Saturday, March 28, 2009

Population Decline: A problem?

Erin linked to this article by Al Mohler, and rather than write a super long comment on her blog, I thought I'd write a post (or three) here on the topic of population growth and supporting the aging population. Mohler primarily quotes a USA Today opinion blog by Phillip Longman.  Longman makes the arguement that depopulation is unsustainable, and Mohler backs his arguement with a biblical justification. Unfortunately, I think both miss some very distinct and important factors in their conclusions-- primarily the altering of human behavior in areas other than reproduction-- that could distinctly alter the direction of the population, resources, and planet.
Before I really get going, I am going to add a caveat. I am leaving out a lot of the more complex economic , environmental and social behavior discussions in the interest of making this easier to read. In doing so, the discussion will be over-simplified by my own standards, but I also realize not everyone is nearly as involved or interested in these topic as I. There are many diverging views on population growth and its effects on the population, environment, and society as a whole.  This is my response to Longman and Mohler's writings.
Before I really get to the meat, there are some factual issues with the Longman article. For example, Longman wrote, "Darwinism presupposes, and modern biology teaches, that all organisms breed to the limit of their available resources." While this is kind of true, Darwin was actually applying Malthusian principles when discussing population growth. Malthusian Balance can be described as the balance between supply and demand-- "the power to produce and will to consume."  Darwin wrote that (for all creatures) rapid population growth would result in natural selection. (A brief summary of the relationship between Malthus and Darwin's work.)
Longman and Mohler view declining population growth as a whole to be a problem. On the other hand, the very men Longman cites in his article (namely Darwin, which really should be Malthus) and many others would argue that as we reach carrying capacity, human behavior would change or natural selection would occur.  I argue that the same would happen in the situation of declining population growth. We see some of this occuring already in countries where population "growth" is negative.  As populations decline, countries implement friendlier policies for reproduction. Furthermore, I see most of the resource problems to be distribution and human behavior issues.
Mohler blames contraception for declining population, but I think he misses the mark in viewing the entire picture. It is not simply a matter of contraception. It is a societal shift towards material goods, the easy life (modern convienence), and unfriendly public policy that is leads to a declining population. His arguement is one that "quiverfull" supporters can back, but when he limits the discussion to one of many issues, he not only oversimplifies, he misses the mark. He concludes, along with Longman, that the aging population will be an increasing burden on the declining population. 
"becoming a 4-2-1 society in which each child supports two parents and four grandparents" (Longman) "Not only is this pattern unsustainable -- it is untenable." (Mohler)

Longman throws this out there when discussing China's issues and Mohler draws his own conclusion, but both fail to recognize that the population is also having children later in life. In doing so, the grandparents are alive for less and less of the grandchild's life (if at all), so this broad brush statement is not completely accurate. Also, both to recognize the ability and willingness of many families to support their extended family. In other words, when an aunt becomes ill, often times extended family steps up to care for the aunt. Mohler assumes that with a declining population, policy and reproduction would remain declining and our standard of living would remain the same.
I, however, would (do?) argue that the population will change and adapt to the needs of society. In "How Much Land Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?" Paul Waggoner points out some of the key factors in sparing nature for nature's sake (recreation, beauty, etc) while still feeding ten billion people. In the report, he makes it clear that IF people change the way we eat, we can indeed feed ten billion people.  Technological advances allow us to do so while keeping prices down. Applied in the reverse, as strain is placed on the smaller population, technology and innovative thought will increase in the interest of self-preservation.
If (perhaps a BIG if) we want population to continue to grow, we need to become better environmental stewards. The resources are still limited, and while technology might improve the outcome, in the long run, at some point, the population will not be able to sustain itself. In the words of Aldo Leopolod "There is as yet no ethical deling with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations."  This is exactly what Longman and Mohler do-- privileges but not obligations." No where is it mentioned that stewardship towards the environment is important.
My opinion is that we need to find a perfect balance, which is nearly impossible. No matter which side of the fence we sit on, the ideal situation is to have zero growth and zero decline. However, the target is ever moving (if the variables can be pinpointed to start with), so finding that perfect balance is nearly impossible. Admittedly, I do worry more about overpopulation, because it is easy to see people acting solely for their self-interest, increasing consumption, decreasing stewardship, and all around "bowling alone." When we act in this manner, we disreguard the social good, and a sustained population is a social good (preservation). 
This is already a short book, so I will cut it off here. However, I am committing the same ill that I convicted Longman and Mohler of-- disreguarding the entire picture when it comes to reproduction. There are so many complications, but I think most of it falls under the quiverfull philosophy. Forgive me...maybe another time?

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