started even though you'd expect it to, but across the continent, even in places such as Ethipoia and Somalia, the birthrates are falling. (I am lazy and use gapminder, the numbers are not perfect but they are close enough to the "truth" to show the point)

    I am however unmoved by the argument of human ingenuity. Ingenuity has this far been reliant on raw materials and cheap energy. If the supply of oil stops its expansion or even starts to decrease a succesful transition into some new kind of solution is not guaranteed. Since the universe was not created and level designed by any omniscient being, there is no guarantee that there exists a solution, or any solution within the grasp of our current technology and intellect.

    “Ingenuity has this far been reliant on raw materials and cheap energy.”

    Certainly. Up to now man’s ingenuity was based on bulk technology.

    That’s rapidly changing – due to man’s ingenuity.

  61. @Matt
    Brazil uber alles.

    Brazil has a total fertility rate of 1.8 and falling.

    Brazil has a total fertility rate of 1.8 and falling.

    I was using Brazil as a modal example of the future: demographic melting pot/ethnic enclavism; urbanizing of the environment in the service of economic growth; etc. The favelas are not particularly pleasant.

  62. Ehrlich was a zoologist, and thought humans would reproduce like animals. He took a perverse delight in predicting human catastrophe on a global scale. He is also emblematic of how stupid a lot of scientists are about anything with a human element to it. Finally, he is a progressive and that means never having to say you’re sorry.

  63. Razib, do you believe that human ingenuity is boundless? Or will technological progress someday reach a limit? Would Malthusian constraints then apply to our species?

    • Replies: @Razib Khan
    you can't avoid thermodynamics. yes.
  64. @jamie B.
    Razib, do you believe that human ingenuity is boundless? Or will technological progress someday reach a limit? Would Malthusian constraints then apply to our species?

    you can’t avoid thermodynamics. yes.

    • Replies: @bomag
    I spend part of my time reading John Michael Greer, who says the iron law here is that we eventually will live in a biological balance with Earth. I also spend some youtube time with Michio Kaku who is optimistic that we will harness matter/antimatter energy sources etc and expand into the cosmos and live forever as a species on a grand scale.

    I'm not sure which group to join.
  65. I haven’t read all the comments. However Ehrlich wasn’t just wrong, he wasn’t even wrong. Humans are indeed a resource producing as well as consuming animal. We are not just predators, but husbanders. Therefore comparing humans to other animals or to bacteria makes little or no sense. A predator can indeed hit resource limits, as he isn’t creating any more prey. Bacteria exhaust their petri dish. Humans can change their methods of farming and both produce more output and reduce their population growth, and provided the former continues to be faster than the latter you are going to be ok. Yes, climate change can be a problem, but it’s a problem to be solved, and I am convinced that solar is on an exponential growth trajectory.

    Only in fishing, where farming isn’t the most common way to produce fish, is there the potential for reserves to be deleted. Thats humans as hunter, not farmer.

    The Netherlands is one of the most over-populated areas in the world, but amongst most productive in Agriculture per capita, and one of the biggest by value added in agriculture, a significant amount of it on reclaimed land, technology available to the rest of the world if ever needed. In fact Europe is clearly in no kind of difficulty, Europe managed to produce 6,000 calories per capita in 1970 and has stayed relatively static since, but to stay static it had to run set-aside programmes, buy surpluses, and urge farmers to produce less ( as it was accused of dumping on Africa otherwise). Its still no where near producing it’s limit: were the rest of Europe as productive as Holland it would produce twice or more as many calories per capita. If it adopted GM, even more so. If it stopped producing luxury items like wine, beer and cider to produce food even more so. If it used all it’s parks and fallow meadows to produce food ( as the UK did in 1939-1945) even more so, if it reclaimed more land from the sea using ( or improving on) the Dutch technology, even more so. I mention these potential improvements not to even suggest they will ever be necessary but to show how much more productive Europe could get if it were facing any kind of demographic crisis. It isn’t. Or rather it is, but the very opposite of the demographic crisis Ehrlich was predicting, the problem with Russia is that it’s population might be 0 as some stage in the future, were present trends to continue. In fact a lot of Europe’s problems is an ageing, and eventually dying population. So too with Japan. The farmers may die out. I don’t think so, but thats the way the trends are going, which is after all Ehrlich’s only argument. I don’t mind that he got this wrong in the 1960’s when even the West was growing in population at a then un-sustainable rate, to continue to argue against the facts now is not science.

