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

Friday, February 23, 2018

Neanderthals Are Back in the News!

I don't think most of us give much thought to our very distant relatives--the Neanderthals. But they are back in the news because scientists have discovered ancient art on the walls of caves in Spain that seems to have been put there before Homo sapiens ever arrived in Europe. BBC News has a summary of the paper just published in Science.
Contrary to the traditional view of them as brutes, it turns out that Neanderthals were artists. A study in Science journal suggests they made cave drawings in Spain that pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years. They also appear to have used painted sea shells as jewellery.
Art was previously thought to be a behaviour unique to our species (Homo sapiens) and far beyond our evolutionary cousins. The cave paintings include stencilled impressions of Neanderthal hands, geometric patterns and red circles. They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain.
These discoveries bring back to light the fact that we Homo sapiens used to share the planet with other human species, even if we prefer not to think about our roots. One person who has been thinking about these things is Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian who has written a best-selling book titled "Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind." I just finished reading it and while I'm not sure that I agree with everything he says (more on that in subsequent blog posts...), he writes well and obviously knows a lot. Here's his quick summary of where we fit into history (from pages 5 and 6):
Homo sapiens [modern humans] belong to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history's most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly, without parents, but that's just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother. 
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is 'an animal belonging to the genus Homo', and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.
He then points out that humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago and that our human siblings include Homo rudolfensis (East Africa), Homo erectus (East Asia), Homo neanderthensis [--"man from the Neander Valley" (in Germany)]--(Europe and Western Asia), and a few others. However, for reasons about which we can only speculate, for the past 10,000 years Homo sapiens have been the only humans on the planet--still around so that we can enjoy the art of the Neanderthals.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

American and French Women are Delaying Births

A few days ago I commented on the finding that American women were having fewer children than they said they wanted. The ink was scarcely dry on that post (so to speak...) when Pew Research reported that their analysis showed that American women were, in fact, just delaying births.
Not only are women more likely to be mothers than in the past, but they are having more children. Overall, women have 2.07 children during their lives on average – up from 1.86 in 2006, the lowest number on record. And among those who are mothers, family size has also ticked up. In 2016, mothers at the end of their childbearing years had had about 2.42 children, compared with a low of 2.31 in 2008.
The recent rise in motherhood and fertility might seem to run counter to the notion that the U.S. is experiencing a post-recession “Baby Bust.” However, each trend is based on a different type of measurement. The analysis here is based on a cumulative measure of lifetime fertility, the number of births a woman has ever had; meantime, reports of declining U.S. fertility are based on annual rates, which capture fertility at one point in time.
The same thing seems to be happening in France, according to this week's Economist. As I've noted before, France's pronatalist policies have enabled the country to avoid the very low fertility levels of several of its European neighbors. The birth rate has dipped a little of late in France, but it may be another case of delaying babies, not necessarily of avoiding them altogether.
It could yet be that, in the coming years, older motherhood in France will make up for the recent fall. As Gilles Pison, a French demographer, points out, this is what happened after a previous child-bearing dip in the 1990s. Despite the sharp recent drop, the French remain among the more enthusiastic procreators in Europe. If the country can revive this breeding instinct, France will be on course, post-Brexit, to overtake Germany as the most populous country in the European Union by the mid-2050s—and for the first time since Bismarck.
Will that thought create a competitive spirit amongst German women? We'll have to wait and see...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Professor Bob McCaa to be Honored at Population Meetings

