Understanding the Demographic Transition

Sharon July 26th, 2007

My most recent post on Population, _Talking Population with the Old Men_ was mostly about the way the personal has informed my own political take on the subject. This one is about something far more concrete or abstract - the shift in world population that is occurring right now, how it works, what causes it, and what we can do to encourage it.

The term “Demographic Transition” describes the movement of human populations into a roughly steady state. Initially birth rates are high, but so are infant mortality and other death rates, and population may rise, but it does so quite gradually. In Europe and North America, the Demographic Transition occurred over two centuries - gradually, as hygenic practices changed, medicine improved and other factors lowered death rates, women grew up noticing “hey,five kids aren’t necessary - I can have three and be assured of getting them to adulthood.” Thus, the average TFR (that’s the total fertility rate) dropped steadily from 6 to 2.8 and then down further. Now the developed world has an average TFR of 1.8, below replacement rate.

This began in the 19th century in the rich world, but didn’t happen in much of the poor world until the mid-20th century or later. Generally speaking, however, the third world has undergone a much faster demographic transition than the rich world did - in many cases, radical change has come in less than 50 years. And because in many places in the third world, there has been considerable instability, the factors that lead to a transition haven’t been consistently available in many places.

And, in fact, this is happening right now all over the world. We all know that rich world nations like Japan and Italy have a TFR well below replacement, but more than half of all poor nations are below replacement rate, and the rest are following. The highest reproductive rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and those too are following the pattern of other poor nations, but are 20 years behind them. Subsaharan Africa now has a TFR of 5.0, down from 6.3 in 1990. Latin America is now at 2.6 as a whole, and has nearly halved in merely 20 years. All over the world, population rates are generally falling much faster than even the most radical demographers expected.

What’s most interesting about the demographic transition is that birth control had comparatively little impact on it - that is, in America, for example, we dropped our birthrate to 2.8, before disseminating birth control information was even legal. Despite a widespread increase in birth control availability after World War II, American birth rates rose well above what they were in the era of the Comstock laws when birth control was illegal. Birth control is estimated to affect about 15% of demographic decline - but that’s a comparatively small percentage. In their book _Understanding Reproductive Change: Kenya, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Costa Rica_, editors Bertil Egero and Mikail Hammerskjold observe that fertility change seems largely unlinked to contraception access. That is, people tend to have about the number of children they want, regardless of access to birth control. The question is how do people come to want a particular family size.

And the answer to that question is that generally speaking, people make fairly rational choices, based on their personal economics, their personal situation, their need to have a child of a particular sex, their need for workers, their need for someone to help them in old age. Time and time again, studies like Pritchett’s on “Desired Fertility” demonstrate that women worldwide, in every situation, mostly make fairly rational choices for themselves about their family size. And when circumstances change, and give them positive incentives to want fewer children, they hae them.

The current, ongoing demographic transition is not, as it is commonly thought, primarily a feature of the rich world. Poor nations as diverse as Albania, Costa Rica, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines have rapidly declining birth rates. And what factors do most of these nations have in common? Generally speaking, basic commodities are widely available - that is, people get to eat. For example, a 1996 USAID report documents a direct link between subsidizing rice in Sri Lanka and a drop in TFR from 3.1 to 2.0 in less than a decade. Basic access to medical care is widely available. Women have high literacy rates and political power. Women are comparatively well protected from rape, and can choose their husbands. A 1994 study by Yale Economist Paul Schultz fournd that female literacy was perhaps the most defining factor in TFR in poor nations. In India, Kerala, with a 100% female literacy rate has a 1.7 TFR, compared to a 4.1 TFR in regions with a 30% literacy rate

But, all the individual factors together add up to what Jeremy Seabrook rightly observes is “security.” If kin are the only safety net you have access to, then you will have children as a form of security and wealth. If there are other options, you will turn to those. Education represents the possibility of work if a husband dies, knowledge of laws, access to information - it is not in itself a reproductive constraint, but an aid to security. What most people want when they have children is security, pleasure and comfort. If 2 children can do that as well or better than 5, they will have two.

A reader in my _Talking Population with the Old Men_ discussion took me to task for not making the link between population and poverty more clear. He argued that large populations cause poverty, and that the only hope of increasing wealth is populations stabilization. But I must say, I disagree. For example, it is manifestly the case that population *density* simply doesn’t cause poverty - otherwise, Hong Kong, Japan and England would be vastly poorer than Georgia and Peru. The evidence for whether high TFR causes poverty is, at best, mixed. For example, prosperity in India has grown dramatically despite a fairly high TFR. Even Paul Ehrlich, famed Zero Population Growth advocate and author of _The Population Bomb_ and _One with Nineveh_ admits in the latter volume that the answer is extremely difficult to sort out, and that there’s limited evidence on that subject. Generally speaking, the demographic transition occurs as a result of a certain degree of wealth - that is, there’s now money for infrastructure improvements such as water systems and sewers. But very poor nations can and sometimes do prioritize these solutions, for example, desperately poor Tanzania uner Nyerere did so, and saw its level of wealth rise while its population was still increasing.

