Thursday


HDI map

The BBC recently carried the story South Koreans told to go home and make babies, which is yet another story of coming demographic collapse. Similar stories have come out of Japan, Italy, and Russia. There was a Time magazine story about Japan that showed a baby on the cover marked “limited edition.”

Even in the US, where population continues to grow due to a combination of immigration and high birth rates among some sectors of the population, an aging population is already cause for financial concern: the number of workers contributing to the Social Security for each retiree has been declining and continues to decline. There comes a point at which such schemes can no longer be sustained and taxes must be dramatically raised or benefits dramatically cut. The dreaded inverted population pyramid cannot sustain even the most responsibly administered pyramid scheme.

Global Fertility Rates

Global Fertility Rates

How are we to explain the connection between industrialization and low birth rates? Many sociological studies have been devoted to the question, and many answers to the riddle have been proposed.

Of course, there is no single correct answer. An advanced industrialized society is like what ecologists call a climax ecosystem: a complicated net of interconnecting relationships in which a change in any part can affect the whole, and changes to the whole affect all the parts in turn. Among the many causes that could be identified we might name the following:

The expense of raising and educating a child in an industrialized society

Improved health from technological medicine means that people live longer, stay healthier longer, and thus remain fertile into later years, which creates an incentive to delay child bearing, by which time any number of other circumstances can interrupt childbearing

Prior to the widespread recognition of civil rights for women, women often had no outlet for achievement or creativity other than children; with the availability of careers and alternatives for women, many women choose careers over families

Lack of financial incentives to have children

In some countries, indirect financial penalties follow from having children

A growing de facto naturalism in advanced industrialized societies implicitly encourages people to think in terms of naturalistic life goals such as self-fulfillment, which can take the form of having children, but in an advanced society that offers many options to individuals, child-rearing must compete with attractive alternatives

Lack of a clear vision (right or wrong) of the direction in which the world is headed; pessimism about the future

An increasing willingness to talk openly about abuse within families, unhappy childhoods, and dysfunctional families, leading to a realization of how easily raising children can go disastrously wrong

The provision of social services in advanced societies means that people are less reliant upon children for support in their later years; in poor agricultural societies, the dependency of the aged upon their children can be absolute

In pre-industrialized societies there is little to do and little in the way of stimulation; couples may choose to have children simply because this is among the few opportunities (perhaps the only opportunity) available to them other than merely laboring to stay alive.

In naming particular contributing factors we must not be understood to be emphasizing these, or suggesting that they are definitive or have special prominence. These are simply a few suggestions that occur to one thinking over the question, and, as noted above, all these factors, and many others as well, come together in a complex system. We could not change any one of the factors named above, or any other factor anyone else might name, and suddenly change the low birth rates in industrialized society. Any social factor we might name is integral to that society, so that to bring about significant change we would have to effect significant change to the society.

When it comes to sociological trends like low birth rates in industrialized societies, all we can do is observe and record. The trend is so pervasive and so much larger than any one factor that we cannot “explain” it in any robust sense of the term “explain.” To attempt to explain would be to “explain away” and to miss the point. Science often comes to this point. For example, science made a significant advance when Newton forswore any attempt to explain gravity (“I make no hypotheses,” he famously said), and instead described the action of gravity minutely and provided a means to calculate its effects.

I find this to be very similar to the case for the free market and its ability to create wealth, jobs, and prosperity. There is a peculiar human weakness that wants an explanation, wants a proof, a deductive proof and the certainty that comes with mathematical demonstration; where this desire holds sway, people are not content with mere statistical correlations. And so people are very vulnerable to sophistical arguments about economics; hence the popularity of Marxism and other forms of voodoo economics, which seem to prove their point, instead of merely pointing to the world and saying, “See, that’s what happens.” And yet, this is all we can do. We know that there is a consistent statistical correlation between free markets and prosperity and job creation. We cannot prove it, but we can show it. If someone demands proof, then they must get it elsewhere, and they will probably get a fallacy.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


Over the past couple of days in The End of the End of the World and Symbolic Protest I emphasized the dependence of urban populations — which now constitute the bulk of the human population, as we are now an urban species — upon current economic infrastructure.

The fact that a contemporary urban center — or a megalopolis, if you prefer — is dependent upon an economic infrastructure that far exceeds the boundaries of the city does not mean that cities of even the largest size could not be made independent of supply and service chains that extend around the world.

Buckminster Fuller has been quoted as saying, “…the entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” I am in agreement with this claim, but there are a couple important observations that need to be made in this connection:

1. it would be expensive to do so, and…

2. to do so would change the culture (if not the civilization) of a human population so domiciled.

In regard to item 1, we have the technology at present to build food production tower blocks within urban areas, which was discussed in this forum in The Future of Food. This would be a high tech way to go about it, and, if handled properly, it could be done in an aesthetically pleasing manner, retaining the feeling and density of an urban core while also producing local food for local consumption. Furthermore, intensive solar and wind power mounted on the tops of buildings could probably (perhaps with future technological improvements) supply the electrical needs of the population. In extreme circumstances, even the water could be treated and recycled.

All of this is possible, but all of it is expensive. The reason we trade — whether between city and countryside, or between nations — is because it is in everyone’s economic interest to do so. That means, to put it simply, that you get what you want at a cheaper price. It is much cheaper to produce vegetables in rural areas than in a downtown urban core. For starters, in cities land is very expensive. If that land can bring a better return on its investment as an office tower than as a vegetable patch, then the owner of that land is going to get the best return possible by building the office tower.

In regard to item 2, any change in living arrangements that affects everyone or almost everyone is by definition revolutionary. To change the way the vast majority of people live is to come full circle and to start over. Housing everyone one compactly on Haiti or comfortably in the British Islands would mean starting over for most people. That is revolutionary.

The Netherlands houses almost seventeen million people on less than 34 thousand square kilometers of land. The population density works out to about 493 persons per square kilometer. At this rate of population density, the current world population of about six billion could be similarly accommodated in the area comprised by France and the Iberian peninsula. But what would it be like for everyone to be living as people live in the Netherlands? Not everyone is fitted for a society of this kind, while others would take to it like a duck to water. Selection pressures would act, and a future society would exhibit descent with modification.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: