This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween # 7 Billion

Somewhere in the world--perhaps India, as the Associated Press suggests--a baby was born today that was designated by the United Nations Population Fund as the person that pushed us over the 7 billion mark in terms of humans alive at the same time. Keep in mind, of course, that population growth at the global level is the balance of births and deaths, so the only reason that this birth mattered was because someone else on the globe didn't die. Indeed, the only reason we have reached 7 billion is because we have brought the death rate under control, so we really should be celebrating survival, not so much the birth of a child per se.


And, remember that according to the US Census Bureau's world population clock, we won't reach 7 billion until next March, so we will have plenty of time to continue thinking about how many of us there are. Actually, we will have the rest of our lives to figure that out...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Final Push to the Seventh Billion Person

Halloween is the day that the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has designated to be the day we turn the population clock over to 7 billion. This is somewhat arbitrary, to be sure, but it makes good press even if, as one of my students noted, it's a little ghoulish (pun intended) to have this "celebration" the day before the famous Mexican "Day of the Dead" holiday. 


Last week UNFPA released its "State of World Population 2011" and that has stimulated a round of commentary about world population in the New York Times.


Without question, though, the best of the last-minute responses to 7 billion is the free (for a limited time) iPad app just released by the National Geographic Society. You should have this...[although it's only for the iPad, not the iPhone].

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A More Personal Take on Achieving Seven Billion

Chris Arsenault of Aljazeera has published an online article about population growth that features quotes by several demographers, including me. One of the concerns I raise is that we genuinely do not know how we are going to feed our growing population. Already nearly a billion among us are hungry and yet we expect to add another 2-3 billion by the middle of this century. 


I was alerted to the fact that the article had been published by the receipt of an email suggesting to me that the answer was so obvious--a vegan diet (not only no meat, but no animal products such as milk or eggs). Now, in truth, I don't disagree with that idea. My wife and I transitioned to a vegetarian diet twenty years ago--although more for animal rights reasons than as an example of how to save the planet. Yet there is no doubt that one of the huge problems we face today is the enormous amount of agricultural output that could feed people directly, but rather winds up feeding non-human animals for slaughter or other purposes. Is it possible to even think about a vegan world? Twenty years ago I would have said no, but in the past twenty years being vegetarian has become commonplace, and being vegan is essentially where being vegetarian was two decades ago--people are likely to look at you as though you are nuts. 


If you live anywhere in the New York City area and want to experience what a vegan lunch or dinner (or brunch on the weekends) is all about, go to our favorite restaurant--Candle79 at 79th and Lexington. You may help save the planet.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The 7 Billion Hype Continues

As we approach 7 billion (or did we pass it? Or is it not until next year? Nobody knows for sure), people continue to jump on the bandwagon with stories. Anthropologist Barbara King notes on NPR that one of the more wild of these attempts--the idea that we should all be heading back to the "typical" hunter-gatherer diet:

In a few days, the world's population will reach 7 billion. Only a tiny fraction of this number still makes a living by hunting and gathering, the way all our ancestors did before about 12,000 years ago.
According to a set of claims relentlessly pushed in some books and blogs, as many modern humans as possible should adopt a hunter-gatherer diet. That is, we should eat lean meat and vegetables because our Paleolithic hunting-and-gathering ancestors did. At the same time, we should refuse dairy, grains and sugars because our hunting-and-gathering ancestors didn't eat these items.
But, of course, there is no scientific evidence of such a "typical" diet and, in all events, do we want to go back to the life expectancy of 20 years that these people experienced? I don't think so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Economic Recession Equals Migration Recession

In bad economic times people tend to go somewhere else, if they think that things are better in that somewhere else. If there isn't anyplace better, as seems to be true over the past few years, then people quite rationally just stay put. This latter trend is the hot-off-the-press conclusion from analyses of the just-released 2008-2010 American Community Survey survey data, as reported in today's New York Times.