What is true is that population instability does create poverty - for example, the death of 20 million people in Africa to AIDS has left economies stripped, societies filled with children and elderly people caring for them, while the central working generation is ill and dying. Into this situation comes greater poverty, lower educational levels for women, despair, greater need for young women to become prostitutes, and a rising birth rate in some places, massive economic gaps in others. A slow stabilization of population is probably better than wild fluctuations brought about by short term conditions.

The factors that work to limit population growth deserve some greater attention than my quick summary above, because they way they seem to work is as important as the fact that they do. They give us a sense of what kind of society we’d need to create in order to achieve population stabilization well below 10 billion. So let’s consider them a bit more carefully.

The first factor, education, works in several ways. Literacy for women benefits families in a number of ways. It increases her health (a literate woman can read material about health and hygeine practices), it increases her family’s security (if her husband dies, she can get a better job), it increases her desire to see her children receive education and it increases her political power - she can read and understand national issues. Mandatory education for all children serves to remove children from the labor pool, and makes children not producers, but consumers, and thus parents are forced to view their children in that light.

Food security, including price supports, and many other possible programs improves the likelihood of having healthy and non-disabled infants, it makes it less necessary to set children to work finding food, and it makes it possible for women to reserve time for public participation.

The security of elderly people and the disabled can be assured in a number of ways - public support a la social security is one. Traditions of family obligation are another - were we to treat our obligations to aunts and cousins as strongly as we treat those to sisters and parents, as some societies do, the requirement that individuals have more children is greatly reduced.

Basic health care and hygeine matter because they reduce infant and child mortality, reduce harm in childbirth, and enable women to take advantage of contraception when they want it. They also make childbearing less dangerous, which paradoxically reduces birthrates, because it increases family stability and reduces rates of disability and death within families that drive children out to work at early ages.

Another powerful factor is sexual practices in regards to rape, marriage, prostitution and birth control. Birth control, is, surprisingly, the least important of these factors. Discouraging men from seeing prostitutes, in the Gambia reduced fertility rates significantly, as prostitution is generally a result of extreme poverty and often precludes the use of expensive birth control. In Libya, enforcement of existing rape laws was found, to reduce TFR signficantly. All of these factors are associated with the status of women, and the more cultural and political power women have in a society, the fewer unwanted pregnancies she has. These are factors that generally speaking are mended by cultural pressures - for example, in the US, where rape and prostitution are huge problems, how many of us sit down with our sons and not only discuss rape in detail, but talk about prostitution?

Freedom from war is perhaps the most underestimated factor. People who fear that their children will be taken from them by the state have every reason to have extras to ensure their survival. And because war disrupts security, it is hard for families to make rational choices in the face of war. Genocide and racial conflict encourage the harmed parties to increase fertility rates to compensate. And similarly, the state (or other instigators) have every incentive to encourage women to have as many children as possible in the interest of the state. Despite Albert Bartlett’s claim to the contrary, rising death rates due to war actually tend, over the long term, to increase birth rates. And the environmental impact, so critical to the I=PAT formula (explained in my previous post on the subject, “Talking Population to the Old Men”) of military action raises the impact of any individual child. Militaries worldwide are responsible for up to 10% of global emissions and 11% of global resource use. We would have considerably more earth to work with without the massive military industrial complex.

Like war, nationalism itself represents a serious incentive to have more children. Low TFR nations like Japan and Italy that also have strong anti-immigrant sentiments have experienced periodic public calls for a pro-fertility campaign. The notion that national interests should have higher priority than the well being of the world as a whole has led us to short term thinking on population, as so many issues.

It may sound as though achieving a worldwide population stabilization is impossible -as though we must fix all human problems first. But that’s not the case. In fact, it turns out that the total investment in reducing world fertility levels voluntarily is comparatively low. Because most of the changes are human powered, low input, and comparatively cheap. That is, most of what would be required would simply be to prioritize these things. Fossil fuels, for example are not required to have small local schools, small amounts of fossil and renewable energy are required for some basic medications, but as we can see from the timing of the European and North American example, the demographic transition in the rich world was mostly not a product of fossil fuel based medicine, but a result of improvements in nutrition, hygeine and access to food and water. Political power for women is not a product of fossil fuels either. States can far better afford price supports for local farmers and public cafeterias where prices are kept low than they can afford war, famine relief, etc…

Can we do this in the face of peak oil and climate change? Absolutely. We are going to need to make massive changes in our infrastructure. Thus far, much of the discussion of what to do about peak oil has been about trains and renewable energy, new economies and new extraction technologies. And as long as the conversation stays there, we’ll be missing the point. Because ultimately, people care most about being fed, having their kids live to grow up, having safe water, basic housing, etc… As long as we continue the “growth and replacement” model of discussion, we’ll miss the basic point - that what we need most to concentrate on is health, education and social well being.

