I wrote recently about Thomas Malthus and the continued presence of his followers, neo-Malthusians, who argue that high population growth and large populations are (essentially) a source of economic and political instability. While this is an old felt hat, the new millennium has given demographers a new topic of discussion, one which generally isn’t reported in the press. Low population growth as a source of instability. If you aren’t aware of the earth-shattering demographic news (yes, I can use those two adjectives in the same phrase) than hold on tight. Population decline is a reality. I’m not talking about a Spanish influenza or Black Plague sort of population decline (because you would have heard of that), I’m talking about gradual decreases in a country’s (yes, an entire country) population. Demographers note that this may never have occurred before over the course of human history. The problem is demographic decline isn’t limited to one country, its a reality in a number of countries in both Asia and Europe. The widespread nature of the problem means that we need to rethink our models to account for not only population growth but decline.
The general framework demographers use to talk about population growth is encompassed in the demographic transition model. Like any model it is a representation of reality, it isn’t reality. While the demographic transition model encompasses some factors of population growth, birth and death specifically, it leaves out another, migration. What’s exciting is that we appear to be heading for a new “fifth” stage in the model.
A graphical depiction of the demographic transition model (from BBC)
The first stage, roughly described as “preindustrial”, is characterized by a high birth rate and high death rate, both of these fluctuate as populations respond to external stimuli – for instance, a good harvest encourages more child bearing or a new minor disease increases the death rate slightly. Overall, the effect is for somewhat stable population growth there’s plenty of births to make up for the high death rate. In human history this is roughly representative of human society before the introduction of things like sanitation, medicine, and so on (premodern, if you’re into that).
The second stage is the collapse of the death rate, for humans the introduction of proper sanitation, modern medicine, easily accessible nutritious food, and clean water all combined to dramatically, and quickly, lower the rate of deaths. As technology got better deaths continued to drop until it was primarily the very old, the very young, or the very unlucky who were dying. Society is slow to respond this collapsing birth rate so population growth effectively increases as births remain high. More and more babies are born and survive into adulthood, having large families of their own. Especially during the era of decolonization (from the 1960s) less developed countries were thought to be indicative of this stage, having high population growth and birth rates but relatively low death rates due to the influence of modern medicine.
The third stage is dramatic falls in the birth rate, society responds to the low death rate by having less children. Population still grows, but slower. Why have less children? Think of it this way, before things like ipads, social security, gender equality, children were the social security. Once you became to old to work your farm you hoped one of your myriad of children would take you in and support you and your spouse in your golden years. But with the advance of education, making children’s education more expensive, gender equality, which made it socially acceptable and desirable for more women to have careers, and general consumer goods, which compete with children for your wallet, birth rates dropped. Many demographers focus on the changing role of women in society. Some talk about the double-day phenomena, where mothers work a regular job and then must also work at home to supporting a child (the implication is that the spouse doesn’t do nearly enough at home). Others note that as more women work professionally, they stay in school longer for better jobs, resulting in putting off having a child to after their mid-20s (after the graduate college or graduate school). As I posted before the generally accepted total fertility rate for stable population growth is 2.1 children per woman over her child-bearing years. One each to replace mummy and daddy and 1 child over 100 women to replace the odd woman or man who doesn’t have a child.
At this point we reach stage four, where birth and death rates are fluctuating at low levels. We still have natural disasters and virulent diseases, not to mention war, that can increase the death rate and there are still things like baby booms, especially after the war, and economic booms to spur birth rates. Demographers assumed that this would be the rule for the rest of human history (though they probably wouldn’t say it), but it seems like we’ve come to a fifth stage. The population would growth slowly, driven by advances in technology or social progress, or fluctuate around an “ideal” population size. But that’s apparently not the end of the story.
The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) held a roundtable discussion on the implications of Japan’s changing demographics (that is, its declining population) and released an article summarizing the discussion recently. This is a great article and well worth a read, if you have the time. But I’ll offer a quick summary. Without quoting the source (I’m assuming its the U.S. Census, United Nations, or Japan’s Statistics Bureau), NBR reports that Japan’s population is to fall from 128 million people in 2007 to 95 million in 2050. That’s a decline of 33 million persons over a 43 year period,
almost a thousand over 750,000 (ed. math-fail) persons a year. The first response is usually that there must be a staggeringly high death rate in Japan. Wrong! The discussants believe it is due to a combination of three factors: health, birth, and emigration (that is, out-migration). The article that presents the implications of this declining population on three areas, economics, energy, and security. In terms of economics, the discussants saw a vicious cycle of economic difficulty and falling birth rates as men are increasingly taking lower-wage informal jobs (thereby not able to support larger families), a more quickly declining working population (compared to the population at-large), and always-low immigration rates. In terms of energy, the discussants primarily examined the impact of the ban on nuclear energy and tangentially noted that a declining population will likely result in lower energy consumption – forcing Japanese utilities to look abroad to diversify. Finally, the discussants did not see a Japan lowering its defense spending (since the burden is already relatively low) and argued that whether it might raise defense spending as relations with China cool. The demographers saw that a declining work force might not impact military recruitment, because Japan’s “high” underemployment. The report concludes with a list of recommendations for addressing the challenges brought by demographic decline within the current economic situation of Japan.