The institute’s study [the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire] compared three years’ worth of data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which was released early Thursday and covered 2008-10, with the data from 2005-7. Since the survey’s findings are released in three-year increments, this was the first time that researchers had a set of data that included only years since the financial collapse began, allowing them to make a direct comparison to a similar period before the collapse.
Using this and other data from the I.R.S. that many researchers consider even more comprehensive, they found that migration into formerly booming states like Arizona, Florida and Nevada began to slow as soon as the recession hit and continued to shrink even into 2010, when many demographers expected it to level off. At the same time, Massachusetts, New York and California, which had been hemorrhaging people for years, and continued to do so in the three years before the financial collapse, suddenly saw the domestic migration loss shrink by as much as 90 percent.
“When times get really hard it gets really hard for people to up and move,” said Kenneth M. Johnson, the senior demographer at the Carsey Institute, who conducted the analysis. “People who might have left New York for North Carolina are staying put. But that is a very recent change, so that places that had been growing rapidly suddenly aren’t, and the outflow has really slowed down.”
Mr. Johnson said that the same phenomenon could be seen within states, as the growth began to slow in once rapidly growing suburbs, and shrinking cities like Los Angeles and Chicago began to stabilize.
In an analysis of the American Community Survey data made public on Thursday, William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, found that large metropolitan areas with once-flourishing economies, like Atlanta, Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., are no longer magnets for Americans ages 25 to 34.Mr. Frey said that, in many ways, young people were staying in the more established cities with a kind of wait-and-see approach to the economy. He said he expected the relocation rates to pick up as soon as there were new housing and job opportunities for young adults.
“They are trying to bide their time in a hip place they know,” he said. “But there is going to be a pent-up demand for migration, because right now people are just putting their lives on hold.”
With any luck, we won't have an economic recovery based on a new unsustainable housing bubble, but when the economy does bounce back (and it will), we will know it by watching the moving vans roll down the street.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Long Life Means Choosing Your Parents Carefully

Prescriptions for a long life abound, but few have as much scientific backing as the idea that your genetic background makes a huge difference. But exactly what and how? That's what new studies reported by the Associated Press are trying to figure out.

Scientists think DNA from very old healthy people could offer clues to how they lived so long. And that could one day lead to medicines to help the rest of us stay disease-free longer.
By the time you reach, say, 105, "it's very hard to get there without some genetic advantages," says Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrics expert at Boston University.
Perls is helping find centenarians for the Archon Genomics X Prize competition. The X Prize Foundation, best known for a spaceflight competition, is offering $10 million in prize money to researchers who decipher the complete DNA code from 100 people older than 100. The contest will be judged on accuracy, completeness and the speed and cost of sequencing.
The contest is a relaunch of an older competition with a new focus on centenarians, and it's the second sequencing project involving the elderly to be announced this month.
The second project is in San Diego:
Earlier this month, Scripps Health of San Diego announced a different genome project involving the elderly. The Scripps Wellderly Study will receive the complete genomes of 1,000 people age 80 and older from a sequencing company.
A complete genome reveals not only genes but also other DNA that's responsible for regulating genes. It's "the full monty," showing DNA elements that are key for illness and health, says Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Wellderly Study.
Participants in that study have an average age of 87 and range up to 108, and they've never had diabetes, heart disease or cancer, or any neurological disease.
"Why are these people Teflon-coated?" Topol asked. "Why don't they get disease?"
The ability to turn out lots of complete genomes is "the new-new thing" in trying to find out, he said.
"There's been too much emphasis on disorders per se and not enough on the people who are exceptionally healthy," to learn from their genomes, Topol said. "Now we have the powerful tools to do that."
There are no promises, obviously, that we will learn the secrets of aging from these studies, but they almost certainly will move us forward a bit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Seven Billion Redux

Different media outlets have their own ways of hyping the seventh billion person. As noted previously, the Economist had a sober article, and the New York Times had a couple of Op-Eds. One of the more unique contributions is from theAtlantic.com. Their takeaway message is a simple one:
Meeting the basic needs of so many will meaning growing, shipping, and distributing more food while providing more clean water, health care, and shelter -- all without inflicting too much further damage on our environment.
But they follow that with 42 very different and powerful photographs showing the population in various places around the world. Take a look...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Building Momentum for 7 Billion

Even if no one knows for sure when we will (or did) hit 7 billion people, the United Nations has done an excellent job of getting the attention of journalists. The Economist from last Friday has a lengthy article discussing the challenges that the world faces with a larger population, noting in particular that countries in sub-Saharan Africa tend to have the highest levels of fertility in the world and will experience the most rapid growth as we move beyond seven billion. This is followed by an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Helen Epstein discussing various ways by which women in northern Ghana have been encouraged to have smaller families by, of all things, the preachers at evangelical Christian churches. This was followed the next day by another NY Times Op-Ed piece, this one by Joel Cohen, who makes an impassioned plea for taking very seriously the need to keep putting the brakes on both population growth and resource consumption. In a concluding paragraph that could have been penned in the 19th century by John Stuart Mill, Cohen writes:
Henceforth we need to measure our growth in prosperity: not by the sheer number of people who inhabit the earth, and not by flawed measurements like G.D.P., but by how well we satisfy basic human needs; by how well we foster dignity, creativity, community and cooperation; by how well we care for our biological and physical environment, our only home.
This is not a new thought, but with each new addition to the global population, it becomes that much more important. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Violence Isn't Dead, But It May Be Dying

History would suggest that violence has always been an unfortunate but integral part of human society. A book just out by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker suggests, however, that it is actually on the decline. The Associated Press recently interviewed Pinker and two other authors, Andrew Mack and Joshua Goldstein, who have written on the same topic.

