It is a truth universally acknowledged that a species with a massively growing population must be in need of another planet.
And that’s our problem. We don’t have a massively growing population. We might not have a growing population at all.
For thirty years now I’ve had this funny feeling at the back of my head. It started on coming to the States and hearing that Portugal had a birth rate of something like six children per woman. It made me sort of sit back and blink.
Again, yes, I know that anecdote isn’t data, but I knew at least 10,000 families fairly well – those in the village – and I knew OF probably a million families if you count my school friends, people I knew casually, etc. Of those I knew exactly three families with six or more children, one with four and a couple with three. More common – far more common – was the family with two and one child.
Sure in my parents’ day six children weren’t unusual, though back then it was highly unusual to raise them all. Mom came from a family of six that raised five, and dad came from a family of four that raised them all. But their generation didn’t reproduce in nearly the same numbers. My generation as far as I can tell has hardly reproduced. Or the generation before mine.
Because Portugal is a relatively traditional country compared to the US most boomers did get married (sometimes several times) but few of them had more than two children. And in my in-between generation, I’m a miracle of fertility with two children. (And, of course, I don’t live there.)
Of course, when Portugal joined the EU suddenly we were told its birth rate was beneath replacement. Then there was the USSR. It too was growing, and its population would in fact crush us, and then, suddenly, after the collapse, it has negative births vs. death.
Meanwhile I’d been getting a feeling – just a feeling – this sense that the population wasn’t “exploding” nearly at the rate we’d been told it was. While school books and textbooks said that we were expanding at a geometric rate, it didn’t seem like that anywhere I looked.
It was sort of the feeling Heinlein described in one of his books, when he talks about how he and Ginny went to Moscow and it didn’t “feel” like it had the population they said it had.
I’ve studied history. I know what a society with a rapidly expanding population (and young population at that) looks like, and we have none of the symptoms. In fact, we have the opposite symptoms, though masked by “digesting” the huge lump of the boomers as it moves through the elephant.
Twenty years ago, discussing this with a friend, she called me crazy, because, she said, if the population wasn’t booming, why were houses taking up more and more green space? Why were cities expanding into areas that had previously been forested?
My answer, of course, involved people preferring more space (I always live, by preference, in walkable neighborhoods. It’s not a greeny thing, it’s the fact that I know if I don’t have to run errands on foot I will never walk. I don’t even particularly prefer Victorian houses, though they can be neat – they’re also a pain to clean – but that’s what’s mostly available in walkable neighborhoods.) Most of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, you can reach out the window and touch your neighbor’s hand if he reaches out.
These days only the cheapest suburbs do that. (And our region was a suburb when first built.)
And yeah, in places like Portugal you see a lot more vertical building and the overtaking of traditional villages, but a lot of that is because – as we discussed here two days ago – people no longer wish to raise ten (or one) kid in an unheated hovel with two rooms. (My mom’s parents raised a family of five in a home the size of my current bedroom. It had bedroom, common room and kitchen. The girls – three plus a cousin who more or less lived with them – slept in a double bed in the living room, two facing each way. The boys slept next door at their grandmother’s house. Now, her parents were much poorer than my paternal grandparents, but those living arrangements were middle class in her day. In fact, until I was seven, my parents had both children in very little more space, and either I or my brother were farmed to sleep next door at grandma’s. And we were if not the upper crust of the village – those being rich farmers – but we were close to the top of the middle class there.)
What I mean is that most of the signs people scream about as “expanding population” are in fact signs of expanding affluence, or expanding demands in lifestyle.
There has for instance been a move en-masse from less desirable to more desirable areas. In the states this seems to be a move from the old rust belt states to more sun-blessed areas. Going to Ohio, where I was an exchange student thirty five years ago, last year, it was not only obvious that it was shrinking – there were a lot of boarded up areas; houses were being offered at ridiculously low prices; selection in stores was much smaller. – but also that it was stagnating. Most of the people we ran into were older – our age and older – or very young, ie high school kids waiting to move out. The “vital years” of say between twenty three and thirty five seemed to be largely absent, doubtless having moved elsewhere.
In Portugal the movement is from G-d forsaken villages to cities and the surroundings. This is in accord to culture – the idea of suburbs puzzles me, and I suspect would puzzle most Portuguese. Life is always in the city and has been since Rome tramped in – and facilitated by highways which make it easy to live in one city and work in another, but difficult to go anywhere from villages in the mountains. So the village where I grew up, being 10 km as the crow flies (?) or so from Porto (remember Europe, everything is scrunched together) has been overtaken by the city, but when we drove around in search of Celtic ruins to show the boys, we wandered up areas of boarded up villages, decaying farmhouses and areas so isolated you couldn’t hear a sound of civilization. Many more so than one used to find when going through that region.
