Saturday, July 28, 2007

falling birth rates are no comfort

An article in the Economist contains many misrepresentations, misdirections and not a few absurdities. The article makes a good start with a description of how population growth curves are ubiquitous across the spectrum of living organisms, from swallows to bacteria to humans to sponges. This good start is ruined by the next sentence:

"Overcrowding and a shortage of resources constrain bug populations."

For accuracy, and the analogy of a bacterial population dwelling in a petri dish is wonderfully appropriate here, the word "constrain" should be replaced with "kill". A bacterial population, after consuming all of the reources in its agar ecosystem, promptly dies out almost completely. The remaining organisms enter a state of suspended animation in a desperate attempt to survive until some future input of nutrients allows them to revive and reproduce again and life in the agar is, essentially, ended. Compare this description of life within one semi-closed system with another: The human population of The Earth.

There follows an observation that a Malthusian apocalypse is an unlikely future. I must disagree. Do the terms, "climate change", "peak oil" and "nuclear proliferation" mean anything to the author? Apparently not.

Following this comes an observation that the neo-classical economic model has led prices of commodities to fall during the last century, indicating that raw materials have become more abdundant. At last we see a glimpse of rationality as the author observes that the commodities consumed are not the problem, but the emissions associated with their production are, however the following sentence is so counter-intuitive that it defies logic:

"Certainly, the impact that people have on the climate is a problem; but the solution lies in consuming less fossil fuel, not in manipulating population levels."

The two numbers referred to- the consumption of fossil fuels per head and population levela, are the two key factors in determining the survival of our civilisation. Too many people consuming too much and we all drown or burn or fight to death. On the other hand, a lot of people consuming minute quantities of resources and producing a small amount of pollution and you have a very frsutrated and bored bunch of people. My preference, and I think many people will agree with me here, is of a world where consumption is not limited but population is so that the quality of life of the population is maximised but pollution is limited to a level that allows the biosphere to flourish- further enriching our existence. Why have a population of 6.5 billion where 2 billion have no access to electricity and 1.1 billion currently have no access to safe drinking water? Why not have a stable population of 500 million people all with the quality of life currently enjoyed by the Western World? Falling birth rates could lead to immigration from more developed countries and population control in those countries would then lead to a global trend toward falling population. Population centres would shrink but quality of life would progress. Its a combination of the humanitarianism, rationality and responsibility.

Anyway- I got distratced there. The rest of the article is a big whinge and contains many snipes at phenomena that I consider to be good things, eg:

"The Russian army has had to tighten up conscription because there are not enough young men around."

I'm sorry, what? How can falling numbers if armed men possibly be a bad thing? The more conscription there is the unhappier the population will be and the more feeling will turn against such a barbaric practice (the Russian Conscripted Army is, essentially, a borstal outfit).

The remainder of the article is fairly level headed and contains endorsements of sexual equality in the workplace and maternity legislation to allow mothers to avoid suffering for the gap in their careers that results from childbirth.

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