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The Bear's Lair: Zero Growth Is Too High

Could a zero-growth population policy be enforced and exchanged for preferential trading status?
by Martin Hutchinson
Washington (UPI) Jan 03, 2005
The Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy, and its 150,000 casualties, reminds us fortunate Westerners that too many of the world's people live in places and conditions that we would consider intolerable.

The problem is not the world economy, it's world population, which has doubled in the last 50 years. The Zero Population Growth campaign of the 1970s was misguided in one respect: zero growth is too high, we need a reduction!

With a world population of 6.4 billion and rising, concentrations of huge numbers of people in unsafe and squalid conditions are inevitable. The loss of life from the tsunami wasn't as bad as it might have been - think for a moment of the potential loss of life had it hit Bangladesh, a country largely consisting of river deltas, with a population of 140 million people at a density of 2,300 per square mile, the highest in the world.

With the United Nations forecasting world population increasing to 9.1 billion in 2050, almost all of the increase coming in poor countries, this problem is only going to get worse.

If world population were to increase in the second half of the 21st Century at the same speed as it did in the second half of the 20th, it would be 18 billion by 2100, a clearly unsustainable figure.

Ecological decay, use of resources, overcrowding, disease and poverty are all made worse by excess population; it is time we tackled these problem at their source.

Historically, it is a remarkable fact that the richest societies have been those where some natural catastrophe has wiped out a large portion of the population, or where population is far below the level that the land can support.

In England, for example, the highest living standards for the working and middle classes before the very late nineteenth century came not in the technologically sophisticated but quite heavily populated eighteenth century, but 300 years earlier, with a peak around 1475.

The reason was nothing to do with any technological advance; a third of England's population had been wiped out by the Black Death in 1347-8 and population stayed low for the next 150 years, kept down by further plagues and outbreaks of war.

Builders' wages (a proxy for working class living standards) more than doubled in real terms between 1320-40 and 1470-1510. Then, as population increased (and Henry VIII rewarded the rich and impoverished the poor through heavy taxation, debasement of the currency and the Dissolution of the Monasteries) wages began to fall sharply.

By 1630, in Charles I's reign, when population was about the same as in 1330, builders' wages were less than a quarter in real terms of their level 150 years earlier, and - remarkably - less than half their level 300 years earlier (this statistic should give us rather more sympathy for Charles I's difficulties, in my view.)

After about 1650, living standards began a gentle rise through the eighteenth century, and a rather more rapid rise through the nineteenth, reaching their 1330 level about 1810-1820, but their 1475 level only around 1880-1900.

The legend of a medieval "Merrie England" is quite real; you'd have been Merrie around 1475 if you were earning twice what your grandfather had earned, and more than your descendents were to earn for the next 400 years!

Adam Smith has a passage in his 1776 "Wealth of Nations" remarking on the high living standards prevalent in "new colonies" particularly those that were to form the United States, the richest society in the world at that time, unlike its position today (when several European countries and Japan are richer).

The same effect appeared in Australia a century later; that country was the richest in the world in 1880-1890, but had a population of only 3 million.

Throughout human history it has been demonstrated, that provided knowledge, law and infrastructure are not destroyed (yes, the Dark Ages, even though depopulated, were indeed Dark) a country that has suffered a population drop, or is for some other reason far below its population potential, will be wealthy, in terms of the living standards of its people.

Conversely, a country whose population has been increasing in an unchecked manner will have low living standards, high unemployment and high crime, even if it is technologically sophisticated by the standards of its day, as was Charles I's Britain.

Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 "Essay on Population" forecast that population would increase exponentially, but food supply only linearly (he considered only bringing new land into production, not technological and genetic advances in farming) so that we would all starve to death.

Malthus was wrong at the time, but may in fact simply have been about 250 years early, when not only food but the other necessities of life, and in particular the planet's ecosystem are properly considered.

It now appears that global warming has produced a rise of only 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1970, and may produce a rise of 1.5-2.0 degrees Celsius by 2100. That is nowhere near enough to justify the hundreds of billions that would have to be spent were anyone to take the Kyoto Agreement seriously.

It is however a matter of concern if population keeps on increasing. It must be clear that each billion increase in the world's population drives us closer to some ecological or resource barrier that cannot be overcome, or can only be overcome by decimating our living standards and handing over to government the control over huge swathes of the economy.

Conversely, if population were to decrease, resources would last longer, the ecological dangers facing us would recede, and people would no longer need to farm or inhabit marginal land where the danger of human tragedy was so high.

It's clear that the surge in world population since 1800, that carried it from around 1 billion to today's 6.4 billion, was to a large extent artificial, produced by industrialization raising people's living, health and sanitation standards before wealth reduced their propensity to reproduce themselves.

