What goes up, must come down.
Ever since the birth of Keynesian economics and the abandonment of the Gold Standard in 1933, the world’s economy has thrived on material growth. The more people who could transform their labour into greater consumer demand, the merrier. This model was so successful that by 2019, obesity had replaced undernourishment as the world’s leading cause of preventable illnesses. Yet for many decades we’ve been living on spiralling debt. The 2008 financial crisis should have been a wake-up call, time to transition to a steady-state economy focused on social and environmental stability by letting the big banks go bust and bailing out the people. Instead, Western governments chose to bail out the bankers and extend more dodgy loans to the people to keep the consumer economy afloat.
Over the years I’ve explored all angles of the irksome population debate. The idea that the world may have too many human beings can feed the wildest fantasies of eugenicists. However, sometimes we have to separate science from dogma. It is all too easy to let deep-seated ideological convictions and emotions cloud our interpretation of conflicting scientific evidence.
Let's look at the rise of the world population since the industrial revolution. There is no doubt that it has grown exponentially and most of this growth has taken place over the last 70 years as infant mortality has declined across Southern Asia, Africa and South America. Before the covid scare, most forecasts suggested the world’s people count would peak between 9 and 11 billion in the mid 21st century. Most of Asia and South America were well on course to reach replacement-level fertility rates within the next decade without the need for coercive constraints on natural procreation. Urban lifestyles and compulsory schooling for all girls and boys have led young couples to choose smaller families, especially with the rising cost of raising children in a high-tech society. If your ten-year-old daughter can no longer help out on the farm, you may need to set aside some cash to buy her a laptop. The dire forecasts of population pessimists have, despite civil wars and occasional famines, proven mostly wrong. In his 1969 book, “The Population Bomb”, Paul Ehrlich predicted extinction-level starvation by the end of the 20th century. In the event the fertility rate declined in much of the developed world, while malnutrition and childhood deaths plummeted across India, Africa and South America, mainly due to improvements in agriculture and sanitation. More Africans starved in the 60s and 70s than in the 90s and early 21st century.
Nonetheless, rapid urbanisation brought about new conflicts and challenges, not least the demise of traditional extended families and job insecurity as new city-dwellers could not easily keep pace with fast-evolving technology. As I’ve stressed in some earlier posts, the real question is no longer the prospect of 10 billion human beings but the environmental challenge of 5 billion cars with the massive infrastructure such an automotive utopia would require. Back in 1970, the world had around 200 million motor vehicles. Today that figure has risen five-fold to over a billion, while the human population has merely doubled.
Historically, our numbers have adapted to environmental conditions amid spouts of internecine violence, famines and plagues. If our habitat can accommodate more people, our instincts to go forth and multiply will prevail as opportunities abound for young adults. Conversely, as environmental conditions deteriorate, fewer people survive without modern welfare systems and easy exit routes. In the 1840s, the Irish potato famine triggered an implosion of Ireland’s population due to a mix of starvation and emigration of the Emerald Isle's fittest young adults. However, our environment is not the wildernesses we inherited from our distant forebears, but the urban and rural landscapes we have engineered over many generations. We may contrast the natural geosphere, as might exist in our absence, with the much smaller technosphere. Over half of us live in the 1% of the world’s land area that’s urbanised and the other half in smaller settlements in the 10-11% of available land fit for farming and animal husbandry.
Any concerns about the long-term sustainability of the world’s population inevitably lead to calls for concerted global action that logically undermine the self-determination of peoples at local and national level. When investment bankers in Zürich or Singapore worry about demographic trends in Nigeria or Pakistan, self-determination is unlikely to figure high in their list of priorities. Rather global planners prefer to use applied behavioural insights to guide people towards more sustainable ways of life. By sustainability technocrats do not mean the conservation of our ecosystem so much as political stability as they shift gear from an economic model based on consumption-led growth to one based on micromanagement of all human activity, treating most denizens of our planet more as zoo animals than working consumers.
Wishful-thinking Progressive Cornucopians
For the last 30 years or so, mainstream economists and opinion leaders have downplayed the significance of the population factor, often welcoming immigration from poorer countries with growing populations to wealthier countries with ageing populations. One of their favourite arguments was the need for more young workers to pay taxes and boost consumer demand. I’ve covered the fallacies of this theory before. The existing population only benefit materially from immigration if newcomers pay more in tax than they consume in services. While we may reasonably debate the pros and cons of high levels of net migrations in times of economic growth and low unemployment, it makes a lot less sense with millions stranded at home on furlough and economic activity suffocated by medical martial law. It only took a few months for liberal progressives to abandon their love for the free movement of people across outdated national borders to become the staunchest proponents of internal borders, preventing people from leaving their region or county and gathering in large groups. Other human beings have suddenly turned into biohazards. It baffles me how we can love all other members of our species, while simultaneously avoiding social proximity and hiding our facial expressions.
