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 13th (it will be out in January 2020), 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.

You can download an iPhone app for the 13th edition from the App Store (search for Weeks Population).

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Can Ebola be Stopped?

ISIS is trying to expand its conquest of territory in the Middle East and everyone I talk to seems to agree that they need to be crushed. But how? At the same time, the Ebola virus is continuing its deadly spread in West Africa, and everyone agrees that this must be stopped. But how? In some ways, the situations are not dissimilar. The first reaction is panic, and then the next is quarantine. In the case of ISIS, try to keep them from grabbing any more territory. In the case of Ebola, keep people with the virus from getting out into public. In both cases, of course, you have mostly innocent people who are trapped inside the quarantine, and that is causing lots of problems. In West Africa, the government of Liberia lifted a quarantine it had placed on a large slum in the capital city of Monrovia. Throughout the region, the shutting down of airline travel to and from the infected nations appears to be hurting economies at the same time that a case has nonetheless appeared in Senegal and the WHO thinks the number of cases could rise to 20,000. 

So, quarantine serves mainly to get people's attention, and then the real work begins. In the case of Ebola it means trying to live in a more sanitary environment that minimizes the chance of contact with the bodily fluids of sick people. The Belgian research who first identified Ebola back in the 1970s was recently quoted as saying that:
"This is absolutely unexpected and unprecedented," he says. "We have here a situation where Ebola finds an enormously fertile ground in very poor countries with very dysfunctional health systems," he says. "A country like Liberia in 2010 had only 51 doctors for the whole country." He hopes there will never be another outbreak like this one. "I hope that this is the last epidemic where all we have [as treatment] is isolation of patients and quarantines and some supportive care, and we don't have stockpiles of vaccines and therapies."
There is potential for Ebola to spread to neighboring African countries, he says, but he is not worried about "high-income countries." "Our basic hospital hygiene is such that it is highly unlikely it would give rise to epidemics," he says.
So, the next step in the strategy is to guard against spread (without placing stifling quarantines that victimize the innocent) and build up protective and therapeutic measures. Since the best medicine for the long term is to prevent the disease, it is encouraging to read that progress is being made at a lab here in San Diego on the development of a vaccine against the Ebola virus. Next, of course, we need to vaccinate ourselves in some way or another against groups like ISIS.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Even More Bad News About Populations at Risk in Syria

The news out of Syria is only bad. Today the Middle East Daily (an email service of Foreign Policy) summed up information from several different sources as follows:
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, stated over 3 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria will have registered as refugees in neighboring countries as of Friday. Another 6.5 million people have become internally displaced, so that about half of the Syrian population has been forced to leave their homes since fighting broke out in March 2011. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of people have additionally fled the conflict without registering as refugees. The UNHCR said this is "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era" and noted the situation is worsening.
The idea that the worst demographic situation of our era is worsening is hard to wrap one's mind around. It is so easy to destroy a society, but so hard to build one. Considering that these people in crisis come from an environment of higher than average birth rates (albeit declining) and relatively low status for women (albeit improving) we can reasonably foresee, as I mentioned recently, that we are going to be dealing with the aftermath of the Syrian implosion and other consequences of the Arab Spring for a long time to come. It seems to me, however, that the world needs to help put the geographic pieces together differently than they are right now. George Friedman of made this point a couple of days ago:
Lebanon was created out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement between Britain and France reshaped the collapsed Ottoman Empire south of Turkey into the states we know today -- Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and to some extent the Arabian Peninsula as well. For nearly 100 years, Sykes-Picot defined the region. A strong case can be made that the nation-states Sykes-Picot created are now defunct, and that what is occurring in Syria and Iraq represents the emergence of those post-British/French maps that the United States has been trying to maintain since the collapse of Franco-British power.
Sykes-Picot, named for French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Sir Mark Sykes, did two things. First, it created a British-dominated Iraq. Second, it divided the Ottoman province of Syria on a line from the Mediterranean Sea east through Mount Hermon. Everything north of this line was French. Everything south of this line was British. The French, who had been involved in the Levant since the 19th century, had allies among the region's Christians. They carved out part of Syria and created a country for them. Lacking a better name, they called it Lebanon, after the mountain by that name.
In other words, these countries that are falling apart are modern creations of European policy-making and should not be treated as somehow historically sacrosanct. It is the people, not the boundaries, that matter.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Putting People Into Climate Models