Although NBR focuses on Japan, its worth remembering that this isn’t a problem unique to Japan. Demographic decline will be affecting most of East Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea), except Mongolia and North Korea, and Russia by 2050 according to data from the U.S. Census. What makes Japan unique is that it is the first country to begin this decline. Thus, the challenges faced by Japan will also be faced by the rest albeit further in the future. China’s current total fertility rate is estimated at 1.6 children (the one-child policy was mostly responsible for this) but demographic momentum of such a large (over a billion people) means that population decline won’t happen immediately. However between 2025 and 2050, the Census Bureau estimates the population of China will shrink by a little over 90 million people (a growth rate of negative 0.5%). Similar situations are also found in Taiwan and South Korea. That slowing population growth and below replacement level fertility is widespread makes it necessary to expand the demographic transition model to include stage 5 (as many have started doing).
We can characterize stage five as a fluctuating death rate but a still decreasing birth rate, resulting in a negative population growth rate and, eventually population decline. The reason I say eventual population decline is because the population will continue to grow for sometime after the birth rate falls below the death rate. After all, all of those children that were born before the fall are going to be having children in the next generation. This is the concept of demographic momentum. Actual population decline doesn’t occur immediately, there’s a generation or two lag as society fails to respond. Why does the birth rate still decrease? For a large number of reasons, many of them similar to the drop in the birth rate outlined in stage four. Children are expensive to keep, provide for, and educate (assuming you have a standard you want to keep) and these expenses are a household decision, perhaps a couple or a person, doesn’t want the expense. Children aren’t necessary for retirement, we have pension funds, 401ks, and other retirement plans for ourselves, not to mention physical places, like assisted living homes who employ folks who are paid to take care of you. And then there is shifting societal norms and values, while it is always dangerous to discuss “cultural norms” for hundreds of millions of people, we can definitely say that is as acceptable (socially) for a woman have a career and devote her life to her work, though not all women choose this path and there are still barriers (like pay) discouraging them from doing so. Of course, there are still many women that choose and want to have families and to devote their lives to their children. The constraint here is on the number of children one may want to have, which is constrained by the family’s choices and society. In terms of the former, a family may want to only have enough children that they could send to college, or a Master’s, or complete their dissertation. Or they might only want to have two to avoid “middle child syndrome.” Then there are factors outside of their control, China, as an extreme example, was famous for the one child policy, which was enacted in order to limit the population growth rate (an instance of the state attempting to force demographic transition from stage two to stage three). But there are also other more subtle factors, perhaps having too many children is a sign of poverty or low social class? The ultimate point is that there are now a variety of reasons for people to not have children.
Way back in the introduction I discussed the idea of low population growth and declining populations as a source of instability, a sort of anti-Malthusism. The problem is this theory is completely speculative. As I mentioned above, persistent, slow-moving decline hasn’t been a factor in human history. Thus, the effects on things like social and political stability are difficult to estimate. However, as NBR pointed out, there are some cursory observations and projections we can make, for instance, a lower energy consumption. However, this isn’t necessarily the case since every year we invent new, bigger, and cheaper technological gadgets to entertain ourselves. I plan on devoting another post to the issue of low population growth/population decline and instability.
[updated 02/25/13]: Japan’s current demographic decline is not unique (considering that as the trends go, most children born today will probably visit a number of “disappearing countries”) its a new part of human society and should be reflected in our demographic models. I mentioned before that models are not reality, the demographic transition model could be better by including migration. In fact, the United States’ total fertility rate is currently at replacement level (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 2.1 births per woman in 2013) and forecasts a stable trend until 2050. By 2050, the Census Bureau estimates a below replacement level fertility rate of 2.0. However, demographic momentum and the country’s relatively open immigration policies and relatively welcoming society will ensure a healthy population growth. Young migrants, who also tend to bring over families if they’re able, also generally have more children. This is a good thing, steady population growth ensures a steady pool of labor to fill jobs as people retire and in the U.S., where natural population growth is slowing, we need immigrants to fill the jobs that are unfilled by the available labor pool. After all, immigrants wouldn’t be coming to the U.S. without a reasonable expectation that they will be able to get a better-paying or more steady job. Of course, the immigration solution is also available to Japan but as, NBR writes Japan has a “strict” immigration policy limiting the effectiveness of this solution.