Green New Deal policies make absolutely no sense if you naively believe that trendy progressive types want to embrace humanity in all its wonderful cultural diversity and celebrate our growing numbers. Multiculturalism has only ever served as a transitionary phenomenon to undermine native cultures and usher in a global super-culture that would make it easier for the intellectual elites to micromanage the urban masses. Since the turn of the millennium two competing visions of globalism have divided Western electorates. Some see a wider range of restaurants and the cultural enrichment of well-educated colleagues who have moved from other parts of the world. Others see divided communities, congestion, crime and alienation in their country of birth. Academics and affluent professionals tend to view mass migration much more favourably than the home-grown working classes. How could the population of Greater London, which grew from around 6.4 million in the early 1990s to over 9 million by 2019 and was once projected to hit 13 million by 2050, meet Agenda 2030 sustainability goals? How could the conurbation’s teeming residents make drastic cuts in their true carbon footprint, while importing almost everything from other regions and exporting their pollution? The answer is simple. It could not. Any honest city planner should have known that within a decade most short-term service sector jobs would be either outsourced or fully automated. By 2010 the city had already started to resemble a giant airport terminal with shopping malls, luxury apartments and bedsits for transient labourers. After 10 months of corona-containment measures, the city’s once-bustling streets and markets have been emptied. As many as a million workers have already fled. It simply doesn’t make any sense for remote workers to rent a studio flat in an unfriendly city where spontaneous socialisation may land you in trouble with the covid police. While some may argue the corona crisis was an unforeseen cataclysm that demanded emergency measures, once again the affluent professional classes have abandoned the working classes. Greater London grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th century mainly with newcomers from other regions of the British Isles, but with a fair sprinkling of adventurers from overseas. By the 1930s it had reached chronic levels of overcrowding with its characteristic pea-soup smog. Wartime evacuations in the 1940s and post-war redevelopment prompted a steady exodus to the suburbs and satellite towns. Old settled communities and industries moved out and new communities moved in. London began to grow again in the 1990s as a hub of the global banking and media industries. Employers could easily exploit a new breed of international commuters. The same chattering classes that once tolerated racism against the indigenous peoples of the British Empire and later blamed Britain’s strike-prone home-bred workers for post-imperial industrial decline are now indifferent to the mass exodus of their Eastern European neighbours, whose services they no longer require. For every highly qualified doctor or engineer who has added to London’s human capital, there are 10 to 20 temporary office workers, caterers, builders, lorry drivers, hairdressers, nurses, nannies, decorators and cleaners. The covid scare has merely accelerated the rate of smart automation. If you have to order your caffè latte via a mobile app and then pick it up from a local coffee shop where you may only briefly exchange greetings with a masked barista, you might as well interact with a robot.
A World of Metropolitan Snobs
2020 marked a watershed in human development. The trendy managerial classes revealed, amid platitudes about saving lives, their unspoken eugenicist tendencies. They may not target a specific ethnic group, but they have a deeply ingrained contempt for independent-minded unbelievers or rather the politically incorrect plebians who fail to worship at the altar of scientism. Most wishful-thinking middle managers may still believe they’re working for the common good of humanity, but have become increasingly intolerant of nonconformists who fail to fall into line and internalise the new orthodoxy on covid, gender identity or climate change. Political correctness, obsession with equality and diversity and identity politics have long concealed a much more sinister agenda. How could we transform the world into a giant adventure playground or a kind of hipster paradise populated only by trendy progressive types with robotic slaves?
Unlike empirical science, scientism is the unquestioning faith in official experts, the high priests of global technocracy. Scientism teaches us to follow the science. By contrast science teaches us to subject each hypothesis to rigorous tests and analysis, explore alternative hypotheses and challenge orthodox theories when new evidence comes to light. Scientism suppresses dissent, while science welcomes open debate. Scientism is inherently elitist, while science thrives on an enlightened citizenry with constant interaction between different groups of concerned citizens and technologists with full accountability within an open and fair democratic process. Today the issues with the largest impact on our lives, from atomic energy to artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, natural families and bodily autonomy, depend on our understanding of science. Very few of us can be experts in all these fields, spanning nuclear physics, molecular biology, medicine, programming, nano-robotics and bioethics, although some of us may claim a degree of expertise in some specialist areas. By deferring our analysis to experts favoured by large media outlets, who in turn are closely allied with the biotech industrial complex, we reduce democracy to choosing which management team should carry out policies that remote technocrats have devised.
Slow Development in a Steady State Economy
The biggest challenge we face as a species is not so much overpopulation as over-development. We have become too reliant on technology that most of us can neither understand nor control. The problem is not change itself, which may good, bad or indifferent, but the sheer speed of psychosocial disruption that rapid technological transformation inevitably engenders. Accelerated progress always empowers the new elites at the expense of the more conservative underclasses. However, when technology evolves more gradually, ordinary people have time to adapt technology to better suit their needs and put themselves back in the driving seat. An alternative to the global utopia that Klaus Schwab envisaged in his Great Reset, is the decentralisation not only of political power, but of technology. Why, you may wonder, should Africans, Indians and South Americans, develop independent solutions for telecommunications, clean energy, irrigation, potable water and food security? The answer is simple. If you can control the technology on which your life depends, you are once again master of your own destiny. If you place your trust in a few technocrats employed by a handful of multinationals, they may decide if you are surplus to requirements.
For over twenty years I have ranted and railed in the wilderness against the unsustainability of endless economic growth. Now I find myself warning of the tragic human consequences of its polar opposite: planned economic decline and the dehumanisation of those who fail to comply. However, it may not be too late. We need a people’s reset that irreversibly transfers power from the tech giants to the people. Can we do it? It’s up to us.