In his book, Pinker writes: "The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."
And it runs counter to what the mass media is reporting and essentially what we feel in our guts.
Pinker and other experts say the reality is not painted in bloody anecdotes, but demonstrated in the black and white of spreadsheets and historical documents. They tell a story of a world moving away from violence.
In his new book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," Pinker makes the case that a smarter, more educated world is becoming more peaceful in several statistically significant ways. His findings are based on peer-reviewed studies published by other academics using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records:
• The number of people killed in battle — calculated per 100,000 population — has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved. Before there were organized countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60. Now battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.
• The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.
• There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now.
The key here is that not that absolute number of violent acts is necessarily going down, but that as the population has grown dramatically over the past two hundred years, violence has not kept up. Why not? At root the answer takes us back to the Enlightenment and the increase in literacy over the past two hundred years. This is all associated with an increase in democratic governments and a global interest in reducing violence everywhere. 
Pinker said looking at the statistics and how violent our past was and how it is less so now, "makes me appreciate things like democracy, the United Nations, like literacy."
Goldstein says there's a turn on a cliche that is apt: "We're actually going from the fire to the frying pan. And that's progress. It's not as bad as the fire."
He and Goldstein believe it's possible that an even greater drop in violence could occur in the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rising Life Expectancy Can Be Hard on Heirs to Thrones

When death rates were high (read: almost all of human history), an heir to the throne had a reasonable chance of becoming king/queen because the current holder of the title had a good shot at dying at a fairly young age. Things are different now--there are fewer monarchs and life expectancy is much, much higher than it used to be. Queen Elizabeth of the UK is 85 and shows no sign of dying and giving the throne to her son, Prince Charles, who is almost 63. The situation is even worse in Saudi Arabia, however, because that country follows the practice of agnatic seniority in its royal succession. In other words, the king's brothers are favored as successors instead of a king's sons. So it was that the successor to the throne in Saudi Arabia died yesterday at age 80, having waited all these years for his older half-brother, King Abdullah, to die before him. But King Abdullah is 87 and seems healthy even as he recovers from back surgery. Such are the miracles of modern medicine.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How Are Those State Laws Against Immigrants Working?

The news over the past few days has included at least two stories from the Associated Press suggesting that the momentum is not entirely forward for the states trying to legislate against undocumented immigrants. The first story comes out of Alabama, whose incredibly harsh laws have sent immigrants heading elsewhere. The result is the predictable one--farmers cannot find US citizens willing to harvest the crops. Well, duh, that's actually why the immigrants were there in the first place.

"I've had people calling me wanting to work," [potato farmer] Smith said. "I haven't turned any of them down, but they're not any good. It's hard work, they just don't work like the Hispanics with experience."
Alabama passed its law in June and it was immediately challenged by the Obama administration as it has been in other states. Unlike those states' measures, Alabama's law was left largely in place while challenges played out in court, frightening Hispanics and driving many of them away.
The agriculture industry suffered the most immediate impact. Farmers said they will have to downsize or let crops die on the vine. As the season's harvest winds down, many are worried about next year.
In south Georgia, Connie Horner has heard just about every reason unemployed Americans don't want to work on her blueberry farm. It's hot, the hours are long, the pay isn't enough and it's just plain hard.
"You can't find legal workers," Horner said. "Basically they last a day or two, literally."
Over the past two weeks, The Associated Press has reached out to the governor's office and other officials to provide the names of Alabama residents who have taken immigrant jobs. Either they were not made available, or didn't want to speak publicly.
The second story comes out of Arizona, where a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Arizona governor Jan Brewer against the federal government claiming that it had abdicated its duty to control the US-Mexico border.
The dismissal by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton comes in a counter-lawsuit filed by Brewer as part of the Justice Department's challenge to Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law.
The Republican governor was seeking a court order that would require the federal government to take extra steps, such as more border fencing, to protect Arizona until the border is controlled.
Bolton said Brewer's claim that Washington has failed to protect Arizona from an "invasion" of illegal immigrants was a political question that isn't appropriate for the court to decide.
The DOJ sued the state of Arizona last year in a bid to invalidate Arizona's immigration enforcement law. Bolton put key parts of the law on hold, such as a provision requiring police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if officers had "reasonable suspicion" the person was in the country illegally.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A New Twist on Migration and Health


There has long been the belief that migrants tend to be a bit healthier than than those who do not migrate. If that were the end of the story, then we would expect that the people left behind might simply be out of luck in terms of health. However, Greg Weeks has recently pointed out a paper just published suggesting that those who leave a country like Ecuador to find a better job elsewhere may wind up improving the health of those left behind because of the way in which their remittances are spent. Here I copy for you the posting from Two Weeks Notice:


Juan Ponce, Iliana OliviĆ©, and Mercedes Onofa, "The Role of International Remittances in Health Outcomes in Ecuador: Prevention and Response to Shocks." International Migration Review 45, 3 (Fall 2011): 727-745.
Abstract:
This article evaluates the impact of remittances on health outcomes in Ecuador using an instrumental-variables approach. Although we do not find significant impacts on long-term child health variables, we find that remittances do have an impact on health expenditures, and on some preventive issues such as de-worming and vaccination. In addition, we find significant effects of remittances on medicine expenditures when illness occurs. In this regard, remittances are used for both preventive and emergency situations. Interestingly, we also find a significant and positive effect of remittances on health knowledge.
There is a lot of debate about how remittances are used, and in particular whether they are used primarily for consumption versus starting new businesses or other productive strategies. This article's conclusion is heartening since it suggests that there are positive non-economic outcomes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Housing the Urban Poor in China

Last year UN-Habitat lauded China for reducing the percentage of its urban population living in slums from 37 to 28 in the previous ten years. This week's Economist takes the story further, suggesting that China is using a program of housing the poor in government-subsidized housing as a way of creating not only better housing in its cities, but also jobs.
By unofficial estimates, the average price of a flat in the capital has risen between five and ten-fold in the past decade. So Li Keqiang, who is likely to become China’s next prime minister, is trying to show his mettle by sorting out the problem. Under his direction, local governments have embarked on a campaign to build unprecedented quantities of social housing for the urban poor. Officials have been claiming a spectacular success, but persuading citizens to share their joy is proving another matter.The central government is not just trying to woo the poor. It also sees the project as a way of pepping up the economy at a time of global gloom. This year’s target represents a 70% increase in the construction of social housing compared with 2010 (see chart). In March the government announced a goal of completing 36m units by 2015. If three people on average live in one flat, this would be the equivalent of building new housing for the combined populations of Britain and Poland.
There are concerns, however. For one thing, the government is paying less than 25 percent of the construction costs, so there is skepticism that projects will be completed.
Critics also point out that the social-housing programme will mostly benefit urban residents, whose household-registration certificates, or hukou, identify them as city residents. Migrants from the countryside usually find it difficult to get hold of such certificates, even if they have lived in a city for many years. Most local governments prefer not to hand them out, because to do so would commit them to providing the holder with the full range of welfare benefits.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Global Progress Against Malaria

BBC News today covers a new report just published by the World Health Organization (WHO) showing that progress is being made in lowering the global death toll from malaria.

There has been a fall of just over 20% in the number of deaths from malaria worldwide in the past decade, the World Health Organization says.
In 2000, WHO estimated that 1,000,000 people died from malaria, but by 2009 it is estimated that this number dropped below 800,000. This is still high, of course, and Africa continues to be disproportionately affected, but it is moving in the right direction.
A new report said that one-third of the 108 countries where malaria was endemic were on course to eradicate the disease within 10 years.
Experts said if targets continued to be met, a further three million lives could be saved by 2015.
It has been eradicated from three countries since 2007 - Morocco, Turkmenistan and Armenia.
The Roll Back Malaria Partnership aims to eliminate malaria in another eight to 10 countries by the end of 2015, including the entire WHO European Region.
Note that malaria is not caused by just one parasite, so this complicates the fight against the disease.
There are four types of human malaria:
  • Plasmodium falciparum
  • Plasmodium vivax
  • Plasmodium malariae
  • Plasmodium ovale.
Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax are the most common.Plasmodium falciparum is the most deadly [and is most common in Africa, which is why death rates are so high there]In recent years, some human cases of malaria have also occurred withPlasmodium knowlesi – a monkey malaria that occurs in certain forested areas of South-East Asia.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Muddling Toward Seven Billion

The press is starting to generate buzz surrounding the birth of the person who will represent the seventh billion person alive at the same time on the planet. MSNBC, for example, picked up on the Associated Press story today, building on press releases that started coming out today from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This is, of course, serious stuff and the seventh billion provides a good opportunity to contemplate where the world is demographically:

In Western Europe, Japan and Russia, it will be an ironic milestone amid worries about low birthrates and aging populations. In China and India, the two most populous nations, it's an occasion to reassess policies that have already slowed once-rapid growth.
But in Burundi, Uganda and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the demographic news is mostly sobering as the region staggers under the double burden of the world's highest birthrates and deepest poverty. The regional population of nearly 900 million could reach 2 billion in 40 years at current rates, accounting for about half of the projected global population growth over that span.
"Most of that growth will be in Africa's cities, and in those cities it will almost all be in slums where living conditions are horrible," said John Bongaarts of the Population Council, a New York-based research organization.The executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, former Nigerian health minister Babatunde Osotimehin, describes the 7 billion milestone as a call to action — especially in the realm of enabling adolescent girls to stay in school and empowering women to control the number of children they have.
"It's an opportunity to bring the issues of population, women's rights and family planning back to center stage," he said in an interview. "There are 215 million women worldwide who need family planning and don't get it. If we can change that, and these women can take charge of their lives, we'll have a better world."