There is no question that global climate change is occurring--just ask anyone hanging around the melting glaciers at the poles. We humans are stereotypically charged with being the perpetrators (indeed, if we didn't use all that fossil fuel to increase our standard of living, where would we be?), and at the same time the victims (global warming will eventually kill us). While these stereotypes are based in reality, they are not sufficiently nuanced to tell us, in particular, how humans who are the worst victims (those who have not contributed much to the carbon dioxide poisoning of the atmosphere) are actually apt to respond to climate change. This is the sensible argument of Paul Palmer and Matthew Smith, writing in this week's Nature.
Current models of Earth's climate capture physical and biophysical processes. But the planet has entered a new state: humans are adapting to, as well as causing, environmental changes. This major feedback must be modelled. Projections of the future climate based on simple economic narratives1— from cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions to unmitigated growth — are unrealistic.
Faced with droughts and rising sea levels, people alter their behaviour. Even if global climate policy is effective, and nations deliver on ambitious green-energy-production and sustainability targets, societies will be different in a warmer world. People will move to places that are richer in resources, or stay where they are and be pushed further into poverty. Population growth, urbanization, migration2 and conflict3 will compound reactions to global temperature rises.
To understand the underlying patterns, we need to collect behavioural statistics on grand scales. How do people of different backgrounds respond to extreme weather, for example? Under severe drought, do people in sub-Saharan Africa behave differently from those in southern Australia? How do the decisions made by lower- and middle-income families differ?
Ultimately, we must establish an international data-collection effort involving the public, private and voluntary sectors. Much as we take global stock of forests or biodiversity, we should regularly assess how people are being changed by the climate that they are changing.
This is a call to action, not a definitive road map, but it's a start. I'm chairing a session on the "Spatial Demography of Population and Envirnment" at the Population Association of America meetings that will be held here in San Diego next Spring. The deadline for submission is 1 October and here's the link if you want to submit a paper. Let's get to work.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Deaths Continue to Mount in Syria

Media attention in the Middle East has recently focused especially on ISIS and its brutal murder of an American journalist, attempted genocide of the Yazidis in northern Iraq, among many other atrocities. All this time, however, people also continue to die in Syria. The United Nations estimated this week that nearly 200,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. Of course, millions more are now refugees. Richard Engel of NBC News, who was himself kidnapped for a few days in Syria, was talking this evening about the fact that life in Syria is simply awful. Furthermore, even if the conflict ended today, it is not clear what kind of society would emerge in these places. The very rapid population growth in this part of the world--despite death and hardship--assures that a lot of people are going to be in a huge need of assistance for a long time to come. Engel's point was that no one seems to have yet given much thought to that future. At the moment, the demographic picture suggests a young population, with relatively limited educational attainment and few resources upon which to build. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Seals May be Carriers of TB

In the modern world, tuberculosis in North and South America looks pretty much like TB in Europe and so the assumption has been that Europeans brought TB (along with many other diseases) to the New World. Not so fast, say biologists who have been examining skeletons at Peruvian burial sites. In a paper just published in Nature and reported by the Economist as well as by, scientists say they have uncovered evidence of a different strain of TB among people that predates European contact. How did this happen? They believe that seals were the carriers of TB. It's not clear how they become TB carriers, but the data suggest that they are, and eating them then infected humans. 