But what would be required is that we make it a priority - that we reallocate wealth from rich nations to poor ones, something that would require, among other things, a real reduction in worldwide emphasis on short term, national interests. That is, unlike the person who wrote the amazingly stupid ASPO article (which I can’t presently find) some while back that called to close the borders of Britain, enforce a one-child policy by any means necessary and beef up the military (presumably with senior citizens, since there won’t be many young people to expand it with - but hey, 70 year old geezers can defend the shores of Britain from…I can’t remember, was it the French?)

Now the gentleman who complained that I didn’t conceed to his claim that poverty is a consequence of high birth rates also complained that I brought up China, because, as he said, it the only example of compulsory fertility control. But, of course, that isn’t true - states have a long history of manipulating fertility, sometimes through compulsion, sometimes through effective compulsion - in the interest of the state. China’s policy is merely the most recent - for example, the American Eugenics policy was a direct result of the demographic transition. The Intelligentsia argued that we needed to reduce the number of “unfit” children, and increase the birthrate of the fit. Not quite coincidentally, the unfit were the poor, the disabled, the nonwhite, and the disenfranchised. Anyone want to take bets on who the “fit” were? US Courts regularly ordered poor people sterilized against their will, and sterilized non-white women after birth without bothering to get their consent.

And, of course, the state often feels free to encourage birth rates. And if we believe that the state has the right to manipulate fertility rates in its own interest, then we have opened the door to changes in population policy when racial and military conflict arise, or when economic conflict is in play. The minute we say that the state should be in the business of telling people how many children to have, we’ve opened the door to a kind of policy making that we don’t much want to mess with. What the state can and should do is reduce or remove existing incentives to have more children (for example, eliminate the child tax credit or cap it at two children), and then focus its efforts on meeting basic human needs.

I think it is really important to assert that population reduction works best when it is wholly voluntary - really voluntary, with the state focusing its interests on improving the lives of the people who actually make the real, everyday decisions about what to do. It is worth noting that China’s present TFR is just below 2.0, while many poor nations have successfully reduce their TFRs well below China’s without such measures. Our focus, in that case, ought to be on reallocation of wealth, creating infrastructure to enable and preserve basic things like basic medical care and adequate food for all, both in the rich world and the poor, and most of all, ceasing to think of our own interests as primarily tied to those of our nation state, and recognizing that our interests are the interests of the world as a whole.

The UN estimates that World Population will stabilize between 8.5 and 9 billion people by 2050, and then gradually begin to decline. There’s fairly compelling evidence that we can feed that many people, if we chose to do so, and if we choose to act justly. That would mean giving up ethanol, reducing our meat consumption, and radically reducing our consumption of goods. It would mean living a much simpler lifestyle, and devoting more of the resources of the rich world, while we have them, to education, health and welfare and sharing our good fortune. The benefits we reap would be enormous. Worldwide, nations that have prioritized food security, basic health care and stability for its populace have seen an average fall of their TFR to below 2 - in many cases, well below it. At that rate, by 2150, the world’s whole population would be below 3 billion, without a massive die off.

I think it is worth it, no?


23 Responses to “Understanding the Demographic Transition”

  1. Squrrlon 26 Jul 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Thank you for this post! This is pretty much exactly what I’ve always believed and said, only you have a much better handle on the concrete facts of the situation than I did. How empowering it is to think that one good change can lead so directly to another, and how relieving to think that direct population control policies are as unnecessary as they are reprehensible.

  2. Weaseldogon 26 Jul 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Very good post Sharon. I love your style.

    I’m still not convinced that so many people can be fed without fossil fuels. but I don’t know everything. I prefer that you are correct, but until I can prove it, or see good evidence that this outcome is even probable, I can’t really believe in it. I can accept at some level that it may be possible, just as winning the lottery three times in a row is possible. But I don’t think it will come about.

    Now much of what you’ve written, I’ve seen in Scientific American and other scientific works. Its good solid information, but since I discovered the Peak Oil problem in 1998, I’ve realized that there is a third component at work.

    Beyond population and wealth, there is also resources. Resources that are primarily derived from energy.

    We can express the relationship between the three fairly simply.

    Per Capita Wealth = Resources / Population.

    Now this assumes the population has the resources. In Nigeria for instance, Exxon owns the resources. So though it is an oil rich nation, it has few resources of its own. So for that nation, we get a value approaching zero.

    When we talk about wealth, we’re ultimately talking about energy. Available Energy is the basis for all wealth.

    We can apply this to other things as well. Such as…

    V = E / M
    V = Value of Money
    E = Available Energy
    M = Quantity of Money

    This relationship explains why as the number of dollars on the market is dramatically increased, the cost of oil and other goods continues to ratchet up with it.

