Why David Goldman is Wrong About “Imminent Population Collapse”

Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum is touting a new book by David Goldman, “How Civilizations Die.” Goldman claims the world is in a steep demographic decline whose consequences will be catastrophic.

The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world’s population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. For the first time in history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.

Notice that Goldman’s victim in this scenario is the European environmentalist, forced to lie upon the bed she has so foolishly made. He continues:

Imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose. … Population decline, the decisive issue of the twenty-first century, will cause violent upheavals in the world order. Countries facing fertility dearth, such as Iran, are responding with aggression. Nations confronting their own mortality may choose to go down in a blaze of glory.

Wait just a doggone minute. Hold them hosses. Is Goldman really saying that the world’s population, which has grown 300% since 1944, is in precipitous decline? Is it possible that today’s European adults will spend their declining years in abject misery for lack of enough young people to pay for their pensions and medical care? Is population collapse really “imminent” and even irreversible in places? And do populations with “elder bulges” really become more belligerent?

Gil Bailie could not be happier with Goldman’s thesis, for it appears to validate the Catholic Church’s longstanding position on contraception. Bailie has this to say:

The Church was right, and those who scoffed were wrong.

For decades, things repugnant to every prior age—contraception and abortion—have not only been considered licit, but beyond reproach. To the social, moral, and cultural damage resulting from the severance of sexuality from procreation and emotional commitment can now be added the demographic tsunami by which we already being engulfed.

And today our government is more determined than ever to favor and fund the anti-natal policies that are leading to this catastrophe. What many have said about the debt crisis is true as well of the very much related demographic one: Never before have we faced crises that were this severe and this predictable. And we are doubling down on the policies that created them.

The Church was right after all. All the evidence suggests so.

Was it? And does it? Are we really experiencing a “demographic tsunami?”

First, Bailie could have been more precise in his choice of a metaphor. A tsunami is a sudden excess of water pushed into coastal areas. That said, let’s weigh the evidence for Goldman’s “imminent population collapse.” My sources for population statistics are the CIA World Factbook and various United Nations publications, all freely available on the Internet.

Global population growth, 1300-2000 AD

Again, the world’s  population has grown 300% since I was born (1944), and it’s still growing very rapidly.

The population growth rate (not to be confused with the amount of growth) has dropped almost exactly 50% in the past 50 years (from 2.2% to 1.1% per annum, and that decrease is mostly attributable to lower fertility rates worldwide, though HIV-related deaths in Southern Africa and deaths from starvation and genocide in Sub-Saharan Africa must certainly be factored in. The growth rate is expected to reach 0.6% per annum by 2050, but that’s still growth, not contraction.

Global population growth rates. Source: World Bank

Yes, worldwide fertility rates have dropped, but only to 2.47 children per woman, well above the replacement rate of 2.1 cpw. It’s a good thing. We were headed toward nine billion before the end of this century.

None of these stats on growth and fertility points to “imminent population collapse” on a global scale. On the contrary, overpopulation is already straining the earth’s resources to an alarming degree.

Global fertility rates. Source: World Bank

But what about population collapse at the national level? Is any population really “collapsing?” Certainly, one might expect population numbers to fluctuate as environmental conditions vary over time. But is Goldman justified in reading “collapse” into every ebbing of a national population? Is any society nearing the “point of no return?” Are developed countries in a “death spiral?”

Clearly, Goldman’s hyperbolic rhetoric appears intended to evoke fear. It also appears to be driven by his own fears. But fears of what? The answer is beyond the scope of this post, but Goldman’s Spengler page on PJ Media will offer some clues. Suffice it to say that Gil Bailie and David Goldman share a visceral distaste for liberalism, modernism, secularism, Islam, and the sexual revolution; and that both are opposed to contraception.

Population Dynamics

The scientific literature on population dynamics shows basically four “stages” of population growth, with bulges moving up from bottom to top. As you might expect, there are problems with stage #1, which has a youth bulge, and stage #4, which has a “elder bulge.”

When too many young people come on-stream in a society that is ill-equipped to deal with them, as in stage #1, the results are likely to be increased social unrest, war, terrorism, and even genocide. Second and third sons can’t find employment and often turn to religious or political ideologies to make their mark in the world. Nevertheless, the “youth bulge” is never the only factor explaining these pathologies. Resources are key to whether predicting whether a society can effectively handle a youth bulge. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has done well, while Egypt has done very poorly.