Robert (Bob) McCaa is Research Professor at the University of Minnesota and has made extremely important contributions to demographic research over the years. Those contributions are being recognized this year by his selection as Laureate 2018 of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) and he will be honored at this year's annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA) in Denver in April. Here are some excerpts from his nomination letter to remind you of his accomplishments:
From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, McCaa’s work focused mainly on Latin American historical demography. He produced classic articles on marriage and fertility in 18th and 19th century Chile and Mexico, the role of smallpox in the demographic catastrophe of the 16th century, paleodemography, the demographic impact of the Mexican Revolution, and the household composition of the Nahua (Aztec) of ancient Mexico.
You will find references to this line of research in several places in my text, of course. And then:
In the mid-1990s, McCaa had an idea that shifted the trajectory of his career and profoundly affected the field of population studies. He had been working on the IPUMS project, which was then a harmonized series of microdata samples from nine U.S. decennial censuses. With harmonized codes, consistent record layouts, and integrated documentation, IPUMS greatly simplified use of the microdata for analyzing long-run demographic change. 
McCaa had a radical idea: IPUMS should be expanded to cover international censuses...Eventually McCaa transformed the terrain of international census microdata research by persuading over 100 statistical offices to allow their census microdata to be disseminated by a third party. Remarkably, all these countries agreed to a single standard license with no special conditions for access beyond the standard approval process conducted by IPUMS. The project, which has been continuously supported by both NSF and NICHD since 1999, is now the largest microdata archive in the world. IPUMS-International disseminates data from 303 censuses of 83 countries, with a combined total of 631 million records. By 2018, IPUMS expects to be distributing microdata on over a billion individuals residing in 100 different countries.
I am one of the thousands of people whose research has benefitted from this amazing database. If you aren't familiar with it, there's no time like now to explore the IPUMS International resources. Thanks, Bob! 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Is the Youth Bulge a Huge Threat?

Thanks to my son, Greg Weeks, for linking me to a recent political blog on "Getting the Youth Bulge Wrong." The blog site is called "Political Violence @ a Glance" and is hosted by two political science professors, although the author of this particular post, Aaron Stanley, is a program assistant at the Carnegie Corporation in New York. In short, he argues vociferously against the idea that the youth bulge in Africa is the cause of violence in that region of the world. Who is he arguing with? It turns out that the source of his angst on this issue is a 1986 report from the Office of Global Issues at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that was partially declassified, albeit heavily redacted, in 2011. In particular, the references are redacted, so we do not know where the CIA was getting its information. No matter, Aaron Stanley is hopping mad!
Africa’s population is growing and quickly. Even those who are generally unaware of happenings on the continent, will be alert to the fact that half of the world’s population growth is projected to be in Africa by 2050. This strikes fear into all but an optimistic few.
The fear comes from an assumed correlation between the size of the youth population and insecurity popularized by the “youth bulge” hypothesis. The youth bulge is defined as “20 percent or more of the population in the 15 to 24 age group.” As a result, there has been no shortage of experts who have drawn on this hypothesis to opine on the potential of Africa’s youth for violence. There are two major problems with this. First, most researchers and commentators use aggregate numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa, which is misleading and largely inaccurate. Second, the data show that almost every country in Sub-Saharan Africa has consistently maintained a population of 15-24-year-olds well over the youth bulge’s 20 percent threshold. A deeper inspection of the data eliminates a correlation between the percentage of youth in African nations and violence.
Let's get real here. Yes, the population projections by the UN Population Division and others do suggest that sub-Saharan Africa will be contributing the greatest number of new people to the world's population over the next few decades, as I have noted before. This generates a concern about the resources available to meet the needs of these people, but that doesn't necessarily "strike fear into all but an optimistic few." Indeed, the 1986 CIA report does not purport to show that a youth bulge automatically leads to violence, even though that is what Mr. Stanley seems to think it says.

Importantly, demographers do NOT agree on the above definition of the youth bulge. Indeed, here is what Debbie Fugate and I wrote in the introduction to our edited volume on "The Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity:"
As you will see in this book, authors have varying ideas of exactly what constitutes a youth bulge, and there is no single definition that is agreed to by everyone. What can be agreed upon, however, are the following propositions:
1) a society with a young population is very different in a vast array of dimensions than an older population;
2) a long-term increase in the size of the youth population, with each cohort being larger than the previous one, is one of the biggest challenges that any society will ever face--how a society responds to this challenge will shape the future in either a positive or negative direction. It is almost impossible for any society to be unscathed by such a change; and
3) a genuine one-time bulge, in which young adults are a higher percentage of either the younger or older populations, is often known as the “demographic dividend,” and this too can be used by society for its own good, or ignored—in which case it represents a wasted opportunity at best, or a real problem at worst.
We then go on to discuss the crucial difference between a youthful population and a youth bulge in terms of potential societal and policy consequences. It is unfortunate that Mr. Stanley didn't bother to track down our book, especially since Dr. Fugate has worked for the U.S. government for the last decade so we can rest assured that the government has good intellectual resources at its disposal.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