    This relationship works, because energy sources provide a fixed potential of work. That is to say, a gallon of gasoline contains a fixed number of BTUs, no matter if you pay $1 gal, or $5 /gal. It’s ability to perform work is unrelated to it’s monetary cost.

    The value of money is worth what you can get for it. What you can get for it are goods and services made available through the consumption of energy.

    So without energy we have no wealth. Poverty then is a low value for the E / P relationship.

    I thought I was clever working this out in 1998, until someone pointed out that Nobel Prize Winning Chemist, Frederick Shoddy figured this out decades before I was born.

    The science is sound and has been known since the 19th century. Yet we continue to pretend that money and wealth are concepts that are unrelated to physical values and physical things. We give things value without understanding why. We trust in the religion of the economics and the Magical Invisible Hand Of The Market. Yet these things follow physical rules as everything else does.

  3. Anonymouson 26 Jul 2007 at 6:50 pm

    This is a particularly interesting and timely post because the new Economist published this week has a cover story on Population and Demographics (www.economist.com). The cover article talks about the “problems” of a falling population - largely social and political ones regarding how societies and governments handle the care of elders. Then juxtaposed, the article on war in Afghanistan mentions the problems facing many villages because the area is “poor in resources with too many people” and neighboring countries “have water shortages of their own to worry about” and can’t handle the refugees.

  4. Weaseldogon 26 Jul 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Weird, the Economist doesn’t publish the author’s name.

  5. Pat Meadowson 26 Jul 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Re: the US birth rate dropping before birth control info was widely disseminated: don’t forget that many women had illegal abortions. The unlucky ones died. My mother told me that several girls in her high-school class had abortions and Mother’s best friend died from one. (My mother was born in 1917.)

    I think condoms (legal or illegal? ) have been around a long time, however, no?

    Good post, as always.

    Pat Meadows

  6. Anonymouson 26 Jul 2007 at 9:27 pm

    The folks who believe in a 8-9 billion population peak, do not usually mean that 8-9 billion will be fed without fossil fuels. Bakhtiari, for example, has the population peak at 2020-2025, where he thinks we will still be producing over half the oil we are today, not to mention coal. Can the globe feed 8 billion with no fossil fuels? Maybe, but only if it re-organized things ALOT. But can it feed 8 billion with far less oil than it uses today if it has to? Yeah probably, people are adaptable. Will there be small groups making great strides, and large groups sleepwalking? Probably. Will there be collapses? Probably. But when systems collapse and people get scared, sleepwalkers wake up and people invent new systems as fast as they can.

    weaseldog - I have helped researchers on experimental farm plots, but never worked a farm professionally, although see Sharon’s earlier post on the term “farmer”. Also per capita wealth isn’t really closely tied to resources/population, because resources and wealth aren’t the same thing. You need capital, and labor, and markets, and infrastructure, and all kinds of stuff to turn resources into wealth. And even then economies tend to vary in how efficiently they turn resources into (wealth+ illth), and in what the proportion of wealth (genuinely beneficial economic products) to illth (detrimental economic outputs, like pollution or stress) outputed is. Likewise, since the value of money is what you can get for it, it is tied to market-access as well as to energy and money volume. Similarly, gas’s ability to perform work is not completely unlinked to its monetary value. Even when gas is cheap (1$) sometimes you can’t use it to do a specific task, because a gas-powered machine to do the task is not cheap. Migrant farm workers did some ag tasks even when gas was really cheap. Contrariwise, when gas is expensive, often it is cheaper to have a human do a task, than a gas-powered machine. Poverty can be caused by a low e/p ratio, but other thingn can cause it too (under-capitalization, lack of market access, etc.) If e/p ratio were the only trick we’d expect Japan to be in bad shape… Likewise 2 societies can have similar e/p ratios, but one society be vastly less impoverished than the other (it turns its e into wealth more efficiently, or has other resources besides e, or distributes its wealth well, etc.). Finally even this isn’t physics, its still economics, after all that e represented “availible energy” and what counts as “available” has everything to do with the economics of the situation. If we could turn a sizable fraction of the tidal energy of the seas into “availible” energy, we’d have poverty licked, and there is no physics bar with doing so, only economic problems.

    Sharon - Does demographic transition ever happen in reverse when previously secure societies, are no longer secure?

    -Brian M.

  7. Anonymouson 27 Jul 2007 at 5:05 am

    Nice article.

    Lot of slippery things presented as fact.

    Are you sure your analysis is right?

  8. Flickon 27 Jul 2007 at 5:13 am

    Sharon , I am an avid reader of your blog these last few months and admire very much what you are doing in your life and in your writing. You are wise, well informed, and a very compassionate person. I agree with much of what you have to say, most of the time. And I’m sure that much of the rest of the time it is because I don’t know as much as you do about the subject.

