Will mankind ever evolve its economy beyond a growth model?
A reader writes that my recent posting about overpopulation and migration hit home. They too, remember the "Zero Population Growth" (ZPG) movement of the 1970's and note with irony that we encourage people to spay and neuter their pets, but we've pretty much given up on population control.
Why did ZPG get tossed in the rubbish bin? It is a complex question - and one that won't go away. In the early part of the last century, many "reformers" wanted to improve conditions for the poor. The one thing they noted was that the poor had a lot of children that they could not afford to feed. As a result, these kids were sickly and underfed and infant mortality was high. And those that lived, often turned to crime to survive. If only the poor wouldn't have so many kids!
But that caused an outcry. You see, the same people pushing for "family planning" and population control were also pushing the idea of eugenics which today is considered pretty much racist. Once you go down the road of controlling how many kids you have, you start to think about who should be allowed to have kids and maybe improving the genetic stock by careful breeding - much as we do with dogs and farm animals.
People found this distasteful - humans, after all, are not animals (we are, but try telling that to most folks - they see anything "human" as separate and apart from "nature" - as if we were robots planted here by space aliens). And of course, ideas about genetic breeding and "the master race" were the tenets of Nazism, so after World War II, those sort of ideas went away - or at least underground.
The Zero Population Growth movement sort of died a similar way. While many educated and upper-class people subscribed to this notion, a lot of poor people never knew it existed. And since many of the poor subscribe to religions that are not only anti-abortion, but anti-birth control, the poor continued to populate while the wealthy had their 2.1 kids like responsible adults.
It is a thing among the poor - kids having kids, who in turn are raised by their grandma. And it is considered lower-class even by the lower classes, although the stigma is slowly being erased. A friend of mine was hoping her daughter would go to college and become successful. Instead, she got pregnant in high school and married her 18-year-old paramour. My friend was embarrassed by this, as it smacked of trailer park drama. Sophisticated people don't have children willy-nilly, or so it is believed.
In a way, is like the spaying and neutering of pets. Responsible people take their pets to the veterinarian and get all their shots (don't get me started on anti-vaxxers, either!) and have their pet spayed or neutered. The trash who own "fighting dogs" don't bother to do either, and they interbreed and produce litter after litter, which can be found at your local humane society. And it is interesting, when you go to the "animal shelter" how it is all pit bull mixes and other fighting dog breeds these days. 30 years ago, it would have been Labrador and retriever mixes.
Perhaps the selection at the shelter is a presage of things to come with our own species - but to even suggest such a thing is deemed racist. But perhaps we are already seeing the effects of low birth rates among the middle-class and wealthy. We talk a lot about the shrinking middle-class these days. But perhaps the middle-class is the same size as it always has been - reproducing only at its replacement rate. Maybe the lower classes are merely expanding, which means more people at the bottom of the pyramid and fewer (as a percentage) at the top.
Maybe. Maybe that is classist or racist. Or maybe it is just wrong. After all, class mobility - on an individual scale - is still possible in America. Someone who has a modicum of smarts and ambition, who can avoid the pitfalls of the trailer park or the inner city ghetto, can move up in society - I know of such people, as I have noted before. We are not statistics, and individual choice still trumps overall trends.
Whatever the reason, you never hear about "ZPG" anymore, even from China, which instituted its famous "one child" rule for decades. All bets are off, and the world is filling up with people, plowing under more and more wilderness, destroying more and more habitats, and driving more and more creatures extinct. And this is the inevitable result of population growth. Oh, sure, we can forestall such impact - by living in crowded cities and eating soylent green. But eventually, expanding populations expand to fill ecological niches.
But this begs the question - can mankind live another way? It is possible to have a fixed population of humans on planet earth and stick to that level? So far, this idea has eluded mankind, and in fact, seems impossible.
Our very economy is based on "growth" and you hear about this all the time in the economic press - growth rates are king! Trump promises 6% growth (delivers 2% or less than Obama!). China touts its growth numbers (which are widely viewed as doctored). Growth, growth, growth! It is what drives an economy?
Or is it?
In a growing economy, resources become scarcer and scarcer, so over time, if you own resources, they become more valuable. The house my parents lived in, I cannot afford, even though I make more money (adjusted for inflation) that my Dad did. During my lifetime, the scarcity of lakefront property increased, and it is harder and harder to live in such places. Our generation has to be content with a more ordinary home - which isn't so bad, after all. The next generation has to do with even less - which is sticking in their craw right about now. In 20-30 years, however, they will lord over the next generation, who will complain that they will never be able to afford the palatial one-bedroom condo of their parents' generation.