More Guns Equals More Deaths

I am very sad to once again be blogging about gun violence. I've done so several times over the years, most recently after the Las Vegas shooting. Social scientists keep coming up with the same analysis time and again--the more people there are with guns, the higher will be the death rate from guns. Thanks to RubĂ©n Rumbaut for pointing me to an article in today's NYTimes drawing similar conclusions in the aftermath of yesterday's horrific school shootings in south Florida. 
The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.
Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama.
Worldwide, Mr. Lankford found, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when he excluded the United States, indicating that it could not be explained by some other factor particular to his home country. And it held when he controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence.
Today it seemed to me that politicians wanted to talk more about mental health issues than about guns.
A 2015 study estimated that only 4 percent of American gun deaths could be attributed to mental health issues. And Mr. Lankford, in an email, said countries with high suicide rates tended to have low rates of mass shootings — the opposite of what you would expect if mental health problems correlated with mass shootings.
Republicans politicians, in particular, seem genuinely unwilling to acknowledge the true reason behind these mass shootings. If American society could limit access to guns, we would limit the tragic, unnecessary deaths that are vastly more commonplace than they should be. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bill and Melinda Gates are Becoming Demographers

Bill and Melinda Gates have been doing intensive and extensive philanthropic work for nearly two decades. The initial thrust of the Gates Foundation work was toward children's health. But over time they came to the realization that as ever greater fractions of children stay alive, the demand for ways of limiting family size to what people desire grows because people realize that too many children can exhaust a family's resources. In sum, Bill and Melinda Gates came to appreciate the basic elements of the demographic transition, and they discuss that very explicitly in their annual newsletter, which came out this week and is in the format of their answers to ten tough questions they get asked. Tough Question #5 is "Does Saving Kids' Lives Lead to Overpopulation?"
Melinda: We asked ourselves the same question at first. Hans Rosling, the brilliant and inspiring public health advocate who died last year, was great at answering it [One of my very first blog posts back in 2010 was about his famous Ted Talk]. I wrote about the issue at length in our 2014 letter [and I blogged about that at the time]. But it bears repeating, because it is so counterintuitive. When more children live past the age of 5, and when mothers can decide if and when to have children, population sizes don’t go up. They go down. Parents have fewer children when they’re confident those children will survive into adulthood. Big families are in some ways an insurance policy against the tragic likelihood of losing a son or a daughter.
Now, to be clear, population size almost always DOES go up as the death rate goes down, because historically it has taken a while for people to realize that low death rates are here to stay, plus they need to have access to birth control. At the same time, if people trust the work of the Gates Foundation and have greater faith than in the past that death rates will be low and reproductive health care needs will be met, the gap between low death rates and low fertility will be lower and the population size impact will be less.
Bill: There’s another benefit to the pattern Melinda describes—first more children survive, then families decide to have fewer children—which is that it can lead to a burst of economic growth that economists call “the demographic dividend.” Here’s how it works.
When more children live, you get one generation that’s relatively big. Then, when families decide to have fewer children, the next generation is much smaller. Eventually, a country ends up with relatively more people in the labor force producing economically—and relatively fewer dependents (very old or very young people). That’s a recipe for rapid economic development, especially if countries take advantage of it by investing in health and education.
I commented very recently about the demographic dividend, and I am pleased to see that Bill Gates is thinking along these lines. Indeed, I would not want any of my comments to be viewed as negative toward what the Gates Foundation has been accomplishing. I encourage you to read the answers to all ten of their tough questions--answers which are admirably insightful and honest.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

American Women Are Having Fewer Children Than They Say They Want

Thanks to Justin Stoler for pointing out a story in today's NYTimes about the gap between the number of children women in this country say they want to have and the actual number they are having. In some respects, this is not a new story. In every low fertility country for which I have seen data, women are not having as many children on average as they say they would like. These are averages, of course, so some women are having more than they might want (as a result of unintended pregnancies), and many are having exactly the number they want. Still, the averages point to trends, as the story's author, Lyman Stone, notes somewhat dramatically:
America’s fertility is in precipitous decline. Our team of forecasters at Demographic Intelligence projects 3.84 million births in 2017, down from about 3.95 million in 2016. And it’s likely to fall further — far short of what women themselves say they want for their family size. 