This is a reminder, of course, of the many virulent diseases that humans have acquired from eating animals just in past few decades--HIV from chimpanzees, Ebola from bats and monkeys, Avian flu from birds, mad cow disease from you know who. The list is really a pretty long one. And the lesson seems pretty simple: love your animals, don't eat them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Africa's Demographic Prospects

If you think that population growth is a good thing, then you should be in love with Africa. This week's Economist uses a new UNICEF report as a springboard for a discussion of demographic prospects in that continent.
A new study by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, points out that, by 2100, on current rates, almost half the children under 18 in the world will be African. At the moment, the share is only a quarter.
This would be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in history. By the end of the century, if current demographic patterns continue for another 85 years (which they may not), Africa would have 4.2 billion people, against 1.1 billion today. Nigeria, whose land mass is similar to Pakistan’s or Venezuela’s, would rise from 180m today to 910m, registering one in 12 of the world’s births.
“The future of humanity is increasingly African,” says Unicef’s report, which shows a “massive shift in the world’s child population towards Africa”. The number of Africans under 18 may swell by two-thirds, to reach almost a billion by 2050, even if child-mortality rates remain relatively high. The new figures assume a reduction in fertility rates over time, as prosperity increases.
Yet Africa seems unusual in that economic growth during the past decade has not cut fertility as much as it has done elsewhere. Fertility rates in some African countries have stalled, instead of falling continuously, as happened throughout East Asia and Latin America.
In truth, I could not find the UNICEF report online, but the numbers come from the UN Population Division. In my own writing, I rarely look at projections past 2050, just because of the high level of uncertainty of any population projection as you go out several decades. Nonetheless, there are some lessons for us all in looking at the prospect of population growth in Africa. What the middle of the continent, in particular, needs is a rapid drop in fertility to create a demographic dividend that can create higher standards of living, as as happened in East Asia, rather than miring people in a Malthusian dilemma of too many people for available resources. As a UNICEF blogger recently noted, the key to that is improving the status of women in Africa. This needs to be top on the list of the new Millennium Development Goals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Political Consequences of Migration Within the US

I recently commented on the truly amazing dataset put together by people at The Upshot Blog of the New York Times, in which they trace the pattern of migration into and out of states within the US over the past century. They have continued to mine their data for insights and in this Sunday's Times they look at the way in which the migration out of the "blue" states of the country's northeast into some of the "red" states in the interior may influence politics. 
The blue diaspora has helped offset the fact that many of the nation’s fastest-growing states are traditionally Republican. You can think of it as a kind of race: Population growth in these Republican states is reducing the share of the Electoral College held by traditionally Democratic states. But Democratic migration has been fast enough, so far, to allow the party to overcome the fact that the Northeast and industrial Midwest contain a smaller portion of the country’s population than they once did.
The changes in purple North Carolina (where the blue-born population is up an astounding 41 percent since 2000) and Georgia (30 percent) are fairly well-known. Perhaps not as well-known is the migration of blue-staters to South Carolina (39 percent), Utah (34 percent) and Idaho (30 percent). The Southeast and the interior West have become some of the most popular new destinations for American movers. They tend to be less expensive places to live than the Northeast and much of the West Coast. 
They note, of course, that not all people leaving blue states are Democrats and, even if so, they may not stay that way. Still, the numbers are intriguing.
If demographic changes don’t overturn the political reality this year, they still may in the future. Consider this: Since 1980, the population of New Yorkers living in New Jersey — a very common arrangement — has increased by the same amount as the New York-born population of South Carolina.
This is as a nice a piece of spatial demography as you're likely to find in the popular press.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Overpopulation and Public Health

Emily Maynard sent me a link to a very nice research graphic that she helped to develop laying out some of the key facts related to population growth. The title of the infographic is "The Effect of Overpopulation on Public Health," and it helps make the case that a wide range of health issues in the world are the result of the phenomenal increase in population size over the past two hundred years. This is absolutely true, and well-trained health professionals of all types will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the infographic fails to note that the spread of public health technology is also a root cause of population growth. Indeed, public health is one of the greatest success stories in all of human history, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that because, as the infographic highlights, and the recent Ebola scare points out, it is a project without end.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where to Live?

