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Demographic Destiny

When Norman Borlaug died recently at the age of 95, his obituary included one of the most extraordinary claims that any human could ever possibly make.  Because of the “Green Revolution” that he pioneered, the ability of this planet to produce food to support the human population was dramatically increased.  The use of fertilizers and pesticides and simple changes in practices taken together probably meant that at least a billion people were alive because of Prof. Borlaug that would not have otherwise been.

It sounds great, unless you start to think about the resources that all those people consume.  But what if, in the end, it all worked itself out and we didn’t devour this planet like a giant swarm of very smart locusts?  That may actually be what winds up happening, if just a bit beyond the lifespan of the brilliant Prof. Borlaug.

A recent article in The Economist explained the situation.  As the world moves towards greater industrialization in all corners, the birthrate per female is starting to fall dramatically.  There are many reasons for this, most of them related to the improved availability of contraception and the education of women.  In the end, however, as women enter workforces to be more than just farm wives, the families they belong to have a greater interest in having fewer children than would be reasonable if they were raising more help to work the land.

This appears to be just what is happening.  Globally, the replacement fertility rate averages out to 2.1 births per woman, a bit over two because some children die before they reach the age where they are fertile.  In poor nations, the replacement rate is a bit higher because more children die young, but overall it works out to 2.1 as the magic number.  Right now, the humans on this planet have a birthrate of about 2.3 and falling – by 2020 it is expected to be below 2.1, as the population tops out around 9.3 Billion people.

That’s still a good 50% higher population than today, but what matter most is that there is a peak that is manageable and imaginable with today’s technology.  Many nations in Southeast Asia are already below replacement birthrate and have relatively low populations of the very old to support.  The USofA is sitting right on replacement birthrates already, and currently has a higher percentage of its population in the working ages of 18-65 than at any time that has been tabulated.

The most interesting case in the world can be found in Iran.  In 1979, the mullahs who took power decreed that a greater population was a good thing, making birth control more difficult to obtain.  By 1984 the fertility rate hit 7.0.  As that generation grew up, however, the situation stabilized and women born in that time started to enter the workforce in the cities that groaned under the growing population.  The birthrate today is 1.9 and still dropping, well below replacement.  This massive generational change is at the root of the political strife playing out on the streets of that nation – as it probably will for another generation to come.

As nations become richer, there’s no doubt that they will demand more resources to support more lavish lifestyles, so it’s not all great news for the net burden on our planet.  However, as demographics is destiny, the world will at least stabilize in population and probably in the great disparities between the relative wealth of the nations.

In these difficult economic times, it’s easy to find horrible news that supports the idea that nearly everything is going badly.  But as surely as demographics is the best read of the tea leaves that tell our future, this is likely something that we’re going through to get to the other side of a more stable world.  That’s what Norman Borlaug wanted, after all, and it’s just a shame that as long as he lived he didn’t quite get to see it.

8 thoughts on “Demographic Destiny

  1. This is a big change. It’s the first time I ever heard there was a peak to the whole thing. I think you left a lot unsaid about this because it seems like a really big deal.

  2. You’re right, this is a big deal, and I only dealt with the immediate aspects of this – the turmoil we see now as big hunks of the world change-over on a generational basis. There’s only so much room in a blog entry!

    But consider for a moment sustainable agriculture, which does indeed produce less per unit of land than the strip-mining methods in the short run. One argument against pushing sustainable ag was that the world was outstripping the food supply. Now that we know where we top out, we can start thinking about how we can manage that population sustainably and stop arguing the issue.

    Consider also the prospect of including in sustainable crop rotations some grasses that are more or less fallow but produce material that can be used for fuels. That’s also possibly part of the equation if you don’t worry about starving people out.

    There’s a lot more, including a potentially stable world with less disparity between people in terms of material possessions and all. But for all the places this analysis can go, each one is big enough to deserve its own essay. Wow.

  3. If this is true, and I’m not sure I believe you, it is very good news. What I have trouble with is that it seems as though you are saying that the conservatives were right all along about rising standards of living, and since it came from the Economist I have to question if it’s propaganda.

  4. That’s a reasonable suspicion, but I have to assure you that you can trust the Economist. It may be a free market mag, but it’s very reasonable. I wish I had saved their free-market analysis as to why minimum wage laws are actually quite useful, for example. The Economist is far from a propaganda rag. In fact, I reccommend that everyone read it – and if you disagree with something they say, it’s a good idea to know exactly why.

  5. I think it’s amazing to think that there really is a limit to the number of people we’ll have in the world. Is it expected to drop after that?

  6. To say the political strife being played out in the streets of Iran is “generational” is a tremendous simplification. Similar demographics exist in Turkey and Azerbaijan. The current troubles of Iran have much more to do with the insane autocrat, economic isolation, and old ethnic and religious issues. The historical demographics also were skewed by a wartime baby boom during the Iran-Iraq war.

    The explosion of youth in an undiversified economy certainly has caused problems for the country in the form of unemployment and social unrest, but other countries have found ways of dealing with these issues that Iran has not (Turkey exporting labor).

  7. Bruce, excellent point. The challenge is demographic, yes, but the inability to deal with it comes from being autocrats who are grossly out of touch. That is the real issue to the people in the streets.

    That’s why I hate getting too far away from the central point (which is that there’s apparently a peak in the population) in less than 800 words – something has to be left out.

  8. Pingback: George Washington Carver « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

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