All hail Conventional Wisdom! And, while we’re at it, let us all bow down before the media’s corollary to CW, the Easy Answer!
In the case of population control, the CW is that the world’s increasing population is raping the land, befouling the water, greenhousing the air and generally making things more and more miserable for more and more people.
To heighten the drama, the CW also says that this problem is peculiarly recalcitrant as human beings have an irrational, driving need to reproduce. A need that is only marginally susceptible to reason, particularly as it is so often blessed by religion. Challenging this basic a need is to find oneself faced with the unpalatable alternatives of democratic failure and totalitarian success.
Not to worry, say the acolytes of the Easy Answer. The good news is that we need not directly confront the problem. Conventional Wisdom taketh and Conventional Wisdom giveth back again.
Notice, they say, that as the standard of living goes up, the birthrate goes down. This places the core of the problem solidly in the third world, where it naturally is of less concern.
Moreover, they say, despite the drag of all those new mouths to feed, the standard of living in the third world is gradually rising. As the standard of living goes higher, the birth rate will naturally fall, reaching some happy equilibrium in the not too distant future.
This point of view is solidly ensconced at the United Nations, where any answer that does not involve upsetting its member states enjoins a special benison. The world currently has about 5.8 billion people. The U.N. projections show the population stabilizing at 11.6 billion in about 2200.
Perhaps I am naive, but 200 years seems rather a long time to be waiting for a problem to solve itself. Particularly as there are a number of other festering issues that might combine to starve a solution into existence ahead of that optimistic schedule.
For instance: There is the much argued issue of global warning. Clearly, our models of the effects of increasing greenhouse gases are too primitive to be taken as gospel. Still, they all point to climactic shifts that will almost certainly disturb our delicate, hand to mouth balance of available food versus available mouths.
Then, too, there are the rising salt tables and unstable pH balances of our major agricultural areas. This problem hasn’t gotten too much publicity, but that does not mean either that it is solved or that it is trivial. Reputable scientists believe that it was the rising salt content of their fields that destroyed the civilizations of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Maya, and literally dozens of others.
Finally, there is the matter of disappearing topsoil. Deep plow farming destroys topsoil at a horrendous rate. I have read that in the last 100+ years (i.e. since we began serious farming in our breadbasket), large sections of America farmland have lost more than half of their original topsoil.
But let’s assume that the CW folks are correct, at least in terms of our being allowed the full 200 years to reach our solution. Are we home free? Can we assume that their projections will prove correct?
I don’t think so.
To take a single example: All of their falling birthrate data are based upon the first world. And all of the first world countries share a common, peculiar characteristic: Their culture is dominated by the nuclear family.
The history of the West, with its wars, dynasties and empires, has had a silent facet of great importance: Marching hand in hand with increasing population, cities, roads, technology, etc. has been the gradual paring down of the very institution that allowed us to begin our march in the first place: the extended kinship group.
In the nuclear family, an essentially narrow and selfish institution, it is easy for economics to have an effect on birthrate. The fewer kids you have, the higher the standard of living for both you and your kids.
It is simple because, in first world, the call of kinship is weak. If some distant relative arrives on your doorstep seeking a place to stay and a job, he is likely to find a polite wish for good luck in his search. In the third world (and commonly in the second), he is likely to find a roof and a job. Blood still matters. It can over-rule both economics and self-interest.
I recall once reading a tale where a magistrate in a foreign country was berating a young man for failing to marry (and produce children) thereby betraying both his family and the state. His omission was treated as an almost seditious act. I remember thinking to myself, “That is a really weird way of looking at the things.”
But there are lots of places in the second and third worlds where that sort of admonition would be obvious common sense. Where, beyond merely personal concerns, reproduction is a duty to one’s blood and secondarily to the state.
Even in wealthy America, we see how religion can keep certain groups’ birthrates far above the norm. To my mind, that suggests that an internal ethos can, in substantial measure, overcome the pressures from outside.
Perhaps those happy prognosticators at the U.N. should be asking themselves a question: Will the Easy Answer prove true when wealth and lowered infant mortality give those kinship-driven cultures the chance to fulfill their duties in a really big way?