Despite the seemingly massive amount of migration around the world (and it IS large in absolute terms), and the two hundred year march from a very small fraction of people living in cities to now more than half of us living there, most people ever born do not move. Or, if they do, they don't go too far. World elites, however, are in a position to move pretty much anywhere they want, and it is of continuing interest to see where those popular places might be. Two stories popped up this week with that theme. BBC News reported on the most expensive cities for expats (people moving to a country outside their place of birth/citizenship). Top on the list--wait for it--was Luanda, the capital of Angola. The second most expensive city was also in sub-Saharan Africa: N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. 
African cities ranked highest in the survey due to currency fluctuations, higher prices for imported goods, and more expensive accommodations.
The most expensive European cities for expats were in Switzerland--Zurich, Geneva, and Bern.

At the other extreme was the list of small towns in the U.S. where you might like to live (although they too are likely to cost you quite a bit). The New York Times summarized six such lists and found that the top cities on two of those lists were in--wait for it--New Mexico (Santa Fe and Los Alamos). However, unless I miscounted, only two cities showed up on more than one of the lists: Telluride, CO, and Woodbury, MN. I'm sure that next year's lists will be different, of course, so you have to stay on top of this stuff if you intend to move.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

PRB's 2014 World Population Data Sheet is Available

You may already know this, because I am a week late with the news, but the Population Reference Bureau's 2014 World Population Data Sheet is now available at their website. The PRB has been around since 1929, which means that it has been a presence in the lives of several generations of demographers. I have required my students to have a copy of the current World Population Data Sheet since I first began teaching in 1971--hard copies back in the day, and downloaded PDF files these days. It's like your American Express card--you shouldn't leave home without it. Once upon a time it was the only real source of compiled data for all countries of the world. These days the United Nations also has rich online resources, but the PRB has added increasingly sophisticated analyses and interactive data over the years. It is still an amazingly valuable resource. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Viruses Are Not Easy to Get Rid Of

Liberia has created a night-time curfew in Monrovia and has quarantined a slum in that city in an effort to stem the spread of the ebola virus. At the same time, Kenya Airways has stopped flying to Sierra Leone and Liberia for the same reason--essentially quarantining those two countries. Ebola is scary because there is currently no immunization for it, and no certain treatment for it if you contract the disease. We have had immunizations for polio for half a century, however, and we still haven't quite rid ourselves of that disease. Why? Largely because there are populations where conflict upsets the process of vaccinating children. Pakistan is one of the last holdouts of polio, but a story in Nature today notes that the Congo had a recent brush with polio, as well.
The cause of an unusually severe outbreak of poliomyelitis that hit Congo in 2010 has been identified: a strain of poliovirus that sometimes resists the immune responses mounted by vaccinated people.
Fortunately, people who have recently received the live, oral polio vaccine, which provides the strongest immunity, are protected against the strain. Its spread in Congo was stopped by orally re-vaccinating the entire population of the surrounding areas.
However, a new study, published on 18 August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, suggests that a portion of those who receive the weaker, dead vaccine would have been vulnerable. This vaccine is now common in developed countries. What's more, the researchers who characterized the strain warn that something similar may appear again during the final stages of the global effort to eradicate polio.
Olen Kew, a virologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, is less concerned. “The bottom line is that oral polio vaccine works wherever it is used properly — at high rates of coverage,” he says. “The Republic of Congo had a period of very low coverage because of civil unrest, and immunity gaps widened.”
This is the main point for all those parents who have the misguided view that vaccinations are worse for their children than the diseases against which the vaccinations protect their children: Get real!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Can Earth's and Society's Systems Meet the Needs of 10 Billion People?