Politics and academia shouldn’t mix. But they do, frequently. Politicians quote and carry “science” much like the kings of old carried “religion”. Frequently citing statistics, politicians justify platforms, programs, and policies without revealing the biases and assumptions within. But you already knew that. Academics, too, play political cards and if you followed this blog you know that I’m no friend of the decidedly lefty (not the handedness for I am also a lefty!) bent of academia, particularly in Geography. I don’t mind social activism and social justice these are noble ends, but proselytizing in a dissertation, thesis, or paper is lazy. Sure, you could blame everything on colonialism – what? that’s old hat you say? what about the state? no? the petite bourgeoisie then! – but that’s intellectually dishonest. There are multiple causes to any single event, especially in the social sciences which are concerned with explaining the vagaries of humanity. Think of yourself, why do you take the route you do to get to work or school? There’s a myriad of geographic factors.
Enter the Reverend (I had no idea!) Thomas Robert Malthus (d. 1834) political economist and geographer (specifically of the sub-discipline, demography). Writing as he did in the 19th century, Malthus noted something potentially troubling – population grew exponentially. Geographers widely acknowledge that 2.1 children per woman is a stable population (that is a population that neither grows quickly nor falls). Why? One child replaces the woman and another child replaces the man. The “.1” child is to replace any other member in the population that doesn’t have a child of their own, for biological or whatever reason. Imagine a world of just one couple, and they have “2.1” children (say, year 1). The following year (year 2) the world now has 4.1 people. In year three, the two couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 8.4 people in the world. In year four, 4 couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 17.2 people. Finally in year 5, our clan has grown by 2.1 children again for the 8 couples, leaving 35 people. So a “stable” population is still growing, more or less, just not very quickly. Imagine if you bump up the number of children to 3 or 4, 5 or 6?
Living before the Green Revolution (about the 1950s), Malthus saw this exponential population growth and compared it to agricultural output, which was growing linearly at the time. If you had a crop output in year 1 of say 1 ton, in year 2 you might be able to get 2 tons with the extra labor, and 3 tons in year 3. By year 5, when there are 35 mouths to feed you would only have 5 tons of grain! To Malthus, the high population growth in the 19th century (I’m guessing people in Britain at the time we’re having 6+ kids) was simply unsustainable the world would run out of food, mass starvation and famine would ensue. To Malthus, mass starvation and famine would lower the population and thereby increase relative food supply. Of course, that’s a relatively inhumane way to solve the problem (that is, let people starve) so he advocated for more proactive solutions, including moral restraint – remaining celibate until marriage and only marrying when one was able to support a family. Clearly, Malthus was wrong in that agricultural production can, and will, grow exponentially to keep up with demand (see chart from Wikipedia). If there is an ceiling on Terra’s carrying capacity (Geographer short-hand for the total population that available agricultural land can support), we haven’t quite reached it and we’re approaching 7 billion people.
Today, neo-Malthusians apply Malthus’ general argument, that too many people are a bad outcome for almost everything. And the latest example (finally got to the current story!) is in Foreign Policy magazine. The article states that Mali’s high population growth is the “real reason” that the country is “awash with terrorists.” The article calls the 3% growth rate “unsustainable” and specifically references Mali’s carrying capacity, but leaves it up to us to figure out if that’s true or not. The article could have been written by Malthus, “in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities”. Scary, if not new, thinking. This problem of the “youth bulge” has been discussed in security circles for a while now, and its still lazy thinking.
But first, let’s talk about terrorism and the potential links with high population growth. The article makes the usual point that young men, competing for too few resources, with too few opportunities, are “deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency.” The key here is “deeply susceptible”, essentially what this article is saying is that high population growth, leads to large numbers of young men (duh), and when there’s not enough opportunities to satisfy these young men (possibility), they could turn into armed criminals and insurgents. I suppose that’s true, but the United States has its own armed criminals and we’re well under the “2.5 per cent rule”. Rather than blame high population growth, I’d point the finger at sluggish opportunity (economic, social) growth. If this growth kept pace with population (3% or whatever), most “young men” would be able to satisfy their desire for improvement.
Furthermore, I’m not sure where the Saudi Arabia 2.3% number came from, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a growth rate of 1.8% in 2005.
And then there’s the false-negatives. Serbia, perpetrator of a genocide in the few decades had a 2005 growth rate of negative 0.5%. In other words, the population is decreasing. Similarly the West Bank had an estimated growth rate of 2.4% in 2005. In Tunisia, a country that toppled its own government during the so-called Arab Spring, the 2005 growth rate was 1.0%. Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor, had a growth rate of 1.3% in 2005. These countries have plenty of instability and violence and are growing relatively slowly (if at all). And of course, the article acknowledges the high growth rate countries without massive problems, like the United Arab Emirates (4.4% 2005 growth rate). This data comes from the international programs section at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Blaming insurgency on high population growth is lazy. Its easier to tell Mali, in this case, that you should lower your population growth. Not only is this answer lazy, its an easy political answer. The problem lies with you and your country. Of course, unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism don’t factor into the mix. But these aren’t the only problems, I doubt unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism have a demonstrable, direct impact on a decision for someone to join an insurgency and, possibly, get killed.
I think it would be much wiser and more even-handed to actually examine the multitude of reasons for why men, and women, join insurgencies and address those causes, whether they are economic, political, or social.