    I am very glad you have returned to the subject of population, it is of utmost importance and the tone of most of the responses to your last post on the subject I found very upsetting. Your readers likely represent a part of the populace that actually cares about the fate of the earth and are anxious to do what they can to help. This is hard to square with the selfishness evident in much of the discussion, (they were very supportive of you personally though, and that is a good thing.) When I say selfish I mean human centric more than personally self absorbed. Problems caused by human population pressure are not just about us. This is only tangentially about how many more mouths we can or should feed. This has everything to do with the sorry state of our ecosystems across the planet. The rate of extinctions worldwide is over 100 times the normal background rate. (see massextinction.net for links to hundreds of extremely depressing articles. Richard Leakey’s “The Sixth Extinction” is a good overview of the problems and a good place to start). Lions are in trouble, gorillas are in trouble. Plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, coral, forests and insects are all in deep trouble. We are not just talking a few polar bears here. We are talking collapse of major ecosystems worldwide, in the air, land, rivers, and seas, over the next century if things continue in the current direction.

    Extinctions come and extinctions go. The current one is the sixth major extinction and has one major cause, and that is the over abundance of humans and the nature of our activities. It may take as much as ten million years to set everything right. Think about that! It has been said that the current mass extinction could exceed the worst one, which I think was the third, when 90 percent of existing species were wiped out. Climate change is not the only phenomenon involving tipping points. Ecosystems are already under enormous stress.

    I could probably list 500 things we can do to help minimize climate change in our personal , political, philosophical, cultural, economic, and technological realms. I am sure that together we can think of a thousand more, then prioritize and fine tune the lot of them. It won’t make a hill of beans worth of difference if most of our ecosystems are collapsed. We think and act as if we are not a part of these ecosystems, but that is dead wrong.
    In fact the only thing that can change the direction and intensity of current extinction rates is for there to be less of us. Many, many less of us. We can try to preserve patches of ecosystems here and there but ecologists on the whole do not think this piecemeal “saving” of endangered species is much more than a few band-aids on a patient with life threatening wounds. We need habitat that is healthy, intact and connected every which way with other healthy habitat. We surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity for human population some time ago. The evidence on that is unmistakable. The possibility of population stabilizing of its own accord at 3 billion in about 150 years seems like way to little, way too late. It may suit us, but the rest of the natural world has been hemorrhaging for a long time already, and a continuing major extinction will drag us all down. We need to limit our numbers before the natural process of population peak and collapse bites us on our collective butts. As a self declared conscious species we theoretically are capable of doing this. We certainly must at least try. I, for one, do not trust governments with anything of importance, and coercion of any sort is not effective or desired.

    We do need to wake the world up! Education, discussions, protests, art, music, grafitti, letters, op-eds, articles, books, videos on youtube. Whatever it takes to raise awareness about mass extinction and its relationship to human activities and population. We need to ask each other to do our parts willingly for the betterment of all. We need a shift in perception and values that make having few children the most responsible choice. This is particularly true in societies that are energy and resource hogs. I’m sorry if that is not comfortable for everyone. It shouldn’t be. Societal approval/disapproval is an effective tool. All societies use it in some form. We don’t need a change in laws as much as a change in attitudes and customs, and this pressure should come from love. Love of life, love of all the worlds creatures, love of children, love of each other, and love of the future generations that may benefit from our wisdom if we choose to act on it. There should be tolerance as well, we are imperfect foolish creatures (especially old white men like me). As my friend Julia once said ”Perfection! Now it’s as easy as raising the dead!” Something similar could be said for inventing solutions to the world’s problems. I am heartened that so many of you are trying anyway.

  9. Ladyfromthewoodson 27 Jul 2007 at 1:07 pm

    My concern is that in trying to “wake the world up” one may easily put them to sleep. Be a pied piper, says I. Who wants to follow the environment-thupping, ice-cap preaching, red-faced from screaming, preacher? Show me a person who does not bemoan that they were born to this unsettled time where they have little control over big business and government (as they have grown to pre-Big Brother proportions already.) Show me an individual who is happy to do their part, happy with the chance to live, and seems so much happier than the “stuff-hoarders”. I will want to be like that person. Show me a Ghandi of the environment. Be a Mother Theresa who tackles the issues like she did to poverty. Outrage (which is a good mover of self) is a slow mover of others. Passion, yes, PASSION with love for others, I will follow the leader with that! Because they seem to be at peace with what they can and cannot do. And that is what we all want to immitate in hopes that we will become a Mother Theresa too.

    Don’t know what compelled this comment. I’m one of the “little” people in the world of environmentalists.