The National Academies Press has just published a report of a workshop held in October of 2013 with the provocative title of Can Earth's and Society's Systems Meet the Needs of 10 Billion People?  [Note, btw, that you can download a free PDF copy of all NAP volumes.] Spoiler alert: the question is not answered! Rather, there are summaries of the workshop presentations that provide a lot of information that you, the reader/policy planner, can use in coming to your own decision. Most of the volume will be familiar to readers of Chapter 11 of my text, but of course there is a lot of useful detail and varying perspectives on the issues of population, environment, and climate change, among other things. One of the comments in the report struck me, though, as being a disservice to readers:
[T]he workshop was originally asked to address the concept of carrying capacity as a possible framework within which to consider the burgeoning human population of the Earth. Carrying capacity, a concept originated in animal ecology, refers to the maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, to which it is able to provide an appropriate supply of food, water, habitat, and other natural resources. However, to some workshop participants, the concept of carrying capacity did not seem to be a useful framework for human populations and sustainability. In other words, although carrying capacity was expected to be a recurring theme of this workshop, it was not. Turner [Billie Turner of Arizona State University] noted that the more built up the environment is, the more difficult it becomes to apply the concept of carrying capacity, which assumes natural limitations (such as disease or starvation through drought) on animal species that are not technologically countered by that species. Because the human species manipulates and converts its habitat and can counter the natural limits on its population (such as by vaccinating for disease or providing emergency food to drought-struck areas), the conceptual basis of carrying capacity breaks down when considering people. Turner stated that carrying capacity should be only a heuristic device, and he cautioned against calculating specific values for the human-environment system. He stated that carrying capacity has been “largely abandoned” in the social and policy sciences.
I know and respect Billie Turner, but I think he's wrong about this. Carrying capacity continues to be a key concept for helping the public understand the relationship between population growth and the earth's resources. Indeed, Turner used the concept himself in his own workshop presentation.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gov. Perry and Undocumented Immigrants: Who's the Criminal?

Governor Rick Perry of Texas--a past and likely future contender for the Republican presidential nomination--has just been indicted for abuse of power, as reported by the New York Times:
A grand jury indicted Gov. Rick Perry on two felony counts on Friday, charging that he abused his power last year when he tried to pressure the district attorney here, a Democrat, to step down by threatening to cut off state financing to her office.
The indictment left Mr. Perry, a Republican, the first Texas governor in nearly 100 years to face criminal charges and presented a major roadblock to his presidential ambitions at the very time that he had been showing signs of making a comeback.
His response is that this is just politics. Maybe it is. He should know about using politics to claim that people are criminals, even if they are not. That is precisely how he has portrayed the latest wave of undocumented immigrants, including large numbers of children, crossing the border from Mexico into Texas. In response to this, Rubén Rumbaut of UC, Irvine and Rogelio Sáenz of UT, San Antonio have prepared an Op-Ed piece that will be published soon in the San Antonia Express-News and they have given me permission to quote from it:
In an interview with CNN anchor Candy Crowley on August 3, Governor Perry claimed that since September 2008, 203,000 people have entered the United States illegally and have been booked in Texas county jails. He noted that these 203,000 persons have been responsible for more than 3,000 homicides and nearly 8,000 sexual assaults. Crowley questioned the accuracy of his numbers. The Governor retorted that he stood by his figures.
We have conducted some calculations based on Governor Perry’s numbers. They yield a homicide rate of 1,478 homicides per 100,000 unauthorized immigrants in Texas alone over that period of time (less than six years)—a level of violence that translates to an annual rate of at least 246 murders per 100,000. By comparison, those numbers would greatly exceed the world’s highest recorded urban homicide rate of 159 per 100,000 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The Governor’s numbers are astronomically high. They are literally off the charts. For more accurate data, he should refer to his own Texas Department of Public Safety’s Annual Uniform Crime Reports, which are conveniently available online. A Google search retrieves them in less than a second.
Yet, the Governor’s claim fits nicely with the fearful narrative linking immigrants to crime. The reality, however, does not support this tale. In fact, sociologists and criminologists have found consistently—as have government commissions going back more than a century—that immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime and to have lower levels of incarceration than people born in the United States. In addition, they have also discovered that communities where immigrants are concentrated tend to be safer than those with fewer immigrants, including especially those along the border, such as El Paso.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Surge in Undocumented Immigration to Europe

