September 1, 2004

Population Wrong

There are two ideas so firmly embedded in the minds of the students I teach that I have long since given up any hope of disembedding them through straightforward processes of education. One is the idea that Africa is a country, not a continent. There I’m not sure I even aspire to disabuse them of that idea in any simple fashion any longer. I’m certainly culpable of reinforcing that idea in many ways: I teach African history, my subject matter is Africa, I talk about the future of Africa in some of my writing. If I really wanted to fight the idea, I (and my Africanist colleagues) would have to totally reorganize the basis of my own expertise. I'm also no longer entirely clear on whether or how this mistaken notion is harmful. I can think of some things about it that are really problematic, and connected to deeper conceptual problems (say, failing to see the historical particularity of genocide in Rwanda or conflict in Sierra Leone) but there are postive things that the unity of the African subject or the "idea of Africa" actually makes possible.

The other embedded concept is a different matter. I’d love to be rid of it, not only because it is simply factually wrong but also because it seems to me to have a great many bad effects on the way people think about the world and its future. This is the idea that the future of global society is gravely threatened by a population explosion.

Social scientists have known for some time now that this simply isn’t true, that virtually all of the projections of runaway demographic growth made in the 1960s and 1970s have turned out to be profoundly wrong in almost every respect—not just in the population numbers they predicted, but in their understanding of the underlying nature of population growth in world history. Despite that, I find that most of my students (and frankly most people I know, including some academics) still believe in the imminent threat of the "population bomb" roughly the way that they believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning in the east, as an unshakeable fact of life.

You could be generous and say that the population-bomb bunch was wrong based on an understandable error in their reading of the probable curve of advances in clinical medicine in the latter half of the 20th Century. Most of them figured that scourges like malaria would be defeated by now, leading to a major continuing reduction in mortality in the developing world. Instead, malaria and many other diseases have become even more deadly, and now HIV-AIDS has joined that list. But even here, the demographers who made a living out of alarmist futurism in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t paying much attention to detailed work by demographic historians looking at the roots of global population growth. One thing those historians found was that whatever had led to the initial major spikes in human population in particular localities, it certainly wasn’t changes in clinical medicine and concomitant reduction of mortality, that the transformation of clinical medicine always came well after the major upward spike, wherever and whenever you were studying. The effect of improving medical knowledge was mostly seen later in the extension of the upper bound of human lifespans.

What the population-growth alarmists did not understand because they were ideologically, theologically, fundamentally unable to understand was that population growth would slow as it has not because more people are dying of disease than expected but because of the spread of middle-class consumerist individualism on one hand and the spread of legally and socially guaranteed women’s rights and birth control options on the other. That’s right, two important consequences of liberalism. The former was particularly unanticipated by the major figures shilling for stern population control measures, that in most developed societies and now in many developing ones, people would start to live more for themselves and less for the next generation, and that this would be both a product of values (the spread of liberal ideas about the self, individuality, and material comfort) and a product of social change (the movement from agricultural societies based on lineage to urban societies based on the contractual rights of individual liberal subjects within capitalist societies). Nor did most of the ardent alarmists suspect that either of these changes could happen without the central controlling intervention of the state. Now on the side of rights-enforcement for women (including the availability of birth control), governments have played a major role, and the population-growth people were right about that. You’ve got to have birth control available as an option, and you need governments to ensure that—but what’s interesting is that even there, it works best when it’s about the freedom of women to make their own choices and less well when it’s about the state dictating an ideal population size and using birth control as a means of enforcement. In the spread of bourgeois consumerism and individualism as both ideals and practice, states been much less involved, and these may be the most important factors in the plummeting of population growth.

The population-explosion club was one part of a larger tendency that carried over the faith in centralization and statism that was characteristic of one lineage of high modernist thought and practice. I see that lineage today in scholars like Juliet Schor, whose work essentially proceeds from the position that most people don’t know what’s good for them, and that we would all be a lot better off if we consumed less, worked less, and lived lives that closely reflected Schor’s sense of what is good and valuable and meaningful--lives which turn out to be the usual kind of potted faux-gemeinschaft communalism that invariably pops up in these kinds of arguments. It's the same sensibility that infects Neil Postman’s work, an essentially mystical belief that we were all much happier when we lived in small lineage-based village communities and that we need big authoritarian states to force us back to that future. (The mirror of the same desire is the social or religious conservative impulse to restrict the rights of women and de-emphasize individual rights and materialist pleasures.)

For the population control fanatics, there has been nothing more irksome and unexpected than to see that the thing they thought most crucial (the rapid reduction of rates of population increase) largely did not require the authoritarian intervention of the state (China being the very complicated exception here) but instead has derived significantly from consumerism, individualism and arguably even selfishness.

It’s no sin to be wrong as a scholar. It happens. It’s hard to admit you were wrong, and some people do it poorly or gracelessly.

The King of Gracelessness, however, has to be Paul Ehrlich, Mr. Population Bomb himself. Reading his comments in the New York Times this past week is what spurred me to write about this issue. He barely seems able to admit even the basic facts of the matter, and clearly still clings to a vision of authoritarian interventions in human demographics. Now the issue isn’t that there isn’t going to be a population bomb, so he’s decided instead that the issue is that there are too many people already, and worse yet, the wrong kind of people—the people who want to drive SUVs rather than be “vegetarian saints”. It’s the same idea that’s been percolating in certain environmentalist circles for two decades now, that crops up in Schor’s work, and so on—that the future can be saved only if we find a way to get rid of a lot of the people who are presently alive and somehow compel the ones who remain behave differently, desire differently, live differently, think differently. At the bare minimum, the story of global population in the last fifty years demonstrates amply that the world doesn’t need those kinds of changes accomplished in those kinds of ways to achieve the positive good of slowed rates of population increase. We’ve seen that the central cherished goal of the Paul Ehrlichs of the world was accomplished through precisely the kinds of mechanisms and phenomena that they despise, not through everyone becoming vegetarian saints and living under a one-child law but through the desire to live well and enjoy living today for our own personal and individual satisfaction.