The UN Population Fund has somewhat arbitrarily set 31 October as the day when the milestone will be reached. In truth, we can only approximate the world's population size with models, and there are two counters out there right now at reputable websites and they don't actually agree on the number of people. The US Census Bureau's world population clock is a little "slower" than the one at the UN-sponsored website at 7 Billion People/ 7 Billion Actions. Check them out and keep track as we move toward seven billion...are we there yet?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Latest Baby Bust

The Pew Research Center recently published a report summarizing birth data for the United States, showing that the number of births has declined steadily since the birth boom of 2007. These are the same data that I commented on a couple of months ago, but researchers at Pew have nicely repackaged them. The story is clear--the housing bubble brought a baby boom, and the housing bust and recession has done the opposite for births. NPR interviewed Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, and his comments are very much in line with my own thoughts.  


However, I will say that the graph on the Pew Research Center website related to this story is a little misleading, since the vertical axis is severely truncated. We are looking at a lot of variability around an average of more than 4 million births per year. If the axis went all the down to zero, the graph would seem far less dramatic. Furthermore, if you just chop out the boom years from 2003 through 2007, the 4.01 million births in 2009 simply continues the slow downward trend from 2002, when there were 4.02 million births. The boom brought about the building of more houses than the economy could afford, and we have to hope that it did not bring about the births of more children than were wanted.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More Good Reasons to Become Vegetarian

My wife and I are vegetarian for animal rights reasons, but I have noted before that if people ate less meat, the planet would generally be better off. A new study about to be published in Nature makes the important point that vegetarianism, or at least less meat-eating, may be the way by which we will figure out how to feed the growing population.

A newly published blueprint for doubling the global food supply includes a key suggestion about how everyone can contribute to this increasingly pressing ambition: eat less meat.
An international team of researchers has developed solutions to respond to what it calls one the greatest challenges of the 21st century — boosting food production while slashing the environmental impact of agriculture.
McGill University's Navin Ramankutty, one of the team leaders on the paper, said the research is the first of its kind to quantify both food production and ecological consequences in the same analysis.
He added that it's also the first study to examine these factors while considering the specific environmental characteristics of different regions of the planet.
Ramankutty said limiting meat consumption is one of several ways to increase food production.
He estimates that simply dedicating prime cropland to growing food for humans — rather than growing biofuels or feed for animals — could spike the global output by nearly 50 per cent.
The study says that three-quarters of the world's agricultural land is devoted to raising livestock, either for grazing or for growing feed.
Ramankutty added that beef is the most resource-intensive animal product of them all.
The research also calls for improved crop management to increase yields; an end to deforestation to make way for farmland; and a cutback on food waste, which amounts for as much as half of the planetary food production.
In truth, none of these ideas is really new, but it is important to keep getting the message out there. The more mud we throw on the wall, the more likely it is that some will stick.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Little Ice Age Was Worse Than We Thought

Back in 2000, Brian Fagan, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote a book titled "The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850." Among his findings were that the cold period in Europe unleashed all kinds of problems and that the receding of the Little Ice Age helped to usher in European population growth and the Industrial Revolution. In what certainly seems like a case of "what passes for originality is often just lack of research" a group of researchers this week published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences making exactly those same points--climate change created havoc for Europe. The website Arstechnica provided a nice summary of the main points:
Economic chaos, famine, disease, and war may all be attributed to climate change, according to a recent study. Through advances in paleoclimatology, researchers used temperature data and climate-driven economic variables to simulate the climate that prevailed during golden and dark ages in Europe and the Northern Hemisphere from 1500-1800 AD. In doing so, they discovered a set of casual linkages between climate change and human crisis. They noted that social disturbance, societal collapse and population collapse often coincided with significant climate change in America, the Middle East, China, and many other countries in preindustrial times, suggesting that climate change was the ultimate cause of human crisis in many preindustrial societies.In the 18th century, the mild climate improved matters considerably, leading to the speedy recovery of both Europe’s economy and population.
The alternation between periods of harmony and crisis, golden ages and dark ages, closely followed variations in the food supply per capita. Consequently, grain price could be used as an indicator of crisis in preindustrial Europe. Although grain price is dictated by agricultural production and population size, analysis by the researchers shows that temperature change was the real cause behind the grain price, since agricultural production was climate-dependent at the time.
The history of golden and dark ages in Europe is often attributed to sociopolitical factors, which fails to explain the co-occurrence of long-term crises in different countries, at different stages of development, and across different climate zones. Instead, the authors make a compelling case that climate change is the culprit, thanks to a climate-driven economic downturn due to a decreasing food supply. Where there is a shrinking food supply, chaos and misery follow.