While we in the US are coping with a surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border, Europe is also dealing with a surge in undocumented immigrants at its southern border, which happens to be the Mediterranean. The Economist has the story.
The number of people arriving in Italy by sea this year may already exceed 100,000. By the end of July approximately 93,000 migrants had been rescued. The previous record for an entire year was set in 2011 when around 60,000 people reached Italian shores at the height of the Arab Spring.
The sudden jump in arrivals is related to turmoil in Libya, from where most of the migrant-trafficking vessels depart. Another reason is the Italian government’s maritime search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, launched last October after 368 Eritreans and others drowned off the island of Lampedusa. The prospect of being picked up by the Italian navy has made the journey on an overloaded and often barely seaworthy vessel seem less scary.
This latter situation is a classic case of no good deed going unpunished, but the Economist suggests that the Italian public is quiet on this issue.
Grumbling among right-wing lawmakers apart, public and media reaction to the upsurge has been surprisingly muted. Stories of vessels entering Italian waters with four-figure human cargoes, which would have been front-page news a year ago, now barely warrant a mention.

Once in Europe, however, the immigrants tend to head north.
Many head for France. Last year the country ranked third, after Germany and America, among rich countries for the amount of asylum applications it received (this number includes people arriving by plane and train). Immigration has become an increasingly sensitive subject as a result. “There are fears of uncontrolled immigration, of invasion,” says Cris Beauchemin of the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, a think-tank.
No one knows how many undocumented migrants live in France. An estimate of 200,000-400,000 bandied about six or seven years ago is not improbable. Last year the authorities had before them almost 66,000 requests for asylum and granted asylum or other protection to fewer than 11,500. Refused asylum-seekers often stay on illegally, or try to make their way to another country.
As you can appreciate, the surge in undocumented immigration has the same roots whether they are going to the US or to Europe--violence in their homeland.  

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Where Do Y'all Come From? Americans on the Move

Americans have been on the move forever, and Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy have put together a nice set of data on migration between states over time, and these data have then been analyzed today in a series of articles by Nate Cohen in the NY Times. The data themselves are census data from 1900 to 2010 put together by the IPUMS project at the University of Minnesota Population Center. The first analysis to catch my eye is the one involving the changing demographics of the southern states in the US. My son, Greg Weeks, and I have been watching this for some time and have written especially about Latin American immigration to the south. But, of course, that is only part of the story, as the graph below illustrates.

Democrats were able to become competitive so quickly in states like Virginia and North Carolina because they combined a growing nonwhite share of the electorate with gains among white voters, particularly in postindustrial metropolitan areas full of Northern expats. Without additional gains among white voters, Democrats will be forced to wait a long time for the children of foreign-born residents to carry them to competitiveness in Texas, a state that Mr. Obama lost by 17 points in 2012, and where there isn’t a flood of Democratic-leaning voters from New York to bail them out.
The political dimension of this is clearly on everyone's mind. It varies from state to state depending upon the number of northerners (who tend to be Democrats) moving into the southern state, and on the pace of immigration, since the children of immigrants are US citizens who are more likely to become Democrats than Republicans, but they have to reach voting age for that to make a difference. This is happening sooner in states like Georgia and North Carolina than in some of the other southern states.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Water is a Key to Middle East Politics