The trick in this kind of analysis is to marry (no pun intended) the desired family size with the actual number of children ever born. This is built into the Demographic Health Surveys, but such surveys are rarely conducted in the richer, low fertility countries. So, the desired family size data come from surveys, such as Gallup (as Pew Research has used), or the General Social Survey, as used  in this article by Stone, while the data on children actually born come from vital statistics, in this case the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics (now part of the Centers for Disease Control).

Of particular interest is this following set of possible explanations set forth for why the gap may be rising between actual and desired family size:
Diminished face-to-face interaction, and possibly increased use of pornography, may explain the fall in sex, and both of those trends may be explained by the rise in cellphone usage and other screen time. 
Smartphone ownership rates have more than doubled for every age group in America since 2010, meaning that almost all of us now carry a get-out-of-human-interaction-free card in our pockets 24/7.
Also of interest is that the author is from a research company called Demographic Intelligence, whose founder, W. Bradford Wilcox, is a sociologist at the University of Virginia whom I blogged about several years ago. Two of the advisors to the company are also famous demographers: S. Philip Morgan, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is a Past President of the Population Association of America (and appeared in my blog a few years ago); and Hans-Peter Kohler, at the University of Pennsylvania (who also appeared in my blog a few years ago).

Monday, February 12, 2018

Population Growth Still Threatens the Planet

The typical world leader or policy-maker is not currently worried about population growth. Even those who worry about things like global climate change generally do not phrase their concern in terms of numbers of humans beings. Yet, numbers matter, especially when we are consuming resources at an historically unprecedented level. This reminder came to us today in the IUSSP's latest online essay by renowned Italian demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci:
The “population question”, central to the debate about humankind’s future since the 18th century, has slipped away from center stage and fallen into a coma in recent years. The international community is busy promoting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their attendant 169 targets, and appears convinced that population has ceased to be a threat for balanced development. There is a sort of consensus among demographers that the world’s population will converge to a quasi-stationary state by the beginning of next century and this conviction has dispelled the severe anxiety about the future that affected most population experts in the second part of last century.
To be sure, the UN hasn't held a World Population Conference since 1994, but that doesn't mean that we should just ignore the fact that the current UN projections assume that we may well add another 4 billion people to the planet before we reach ZPG. It doesn't have to be that many--that's just what the UN demographers think will happen given the current attitudes towards population in the world.
Population interacts with the external constraints such as space, land, water, air, non-renewable resources and energy. Humankind, throughout its history on this planet, has found these resources in almost unlimited supply. But things have changed rapidly in recent times and some natural resources – particularly air, land and water – are under stress because of rapid population growth.
Professor Livi-Bacci points out that we would be better off if it were only 3 billion, instead of 4 billion that we were adding. Even that might not be sustainable in the long run, but at least we would have done less damage to the world in the meantime. These are issues, by the way, that are always front and center at the UK-based organization Population Matters, and I encourage you to visit their website.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Can China Cope With its Demographic Dividend?

Demographic dividend is the term applied to the potential for economic gains during a period of rapid fertility decline following a mortality decline. It is a transition period in which the prior higher fertility accompanied by lower mortality generates a large number of people of working age, while current rapid declines in fertility lower the number of young dependents and the prior high mortality has produced a relatively small number of people at the older dependent ages. The key word in that definition is TRANSITION. It is not a permanent state of affairs, and if a society does not use that transition wisely and plan for the post-transition period, there will be trouble. This is where China seems to find itself at the moment, as we have been reminded this week by a report from Bloomberg on the "Debt Bomb" associated with aging in China, and a story this week in the Economist discussing China's attempt to cope with this "bomb" by generating a new baby boom.