    And I am not even dealing with the unknown unknowns of future technology which would develop under strain ( not that there would ever be strain). Lab produced meat could be a thing, something else not imagined yet could be another.

    Since the end of the cultural revolution China has stormed ahead, and is now the worlds largest producer of food. Reforms in India has made it the second largest producer of food. Chinas population will fall, India just has to maintain food growth above population growth, which democracies tend to be good at. It hasn’t starved since independence. The US continues to be in food surplus.

    The danger spots are where they always were, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in some of the City States ( but in reality only if there is a war), in places in food deficit already. Even there if they can produce enough other goods ( or extract enough resources) they will be ok, not every country has to have a food surplus.

    • Replies: @Jacobite

    If it stopped producing luxury items like wine, beer and cider to produce food even more so.
     
    Surely you jest. Alcoholic beverages were a mainstay of agricultural civilization for millennia and still are as the process of producing them helps obviate the need to drink pathogen laden water. They are also quite rich in nutrients which definitely qualifies them as food in my book. If it wasn't for alcohol many of us wouldn't even be here.
  66. @Razib Khan
    you can't avoid thermodynamics. yes.

    I spend part of my time reading John Michael Greer, who says the iron law here is that we eventually will live in a biological balance with Earth. I also spend some youtube time with Michio Kaku who is optimistic that we will harness matter/antimatter energy sources etc and expand into the cosmos and live forever as a species on a grand scale.

    I’m not sure which group to join.

    • Replies: @jamie B.
    "...Michio Kaku who is optimistic that we will harness matter/antimatter energy sources etc and expand into the cosmos and live forever ..."

    Seems like a religious belief to me. Other than the entire universe itself, are there any examples of anything expanding and lasting forever?
  67. Sean says:
    @Roger Sweeny
    The literarily fecund environmentalist Bill McKibben has one child and wrote a book urging everyone else to have one or fewer, Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (1999).

    McKibben is interesting. I think he may be articulating the views of those temperamentally inclined to have small families anyway. Ehrlich may have tapped into that. I don’t want to go all ‘Report from Iron Mountain’, but Ehrlich was not exactly a voice in the wilderness, as the need for reduction of population growth was conventional wisdom among some parts of the policy elite. Bush the elder was dubbed “Rubbers Bush” because he was so keen on supplying contraception. Here is the future 41st President’s address to the house in 1968.

    MR Speaker … Sitting as I have on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which has responsibility for social-security legislation, I have heard almost endless testimony to the effect that our national welfare costs are rising phenomenally, prompting me to wonder how we can take basic steps to arrest it. But the problem is by no means wholly financial; it is emphatically human, a tragedy of unwanted children and of parents whose productivity is impaired by children they never desired. [..]

    The federal government, along with many state governments, has taken steps to accelerate family-planning activities in the United States, but we need to do more. We have a clear precedent: When the Salk vaccine was discovered, large-scale programs were undertaken to distribute it. I see no reason why similar programs of education and family-planning assistance—all on a voluntary basis—should not be instituted in the United States on a massive scope. It is imperative that we do so: not only to fight poverty at its roots, not only to cut down on our welfare costs, but also to eliminate the needless suffering of unwanted children and overburdened parents.