To be fair, the authors provide a very extensive statistical analysis of data in their paper and the analysis is very useful. Still, it seems a shame not to have given a nod to Professor Fagan.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Science is Good for Health--Vitamin E Not So Much

Many people, including me, routinely take a variety of supplemental pills on the belief (or shall we say the hope) that they will improve our health, or at the worst do no harm. New research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that with respect to Vitamin E, this may be a dangerous assumption, at least for men.

There is more evidence that taking vitamin E pills can be risky. A study that followed up on men who took high doses of the vitamin for about five years found they had a slightly increased risk of prostate cancer — even after they quit taking the pills.
Doctors say it's another sign that people should be careful about using vitamins and other supplements.
"People tend to think of vitamins as innocuous substances, almost like chicken soup — take a little and it can't hurt," said lead author Dr. Eric Klein of the Cleveland Clinic. The study shows that is not true.
"If you have normal levels, the vitamin is probably of no benefit, and if you take too much, you can be harmed," Klein said.
Men randomly assigned to take a 400-unit capsule of vitamin E every day for about five years were 17 percent more likely to get prostate cancer than those given dummy pills. That dose, commonly found in over-the-counter supplements, is almost 20 times higher than the recommended adult amount, which is about 23 units daily.
So, why were people taking Vitamin E? Well, for the reason that it had been promoted as being beneficial for your health, even though there was no scientific evidence to support that claim.
Vitamin E supplements have long been promoted for disease prevention, but scientific research has disproven many claims and suggested they might increase risks for some conditions, including heart failure.
Dr. Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society noted that the study echoes previous thinking on beta-carotene, which once was thought to protect against cancer but more recently has been linked with increased risks for lung cancer, especially in smokers.
"There should be a global warning that ... excessive use of vitamins has not been proven to be beneficial and may be the opposite," Brawley said.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Peek Inside the Anti-Immigrant Movement in the South

The LA Times has been publishing a series of articles on the flow of Latino immigrants into the southern states of the US. This new migration stream has caused a backlash most famously in Alabama, but the LA Times provides insight into Alabama's next door neighbor, Mississippi. The story reveals the impact that one highly motivated person can have--in this case a white conservative Republican physician, Rodney Hunt.
Latinos have moved to the South in growing numbers over the last decade, and their presence has been accompanied by growing anger and resentment aimed at illegal immigrants. If Hunt gets his way, Mississippi will become the latest Southern state to pass a law aimed at driving illegal immigrants out — establishing the Deep South as the U.S. region with the most-stringent restrictions on illegal immigrants.
In Mississippi, there's a struggle that goes beyond immigration. Latinos, regardless of legal status, are part of a grand contest to define the state's future.
Blacks, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, make up 37% of Mississippi's population, the highest percentage of any state. Latinos, if they vote Democratic, could one day tip the balance of power in a state where whites — that is, white Republicans — have the upper hand.When Hunt describes this dynamic, it is not in racial terms — because, he says, these are not the terms he thinks in. Though he is a white Mississippian raised in the '60s, he says, "I changed, along with most of the people in my generation. We try to accept people as they are, and not by the color of their skin."
Not everyone buys the idea that this has nothing to do with racism, however.
Mississippi liberals suspect the anxiety is fueled by old-school bigotry. "Remnants of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Bull Connor" is the blunt assessment of Democratic Rep. Jim Evans, an African American and president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the state's main pro-immigrant group.
Regardless of the motive, the result is going to be the same as in Alabama--fear among Latino immigrants and empty fields where crops await workers. None of this is likely to help the state's economy, but the battle seems to be about politics, not economics.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Is It Toodle Loo to Tuvalu?

Global climate change may have found a victim in the tiny South Pacific islands that comprise the country of Tuvalu, home for the moment to about 11,000 people. According to The Economist the island has essentially run out of fresh water through a combination of less rain and higher sea levels.

Tuvalu has declared a state of emergency after a fresh water shortage forced it to shutter its schools and hospitals and begin water rationing across the country. Observers blame the shortage on the changing weather patterns and rising sea levels associated with climate change—and warn they could be a sign of things to come for the whole region.
Freshwater supplies had already been running dangerously low for the 11,000 people who live on Tuvalu. The drought caused by nearly a year of sparse rainfall has been made worse rising sea levels, which have contaminated the low-lying country’s underground aquifers with salt water.In fact there is probably no country is closer to the firing line in the war against global climate change than Tuvalu—which is not to say that it stands much chance of firing back. As an archipelago whose highest elevation is a meagre 4.5 metres, Tuvalu feels it when the sea level climbs by an average of 5.77mm annually. The whole country, a cluster of white sandy beaches as far as can be from the rest of the planet, is expected to disappear entirely within the next 50 years. That fate portends ominously not just for Tuvalu, but also for every other low-lying coastal area, from the Maldives to Manhattan.
The population of Tuvalu, largely of Polynesian origin, is generally poor, with an income of scarcely more than $400 per year per person, according to data from the Population Reference Bureau. Consistent with a low-income population, it has a high birth rate (3.7 children per woman) and a life expectancy of only 64, which is several years below the world average. The island would already be severely over-populated were it not for the fact that out-migration has been keeping a damper on population increase. Those migrants seem to show up especially in New Zealand and Australia and remittances home probably keep the relatively limited Tuvalu economy going. However, The Economist reports that Australia is not yet open to the idea of accepting all migrants from the islands.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