Global Median Age

Where there’s an “elder bulge,” as we are seeing in Japan and Europe, social services are strained at the other end (i.e., social welfare for seniors), and the fewer resources that are available, the more acute the problems become. An educated and informed democratic society can always tweak policy to address the challenges. While draconian measures like criminalization of contraception are never necessary, they are often advocated by religious institutions locked into pre-modern and pre-scientific conceptions of social engineering. And make no mistake about it: Policies that criminalize or deny access to contraception are a form of social engineering.

The fourth model, with its “elder bulge,” is never an inverted pyramid. People don’t completely stop having children, even in modern China. And, contrary to what David Golden claims, elder bulges don’t provoke violent social upheavals.  As Samuel Huntington wrote in Clash of Civilizations, “Generally speaking, the people who go out and kill other people are males between the ages of 16 and 30.”

It’s always a complicated equation—never as simple as David Goldman’s model—and one must never factor out resources and other environmental factors. Overpopulation occurs when an area’s population exceeds its carrying capacity, and underpopulation occurs when there are not enough people to maintain an economic system. Depopulation occurs when people leave an area or are killed off. Somalia is overpopulated because it lacks resources to sustain its people, and the continent of Antarctica is underpopulated because conditions of life there are so harsh.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population has quadrupled since 1945, causing a precipitous decline in resources, especially water, fuel, and soil nutrients. In Somalia, 12 million people are facing famine. The linkage between overpopulation and famine is undisputed.

What is the solution to Somalia’s problems? Certainly an infusion of food and water supplies would alleviate suffering there. But until that happens, would anyone dare suggest that Somalis should have more babies? Would anyone in his right mind suggest withholding contraceptives? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you probably need to read up on Catholic teachings.

There isn’t a single country or society where either underpopulation or depopulation, as defined above, is currently a social problem on the scale of the overpopulation problem in Africa. This is not to claim that populations cannot implode. Indigenous populations were decimated throughout the Americas from disease and conquest following the arrival of Europeans. The Vikings left Greenland because of climate change, and some Polynesian islands were abandoned between 800 and 1000 AD for environmental reasons that are still in dispute. In none of these cases was “birth dearth” the cause of depopulation. Again, environmental factors were decisive.

So, if there is, in Gil Bailie’s words, a demographic “tsunami,” then surely we are witnessing it in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is indeed a “death spiral,” but one that results from overpopulation, not depopulation.

David Goldman’s concerns about declining fertility rates in developed countries are driven less by fears of underpopulation than by fears about cultural dilutions resulting from immigration. There is certainly no dearth of people in the world, and, as said earlier, the total fertility rate is still well above the replacement rate of 2.1 bpw. The key to understanding Goldman’s misplaced concerns is to understand what he, as a stakeholder, fears about cultural dilution.

If developed countries need to beef up their populations, they can prioritize financial incentives for families to have more than 2.1 children, as Japan and some northern European countries are currently doing. Or they can leverage immigration, or encourage workers to delay retirement. Students can be given low-interest-rate loans so that starting a family after college does not become an impossible financial burden for them. There are costs involved in any of these measures, but the resources are not lacking.

The reality is that resources in developed nations are not yet at a point where population attrition is inevitable. These societies are now being asked to decide whether unlimited accrual of personal wealth is conducive to cultural or national survival. At some point, the perceived common good may require adjusting priorities. Women who have political choice will not opt for more children when resources are scarce, and they may justly demand a reallocation of resources.

Strained resources in India

If less-developed nations face overpopulation, then why not support family planning as a way of bringing those populations under control? We know that family planning works, but we have not yet seen that resource replacement does so.

To take contraception off the table is to deprive ourselves of a highly effective tool for managing populations and for ensuring the well-being of those who do populate our planet. It isn’t just numbers that we want, or more life. Humans are not warrior ants, driven only to reproduce and make war. We are made for something better.

Randall Jennings comments:

Seems the modern world is very good at creating problems and then creating new ones with their “fixes” on ever grander scales. I could foresee tens of millions Chinese men, for instance, having their own ideas of reducing global population as they realize they will very well never have a bride and a normal family life after the ‘success’ of the state’s one child policy.

George Dunn responds to Randall Jennings:

Randall, the widening disproportion of men to women is a concern of the Chinese government, which is one reason they are relaxing the one child policy. What you foresee is also foreseeable by policymakers, who are in a position to adjust the policy accordingly. But I hope you’re not suggesting (as Gil undoubtedly would) that the solution is to criminalize the use of contraceptives. That would be to consign hundreds of millions of Chinese to grinding poverty and possibly starvation. Say what you will about the current Chinese regime (and, as an expat in China, I am certainly not an unqualified fan), but they have succeeded where their predecessors have all failed in meeting the greatest challenge that a developing country must face—they are keeping every single one of their 1.3 billion citizens fed. Not only that, but they have lifted an unprecedented 600 million people out of poverty. I shudder to think what China would be like today if contraception had been criminalized for the last fifty years.