    • Replies: @Roger Sweeny
    It may be just my narrow experience, but I get the impression that "overpopulation" was a public concern of "educated" and "progressive" opinion in the 1960s and 70s. However, some time in the 1980s, those people (and their children) came to see such a concern as not really nice. You were basically telling a lot of people that they shouldn't have so many children, and since (implicitly) most of them were non-white, you were probably being racist and "blaming the victim." So "overpopulation" dropped out of polite discussion.
  68. @bomag
    I spend part of my time reading John Michael Greer, who says the iron law here is that we eventually will live in a biological balance with Earth. I also spend some youtube time with Michio Kaku who is optimistic that we will harness matter/antimatter energy sources etc and expand into the cosmos and live forever as a species on a grand scale.

    I'm not sure which group to join.

    “…Michio Kaku who is optimistic that we will harness matter/antimatter energy sources etc and expand into the cosmos and live forever …”

    Seems like a religious belief to me. Other than the entire universe itself, are there any examples of anything expanding and lasting forever?

  69. @Eoin
    I haven’t read all the comments. However Ehrlich wasn’t just wrong, he wasn’t even wrong. Humans are indeed a resource producing as well as consuming animal. We are not just predators, but husbanders. Therefore comparing humans to other animals or to bacteria makes little or no sense. A predator can indeed hit resource limits, as he isn’t creating any more prey. Bacteria exhaust their petri dish. Humans can change their methods of farming and both produce more output and reduce their population growth, and provided the former continues to be faster than the latter you are going to be ok. Yes, climate change can be a problem, but it’s a problem to be solved, and I am convinced that solar is on an exponential growth trajectory.


    Only in fishing, where farming isn’t the most common way to produce fish, is there the potential for reserves to be deleted. Thats humans as hunter, not farmer.


    The Netherlands is one of the most over-populated areas in the world, but amongst most productive in Agriculture per capita, and one of the biggest by value added in agriculture, a significant amount of it on reclaimed land, technology available to the rest of the world if ever needed. In fact Europe is clearly in no kind of difficulty, Europe managed to produce 6,000 calories per capita in 1970 and has stayed relatively static since, but to stay static it had to run set-aside programmes, buy surpluses, and urge farmers to produce less ( as it was accused of dumping on Africa otherwise). Its still no where near producing it’s limit: were the rest of Europe as productive as Holland it would produce twice or more as many calories per capita. If it adopted GM, even more so. If it stopped producing luxury items like wine, beer and cider to produce food even more so. If it used all it’s parks and fallow meadows to produce food ( as the UK did in 1939-1945) even more so, if it reclaimed more land from the sea using ( or improving on) the Dutch technology, even more so. I mention these potential improvements not to even suggest they will ever be necessary but to show how much more productive Europe could get if it were facing any kind of demographic crisis. It isn’t. Or rather it is, but the very opposite of the demographic crisis Ehrlich was predicting, the problem with Russia is that it’s population might be 0 as some stage in the future, were present trends to continue. In fact a lot of Europe’s problems is an ageing, and eventually dying population. So too with Japan. The farmers may die out. I don’t think so, but thats the way the trends are going, which is after all Ehrlich’s only argument. I don’t mind that he got this wrong in the 1960’s when even the West was growing in population at a then un-sustainable rate, to continue to argue against the facts now is not science.

    And I am not even dealing with the unknown unknowns of future technology which would develop under strain ( not that there would ever be strain). Lab produced meat could be a thing, something else not imagined yet could be another.

    Since the end of the cultural revolution China has stormed ahead, and is now the worlds largest producer of food. Reforms in India has made it the second largest producer of food. Chinas population will fall, India just has to maintain food growth above population growth, which democracies tend to be good at. It hasn’t starved since independence. The US continues to be in food surplus.

    The danger spots are where they always were, in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in some of the City States ( but in reality only if there is a war), in places in food deficit already. Even there if they can produce enough other goods ( or extract enough resources) they will be ok, not every country has to have a food surplus.

    If it stopped producing luxury items like wine, beer and cider to produce food even more so.