The debt bomb is largely related to the pension obligations that the government took on in the 1990s to deal with its growing older population--the generation that had forsaken a large family and generally will have only one child to look after them in old age. The government is going to have go into deeper debt to pay out these pensions. That will work for awhile but eventually someone is going to have pay off that debt. It seems as though the government assumed that a rise in the birth rate would take care of that by ramping up the younger population to previous levels. Thus, they got rid of most of the provisions of the one-child policy a couple of years ago, as I noted at the time.
Unwinding the one-child policy was supposed to help. But figures released in January confirm that after briefly boosting birth rates, its effect is petering out (see chart). Chinese mothers bore 17.2m babies last year, more than before the rules were relaxed but 3.5% down on 2016. Wang Feng of the University of California, Irvine, says the number of births was 3m-5m lower than the projections from the family-planning agency when the authorities were debating whether to change the policy, and below even sceptical analysts’ estimates.

The Economist suggests that the government now seems to be moving in a direction to push "traditional" Chinese values that emphasize the maternal role of women. However, a return to patriarchy is unlikely and, as I discussed a few months ago in reference to South Korea, more gender equality, not less, is the likely key to higher fertility in these very low birth rate countries. At the same time, it seems to me that the Chinese government needs to own up to the fact that its demographic dividend is coming to an end and the future is not going to be like the past two or three decades.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

CopyCat Suicides Followed the Death of Robin Williams

In Chapter 5 (The Health and Mortality Transition) of my text I discuss the work of David Phillips, a friend who is now Professor Emeritus in Sociology at UCSD. His research on the social and psychological influences on death, especially suicide, has been widely published and discussed since his first paper on the topic came out back in 1974. The most recent replication of his line of research was published this week in PLOS One and came to my attention via a news story in Mother Jones.
In August 2014, actor and comedian Robin Williams, famous for his roles in movies like Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and Mrs. Doubtfire, committed suicide at his home just north of San Francisco. He was 63 years old and, as the public would later find out, was struggling with depression and dementia. In the weeks after his death, headlines like, “Robin Williams hanged himself in bedroom with a belt, sheriff says” and “Robin Williams Committed Suicide by Hanging Himself, Police Say,” flooded newsstands and newsfeeds across the country.
Now, new research shows that such coverage might have contributed to a horrible and unintended consequence: a spike in suicides in the following months.
This rise in possible “copycat suicides,” the authors write, is likely an example of the “Werther effect,” a phenomenon coined by suicide researcher David Phillips. (He named the effect after the 1774 Goethe novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which tells the story of a man who shoots himself after a love interest falls for someone else—and is widely blamed for the flood of young European men killing themselves shortly after the book’s release.)
Just as Phillips had done in his research on celebrity suicides, the authors of this study (David S. Fink, Julian Santaella-Tenorio, and Katherine M. Keyes--all at Columbia University) had looked at the time trend in suicides before and after the stories came about Robin Williams' death, and there was indeed a statistically significant increase that almost certainly represented copycat suicides.

Over time, the research of Phillips and the many studies that followed his have led people to try to set up guidelines on reporting this sort of news. As the authors point out in their paper:
Celebrity suicide effects have led to the World Health Organization to establishment media guidelines for reporting a high profile celebrity death, including sensitivity and non-sensationalism in the reporting of the means of suicide, the precipitating factors, and the risk factors for suicide apparent in the deceased, and clear and consistent messages about suicide prevention and help-seeking during reporting. The extent to which these guidelines were followed after the death of Mr. Williams, however, is questionable, and as such, we examined suicide incidence in the United States by month surrounding the time frame of Mr. Williams’ death.
Thus, despite the knowledge that publicizing the suicide of a famous person is apt to lead to additional deaths, the practice continues... 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Supreme Court Says that Pennsylvania Has to Redraw its Congressional Boundaries

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the case in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Congressional Districts in that state had indeed been gerrymandered in a way to favor Republicans over Democrats, and that these boundaries must be redrawn. At the very end I noted that:
Since the case in Pennsylvania relied on the state constitution, not on the U.S. Constitution, Reuters notes that the case could avoid being adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court. We'll see!
Today we saw! The U.S. Supreme Court chose not to take up the case, as NPR reports:
The United States Supreme Court has decided not to block a state court ruling requiring Pennsylvania's Legislature to immediately redraw its legislative boundaries.
Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court had previously ruled those 18 congressional districts — drawn by a Republican Legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 2011 — were overly partisan and violated the state Constitution.
The state's Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature now have until Feb. 15 to draw new lines.
Pennsylvania is a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters, and yet 13 of the 18 state's members of Congress were Republican. Will that change after the new maps are drawn? We'll see!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Should People Not Have Children Because of the Impact on the Environment?

