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.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Population and Politics

Just as the Population Association of America meetings were getting underway here in San Diego three weeks ago, the journal Population Studies put out a special issue devoted to a long view of population, and I commented on this at the time. The introduction was open access and I indicated that I would check the other articles that were behind a subscription to see if there were key elements in any of them. While I was traveling this past week, I did have a chance to read Michael Teitelbaum's paper on "Political demography: Powerful trends under-attended by demographic science." Teitelbaum (a demographer) and his collaborator, the late Myron Weiner (a political scientist), helped to define political demography, with substantial help from Jack Goldstone, even if the subject remains under-attended. The point that Teitelbaum is making in his paper is the one that my son, Greg (a political scientist), and I (a demographer) have also made in our book Irresistible Forces--demographers tend to stay clear of politics, and political planners tend to either ignore or distort the interpretation of demographic trends.

The problem with ignoring population trends is that such ignorance undermines our ability to understand and thus effectively cope with change taking place all over the globe. Almost all of the global hot spots--the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia--are that way because of population growth translating into shifting numbers of people at each age. Societies try to cope, but many are unable to do so and, depending upon the cultural attributes of each society and its constituent populations (e.g., population composition) the results can be anywhere from bad to disastrous. We have to recognize these facts, however, in order to intelligently deal with them. We also have to be aware of the direct and indirect societal (e.g., political) consequences of policies aimed at influencing mortality, fertility, and migration. Governments most noticeably try to influence in- and out-migration, and most notoriously try to influence fertility, but the control of mortality also has consequences that are almost always unattended. 

We tend not to think of attempts to lower mortality as "demographic engineering," but of course that is what is going one, even though everyone one of us approves of it. I thought of this today as I read the "annual report" of Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does amazing work helping to lower death rates especially among children and their mothers. At the same time, however, we need to attend to the fact that more children surviving creates problems for the family, community, and society. Everybody needs more resources, including resources to keep families small, so that local economic/environmental resources are not exhausted--the problem that then invites violent solutions. These are the issues that demographers and political scientists alike seem unwilling to tackle, and until we do, we will be missing important opportunities to make this world a better and safer place.

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