In a world in which we were all wealthy, the reproduction level adopted by Italy, Russia and Japan, of 1.3 babies per mother, less than the 2.1 that stabilizes population, might become more or less universal.

However, we don't live in such a world; in the world we inhabit, population continues to increase rapidly, and may easily reach a level at which human living standards start to degrade seriously, at which point fertility would very likely rise again rather than falling. In other words, we are quite close to an unstable "tipping point" and had better draw back before we get there.

A world population of 1 billion would appear to offer plenty of advantages, and no obvious disadvantages. Since Shakespeare and Newton appeared within a century in an English population of only 4 million, 1 billion should be ample to preserve diversity of the species and ensure an adequate supply of superlative talent.

Conversely, a world population of 1 billion would enable the entire globe to enjoy a middle class lifestyle, without farming marginal or ecologically dangerous areas, and without any danger of resource exhaustion or ecological disaster (just getting environmentalists away from the levers of power is probably worth 5 percent in Gross World Product per capita, on its own!) Since 1 billion was what we started with in 1800, it seems a reasonable long term target.

Assuming we don't suffer a nuclear war or a Black Death (which heaven forbid) reducing world population to 1 billion will require a substantial change in world demographic patterns, in which the Third World adopts approximately Italian/Russian/Japanese reproduction patterns, and then sustains them for about 200 years. Here we reach a problem, that of the Prisoners' Dilemma nature of countries' population policies.

Economic and to a lesser extent military power are dependent on GDP, growth in which in turn depends on satisfactory economic performance and growth in population.

Because of their high rates of economic growth, if present trends are close to continuing China will be more powerful than Europe in 2050 and India almost as powerful, while the United States will have barely maintained a lead, largely owing to high immigration to the U.S. and the high fertility of its immigrants.

These changes have important strategic implications, and it's folly to expect them to be welcomed by the politicians concerned.

Thus every country is subject to the classic Prisoners' Dilemma: if it encourages high fertility, it will increase its gross economicand military power at the expense of its rivals, but only if all countries encourage low fertility will world welfare be maximized.

This dilemma does not seem to have occurred to the current generation of politicians, of if it has, they are playing the "Prisoners' Dilemma" game in a very selfish, wealth-destroying way.

The United States is rejoicing in its high population growth compared with the EU - another 3 million Americans in 2004 - and trumpeting its faster rate of increase in GDP, without correcting for population growth.

China, it was reported last week, is considering relaxing its "one child" policy in order to increase the country's population. EU officials make anguished speeches about a "demographic deficit," whereby there might in the future be fewer Europeans. And so on.

What's needed is a World Population Treaty, which binds participants to work towards the eventual goal of reducing world population to 1 billion, and, as a first step, to bring forward as close as possible the magic date on which world population ceases to increase and starts diminishing.

On current United Nations figures, world population is expected to be 9.1 billion in 2050, peaking at just below 10 billion around 2070.

By my rough calculations, with good policy the world's population in 2050 can be reduced only marginally, to about 8.3 billion, but the date when it starts decreasing can be brought forward substantially, from 2070 to 2047.

This would ensure that world population in 2100 is slightly below its level today, and well on the way to its 1 billion goal, to be achieved about 2250.

The World Population Treaty, which like the failed Kyoto Treaty should bind all participants once representatives of 50 percent of the world population have signed (so India and China's assent would be essential) would incorporate a number of methods to reach its goals.

Since the impoverished normally have large families in order to provide for their old age, it would provide a modest old age pension for the over-70s in the Third World, of whom there are not very many, which would be administered by a body independent of the local government.

In the same way as President George W. Bush's Millennium Challenge plan, it would provide for foreign aid payments only to those countries that established appropriate anti-natalist policies, and preferential trade treatment for such countries.

It would provide for a 5-yearly review, and a system of rewards and penalties for those countries that attained or missed agreed birth rate goals.

How should the United States persuade Europe and other countries to adopt this treaty? Simple. It should refuse to enter any negotiations on the environment or trade until a WPT has been signed.

Thus the EU and the left, seeking an extension of the Kyoto Treaty, and the right and business, seeking a Doha round of trade negotiations, would be forced to suspend their agendas until a population treaty had been negotiated and signed. It's that important; as the Indonesian tsunami tragedy has shown, it may even be that urgent.

(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that, in the long '90s boom, the proportion of "sell" recommendations put out by Wall Street houses declined from 9 percent of all research reports to 1 percent and has only modestly rebounded since. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)

Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, 2005) - details can be found on the Web site

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