  10. Anonymouson 27 Jul 2007 at 1:23 pm

    “… And as long as the conversation stays there, we’ll be missing the point. Because ultimately, people care most about being fed, having their kids live to grow up, having safe water, basic housing, etc…”

    That is it in a nut shell. At the moment urbanites world wide are thinking “how will I commute?”.
    Looking at PO through the prism of Maslow, I see basically what you stated above. Food, and security for my kids, the missus, and me.

    Always a pleasure to read your missives and mussings. A sober pleasure…


    Luke Bunyip

  11. RASon 27 Jul 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Very good post. I do think you understimate the amout lack of sexual freedom for women, traditional birth control methods, condoms, and abortions, have had in the stunning decline of fertility in many third world countries.

    Weaseldog -there’s wealth and then there’s wealth. If you’re defining it in solely material terms, that’s closer to true than otherwise.

    We all ready approriate over 40% of the photosynthetic product of the planet. I’m not sure the earth can handle another couple of billion of us (no matter how temporary). And I don’t think we have 150 years to reduce our population to sustainable levels. I’d like to believe so, but I just can’t. Not with climate change, ecosystem collapse, and all the rest.

    And I agree with this:
    “There’s fairly compelling evidence that we can feed that many people, if we chose to do so, and if we choose to act justly. That would mean giving up ethanol, reducing our meat consumption, and radically reducing our consumption of goods. It would mean living a much simpler lifestyle, and devoting more of the resources of the rich world, while we have them, to education, health and welfare and sharing our good fortune. The benefits we reap would be enormous. Worldwide, nations that have prioritized food security, basic health care and stability for its populace have seen an average fall of their TFR to below 2 - in many cases, well below it. At that rate, by 2150, the world’s whole population would be below 3 billion, without a massive die off.”
    But I also see it as more of a fantasy than a possibility. Between the inertia built into the system, the greed of TPTB that will attempt to stop ANYthing that threatens the status quo and business as usual, climate change, ecosystem collapse, peak oil, and the incredible diverstiy of the world’s regions, governments, peoples, and viewpoints, I just don’t see it happening.

    I’m not a doomer; I don’t believe in the apocolapse or stone age fantasies. But I am a realist and I every sign I see points towards collapse(s) and a die off. Heck, we all ready lose 25,000 people a day to hunger and 5,000 to lack of water (or vice versa, I can’t remember right now) and I don’t see how we could expect to get our act together to do this.

    I don’t like it, and I hope I’m wrong, but that’s the way I see it.

  12. Guamanianon 27 Jul 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Sharon — Thanks for another excellent analysis. You have certainly given valuable insight into the relative importance of the various factors. Like many who are over-influenced by decades-old arguments on population, I was unaware of the more recent findings you cite on the relative balance of social factors vs. birth control and ‘one-child’ policies in the demographic transition.

    It is rare that I leave a peak oil site a bit more optimistic than when I arrived… Thanks!

    BTW: The ASPO-published population essay you are referring to is “Oil and People” by William Stanton. I think ASPO ultimately became embarrased by this fascist screed, since it disappeared from their web site some time back. You can find it in ASPO #055 at http://www.energiekrise.de/e/aspo_news/aspo/newsletter055.pdf, and a deconstruction of it with substantial excerpts at http://www.timboucher.com/journal/2006/09/14/sentimental-depopulation/. There is also a discussion thread on the essay at http://www.peakoil.com/fortopic10470.html. (My own sarcastic skewering of Stanton is part of this thread, titled “Triumph of the Will[iam]”)

  13. Scoton 27 Jul 2007 at 2:59 pm

    I was at a retreat with a number of missionaries on vacation, and I remember them explaining that in the Subsaharan areas, a couple basically needed to have two boys in order to care for them in their old age. This on average produces four children, because the mix will be 50/50 boys and girls. If one adds to that the need to account for death of a child then three boys is security that there will be two, and hence the fertility level of six. If the survival of the children can be assured then births fall from six to four.

    If old age can become something that parents feel can be provided from sources other than their children (ie. social security type programs) then birth rates fall to two and lower.

    This discussion matches how they explained it to me, and something that seemed so irrational to me - having six children - made sense.


  14. Weaseldogon 27 Jul 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Brian M. after all that, you ended up agreeing with me.

    Available Resources / Available energy is what counts toward wealth. That is what I argued in my point about Nigeria.

    Yes it is easy to complicate an analysis to the degree that the information content becomes zero.

  15. Jan VanDenBergon 28 Jul 2007 at 1:48 am

    I would suggest that you read two interesting books: Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America and A History of Contraception.

    Women didn’t reduce births before contraception by some magic. I know several women myself, old now, who had far more children than they wanted.

    The two old, safe, effective methods most used — withdrawal and marital abstinence — were controlled by men. Men made these decisions.

    The methods women could control were crude and dangerous, but very very popular throughout the 19th c, when birthrates were quite high in the US. Potions to induce abortion, crude RU-486, were advertised in almost all popular magazines. Women were desparate and they died.