Thomas Friedman has been widely quoted for his assessment that a drought in rapidly growing Syria helped to fuel the current unrest in that country. This week's Economist points out that the political future of Iraq is likely to rest with those who control the water supply in that rapidly growing (demographically) and imploding (politically) country.
IRAQ depends on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for drinking water, supplying industry and irrigating massive swathes of farmland. The two rivers account for 98% of the country’s surface water. Until recently the government’s greatest concern has been the fact that the source of neither river is in the country. In the past few decades dams and diversions across Turkey and Syria have steadily reduced the quantity of water reaching Iraq.
Now Iraq has a greater concern. Both waterways flow through areas of northern Iraq controlled by the Islamic State (IS), an extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and today claims an area the size of Jordan straddling Syria and Iraq. On August 8th America began air strikes against the group, after IS carried out a series of attacks that targeted minorities including Christians and Yazidis and threatened the semi-autonomous northern area of Kurdistan. In one of those attacks, on August 7th, IS took control of Mosul dam.
This is a situation where control of the water can be used for "good" (growing food for the people who are on your side), but more likely for evil (by either withholding water from others, or by flooding areas downstream from the dams--especially Baghdad). The Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq seem best positioned to avoid being manipulated by water because they have reasonable supplies over which they have control. The availability of water is a generally overlooked aspect of populations at risk in the world, but is really one of those "bottom-line" issues when it comes to human survival.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Can the Government of Iran Raise the Birth Rate?

Not long ago I noted that the low birth rate in Iran is likely due to the economic uncertainty facing the country, in combination with a well-educated population of men and women who know that a small family can be economically beneficial. The Iranian government has been worried about this for some time and has just outlawed permanent contraception, except for medical emergencies (an enlightened caveat that probably would not have been allowed had the bill been designed by Republican right-wingers in the US).
Ayatollah Khamenei expressed alarm last winter about the conspicuous decline in births in Iran, saying he was “shaking with fear” about demographic trends that could reduce population growth to zero. The number of children per couple has fallen to 1.3 from a peak of 3.6 in the years after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many young couples have said they are fearful of bringing children into the world, given Iran’s weak economy and isolation from Western sanctions.
Of course, this is unlikely to do much for the birth rate, since couples seem to be waiting to have children in an uncertain economy, rather than necessarily deciding now that they want no more children.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ebola's Gone Viral

Only a short while ago, I was noting that two American health workers in Liberia had contracted the Ebola virus in the process of aiding Ebola patients. Since then, they have been flown back to the US--to Emory University in Atlanta--to be treated with what CNN first called a "mystery drug" but then revised that to an experimental drug (or combination of drugs) that so far have kept them alive. At the same time, the spread of the disease has continued unabated, and today's New York Times suggests that the disease might even destabilize the region because of the fear that it instills, making it harder to control than might even otherwise be the case. Citing a paper just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the NYTimes story suggests that the current outbreak may have occurred in Guinea, right at the intersection of that country with Sierra Leone and Liberia, along a well-paved and well-traveled route (see map below):

The experimental drugs being used to treat the Ebola virus have a San Diego connection, as it turns out, and today's San Diego Union-Tribune has a lengthy description of the role that labs in San Diego have played in combating this and other viruses. Indeed, the story has a good history of the milestones in our historically short battle to control the spread of viruses. 
As the ongoing Ebola outbreak sweeps across national borders, the biotechnology industry has finally assembled the tools that could cure the deadly viral disease. And preventing the infection itself may very well be in sight.
The innovation can only be described as dizzying. For thousands of years, humanity struggled with viruses — without even knowing that they existed. But starting with the discovery of viruses at the end of the 19th century, medical researchers have refined their understanding of these mysterious entities on the edge of life.
With each new victory over viruses, bacteria, and protozoa, we edge life expectancy a little closer to the human lifespan. However, victories require not just medicines and vaccinations, but changes in human activity:
Health experts have grown increasingly confident in recent years that they can control Ebola, Dr. Frieden [Director of CDC] said, based on success in places like Uganda.
But those successes hinged on huge education campaigns to teach people about the disease and persuade them to go to treatment centers. Much work also went into getting people to change funeral practices that involve touching corpses, which are highly infectious.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Migrant Children Questions and Answers

PRI'a "The World" radio program asked Elizabeth Kennedy (one of our PhD students who is currently in El Salvador on a Fulbright Fellowship researching unaccompanied child migrants) to do a Q&A session on their Facebook page. There are lots of good questions from people along with her excellent responses--as she tries to navigate a situation that is heavy politicized and therefore subject to a lot of misinformation. Here is one of the more cogent exchanges on the Facebook page:
Kevin Hopson I think the most loving thing you can do for these kids and the other people who are with them is to safely and securely fly them back to their homes.