The New York Times published an Op-Ed this morning by Maggie Astor promoting the idea that people may choose not to bring a child into a world threatened by environmental collapse.
Add this to the list of decisions affected by climate change: Should I have children?
It is not an easy time for people to feel hopeful, with the effects of globalwarming no longer theoretical, projections becoming more dire and governmental action lagging. And while few, if any, studies have examined how large a role climate change plays in people’s childbearing decisions, it loomed large in interviews with more than a dozen people ages 18 to 43.
Among them, there is a sense of being saddled with painful ethical questions that previous generations did not have to confront. Some worry about the quality of life children born today will have as shorelines flood, wildfires rage and extreme weather becomes more common. Others are acutely aware that having a child is one of the costliest actions they can take environmentally.
To be sure, these data are from a small non-random sample of people assembled by a group called Conceivable Future, an organization that highlights how climate change is limiting reproductive choices, and co-founded by Meghan Kallman, who is interviewed in the article. 

But is this the best response to global environmental destruction? An IUSSP article also just posted this morning suggests not. George Martine, a widely respected demographer, offers the opinion that the problem is the per-person increase in resource consumption that has accompanied population increase. To be sure, more people add to the problem, but the biggest issue is that everyone in the world wants to live like the wealthiest 20% and that just isn't possible. Resources need to be more equitably spread around the world, and we need to change our attitudes about how many things we need to buy (and eat).
Ultimately, the “population problem” is much less relevant than, say, livestock increases (also driven by development) in the imminent ecological collapse. Given the trajectory of degradation caused by the richest third of the global population, the planet we know could well be thrashed even without the addition of a single baby. What we urgently need, therefore, is a reality check on our cherished “development” paradigm.
I would offer the middle ground that we should immediately slow population growth and immediately put a check on the development paradigm. We need both. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Where Are We Headed as a Species?

Today I want to catch up on two links that readers have posted over the past few days. Both of them raise huge questions about the future of human society. Duane Miller provided a link to a 15-minute YouTube video called Humans Need Not Apply It has already been viewed nearly 10 million times, so perhaps you've already seen it. The point it makes is that just as horses were replaced by automobiles, robots are quickly replacing humans. Now, to be sure, this alarm bell has been ringing often over the past century and a half. In the middle of the 19th century Karl Marx got the attention of workers by arguing that machines were going to replace them. And, of course, he was right in many respects, even if history didn't go exactly his way. The argument in this video is that robots may be much more successful at replacing humans than any previous generation of machines. This seems likely to me and, as I have said before, this should be viewed as a way of relieving our angst about the "demographic bomb" inherent in an increasingly older population.

By the way, if you watch the video you will see a reference to the occupational categories that were supposedly listed in the 1776 census (this occurs about 13 minutes into the video). Fact Check! The first census in the U.S. was in 1790, and the first census to ask about occupation was the one undertaken in 1850. It always worries me when I see a glaring error about things with which I am familiar, because then I wonder about the accuracy of everything else...

Another message oriented to the idea that we really don't need to keep adding to the number of humans alive comes from a blog posted by Steven Earl Salmony, who lives in a beautiful spot in North Carolina called Fearrington Village. The bottom line is one that will be familiar to any reader of my book or blog--we humans are currently on an unsustainable path. We cannot continue to increase in numbers as we have been doing without ruining the natural environment upon which we are entirely dependent. Machines grow and process our food (creating massive environmental damage in the process), and machines bring food to our markets and we just eat it. The nutrition transition means that we have been increasingly eating more food of the kinds that our bodies are not too happy with, so we need to cut back our caloric intake while also shifting our dietary mix towards a healthier combination of more fruits and vegetables and less meats and sweets.

The future will be different, and only if we start acting now will it be better rather than worse.