California Passes Its Version of the Dream Act

Alabama may be doing its darnedest to chase undocumented immigrants out of the state--even more so than Arizona--but that is not true for California (nor for Texas or New Mexico). California's Governor Brown has signed into law its version of the Dream Act--meaning that children who arrived with their undocumented immigrant parents (and thus were not born in the United States) but who went to school in California, can "dream" of being helped by the state to get a higher education.
California Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday signed a bill giving illegal immigrant college students access to state-funded financial aid, the second half of two-part legislation known as the "Dream Act."Brown in July fulfilled a campaign promise by signing into law a companion bill to allow illegal immigrants to receive privately-funded college scholarships. Together the two bills have been dubbed the "California Dream Act."Only two other states, Texas and New Mexico, allow illegal immigrants to qualify for state financial aid for college, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking," Brown said in a written statement issued by his office.
"The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us," he said.

Despite the claims of opponents about the cost to the state of such legislation, the numbers involved actually are pretty small.
For the 2007-2008 academic year, the University of California reports that less than three-tenths of one percent of the system's 220,000 students were immigrants who qualified for in-state tuition.
More than 68 percent of those 1,941 students were U.S. citizens or "documented" immigrants, according to the University of California.
At the state universities, the new law would affect 3,633 students, or less than one percent of the 440,000 students enrolled in the current school year.
Of the nearly 2.9 million community college enrollees, 34,057 would be affected.
Proponents, of course, speak to the cost to the state economy of NOT educating the best and brightest, no matter where their parents may have come from or how they got here. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How Bad Was the Housing Bust?

The housing crisis that led to the Great Recession is now memorialized by the results of the 2010 census that were released today, but the spin put on those results is very different depending upon whether you are reading the Census Bureau's report, or reading the headline news. The Census Bureau's headline was: "2010 Census Shows Second Highest Homeownership Rate on Record Despite Largest Decrease since 1940;" whereas the Associated Press headline left out the "good" news and focused only on the bad: "Census: Housing bust worst since Great Depression." The Census Bureau summarized the data as showing that:
[T]he homeownership rate is the second highest on record, behind only 2000, since homeownership data collection began in 1890. However, the rate decreased by 1.1 percentage points to 65.1 percent between 2000 and 2010. The decrease is the largest since the period from 1930 to 1940.
The caveat here, however, is that census provides a portrait of what's happening only every 10 years. In between 2000 and 2010, the homeownership rate is estimated to have hit 70 percent, and the change from that level is what has been so devastating. Still, that was based on unsustainable mortgage lending policies and unsustainable housing prices, and as those aspects of the housing market get back under control, the future may not be totally bleak:
Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine who is now analyst for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, believes Americans aren't completely giving up on homeownership. He noted millions of young adults are delaying home-buying while they temporarily double-up with their parents, representing pent-up demand for houses that will surface once the job market begins to recover.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Will China Feed Itself? Not This Year

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has been worrying for a long time about the ability of China to feed itself. A few months ago, I noted that Chinese officials were pushing back on that idea. However, a report surfaced today that, despite a bumper corn crop this year, China will still be importing corn this year.


China is harvesting a record-large corn crop, but it's also likely to be in the market to import 5 million to 10 million metric tons of corn by the end of 2012, according to the U.S. Grains Council.
That projection for the next 15 months compares with USDA's estimate that China will import 2 million metric tons of corn in the current marketing year. USDA estimated China's imports in each of the past two years at 1.3 million metric tons, or more than 51 million bushels.
At the same time, it is clear that China has the potential to increase output by improving the "means of production:"
Don Hutchens, executive director of the Nebraska Corn Board, noted that 60% to 80% of China's corn is harvested by hand.
There is also evidence that production per acre has been stagnant for the past several years, partly because Chinese farmers continue to use older hybrid seeds. Thus, there seems to be the possibility that corn production could increase in China, but so far it is lagging behind demand.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Just Say Yes to Condoms