If the country's laws are not enforced, the risk of more children enduring the same abuse becomes escalated.

In fact, many assert that this crisis began with the President claiming that he would not enforce our laws and in doing so gave incentive for illegal migration to the United States.
Elizabeth G. Kennedy The US-Mexico border is more secure than it has ever been. We are spending more money on walls, drones, agents, towers, etc. than we ever have. President Obama has deported more migrants than any other president. You can read more here: Thus, this is NOT an enforcement issue. This is a humanitarian issue and a refugee crisis partially of the U.S.'s making by irresponsible and short-sighted foreign policy decisions historically and presently. While some of these children (and Central American adults) could return to their homes without being harmed, many have fled to the U.S. because they were in great danger. I encourage you to watch this CBS news piece ( The 15 yo recounts how he, his father and mother tried to flee to the U.S. They were detained in Mexico and deported. His father was murdered days later. This is not an isolated case, and I encourage you to look at my Twitter account (EGKennedySD), where I retweet news articles about murdered U.S. deportees. It is not loving to return people to their death. It is wrong, inhumane and against international law.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Demography and Infrastructure Collide in the Philippines

A story in the business section of the New York Times today caught my eye because it was discussing the need for more infrastructure development in the Philippines if the country's economy is going to improve. I was thinking about the fact that the US also needs infrastructure development--even though the current Congress does not want to pay for it--but the difference is that in the Philippines the rapid rate of population growth must be addressed, rather than ignored or even misunderstood.
The stakes are high for the Philippines, said Frederic Neumann, a managing director and co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.
Mr. Neumann noted that the country was in what some economists call a demographic sweet spot, in which millions of young people will be entering the work force. That makes the country a competitive destination for investments in export-driven manufacturing, which have propelled many countries in East Asia to prosperity.
“This is the Philippines’ moment,” Mr. Neumann said. “China has been extraordinarily competitive in the last 20 years, but it is now — with rising labor costs — moving toward other types of production. The Philippines has low labor costs. It could pick up where China leaves off.”
The HUGE difference between China and the Philippines is that China experienced a dramatic drop in fertility, whereas the Philippines has not. Thus, China created a demographic dividend, but the Philippines is not on that path. The TFR in the Philippines is still over 3 children per woman, and the number of young people moving into the 15-24 age group is projected by the United Nations Population Division to keep growing well beyond the middle of this century. That is not an opportunity--it is a disaster in the making. It is going to take more than just infrastructure improvement for the country to cope with the ever larger cohorts of young people moving into the labor force ages.

Migration "Movie" Traces Cultural Shifts

A very interesting video of the expansion of Western culture has been posted online, using data on births and deaths of well-known persons, comparing the place in which they were born with where they died. The data come from FreeBase, which is owned by Google, but were assembled by Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues. A description of the project was just published in Science, where the authors summarize the project as follows:
The emergent processes driving cultural history are a product of complex interactions among large numbers of individuals, determined by difficult-to-quantify historical conditions. To characterize these processes, we have reconstructed aggregate intellectual mobility over two millennia through the birth and death locations of more than 150,000 notable individuals. The tools of network and complexity theory were then used to identify characteristic statistical patterns and determine the cultural and historical relevance of deviations. The resulting network of locations provides a macroscopic perspective of cultural history, which helps us to retrace cultural narratives of Europe and North America using large-scale visualization and quantitative dynamical tools and to derive historical trends of cultural centers beyond the scope of specific events or narrow time intervals.
The video is available through an article by Alison Abbott in Nature.
Historians tend to focus in highly specialized areas, says Schich. “But our data allow them to see unexpected correlations between obscure events never considered historically important and shifts in migration.”
In the end, then, demography is the key to understanding the world. What a concept!