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Demographic Transition and the Population Disinformation Bomb

Updated on May 17, 2015

How do you feel about the human population issue?

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Paul Ehrlich
Paul Ehrlich | Source

The Demographic Transition

Head for the hills! Paul Ehrlich is coming! Sorry, I couldn't resist the sarcasm. Ehrlich is the principal author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb. A part of me is surprised that any educated person would take Ehrlich's 19th Century thinking on population seriously. Nevertheless Ehrlich's alarmist screed tapped into the lucrative hell-in-a-handbasket reading market.

Yes, as of 2015, world population is increasing. But do we really want to go on an Environmentalist jihad, and to systematically trample the unalienable rights of people who live in developing countries, in the name of 'saving the planet from ourselves'? Is the draconian Chinese one-child-per-family policy a wonderful thing? Are we full barking mad?

As Mark Twain famously said,
"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."

In contrast, every scientifically literate person should know about the Demographic Transition. Population-related books and articles that pooh-pooh the Demographic Transition tend to be shallow, Scare-of-the-Month-Club codswallop.

What is the Demographic Transition, anyway? When a traditional society modernizes, there's an initial increase in population growth, fueled by a big decrease in infant mortality.

This is followed by an even more dramatic decrease in birthrate many decades later. The whole multi-step process is known as the Demographic Transition. There are a number of factors that can accelerate the Demographic Transition, and minimize the likelihood of a Haiti scenario. These include:

• urbanization;
• industrialization;
• universal public education;
• rudimentary public health measures, like sanitation;
• respect for the rights of women, enshrined within the law;
• access to birth control, and to information pertaining thereto;
• strong property rights for small landowners, vigorously enforced.

Hand-wringing about hypothetical Malthusian scenarios is a waste of time. Ditto for the ham-fisted Chinese approach to population control. Given the necessary initial conditions, the Demographic Transition is an automatic process.

Assuming that one can provide a reasonable standard of living for one's children, family size is not a moral issue. Pontificating about population alienates people, unless you happen to be preaching to the choir.

Here are a few additional considerations. Some--including yours truly--would consider the Demographic Transition equilibrium population level to be unaesthetic in its own right. More to the point, living standards in developing countries would be higher if their populations were smaller. (More food.)

Some countries are already overpopulated in an economic sense. In these places, the Demographic Transition is not a done deal, and a Haiti scenario is a real risk. For example, many Philippinos work in other countries, because they cannot find decent jobs near home.

There are legitimate environmental issues: overfishing in most oceans, the unsustainable mining of aquifers in the Southwestern USA and in other semiarid regions, soil erosion, and human encroachment on the habitats of endangered species in Australia and on some islands. All of our current environmental issues -- real and imaginary -- would be partially mitigated by a smaller human population. However if a nearly global Demographic Transition is imminent, choosing not to 'do something' about the Population Bogeyman will not lead to The End Of The World As We Know It.

The famous British economist, John Maynard Keynes.
The famous British economist, John Maynard Keynes. | Source
John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath.
John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. | Source

The long, long term

"In the long run, we're all dead."

Notwithstanding John Maynard Keynes' famous witticism, long-term thinking can be worthwhile. On a geological time scale, we're living in a relatively short interglacial. For the last few million years, major advances of continental glaciers have been the rule. Interglacials, like our current Holocene, are essentially punctuation marks. From that long-term perspective, we're due for another major glaciation advance, informally known as an "Ice Age," sometime within the next 2000 years. At that time, the human Carrying Capacities of the lands in Canada and Northern Europe will be less than the population loads that they support at the present time.

When their houses get razed by the advancing continental ice sheets, people will migrate away from higher latitudes. How will people who live at lower latitudes feel about that? Will they welcome climate refugees with open arms? Or will they take the position that the boat is full?

Willy-nilly, Sweden has been preparing for that possibility. And it makes sense on a long-term, hedge-your-bets level. Relative to its small population (just under 10 million), Sweden has been quite generous in receiving refugees from some warmer countries, like Iraq and Somalia. Of course, this is part of a larger picture, which includes strong respect for human rights, and funding the Swedish social security system, in the face of a birthrate that's well below the replacement level. When the fit hits the shan, the nice Swedish people heading South will probably be given a warmer welcome than other Northern European climate refugees.

Economic crises can bring out the best and the worst in people. This point was brought home poignantly in a famous historical novel, by John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is set during the Great Depression in the USA. It follows the hardships of a family from the Dust Bowl, as they head West, trying to find work in California. Despite the lip service that we Americans pay to freedom of speech, this literary masterpiece was actually banned for a time in places. It was that revealing.

