Friday, December 04, 2009

The right's next big scare tactic

My office mate occasionally organizes a movie night, showing something or other that people at the Institute might want to watch in the seminar room. When he heard that there were two movies, called Demographic Winter and Demography Bomb, he figured they would be of interest to an Institute full of demographers, and he got a copy of the DVDs from somewhere.

Twenty or thirty of us came to watch. Now Demographers are a pretty staid crowd, but by ten minutes in people were chuckling, and within a half hour there was full-bellied, breathing-difficulty, rolled over in pain laughing going on. Clearly, people who actually think about demography were not the target audience.

These two documentaries, are based on the premise, which they take intensely seriously, that humanity (or at least the white section thereof) is at risk of economic ruin, political chaos, pain, suffering, homosexuality, the death of the traditional family and ultimate and total extinction because of a population control conspiracy by the UN, the EU, the Ford Foundation, Democrats, Liberals, Communists, UC Berkeley, Charles Darwin, Malthus, W.E.B DuBois, Gloria Steinem, Big Gay, Nazis, Feminazis, and most of all Paul Ehrlich. Dr. Erhlich, a professor at Stanford is a favorite punching bag of the right because he made many and varied dire predictions back in the sixties and seventies, and like most prolific prognosticators, many of his forecasts were wrong. His 1968 book, The Population Bomb, is identified as the driving source behind the idea that overpopulation might be a problem. In it he made various overly pessimistic predictions about the rate of population growth and the rate of food productivity growth, and concluded that we would see mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people by the 1970s or '80s. That this didn't happen is taken as proof that there are no possible ill effects of overpopulation, and that in fact humans are now heading toward population decline, which will by the end of the century see an under populated world dominated by geriatric patients, Muslims and Latinos. The same three or four animated graphics are shown incessantly, demonstrating that "westerners" (i.e., white people) are going extinct. "By the end of the century, there may not be any actual French people in France." They string together statements from representatives of various Teabagger interest groups and wildly out of context statements by academics (often repeating the same clip of the same academic to make it seem like they are agreeing with two very different ideas) with alternatively faux-reasonable and openly snarky narrators. The failure of the US auto industry, the housing bubble, immigration, homosexuality, terrorism, crime, feminism and the excesses of Wall Street are all shown to be symptoms of insufficiently rapid population growth. Demographers from all over the world hooted and guffawed and thought it was just the funniest damn thing they had seen.

Now like most vehemently presented lies, there is a grain of truth to the hysteria behind the movie. That grain is this: some, but not all, population forecasts predict that world population will cease growing some time around 2050, and may gradually decline for some decades thereafter, falling from maybe 9 billion to maybe 8.5 billion by 2100, and in the mean time the ratio of older people to younger people will temporarily increase. (Forecasts any further out than that are beyond the realm of speculation into pure fantasy, but one thing we can say with high confidence is that no population is likely to just stop breeding and go extinct.) This will pose some serious issues we need to think about over the next few decades. (I've written about this before, here.) Our markets, as currently structured, assume continuous population growth, and we don't yet have very clear ideas about how we need to adapt to population decline if it happens. Having lots of old people per working adult is a problem if you assume that it takes the same number of working adults to take care of each old person, and ignore that their will simultaneously be fewer children for those adults to take care of. The problem with the argument, even if you take out the hysteria, conspiracy theorizing, snarkiness, smear tactics and brain-washing techniques, is that overpopulation has known, current and disastrous consequences (see "Collapse" by Jared Diamond for several hundred pages on that, also a significant portion of the articles in Population and Development Review or Conservation Biology). I have never met a demographer who argues the problems of population decline are likely to be worse than those associated with population growth, or with trying to maintain a planet with more than 9,000,000,000 people on it. Second, I've never heard any demographer suggest that the cause of the eventual decline will be anything resulting from any policy of population control. Rather, educated, urban, mobile populations (and especially educated women) have fewer kids later in life, and that slows population growth. As the educational level and economic mobility of the world's women improves, and as people continue to move to cities, they will tend to reproduce less, no matter what the UN or Professor Ehrlich tells them. The clergy also have relatively little influence (see Italy).

But now that the lie is out there, no matter how laughable, it is a convenient tool for anyone who wants to argue against population control measures, family planning, contraception, feminism, etc. A friend pointed out to me a post on The Weekly Standard's blog stating that, "the discussion in demography circles isn't 'How do we cope with two extra China's?' Rather, it's "'How do we manage one of those extra China's disappearing?'" Living in a "demography circle," I can report that the Weekly Standard's unnamed source for that statement is a made-for-Fox-News propaganda special called "Demographic Winter" and its sequel (which borrows numerous lengthy sections from the first part) called "Demography Bomb." Type "population decline" into Google blog search and up come numerous posts on conservative blogs mumbling the same point.

So while my international colleagues were laughing their lungs out, I was exchanging dark glances with the only other American in the room. To those not familiar with the propaganda machine of the U.S. far right, the movie was pure, bizarre, hilarious fluff. Man-eating purple platypus stuff. One of my colleagues later asked me, "Republicans aren't idiots right? So they do not take that [compound expletive] seriously. Maybe a few nutballs? This is a joke?" But to me, it was clear this was yet one more battle being opened in the American right's war on science. As long as one is denying evolution, climate change and the moon landings, may as well claim that demographers don't see any possible drawbacks to overpopulation, and in fact that population collapse is just around the corner.

Expect to hear more of this particular lie in the years ahead. As the right touts the four biologists willing to deny the possibility of evolution, expect them to repeatedly trot out the few demographers willing to pretend that humanity's very existence is threatened by population control.


panthercat27 said...

What about the demographic decline in Europe?

This makes purple platypi look snuggly!

Dan Levitis said...

As the story you link to makes clear, reports of the death of Europe were an exaggeration.