When populations stagnate, economies stagnate. And to date, there seems to be no way around this. And in a way, it is like a giant pyramid or ponzi scheme. In a pyramid scheme, people pay in at the bottom and the folks at the top reap the rewards. In a ponzi scheme, people who invest later end up paying for the dividends of those who invested earlier. And in away, humanity works this way. Old people live off their investments, young people buy into investments. Right now, a lot of old people are quite keen about the stock market - paying dividends and going up in value and funding their retirement. Young people are paying in, but have yet to see any benefit from it - and will be sorely pissed when the market corrects - as it does on occasion.
But even with corrections, these markets go up, up, up, over time. And in the history of mankind, this is the only type of economy we've known.
Many Western countries - and Japan - are experiencing slowing population growth or no growth at all. And it is interesting how this is playing out. Japan is aging, and some in the younger generation are not even leaving home. The price of houses are so high that many young Japanese gave up on ever owning one, and just blow all their money on clothes, cars, vacations, and bling. And perhaps a similar thing is happening here in America. I might not have had as nice a house as my parents, but I had much nicer vehicles!
Other countries, such as in Europe, have relied in immigration to fill the ranks, with mixed results. That Teutonic Mercedes you bought wasn't hand-assembled by German Engineers in lab coats, but by young Turkish immigrant workers, who are brought in to fill in the employment ranks. The immigration thing does work - the United States of America is a prime example of how immigration can lead to rapid growth and wealth. But that was at a time when the United States was more than 50% unclaimed land. A lot has changed since then (although you could still homestead in America up until 1986).
Some say that robots are the answer to declining populations - that in Japan, increased automation will keep the economy running, even as the population plateaus or declines. Immigration has never been very big in Japan, although they have let a few people in, in recent years. Funny thing, the Japanese have this weird idea that Japan should remain Japanese, and that if overrun by immigrants, the very culture would change - perhaps be erased forever. The Chinese are sort of the same opinion about themselves as well. In the West, to say such things, however, is heresy.
Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves here - trying to figure out how to work an economy not based on growth, as the world continues to grow unabated. And this issue will only get stickier as time goes on and reproductive technology improves. Manipulating genes is becoming more and more common, and before long, it will be possible (if it isn't already today, to some extent) to design a human being from the ground up - or at least select certain genes and de-select others.
Eugenics rears its ugly head once again - it won't go away, no matter how we try to shout it down. And the eugenicists have something of a point - if you could eradicate some sort of inherited illness from the genome of humanity, forever, isn't that a good thing? It is akin to eradicating polio (thanks, anti-vaxxers, for screwing that up! What's next, plague?). But of course, on the flip side of the coin, evolution favors a diversity of species, with the fittest surviving. We we engineer ourselves into a corner, well, what happens when our environment changes?
Or have we reached a point in our evolution where we can change our environment - or live in an artificial one?
Some could argue that we are becoming a weaker and weaker species, because of our advances in medicine. Without modern antibiotics, I would have died long ago from some sort of raging infection, likely when I was a child. From the Darwinian point of view, weaklings like me should have been culled from the herd. Of course, my genes are not being passed on, so the point is moot, I guess.
We talk a lot, in our society, about trivial things - how to fund social security, whether or not we can build a wall, and how to balance the budget. These are mere technical, trivial financial issues that can be solved with the stroke of a pen, if people had the political will - but they choose not to.
The larger issues are ignored. And it seems to me we are on the cusp of either a new era of mankind, or a beginning of the end of our species. We can either control our population and our economy, and preserve our environment, or continue down this path of unconstrained and uncontrolled growth, until the entire planet is over-run with people. Things like "migration" and "global warming" are the mere symptoms of the underlying problem, not the problem itself.
We can talk all day about the wall, ICE, abolishing ICE, or whatever, the pressures of migration will continue unabated, so long as populations increase. And no, discussing this is not racist - it doesn't matter what color skin you have or what your religion is, migration is based on the need to survive. If Africa were populated entirely by white people, we'd see the same migration patterns today, but with a different skin tone. It's all about increasing population and scarcer resources.
We can talk all day about reducing carbon emissions or going to electric cars - these things only address the symptoms, not the problem. Each advance in farming technology, medicine, and whatnot doesn't solve the problem but only addresses the symptoms. And in fact, these technologies make things worse by allowing ever more people to squeeze into planet earth. Improved medicine means more of us live to reproduce. Improved technologies and farm yields means only that the earth can be whored to feed yet another mouth.
But eventually even technology hits a wall. While crop yields are nearly 10 times what they were in the not-too-distant past, they cannot increase in yield by another factor of ten. It is like putting transistors on a semiconductor chip - eventually you reach the atomic level and can't increase density further.
And maybe right there is the answer - as unpleasant as it is to contemplate - about our pyramid-scheme that is humanity. Eventually the people at the bottom of the pyramid run out of resources, and the whole scheme falls apart. And all solar panels and electric cars in the world aren't going to solve that problem.
Spay and neuter your pets! And your relatives, while you're at it!