During the next Glacial Advance, some current desert areas will be able to support some kind of agriculture -- even if it is yucky tasting millet. This will partially offset the loss of arable land at higher latitudes. Take the bleak Nullarbor Plain in South Australia. During the last Glacial Advance, this area had trees. How do we know that? Because a Tree Kangaroo skeleton has been found in a cave beneath the Nullarbor Plain.

Former President Jimmy Carter, a nice guy with incredibly bad judgment.
Former President Jimmy Carter, a nice guy with incredibly bad judgment. | Source

The politics of the medium long term

The larger question is this: Will there be a nonrenewable resource crunch soon after the Demographic Transition has been firmly established almost everywhere? The USA has already fought two Oil Wars. What's next: a Rare Earth Elements war? If the costs of various raw materials skyrocket, proactive governmental actions could promote a 'softer landing'.

But most people do not want to hear about managing a decline--especially now. Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) has been hyped as the mother of all environmental issues, and it has eclipsed all of the legitimate ones.

'Climate fatigue' is currently affecting public opinion even in environmental countries, like Germany. And for good reason. AGW is the biggest scientific fraud since Lysenkoism in the former Soviet Union. And misguided Warmist-inspired policies are already placing serious economic burdens on the people who can least afford them.

It's unfortunate that the Democrats have learned precious little from Jimmy Carter's failed presidency. In general, the governments of the major Western democracies have blown it big-time. For the foreseeable future, the public will not take dire pronouncements about energy and environmental issues from Chicken Little authority figures seriously. They have lost all credibility.

Moreover AGW has left a huge stain on the entire scientific profession. The heretofore unwritten first rule of the Scientific Method was the following:

When you're wearing your scientist's hat, tell the truth, warts and all.

Because most of the big-name Warmist 'researchers' can't even do that, they've delivered a crushing body blow to the image of Science. Many people are beginning to wonder: Are scientists more honorable than lawyers?

Politics aside, there's a very real question about our fair planet's long-term Carrying Capacity. If there are no huge technological breakthroughs in energy production, the long-term Carrying Capacity will be significantly less than the intermediate-term Carrying Capacity. When the Demographic Transition countries hit that slippery slope, living standards will decline, and so will birthrates. (During the Great Depression, the birthrate in the USA dipped below replacement levels.) Social security systems will be severely strained. Retired people everywhere will experience even more difficulties than senior citizens in Japan currently face.

The Japanese have decided that immigration will not be the solution for their social security funding problems. Fortunately, they have a very high savings rate, which partially offsets the current very low Japanese birthrate. And unlike the citizens of some Western European countries, the Japanese can avoid the Clash of Civilizations drama, and continue to be who they are.

Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston | Source


Given the graying of populations in the developed countries--especially in Japan and in Western European--there should be a shift in health research priorities. New chemotherapy agents to treat this or that type of cancer are all well and good. But there should be more emphasis on quality of life. New technologies for successful smoking cessation, for reversing obesity, and for prevention of diabetes and its complications should be prime concerns.

We should explore more low-cost ways to help senior citizens remain ambulatory and live independently. Let's optimize physical exercise programs for seniors, and make these programs more sustainable and less 'boring'. I have a small suggestion in this area. Here's a link to my hub about strengthening weak upper legs.

Environmentalists need to outgrow the alarmist Soylent Green mentality. The movie is good entertainment, but nothing more than that. Here's a link to a HUB that reviews the Charlton Heston classic.

The Demographic Transition is not a panacea for all of our self-made environmental problems. Nevertheless educated citizens--and even our benighted policy makers--should be cognizant of the Demographic Transition.

If we take a few common-sense measures to nurture incipient Demographic Transitions everywhere, human population could turn out to be a self-regulating system, with semi-stable equilibria being the norm, except for a few Malthusian hells in countries with hopelessly corrupt governments.

In the intermediate term, the equilibrium population levels determined by the Demographic Transition may not be to everyone's liking. Living in Northern California has really spoiled me. I would feel like a caged animal, living in the densely-populated Eastern part of China. But there's precious little that we outsiders can or should do about China's population, aside from encouraging economic reform, to accelerate their Demographic Transition.

Future economic crunches--stemming from the next major continental glaciation cycle; or from imprudent stewardship of our natural resources--may prove to be a fly in the ointment of the Demographic Transition model. Nevertheless our experience with the Demographic Transition has shown that people are not dogs and cats. There can be no justification for Big Government placing arbitrary restrictions on reproductive freedom--which we should continue to respect as a fundamental human right.