    Surely you jest. Alcoholic beverages were a mainstay of agricultural civilization for millennia and still are as the process of producing them helps obviate the need to drink pathogen laden water. They are also quite rich in nutrients which definitely qualifies them as food in my book. If it wasn’t for alcohol many of us wouldn’t even be here.

  70. May I suggest that the problem for those of us who are prosperous enough to look forward to our great-grandchildren being able to enjoy the natural world not much more damaged than it is today (and built and other cultural heritage not vandalised) is still in Africa and its fertility. The Popes and Ayatollahs have much to answer for (but probably Jews too after Hitler) because the plain logic of paying African families to keep their young women childless and engaged in education or training till they are, say, 25, might otherwise have been compelling. Still in the spirit of recognising some complexity I note that our present ability to experience, understand and enjoy remnants of antiquity and the natural world has been hugely enhanced in the last few hundred years even compared with what was available for the rich, powerful and educated. (Think Banks and Darwin as enjoying the max).

  71. @Sean
    McKibben is interesting. I think he may be articulating the views of those temperamentally inclined to have small families anyway. Ehrlich may have tapped into that. I don't want to go all 'Report from Iron Mountain', but Ehrlich was not exactly a voice in the wilderness, as the need for reduction of population growth was conventional wisdom among some parts of the policy elite. Bush the elder was dubbed "Rubbers Bush" because he was so keen on supplying contraception. Here is the future 41st President's address to the house in 1968.

    MR Speaker … Sitting as I have on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which has responsibility for social-security legislation, I have heard almost endless testimony to the effect that our national welfare costs are rising phenomenally, prompting me to wonder how we can take basic steps to arrest it. But the problem is by no means wholly financial; it is emphatically human, a tragedy of unwanted children and of parents whose productivity is impaired by children they never desired. [..]

    The federal government, along with many state governments, has taken steps to accelerate family-planning activities in the United States, but we need to do more. We have a clear precedent: When the Salk vaccine was discovered, large-scale programs were undertaken to distribute it. I see no reason why similar programs of education and family-planning assistance—all on a voluntary basis—should not be instituted in the United States on a massive scope. It is imperative that we do so: not only to fight poverty at its roots, not only to cut down on our welfare costs, but also to eliminate the needless suffering of unwanted children and overburdened parents.
     

    It may be just my narrow experience, but I get the impression that “overpopulation” was a public concern of “educated” and “progressive” opinion in the 1960s and 70s. However, some time in the 1980s, those people (and their children) came to see such a concern as not really nice. You were basically telling a lot of people that they shouldn’t have so many children, and since (implicitly) most of them were non-white, you were probably being racist and “blaming the victim.” So “overpopulation” dropped out of polite discussion.

    • Replies: @Roger Sweeny
    E.g., in the 1960s and '70s, Garrett Hardin was a star. But though he kept churning out articles and books, he seemed to be forgotten and ignored long before his death in 2003.
    , @Chuck
    This old liberal still worries about it. At least when it comes to California.
  72. @Roger Sweeny
    It may be just my narrow experience, but I get the impression that "overpopulation" was a public concern of "educated" and "progressive" opinion in the 1960s and 70s. However, some time in the 1980s, those people (and their children) came to see such a concern as not really nice. You were basically telling a lot of people that they shouldn't have so many children, and since (implicitly) most of them were non-white, you were probably being racist and "blaming the victim." So "overpopulation" dropped out of polite discussion.

    E.g., in the 1960s and ’70s, Garrett Hardin was a star. But though he kept churning out articles and books, he seemed to be forgotten and ignored long before his death in 2003.

  73. @Roger Sweeny
    It may be just my narrow experience, but I get the impression that "overpopulation" was a public concern of "educated" and "progressive" opinion in the 1960s and 70s. However, some time in the 1980s, those people (and their children) came to see such a concern as not really nice. You were basically telling a lot of people that they shouldn't have so many children, and since (implicitly) most of them were non-white, you were probably being racist and "blaming the victim." So "overpopulation" dropped out of polite discussion.

    This old liberal still worries about it. At least when it comes to California.

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