    White lead was commonly inserted in diaphram-like devices. Women surely died from lead poisoning.

    There was a long period, a couple of hundred years, when births could be effectively controlled by a man, but women relied on a wild array of dangerous methods, devices and potions to block semen or, more usually, to induce abortions.

    Crude IUDs were also inserted, called pessaries. These are still used for some farm animals such as camels.

    Please don’t assume that there was some magic which allowed women to “make rational decisions and then have that many children” If it were so easy, why do teenagers make such a mess of things? If it were so easy, why can’t modern American women do it without using abortions?

    Jan VanDenBerg

  16. Anonymouson 28 Jul 2007 at 1:48 am

    No we disagreed. I guess I failed to communicate the information, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Let’s try shorter. “Lack of energy is one thing that can cause poverty, but not the only one.” For example, a society with plenty of energy can have decent wealth per capita, but still have widespread poverty if the wealth is distributed unevenly (Mexico), or it can have plenty of energy but do a bad job of turning it into wealth (Soviet Union).
    -Brian M.

  17. Jan VanDenBergon 28 Jul 2007 at 2:13 am

    Also, Sharon, you should realize that there is considerable controversy, fueled by the population equivalent of global warming deniers, around your blythe statement that birth rate decline is unassociated with the availability of birth control.

    That is the opinion of only one side in a major war.

    It is true that the French, using withdrawal, and the English, using abstinence, and the Japanese, using abortion methods, stabilized their populations in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    However, no one else did.

    Why not? Cause it’s really hard, that’s why.

    To pretend that all these modern peoples just may as well re-invent the wheel all over again and use these archaic methods, none of them pleasant or effective, rather than use modern methods, is a line of argument put out by the men in some societies who want to justify denying their women adequate medical care — because they want to maintain high birth rates and/or they want to use only male-controlled methods, such as condoms and withdrawal.

    It is clear that, thinking rationally, a man is usually going to want to have more children than a woman, because the cost of the child is not born by him.

    This is true in most traditional cultures. One survey showed Gambian men wanting 15 children and the women only 5.

    And, there are many cultures, such as the Palestinian, who see a high birth rate as a kind of armament, a kind of war strategy. People rationally decide to have 8 children for reasons the rest of us may not appreciate — like, so they can sacrifice a couple to suicide bombing or soldiering.

    You seem to be studying and quoting only those on one side of this big battle. One quote from the opposing side: The best contraception is contraception.

    Someone always seems to be looking for an excuse to fail to provide adequate health care, including birth control, to poor women. Men, mostly. Don’t fall for their line.

    Further population growth rate declines are NOT assured. We have made the easy gains. Now, we need progress in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and other such places. Progress there may be a lot slower than the UN expects.

    Progress there without modern birth control is very very unlikely.

    I think the UN is wrong to blithely assume that the Saudis, the Yemenis, the Pakistanis, the Ethiopians and so on will all be having 2.1 children in 20 years. While women are still held inside under purdah, can’t drive and wear the burqa? Those cultures are not going to change that easily. Their birth rates are not going to fall that easily, either.

    Jan VanDenBerg

  18. Anonymouson 28 Jul 2007 at 5:06 am

    In your last paragraph you say “That would mean giving up ethanol”. What is this about? I’ve never heard anyone recommend that. Please clarify.

  19. jewishfarmeron 28 Jul 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Jan - I’ve not read your first recommendation, and will, but I’ve read the former. If you’ll recall from the former, the rate of abortion was actually quite small for the populace as a whole - dramatically lower than the rate of birth control use at present. You left infanticide out as well - another form of “birth control” that was quite common. But again, statistically speaking, such measures were used in a comparatively small percentage of cases, despite the demographic transition. Compare it to the present rate of reproduction (2.1), where birth control of some form is used in 83% of instances, and you’ll see that you simply can’t account for the demographic transition in America or Europe based on birth control access. I agree that abortion, herbal and medical means were used - no question. But as I said before, they account for a comparatively small part of the reduction.

    I’m certainly no advocate of eliminating birth control, as you insinuate - I think it should be vastly more widely available. However, living in the irrational society that I do, I have the horrible feeling that peak oil is going to dramatically cut birth control access for billions of people, and it is worth noting that there are other ways of dealing with these issues - ways that seem comparatively unlikely in a society that doesn’t have much truck with the idea that people could not have sex within or outside of marriage.

    I also think that equating feminism and adequate health care for women with birth control is a mistake - sure, some men will always look for an excuse to do that. And some people will always look for an excuse to advance their basic political agenda by pretending their primary interest is the rights of women. But women aren’t idiots, and they can distinguish between real power and justice for them, and a focus whose narrative is “just stop having so many babies.” Historically speaking, state involvement in fertility - limitation or growth - has often been disempowering, not empowering. The line between what enables women to meet their needs and what enforces outside policy on their bodies is sometimes quite fine.