The perfect little world envisioned by population control advocates is Totalitarian and downright creepy. I say: Let's do our scientific homework; let's be adults about this; and let's not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Totalitarians have always marketed themselves as the guys in white hats. In their public statements, they never say:

Schadenfreude is wonderful! Let's see how much human suffering we can inflict while we're in the driver's seat.

However if you listen closely, they do say:

Oh by the way, the need for implementing our agenda before we reach a catastrophic and irreversible 'tipping point' in the near future is so great, that it'll be necessary to put certain quaint niceties--like freedom of speech--on hold.

The shrillness of tone is a dead giveaway. These days, many of the population and other environmental polemics, written by 'educated' people who should know better, are not even remotely consistent with the available science.

For those who are nostalgic for the intellectual climate of the Middle Ages, one approach is to chip away at the Scientific Method itself. Professor Jerome Ravetz describes some of the implications of Post-normal Science here:

My take on Post-normal Science is best summarized by the Larry Equation:

politics + the trappings of science = more politics

*steps down from soapbox*

Here's a LINK to a hub by Goodpal. It goes into considerable detail about the ongoing success story of the Demographic Transition in Kerala, a state in the Western part of India.

Quokka | Source
Diprotodon skeleton
Diprotodon skeleton | Source
Coyote | Source
Lemming | Source

Native animal populations

Some animals readily adapt to human neighbors, and to the domesticated plants and animals that people bring with them, when they settle in new lands. Other native animals are not as flexible.

The charming creature in the photo at the top of this section is a Quokka, one of the smaller members of the kangaroo family. Quokka populations in Western Australia have declined dramatically over the last several centuries. Chalk that up to feral cats, to feral foxes, and to habitat loss from farming. However there's a thriving Quokka community on Rottnest Island, a Nature tourism destination, just off the coast of Western Australia, near Perth.

The Diprotodon--a hippo-sized, plant-eating Marsupial from Austalia--was less fortunate than the Quokka. There are two hypotheses about how they and the other Australian megafauna died out. The first is natural climate change. The second is overhunting, and its associated 'firestick farming', on the part of early humans living on the Island Continent.

Unlike Quokkas in Australia, Coyotes in North America are well-adapted to living near humans. Coyote populations have actually increased since the arrival of European settlers here.

Lemmings, like the one in the photo, are Arctic rodents, who go through dramatic predator-prey cycles. There's an urban legend that many Lemmings go insane, and commit mass suicide, by jumping off cliffs at the peaks of their population cycles. This is supposed to be a cautionary tale for us humans.

The origin of the Lemming myth is a staged Disney 'documentary,' White Wilderness. However Lemmings do attempt mass migrations at these times, and many of them overestimate their swimming abilities when they encounter rivers.

Copyright 2011 and 2015 by Larry Fields

How do you feel about population alarmists?

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    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Gconeyhiden wrote:

      "either way the paper you cite is very specific and two tigers somewhere takes them off the list. subspecies are exempt,extirpation is exempt, only birds and mammals are in the stats."

      The paper is very straightforward. There's nothing sneaky about it. The words "bird", "mammal", and "extinction" even appear in the title. Or did you miss that part?

      Like most scientific papers, this one does not attempt to answer the question of "Life, the Universe, and everything." To me, that is a strength, rather than a weakness.

      No, "extirpation" is not exempt.

      No person with adult-level reading comprehension skills would jump to the conclusion that Loehle and Eschenbach were attempting to whitewash the legitimate issue of biodiversity. They were simply attempting to quantitate it.

      The problem is that scientifically illiterate True Believers are claiming that we're in the middle of a mass extinction on a Permian scale, because of a human infestation of the planet. However the claim of a Permian-level mass extinction is supported only by junk science, and by emotional projection, not by evidence.

      The key word in the last paragraph is Permian. Look it up.

      The paper is a nice counterpoint to the shrill Environmentalist hysteria about biodiversity. This may be difficult for some people to understand, but the heretofore unwritten first rule of the scientific method is the following:

      "When you're wearing your scientist's hat, tell the bloody truth, warts and all."

      It's not about Political Correctness, or about fund-raising, or about winning pissing contests.

      It's unfortunate that for True Believers of all stripes, truthfulness is an overrated virtue, and that the ends justify the means.