The New York Times reports the very disturbing finding, just published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, that women in Africa using injectable hormones (Depo-Provera or its generic equivalent) as a contraceptive are nearly twice as likely to become infected with HIV as are women using no method of contraception. This is scary stuff because if women stop using contraceptives out of fear that they will get HIV then they increase their risk of pregnancy, which generates a host of personal and societal consequences.
The findings potentially present an alarming quandary for women in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of them suffer injuries, bleeding, infections and even death in childbirth from unintended pregnancies. Finding affordable and convenient contraceptives is a pressing goal for international health authorities.Injectable hormones are very popular. About 12 million women between the ages of 15 and 49 in sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 6 percent of all women in that age group, use them. In the United States, it is 1.2 million, or 3 percent of women using contraception. While the study involved only African women, scientists said biological effects would probably be the same for all women. But they emphasized that concern was greatest in Africa because the risk of H.I.V. transmission from heterosexual sex was so much higher there than elsewhere.The study, led by researchers at the University of Washington and published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, involved 3,800 couples in Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In each couple, either the man or the woman was already infected with H.I.V. Researchers followed most couples for two years, had them report their contraception methods, and tracked whether the uninfected partner contracted H.I.V. from the infected partner, said Dr. Jared Baeten, an author and an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist.
The research analysis controlled for the use of condoms, which are still not widely accepted in eastern and southern Africa. At the end of the day, a dramatic increase in condom use is probably the only thing that can simultaneously reduce the spread of HIV and lower the birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. If only...

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Very Ugly Side of Increased Deportations in the US

The significant increase in border deportations under the Obama administration has had a host of unintended, and generally very ugly, side-effects along the US-Mexico border, as outlined by Damien Cave in a lengthy article in the New York Times.

Migrant shelters along the Mexican border are filled not with newcomers looking for a better life, but with seasoned crossers: older men and women, often deportees, braving ever-greater risks to get back to their families in the United States — the country they consider home.
They present an enormous challenge to American policy makers, because they continue to head north despite obstacles more severe than at any time in recent history. It is not just that the American economy has little to offer; the border itself is far more threatening. On one side, fences have grown and American agents have multiplied; on the other, criminals haunt the journey at every turn.
President Obama has already deported around 1.1 million immigrants — more than any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower — and officials say the numbers will not decline. But at a time when the dynamics of immigration are changing, experts and advocates on all sides are increasingly asking if the approach, which has defined immigration policy since 9/11, still makes sense.
New research from the University of California, San Diego, shows that crime is now the top concern for Mexicans thinking of heading north. As fear keeps many migrants home, many experienced border guides, or coyotes, have given up illegal migration for other jobs.
In Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, one well-known coyote is now selling tires. In Nogales, the largest Mexican city bordering Arizona, power has shifted to tattooed young men with expensive binoculars along the border fence, while here in Agua Prieta — where Mexican officials say traffic is one-thirthieth of what it once was — the only way to get across is to deal with gangs that sometimes push migrants to carry drugs.
It is even worse in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Tex. Just standing at the border fence brings out drug cartel enforcers demanding $300 for the right to pass. Migrants and the organizations that assist them say cartel lieutenants roam the shelters, looking for deportees willing to work as lookouts, earning $400 a week until they have enough to pay for passage north.
To be sure, the number of undocumented immigrants appears to have dropped considerably over the past year or so, but given the harsh economic situation in the US, not to mention harsh laws against the immigrants passed by several states, it is very difficult to know which factors are most important. In the absence of a broader immigration reform, however, these ad hoc measures seem only to be creating a new culture of violence and victimization.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Don't Expect Ice in Your Water

It has been apparent for some time now that one of the casualties of global climate change has been the ice shelf in the Arctic. New research by Canadian geographers has underscored the trend:

Two ice shelves that existed before Canada was settled by Europeans diminished significantly this summer, one nearly disappearing altogether, Canadian scientists say in new research.
The loss is important as a marker of global warming, returning the Canadian Arctic to conditions that date back thousands of years, scientists say. Floating icebergs that have broken free as a result pose a risk to offshore oil facilities and potentially to shipping lanes. The breaking apart of the ice shelves also reduces the environment that supports microbial life and changes the look of Canada's coastline.
Luke Copland is an associate professor in the geography department at the University of Ottawa who co-authored the research. He said the Serson Ice Shelf shrank from 79.15 square miles (205 square kilometers) to two remnant sections three years ago, and was further diminished this past summer.
"Recent (ice shelf) loss has been very rapid, and goes hand-in-hand with the rapid sea ice decline we have seen in this decade and the increasing warmth and extensive melt in the Arctic regions," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, remarking on the research.
Scambos said the loss of the Arctic shelves is significant because they are old and their rapid loss underscores the severity of the warming trend scientists see now relative to past fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period or the warmer times in the pre-Current Era (B.C.).
As the Economist noted last week, the warming of the Arctic region is taking place much more rapidly than scientific models had projected, suggesting that populations downstream, so to speak, are going to have to adjust and adapt at a more rapid pace than previously expected.