Trying to Make Alarm About Overpopulation Politically Correct Again

Aging demographics ChinaIn a recent Focal Points post, Michael Busch notes that “the gradual transition of hegemony between the United States and China is currently being threatened by Washington’s insistence that Beijing dispense with its clever practice of currency manipulation, tinkering that has artificially driven down the price of Chinese money.” He then quotes Thomas P.M. Barnett writing for World Politics Review (can’t link — paywall).

China’s demographic clock is ticking like no other nation’s in human history. Already losing its cheap-labor advantage right now, China is set to stockpile elders from here on out at a pace never before witnessed. By 2050, it will have more non-working old people (400 million plus) than America’s total projected population (400 million). . . . That should explain what’s driving China’s seemingly selfish economic strategy. [It hopes that the] seemingly inexhaustible engine of [its] savings will be able to sustain . . . a rapidly aging East.

In the cover story of the November Foreign Policy, Phillip Longman writes about this “gray tsunami” that is engulfing not only China and the United States, but much of the world. He writes:

It’s true that the world’s population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years. . . . driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. . . . Then . . . humans will face the very real prospect that our numbers will fall as fast — if not faster — than the rate at which they once grew. . . . That might sound like an appealing prospect: less traffic, more room at the beach, easier college admissions. But be careful what you wish for.

To those of us who aren’t versed in the issue, it’s counterintuitive to wring our hands over a significant decrease in the world’s population. But if it’s our society’s wealth were concerned about, Longman explains that it depends on demographics.

At first, with fertility declining and the workforce aging, there are proportionately fewer children to raise and educate. This is good: It frees up female labor to join the formal economy and allows for greater investment in the education of each remaining child. All else being equal, both factors stimulate economic development. . . . Then, however, the outlook turns bleak. Over time, low birth rates lead not only to fewer children, but also to fewer working-age people just as the percentage of dependent elders explodes. This means that as population aging runs its course, it might well go from stimulating the economy to depressing it. Fewer young adults means fewer people needing to purchase new homes, new furniture, and the like, as well as fewer people likely to take entrepreneurial risks.

Longman writes: “a planet that grays indefinitely is clearly asking for trouble.” But, to this author, it seems that the planet, already overburdened, will find itself in an even worse fix if a higher birth rates accelerates the depletion of its resources.

To those of us who were first exposed to the overpopulation problem through the alarmism of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, advocating a higher birthrate is putting the cart before the horse. Besides it pushes the issue of overpopulation even further out of the spotlight. Nor does it help that talk of curbing population has been given a bad name by those whose concerns about the planet’s “carrying capacity” mask a Malthusian inclination to cull the earthly herd. (I’ve just begun to read Edwin Black’s imposing 2003 work War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.)

We need to find a way to present the low birth rate in a more positive light without coming across as a tool of the ruling class. Between those who still hold a torch for eugenics (some under the guise of genetics apparently) and evangelicals with their imperative to go forth and populate — especially since U.S. whites are due to be outnumbered by Latinos and European whites by Muslims — overpopulation has become a real political third rail.

Bottom line, though: a planet denuded of resources by billions more individuals than it was meant to hold is no good to anybody, rich or poor. More to come.