    • gconeyhiden profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A

      my comment wasn't shot gun larry. that's just a smart way not to address points well made or not well made. either way the paper you cite is very specific and two tigers somewhere takes them off the list. subspecies are exempt,extirpation is exempt, only birds and mammals are in the stats. I don't swallow anything whole w.o digestion. i agree w the premise that island species are more vulnerable for proper extinction. I knew that before i read the paper. my argument is..,and its not based on E.O.Wilson but observation is that the world is changing faster then ever & humans are undisciplined and driven by greed. you mention evil. i don't think they are evil so much as powerful, wasteful, greedy ect. ect. I visited a river in northern California and there was a sign that 1900 thousands of migrating salmon came up this there are none. im wondering what the next 100-200 yrs hold. i like the way you fast forward to the next ice age. is that game theory at work? maybe we can get the salmon back in that river where they belong? post it don't post much for

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Hi gconeyhiden. It's very difficult to give an adequate response to a shotgun comment, in a reasonable number of words. Instead I'll look at your last sentence:

      "less people means more biodiversity and if e.o. wilson is concerned im concerned"

      Although Wilson was a world-class entomologist, he did not understand population dynamics. In bureaucratic way, he extrapolated extinction stats from islands (and from Australia) to the major continents.

      Using published extinction figures, the paper that I mentioned above, by Loehle and Eschenbach, shows that Wilson jumped to an unwarranted conclusion. At least with respect to mammals and birds.

      Did you read the full abstract to that paper? Do you have any questions about it? If your answers are yes and yes, you may want to start a forum on the subject.

      My impression of your last sentence is that you've overplayed the Argument From Authority card. That's political thinking, rather than scientific thinking. Here's a quote from the late Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman:

      "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

    • gconeyhiden profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A

      I think your stats will change for the worse larry. the tonel sap in cambodia is being destroyed by greed and big bucks. when this important fishery and important supply of cheap fish is ruined bush meat of all kinds will come out of the forests in s.e asia. it happen in Africa and it will happen there if this very destructive policy of corp. overfishing is not stopped. this is just one example. nobody likes govts telling them what to do that's why its good everybody should get educated, so they can make proper choices for themselves and the planet they share. maybe you can shoot down for me the reports that orca whales are so polluted they are toxic and must be dumped in toxic waste sites. if this is indeed a fact it goes to show how God damn sloppy and irresponsible humans can be. ok im not very fond of the average human. very undisciplined and a strong tendency to be greedy and wasteful. over population is going to be a problem. I guess positive thinking tops negative thinking but if you put cream topping on shit its still shit. less people means more biodiversity and if e.o. wilson is concerned im concerned

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Hi winbo. Thanks for stopping by.

    • winbo profile image


      8 years ago

      Thank you Larry Fields. it is nice post. i like that.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Hi, gconeyhiden. The abstract to this scientific journal article may partially answer your question.

      Loehle, Craig, and Willis Eschenbach. 2011. Historical bird and terrestrial mammal extinction rates and causes. Diversity and Distributions. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-4642.2011.00856.x

      "We examined historical extinction rates for birds and mammals and contrasted island and continental extinctions. Australia was included as an island because of its isolation. Only six continental birds and three continental mammals were recorded in standard databases as going extinct since 1500 compared to 123 bird species and 58 mammal species on islands."

      Read more here.

      Note that this is about mammals and birds. Because of a fungal infection that we humans are inadvertently spreading, frog populations may be a different story.

      Yes, human encroachment has reduced populations of some species, and has increased populations of other species, like Coyotes. In general, the Scare-of-the-Month-Club articles, claiming that we 'evil' humans are causing a new Permian-scale wave of extinctions, are greatly exaggerated.

    • gconeyhiden profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A

      what is it about Australia? there are unique species endangered all over the planet by human activities that destroy habitat.

    • Larry Fields profile imageAUTHOR

      Larry Fields 

      9 years ago from Northern California

      Beata, thanks for your kind words. One of these years, I'll have to visit my little buddies on Rottnest Island.

    • Beata Stasak profile image

      Beata Stasak 

      9 years ago from Western Australia

      Thank you Larry for very useful and insightful article, I have learnt so much and also got different perspective on this well debated issue:)

      Thank you for introducing my good friend 'quokka' to your informative article, it suits well to your argument, the only place we can meet quokkas is this little holiday island, where we 'Western Australians' spend most of our holidays...believe me in a holiday season poor quokkas would love to run away somewhere...but let's face it they live on the last island, their last resort...AND PEOPLE ARE EVERYWHERE...

      By the way thanks for stopping by and leaving me so beautiful comment.


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