And the States had and might still have (though with La Grande Salida (sp?) this is unlikely) a growing population, but this is mostly due to immigration, not to our craptacular birth rate. It is the same mechanism that draws people to the sun states, or the cities. They’re looking for a better life.
But the important thing is that we don’t KNOW, and we can’t KNOW.
Censuses, even in the US where we take them semi-seriously are manipulated. Mostly they’re manipulated upward. Because our electoral system depends on proportional representation, people who feel threatened with losing power come up with adjustments to the head count. “Uncounted populations” and “people who are afraid to answer questions” and… And arbitrarily add a number of people to the top of the count every census. How many are added depends on how many congress critters and ward bosses need to retain power – pretty much. If you buy that’s a scientific process, I have some swampland in Florida.
We do know how that can be expanded, because it’s turning out, for instance, the number of uninsured people with chronic illnesses is less than a tenth what it was puffed up to be around the time they were trying to pass the Unaffordable Health Care Act.
And if you think that other countries are better – please!
In democratic countries, the benes are usually distributed per-head: representation, aid, pork for a particularly region. In the non democratic ones – the ones that are usually net receivers of public aid – it gets even worse. Far, far, far worse. They’re not just lying to themselves. They’re lying to the UN and international aid associations. Frankly, they’re probably also lying to their own country. You have no idea – NONE – how law abiding the US is. Even now. Even with all the “illegal immigrants” supposedly hiding in the shadows. In Portugal, which isn’t even a third world country, lawlessness is a way of life. For instance, when I was a kid, the government insisted you pay a radio license (no one had TV.) No one did. QUITE LITERALLY no one. When the inspectors came by (once a year or so) word came down from the entrance of the village and people would hide their radios. As far as official statistics, in Portugal at the time no one owned a radio. Even though radio soap operas were a growth industry. It was a miracle.
Do you think they don’t lie about their number of children? Particularly when the government pays a subsidy per head just for having children? (It’s called support of family.) Particularly when so many births take place at home and often people are slapdash about registering?
I’m surprised Portugal doesn’t STILL have a birth rate of six children per woman. They must be losing their touch. I suspect it has to do with EU mechanisms curtailing that.
But what about the countries that aren’t part of a semi-civilized polity?
These days it has become more or less fashionable to say that Islamic countries are the only ones growing in population. The Muslim womb will conquer the world. But there are the occasional reports, sneaking in, under the wire, on things like women having discovered the rhythm method via the web and limiting their own fertility. And no one asks: who goes into the desert and counts the Bedouins? Or do you go up to one guy and ask him how many children he has, then extrapolate? And why would you trust a guy, for whom having more sons is more power and definitely more honor..
But Sarah, you say, you know that they’re immigrating to Europe in massive numbers. Yes, they are, and do keep that in mind. More on that later. However, the numbers are not nearly as massive as they were when the Europeans were going the other way (to all the world, not just Muslim countries, not considered particularly desirable at the time.) Keep that in mind too. Their immigration has more to do with their truly bankrupt economies than with their birth rate. Portugal has a birthrate below replacement, but anyone with a bit of initiative still immigrates (usually to England these days, seems like.)
Also keep in mind that though their first generation seems to have much higher fertility (seem to have, you say? Well, look, even in the US welfare recipients, which a lot of these first generation immigrants from third world countries are, are known to borrow neighbor’s children to show up at the welfare office. Also, I’ve heard from social workers, they often apply for welfare at all cities within driving distance, under different names/addresses. You think CLOSED ethnic communities largely hostile to the host country wouldn’t do the same? Why?) than natives, the second and subsequent generations match with locals.
Is this happening? I can’t tell you. NO ONE CAN. Because if the figures aren’t reliable, then we’ve got nothing.
The last time I talked about this, someone said “give us a way to investigate, and we’ll do it.” The problem is that I’m not a trained anthropologist and I can only guess at methods. One of the methods, if you can get those figures (and I’m going to guess you can only get it for the more developed countries) is to find the sources of water to a city, then supposed population and calculate whether that’s even possible. Another would be with the food entering the city. Another yet would be to count houses, occupancy, and figure out if it’s possible to have close to that population.
I don’t even know how to get those figures, though I suspect some of you do. And in water sources, at least, you’re going to contend with “green” propaganda which tries to exaggerate water one way or another.
But Sarah, if you have nothing concrete, how can you say you know the statistics are wrong?
Well… first, because as I said, they’re not even particularly smart, even in the US about telling you they’re “inferring” people who are “hiding.” And the movement is always in one direction. They never say “this family answered the census twice in different addresses, so they can receive welfare at two locations.”