Ian Mac Laue writes:

I don’t dispute that some of the data might be overblown or used to support xenophobic ends that aren’t by any means admirable, but as it concerns strictly european nations there does seem to be a problem of replacement level growth. Shouldn’t a country be concerned when its tax base is incapable of supporting its older members? Or are you suggesting that any such problem could be allieviated by an influx of immigration?

My response to Ian Mac Laue:

Countries with birthrates below replacement levels have legitimate concerns about the burdens placed on working-age populations to support their elderly. People throughout the developed world are living longer, and women are having fewer babies.

I don’t believe there is any single solution to this problem, but I do believe certain proposed solutions should be taken off the table. Criminalizing or withholding access to contraception is a non-starter. Turning back the rights revolution and the sexual revolution is another non-starter. Once women got the right to vote, the game was up for patriarchal structures of power, and the path ahead is clear. Women will continue to demand equality and the right to control their own reproductive lives, and they will increasingly achieve their goals. We must just accept that as a given.

Populations that are still growing are generally those where women are still substantially oppressed. Oppression is not an option for constitutional democracies.

Solutions to birth dearth include immigration, government-sponsored incentives, and later retirement. None of these solutions is without problems of its own, but at least none of them requires any curtailment of individual liberties.

Dean Hansen responds to Gil Bailie:

I wasn’t aware that contraception and abortion have been repugnant to every age. When we refuse to examine our own “repugnance” regarding reproduction issues, nature steps in and does it for us with bubonic plague, cholera epidemics, wars, droughts, floods, and fires.  Nature doesn’t give a damn about our moral scrupulosity. I’m so glad Gil took this time out of his busy schedule to remind us how happy we could be if we surrendered our autonomy to the authority of a group of demented celibate old men in Rome. Of course, Gil has been taking time out of his busy schedule to say the same stuff over and over, day after day, quoting anyone who will agree with him, and then covering his ears every time someone objects.

What I do believe is that people who live their lives in fear and superstition can make life a living hell for those who don’t, but women have always resorted to whatever means were available to them, regardless of the darkness of the age they resided in, or the potential danger to themselves, to wrest control of their own lives from “well meaning” male authorities who claimed to speak for God. Much of that so-called repugnance was nothing more than a continuation of a shaming mechanism aimed at reducing human reproduction and human sexuality into a miserable farce whose whole aim to is to denigrate any kind of sexual act that doesn’t take place in the sacred baby-making factory of family bedroom.

Yes, those declining years will be spent in misery, unless we make up our minds to burden an already over-stressed world with a new and continuous supply of human beings—who can starve along with the ones who are already here, many of them unwanted or unplanned—and to put additional demands on resources that are irreplaceable and on energy systems that are still dominated by an oil industry determined to keep their profits rolling in no matter what the cost to the planet. The real misery for subsequent generations will be fished-out seas and coal-fired plants belching more carbon into an already overloaded atmosphere. And when the electricity goes off, so does the running water, the toilet, the shower, the microwave oven, the refrigerator, the TV, the air conditioning … well, just about anything that distinguishes our relatively civilized culture from the others that will be dying off at an even faster rate.  Now that’s population collapse, brother, and it won’t be caused by our inability to remember how to fuck and make babies.

It amazes me that Gil holds up Paul Ehrlich as an example of bad science, when much of what he said was prescient and has come true.  The dates were off but the trends are sound.  We are at three times the population world-wide that existed at the time of Mr. Bailie’s birth. We are running out of potable water, sustainable crops, and non-polluting energy, and still he dumbs-down the rhetoric by quoting anyone who parrots the idiocy about “fertility dearth.”  The only real and measurable dearth is in the neuronal dendrites that can no longer be called into service in Bailie’s apparently concrete-filled head as they march into the waste basket of his own personal historical delusions.

And what’s the final cherry atop the tasty Catholic cobbler in this intellectual feast or famine? “The Church was right after all.”  Right about what??

I would modify that numbing bit of falderal by suggesting the people who have left the church in order to maintain their sanity and live lives of honesty were right, and that that will ultimately make the only real difference.


2 Responses to “Why David Goldman is Wrong About “Imminent Population Collapse””

  1. Valerie Tarico Says:

    Thank you for providing real statistics. The dire predictions are so bizarre that it makes me curious about what is driving them.

  2. thebentangle Says:

    I can’t be certain about what is driving them, but I have noticed that they are popular on web- and blog-sites that strongly oppose contraception.

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