Jonathan Last and the Un-Problem of Shrinking Populations

In his latest book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last warns us of the dire consequences of shrinking populations.  He’s got it backwards.  It’s the best thing that could happen to us.

Before proceeding with my own take on this issue, I would like to assure the reader that I am not a rabid environmentalist or a liberal of the sort who considers people with children morally suspect.  I have children and have encouraged my own children to have as many children as possible themselves.  It seems to me that the fact that those among us who are supposedly the most intelligent are also the most infertile is a convincing proof of the stupidity of our species.

Why did I decide to have children?  In the end, it’s a subjective whim, just like every other “purpose of life” one might imagine.  However, as such I think it’s justifiable enough.  The explanation lies in the way in which I perceive my “self.”  As I see it, “we” are not our conscious minds, although that is what most of us perceive as “we.”  Our conscious minds are evanescent manifestations of the physical bodies whose development is guided by our genes.  They pop into the world for a moment and are then annihilated in death.  They exist for that brief moment for one reason only – because they happened to promote our genetic survival.  Is it not more reasonable to speak of “we” as that about us which has existed for billions of years and is potentially immortal, namely, our genes, than to assign that term to an ancillary manifestation of those genes that exists for a vanishingly small instant of time by comparison?  We have a choice.  We can choose that this “we” continue to survive, or we can choose other goals, and allow this “we” to be snuffed out, so that the physical bodies that bear our “we” become the last link in an unbroken chain stretching back over billions of years.  There is no objective reason why we should prefer one choice or the other.  The choice is purely subjective.  The rest of the universe cares not a bit whether our genes survive or not.  I, however, care.  If countless links in a chain have each created new links in turn and passed on the life they carried over the eons, only to come to a link possessed of qualities that cause it to fail to continue the chain, it seems reasonable to consider that link dysfunctional, or, in the most real sense imaginable, a failure.  I personally would not find the realization comforting that I am a sick and dysfunctional biological unit, a failure at carrying out that one essential function that a process of natural selection has cultivated for an almost inconceivable length of time.  Therefore, I have children.  As far as I am concerned, they, and not wealth, or property, or fame, are the only reasonable metric of success in the life of any individual.  The very desire for wealth, property or fame only exist because at some point in our evolutionary history they have promoted our survival and procreation.  As ends in themselves, divorced from the reason they came into existence in the first place, they lead only to death.

Am I concerned if others don’t agree with me?  Far from it!  And that brings us back to the main point of this post.  I do not agree with Jonathan Last that a constantly increasing population, or even a stable one at current levels, is at all desirable.  As far as I am concerned, it is a wonderful stroke of luck that in modern societies the conscious minds of so many other humans have become dysfunctional, resulting in their genetic death.  I am interested in keeping other genes around only to the extent that they promote the survival of my own.  That is also the only reason that I would prefer one level of population on the planet to one that is larger or smaller.  That, of course, is a very personal reason, but it seems to me that it is a conclusion that must follow for anyone else to the extent that they prefer survival to the alternative.

Survival, then, is my sine qua non.  Given that this planet is, for practical purposes, the only one we can depend on to support our survival, I consider it foolhardy to prefer a population that is potentially unsustainable, or that will diminish everyone’s chances of long term survival.  I am hardly a fanatical environmentalist.  I would just prefer that we refrain from rocking the boat.  I have read Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist, and am well aware of how frequently the environmentalists have been crying “wolf” lo now these many years.  However, like Lomborg, I agree that there is still reason for concern.  Pollution and environmental degradation are real problems, as is the rapid exploitation of limited sources of cheap energy and other raw materials.  Obviously, Paul Ehrlich’s dire predictions that we would run out of everything in short order were far off the mark.  However, eventually, they will run out, and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the date as long as possible.  Let us consider the reasons Jonathan Last believes all these risks are worth taking.  In all honesty, assuming we are agreed that survival is a worthwhile goal, they seem trivial to me.