Second because there are things I know have happened – the AIDS epidemic in Africa, say – which were barely a blip on the demographic radar, in an absolutely impossible way.
Then there’s – as with evidence of self-deportation in the US right now – just… living day to day somewhere. You see things. One of the first signs in my region that people were leaving back to South America was that the mostly Latin high school closed, and its remaining population was dispersed to other schools.
In the same way – look, read the Heinlein juveniles. They’re not of course a record of the future, but they’re a reasonable extrapolation of what an exploding population looks like. This happened, historically, in Elizabethan England (not through an increase of birth rate, but through an increase in survival of infants) at proportionally larger rates than the boomers here. It happened in most of Europe at the same time.
So, what does an expanding population look like, from other signs? Well, humans are a colonizing species. When we have an excess of young, we send them off. They go and find new land, new places. They go and discover new things. Life changes very fast, and not just technology-change-fueled. There’s new fashions, new mores, exploring of new (usually really old) ways of living. There’s a feeling of POWER to the youth.
What there isn’t is a bunch of kids living with their parents and re-hashing the “controversial” ways of their parents or grandparents. What there isn’t is overprotective parents struggling not to lose their one or one of two chicks. What there isn’t is a sense of restraint and traditionalism to the culture. (Which, yes, we do have. It’s just our “traditional” got set in the last population explosion and it was influenced by Soviet propaganda.)
And that’s part of your answer on why Space colonization isn’t happening – it isn’t happening because there’s no population pressure driving it. It is a longing of the mind, not the body. But even if you think that Space is too hard to conquer, there isn’t other colonization taking place. There are plenty of regions in this globe that are – yes – still untouched, including much of the Americas. Beyond that, there is easier colonization than space, including some sort of “living on the sea” arrangements. But it isn’t happening. It JUST isn’t. Why not? Because there’s no pressure. (Which is also why it’s possible to abandon less hospitable areas.)
And then there’s the international financial crisis. Socialist and socialist light regimes REQUIRE larger generations each time, in order to keep going. They’re not getting that. Demand is soft because the consumers counted aren’t there.
This is where I bear the bad tidings: writers of the golden age of SF imagined a falling population kind of like Europe after the plague, but they forgot something. That was an abrupt fall and the few survivors inherited a lot from the dead, leading for many of them to a surplus for the first time. Which in turn fueled an expansion.
But a naturally falling population looks different. It’s a narrowing of consumer demand, a narrowing of expectations. It’s becoming a little poorer every generation and – because of our expanding life spans, at least for now – a smaller younger contingent supporting a huge aged one. Which makes having children harder.
If this sounds familiar, that’s what we’re stuck in.
I don’t hold it against Heinlein not having seen it. Yes, he should have, but there was no genetic evidence (which we have now) that humans are like any other scavenging population self-limiting. If we get the sense there’s too many of us around the population seems to limit, either volitionally or through some biological mechanism (perhaps explaining the epidemic of infertility.) Also in his time, it seemed like all the rules had been swept away. Humans were living in new, new ways and nothing was impossible.
He was right at least in one thing. When he said population pressures cause war, he was right. But it wasn’t population in toto. It was population of YOUNG people in proportion to old. If you want to know why the cold war never went massively hot – that was it. It came close during the boom, but then it cooled again.
I don’t believe in massive conspiracies. You know that. I think a conspiracy of more than a few dozen people with a lot to lose is highly unlikely. But this wouldn’t take a conspiracy. It takes a hundred little acts of corruption, a thousand acts of lack of exactness. And once the figures move out of the village, out of the region, out of the city, out of the country, other governing bodies aren’t aware and take those as gospel truth.
It is a thing that humans are prone to – taking written numbers seriously and acting as though they were true.
And this, in turn, brings out cries of how we’re overpopulated and we’re all going to die.
I made this bet before and I’ll make it again – in twenty years, we’ll hear panicked cries, as the evidence of a fallen population (as the boomers die) becomes clear. Governments will then try to tell people still of an age to reproduce it’s their duty to have kids.
Might very well be too little too late by then. My biologist son tells me that the human species has gone through at least three bottle necks when populations around the world were reduced to maybe a few dozen individuals, maybe a few hundred. There is a pattern of this, which means it’s part of who we are. Though I hope this time is the first time we’ve talked ourselves into it through statistics.
However, meanwhile, please stop screaming at me about “exploding populations.” You don’t know. And neither do I. No one knows, because all our figures are vitiated by the interests of those who are supposed to curate them.
What we know is that humans are certainly not expanding and not claiming brave new territory. And those of us like me who think we must go to space; we must expand or risk losing civilization, have a tough, tough row to hoe. Because there is no population pressure pushing us outward, and no vast numbers of expendable young to send ahead of us.
And that might kill us.