    You are also again, putting cart before horse. You are right that in poor societies, women have comparatively little right to refuse their husbands - or use birth control for that matter. The reality is that all of this depends on women’s political and cultural power - however women choose to limit their families, and more options are better than fewer, the root of this is not any single medical technique, but women’s political power, and the focus needs to be there.

    My message, if you re-read, is not that we shouldn’t have birth control, but that we should focus on the basic needs of people, especially women. I don’t see anything in your arguments that compellingly contradicts that.


  20. jewishfarmeron 28 Jul 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Anonymous, ethanol production is turning food into gas for our cars - equitable distribution of food for 9 billion or so people is going to mean that we send food to people to eat, not to burn in our cars. Already ethanol production in combination with climate change has raised grain prices by more than 30% worldwide. We’re seeing it in our dinners now, but almost half the world’s population spends 60% or more of its income on food - how do they eat if we keep burning their dinners in our tanks?


  21. jewishfarmeron 28 Jul 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Jan, I want to add one thing. Now I don’t know you from adam, and I’m not assuming anything in particular about you. But I was trying to figure out why your responses bother me. It isn’t the disagreement per se, but rhetorically speaking, something about the way you are presenting your material strikes me as “feminism in service of…” rhetoric. That is, a feminism whose focus has been a particular desired outcome, rather than an overarching commitment to women. Now this may just be me overreading, and I apologize if it is. But I do want to say something about that.

    I think people who invoke feminism in the interest of some outcome they’d like to see often miss the point, simply because their primary goal is X outcome, not greater power and benefit for women. I don’t deny that there are ways in which population limitation benefits women enormously - and that there are ways in which population limitation potentially can harm them. But any claim that population limitation in itself is feminist, I think requires considerable scrutiny. Because, ultimately, the right of women to *CHOOSE* without coercion or influence what happens to their bodies is feminist - the right of women, for example, to be free from sexual coercion both in and out of marriage. But that also includes the right to decline birth control, to choose one’s family size based on one’s basic needs without coercion or undue external pressure.

    You say “we” need to make progress in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, that population declines are not assured. Fair enough - but what would you suggest, other than raising the status of women, encouraging more equitable distribution and economic security and waiting for those societies to change from the inside, led by their own people? Because the “we” part of this seems to imply that we’re going to do something.

    I don’t like the Burkha or the restriction of women in Saudi society. But Saudi women, generally speaking, don’t much like Western people coming and tellling them that their religion is wrong and their sexual practices should be westernized.

    Again, I’m curious - what are you advocating other than the improvement of women’s lives for their own sake?


  22. Weaseldogon 29 Jul 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Brian M. we still agree.

    In Mexico, the people don’t own the oil. Nor do they benefit from it. So the oil doesn’t exist for them.

    The oil is unavailable, so it is not counted as ‘Available Energy’.

    The wealth of Mexican farming peasants comes from the energy in the crops they grow. Agriculture provides much less energy per hour of labor than does pumping oil, so they are much poorer than people who own and operate oil fields.

  23. the GIMP 4 Digi-Scrapperson 03 Aug 2007 at 3:51 pm

    I have not commented on your posts before, Sharon, so let me give a brief glimpse of me first:

    I have not signed up for your 90% reduction, but am inspired by it to move (just a little bit) out of my comfort zone. I am not a believer in PO, nor Peak Population, (now that I’ve read your reference to that), but respect your (and others’) right to do so. I have a garden for many reasons: I come from a long line of gardeners, I want to be frugal, fresh tastes (much) better, etc. I recycle because not everything fits in my garbage can each week, but like to think that I am doing something good for the environment in the process. And I do many, many other things because of my desire to be frugal, including buying used clothing, using freecycle and CraigsList, etc.

    I am NOT an economist, or even budding economist as several of your readers seem to be, so my questions here may seem somewhat elementary. But here goes:

    What do you mean by public cafeterias? Would those be mandatory or voluntary? By “public” do you mean government run or privately run for the public good? I already share my garden surplus with the neighbors–is this the beginning of a “public cafeteria” in the “privately run for the public good” sense? If so, do you believe that is enough, or do you think government run is, or will be, necessary in the near future? What about privately run homeless shelters? Many of those, as well as religious congregations et al also serve meals to those who are hungry. Don’t you think that the religious community will “step up to the plate” further as the needs get bigger?

    And as far as the TFR goes, you mention limiting the tax credit to 2 children, or at least reducing it. What about limiting welfare in the same way? I just felt the hair on someone’s back bristle, but isn’t this the same kind of thing? “Giving” money in the form of welfare or “not taking away” money in the form of tax credits? Who, in general, has the larger families? Those on welfare or the rest of society? I’m not saying there is a wide gap between the two, but there might be…

    Thanks so much for your insightful and thought-provoking posts.

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