Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Five

“Population,” pages 35-49

What is special about man? Some people suggest his capacity for artistry, or science, or self-government – or war: “these include all the men in all countries who decide upon the adornment of public squares, where it is an invariable rule obeyed by all right-thinking public authorities that the most delectable object to be seen by the passers-by is a man on horseback, who is commemorated for his skill in homicide [p. 35].” But if we think about man not as special, but as another animal, we see that he typically behaves as if increasing the human population were his concern. “Most human beings at most times have behaved as if they thought that the most important thing that they could do would be to leave a multitude of descendants [p. 36].”

Malthus argued that diminishing returns in food production would imply that unchecked population growth would be accompanied by starvation. Working-class poverty, therefore, was not worth the trouble of ameliorating, reasoned the comfortable parson -- or so Russell ungenerously claims.

But what Malthus got right is worth knowing. Sparsely populated regions generally become wealthier through population gains. Nevertheless, there are diminishing returns to labour in agriculture, though the point at which they kick in depends upon the machinery and infrastructure available. (Russell conflates average and marginal returns.) In any system, with population increases, eventually output per person, and hence average living standards, will fall. The more developed science and infrastructure, the greater the population density that maximizes output per person.

Much of the world has a population that is so numerous for its capital stock and land that it is well into the region of diminishing returns. “There seems to be little doubt that the inhabitants of the Indus valley were more prosperous and generally happier three thousand years ago than they are now [pages 38-39].” Medical advances in much of the world perversely have contributed to suffering, by effecting a decline in the death rate but not in the birthrate.

Over the past 7000 years or so, the human population has gone up by more than two orders of magnitude, to approximately 2.2 billion in 1950; the global population growth rate (Russell reports) now is about 1.16 percent. [If this rate stayed constant, global population today would have been about 4.5 billion; instead, it is over 7 billion. The world population growth rate was much above 1.16 percent for most of the last 60 years, even twice that in 1960. During this period, it is only since 2010 that we have seen population growth rates as low as Russell’s 1.16 percent per year. – RBR]

Traditional moralists suggest that it is wicked to reduce the birth rate, while increasing the death rate passes muster with them. This is what follows from judging matters based on views of the next world, not on the suffering of the living world. “Those who believe that a benevolent Creator insists upon either misery in this life or eternal torment in the next are welcome to their opinion, but I do not think it is one which ought to control practical statesmanship [p. 40].” Malthus was willing to have poor people live in misery rather than descend into (what he labeled) vice, given that sufficient moral restraint was unlikely. Contraception is not vice, and given its necessity, it should not be considered to be vicious. A global government with the interests of humanity at heart would educate everyone about birth control, and punish parents whose procreation became excessive. But individual nations do not always see population checks as being in their parochial interests.

Some countries have low birth and death rates, while others have high birth and death rates. The white population of the world, Russell says, might soon level off, while countries controlled by white men (pages 41 and 44) have managed to reduce death rates, bringing population increases rivaling those that Europe achieved in the 19th Century. Japan saw a large post-war population rise, thanks in large measure to control of diseases such as smallpox. Japan’s small geographical area implies that a higher Japanese population detracts from human wellbeing. India is another country where population pressures create misery. Africa faces falling living standards and starvation if contraception does not take hold.

The high correlation between living standards and modest population growth is palpable. Officials are afraid to talk about the problems of high population growth rates because of the moral compunctions that many people have about birth control. “It is to be hoped that the men who at present hold these views will gradually modify them, as many other cruel doctrines formerly held by theologians have been modified [p. 45].”

Birth control needn’t be compelled: provide the information, and decentralized pursuit of happiness will comport with social wellbeing. Economic growth, without information about (and access to) contraception, is not sufficient for birthrates to decline, as English experience suggests.

Condorcet anticipated (and even prompted) Malthus’s views on population, but he avoided Malthus’s pessimism by advocating birth control – a solution that Malthus viewed as immoral. Alas, it was the Malthusian version that became popular.

The way of nature within the animal kingdom is Malthusian, and leads to lots of suffering as population outstrips food supply. Much of human history has been marked by similar forces and similar suffering, and the Malthusian model still applies to many human societies. “Those who urge that by means of technical advances a continually growing population can remain prosperous for an indefinite period are evidently incapable of appreciating the properties of geometrical progression [p. 47].” [But Russell himself seems to ignore – actually, he explicitly denies – the fact that population can increase continually without that increase being geometrical, and that a monotonically increasing population can nonetheless approach a finite limit.] The earth’s limited ability to sustain life eventually would rein in any continuous population growth. So the population will be controlled, either by a lower birthrate or a higher death rate. Those who oppose birth control seem to be throwing their support behind the death rate option. Why must we tolerate the suffering brought about by huge child mortality in poor countries? “Nobody would defend such a wasteful system in the production of anything other than human beings [p. 48].” Would we label as sinful a technological advance that lowered the amount of spoilage in the baking industry? Of course not – even though spoiled loaves of bread do not endure pain themselves. You cannot be tenderhearted and informed, and still support bans on contraception in overpopulated regions.

The rich parts of the world have put to rest the traditional scourges of mankind, including starvation, massive child mortality, and near-subsistence living standards. A similar plenty could exist planet-wide, through access to education and contraception, along with economic policy changes, including land reform. In fifty years, everyone could have a US-style standard of living, and peace could accompany plenty. For this to happen, the virtuous habit of a low birthrate must be allowed to spread around the globe.