To begin, while paying lip service to the old chestnut that a correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, Last suggests exactly that.  On page 7 of the hardcover version of his book he writes, “Declining populations have always followed or been followed by Very Bad Things.  Disease.  War.  Economic stagnation or collapse.”  To see whether this suggestion holds water, let’s look at one of Lasts own examples of “declining populations.”  On p. 36 he writes, “World population also declined steeply between 1340 and 1400, shrinking from 443 million to 374 million.  This was not a period of environmental and social harmony; it was the reign of the Black Death.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine whether declining populations were the cause of the Black Death, or the Black Death was the cause of declining populations.  To anyone who has read a little history, it is abundantly clear that, while disease, war, and economic collapse may cause depopulation, the instances where the reverse was clearly the case are few and far between.  In a similar vein, referring to the Roman Empire, Last writes on p. 35, “Then, between A.D. 200 and 600, population shrank from 257 million to 208 million, because of falling fertility.  We commonly refer to that period as the descent into the Dark Ages.”  Where is the evidence that the population fell because of “falling fertility”?  Last cites none.  On the other hand, there is abundant source material from the period to demonstrate that, as in the case of the Black Death, declining populations were a result, and not a cause.  In Procopius‘ history of the Great Italian War in the 6th century, for example, he notes that Italy has become depopulated.  The great historian was actually there, and witnessed the cause first hand.  It was not “declining fertility,” but starvation resulting from the destruction of food sources by marauding armies.

However, this allusion to “Very Bad Things” is really just a red herring.  Reading a little further in Last’s book, it doesn’t take us long to discover the real burrs under his saddle.  Most of them may be found by glancing through the 50 pages between chapters 5 and 7 of his book.  They include, 1) The difficulty of caring for the elderly.  2) The decrease in inventiveness and entrepreneurship (because of an over proportion of elderly)  3) A decline in military strength, accompanied by an unwillingness to accept casualties, and 4) Lower economic growth.  The idea that anyone could seriously suggest that any of these transient phenomena could justify playing risky games with the ability of our planet to sustain life for millennia into the future boggles the mind.  The population of the planet cannot keep increasing indefinitely in any case.  At some point, it must stabilize, and these consequences will follow regardless.  The only question is, how many people will be affected.

Consider Japan, a country Last considers an almost hopeless demographic basket case.  Its population was only 42 million as recently as 1900.  At the time it won wars against both China and Russia, which had much greater populations of 415 million and 132 million, respectively at the time.  Will it really be an unmitigated disaster if its population declines to that level again?  It may well be that Japan’s elderly will have to make do with less during the next century or two.  I hereby make the bold prediction that, in spite of that, they will not all starve to death or be left without health care to die in the streets.  Demographically, Japan is the most fortunate of nations, not the least favored.  At least to date, she does not enjoy the “great advantage” of mass immigration by culturally alien populations, an “advantage” that is likely to wreak havoc in the United States and Europe.

As for military strength, I doubt that we will need to fear enslavement by some foreign power as long as we maintain a strong and reliable nuclear arsenal, and, with a smaller population, the need to project our power overseas, for example to protect sources of oil and other resources, will decline because our needs will be smaller.  As for inventiveness, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, it would be better to promote them by restraining the cancerous growth of modern tax-devouring welfare states than by artificially stimulating population growth.  Again, all of Last’s “Very Bad Things” are also inevitable things.  What he is proposing will not enable us to avoid them.  It will merely postpone them for a relatively short time, as which point they will be even more difficult to manage because of depleted resources and a degraded environment than they are now.  It seems a very meager excuse for risking the future of the planet.

In a word, I favor a double standard.  Unrestricted population growth of my own family and those closely related to me genetically balanced by an overall decline in the population overall.  There is nothing incongruous about this.  It is the inherent nature of our species to apply one standard to our ingroup, and an entirely different one to outgroups.  We all do the same, regardless of whether we are prepared to admit it or not.  I leave you, dear reader, in the hope that you will not become confused by the distinction between the two.