Monday, August 30, 2004

The Disappearing Hordes

The New York Times finally catches up with what most sensible people have known for quite a long time now - that the doom and gloom scenarios painted by those who like to speak of "brown" and "yellow hordes" who are breeding "like rabbits" are largely a fiction of a few demented Western minds.

REMEMBER the population bomb, the fertility explosion set to devour the world's food and suck up or pollute all its air and water? Its fuse has by no means been plucked. But over the last three decades, much of its Malthusian detonation power has leaked out.

Birthrates in developed countries from Italy to Korea have sunk below the levels needed for their populations to replace themselves; the typical age of marriage and pregnancy has risen, and the use of birth control has soared beyond the dreams of Margaret Sanger and the nightmares of the Vatican.

The threat is now more regional than global, explosive only in places like India and Pakistan. Ever since 1968, when the United Nations Population Division predicted that the world population, now 6.3 billion, would grow to at least 12 billion by 2050, the agency has regularly revised its estimates downward. Now it expects population to plateau at nine billion.


"On a farm, children help with the pigs or chickens," explained Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations population division. Nearly half the world's people live in cities now, he said, "and when you move to a city, children are not as helpful."

Beyond that, simple public health measures like dams for clean water, vitamins for pregnant women, hand-washing for midwives, oral rehydration salts for babies, vaccines for youngsters and antibiotics for all helped double world life expectancy in the 20th century, to 60 years from 30.

More surviving children means less incentive to give birth as often. As late as 1970, the world's median fertility level was 5.4 births per woman; in 2000, it was 2.9. Barring war, famine, epidemic or disaster, a country needs a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman to hold steady.
Isn't it interesting that rather than drawing the lesson that one ought to be sceptical about talking as if population growth were a definite problem, this reporter simply shifts to talking about "regional threats?" The idea that all growth in human numbers is by definition bad dies a hard death. But let's turn our attention to what Ol' Jeremiah (aka Paul Ehrlich) himself has to say about his falsified prophecies.
Half the world's population growth is in six countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China (despite its slowed birthrate). That makes doom-saying trickier than it was in 1968, when Paul R. Ehrlich frightened everyone with his book "The Population Bomb." Fertility shifts in individual countries are notoriously unpredictable, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a population expert at the American Enterprise Institute, so one might just as well use a Ouija board to predict the fallout.

Local changes can be even harder to anticipate. Calcutta, for example, once the epitome of overcrowding, is starting to shrink, Mr. Eberstadt said.

The father of the population bomb, Dr. Ehrlich, a professor of population studies and biology at Stanford, says he was "pleasantly surprised" by global changes that have undermined the book's gloomiest projections. They include China's one-child policy and the rapid adoption of better seeds and fertilizers by Third World farmers, meaning that more mouths can be fed, even if just with corn porridge and rice. (He notes, however, quoting United Nations figures, that about 600 million people go to bed hungry each night.) But Dr. Ehrlich still argues that the earth's "optimal population size" is two billion. That's different from the maximum supportable size, which depends on the consumption of resources.

"I have severe doubts that we can support even two billion if they all live like citizens of the U.S.," he said. "The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots."
That final sentence says it all really - the arrogance and the misanthropy of the man just come oozing out. Where on Earth did he pluck his 2 billion number from, I wonder, and if he believes it, why hasn't he done his bit to lighten the world's burden by shuffling off his mortal coil? After all, as a well-paid Stanford professor, he's one of the very worst offenders in the consumption stakes. The real idiot here is Ehrlich, even more so than the "Hummer-driving" masses he's so contemptuous of.