A Contrarian View on Declining Birth Rates

Speaking of booms and busts, I wanted to point out this op-ed at Bloombergt by Amanda Little disagreeing with those who are worried about a declining U. S. birth rate:

Before clamoring for more mouths to feed, we need to recognize the dire realities of world hunger today and the gravely concerning predictions for famine and malnutrition in the decades to come. Let’s get a plan in place to ensure climate stability and greater food security going forward. Until then, a slowdown in population growth not only eases pressures on a stressed planet, it will make it possible to feed more people more intelligently and sustainably, with higher-quality food.

Let’s first establish that declining population trends are occurring well beyond the U.S. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reported that as of 2017, the global fertility rate had fallen by nearly half since 1950, to 2.4 births per woman from 4.6. They expect the world to reach a peak population of 9.7 billion inhabitants around 2060 before dipping to 8.8 billion by 2100. Twenty-three nations — including Italy, South Korea and Japan — are expected to see their populations reduced by more than half within that 2017-2100 timeframe. For now, though, even feeding 9 billion people by mid-century looks like an iffy prospect.

Birthrate declines are occurring alongside a concurrent trend: hunger. After falling for decades, global food insecurity is rising again, driven by extreme weather, political conflict and economic slowdowns intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic. Roughly 700 million people in the world are undernourished — a surge of 60 million in five years and almost 10% of the world population, according to a new report from the United Nation’s World Food Programme.

I have mixed feelings about just how real worries about “food insecurity” are for several reasons. The first is that its definition is pretty fuzzy. It ranges from famine to unemployment depending at least in part on where you are. I think that famine is a political phenomenon as it has been throughout history.

Here in the U. S. I think that a lot of food insecurity is a consequence of preference and ignorance. When you’ll only eat McDonalds burgers, fries, and shakes it’s both expensive and unhealthful. The solution to that is not giving people enough money to afford McDonalds burgers, fries, and shakes. The primary beneficiaries of that strategy would be franchisees and McDonalds stockholders.

She then launches into a Malthusian argument that was wrong 200 years ago and is still wrong:

By mid-century, the world may reach a threshold of global warming “beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations,” the International Panel of Climate Change has warned. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Jerry Hatfield put it to me this way: “The single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems.”

While it may be true that the biggest threat presented by climate change would be collapse of food systems I don’t think that the greatest risk of collapse of food systems lies in climate change but in bad government policy. Subsidizing subsistence agriculture in places where it is marginal at best does not sound to me like a winning strategy but is extremely commonplace. The better strategy would be getting people out of subsistence agriculture and into more efficient uses of labor but that would require abandoning traditional behaviors. The greatest impediment to that strategy right now is China. Rather than importing raw materials from such countries and exporting manufactured goods to them it should be importing manufactured goods from them and boosting their own internal consumer markets and abandoning import quotas to encourage that.

5 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    An increase of 3 degrees celsius over the next hundred years or so would substantially increase the amount of arable land (Canada and Siberia) and make food security a certainty. Combined with falling populations (peak 2030, 8.5 B) throughout the remainder of this century, and there is no food problem.

    Remember, almost all the projected temperature increase occurs in the temperate and boreal zones, because the tropics are strongly temperature buffered by the oceans. Temperature increases in the tropical rain forests and reefs will be negligible. Scientific fraud is rampant in all environmental sciences (and even engineering).

    Looking at Alley’s Holocene temperature reconstruction, the Middle Ages were about as warm as today, the period of the Roman expansion was warmer, and the Minoan civilization enjoyed even warmer temperatures. Warm temperatures and higher carbon dioxide mean better crops. Cold kills. It kills people, animals and plants. Winter is the great death time in the temperate zone.

    Our long run problem, over a few thousand years, is the return of the ice. That will decimate human populations and end modern civilization.

    We live in a Lysenkoist (a Ukrainian) era. Science is subservient to politics. Let’s hope the Russians and Chinese can continue to resist wokism, because they are the last refuge of human kind and civilization.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Sixty years, 2100, are we willingly hapless before the central planners?
    The ones that brought us COVID-19.
    By 2100 we could be wiped out by an asteroid, what is the plan?

  • TastyBits Link

    Malthusians are always wrong because they do not understand that most systems have feedback mechanisms to prevent catastrophic failures. While catastrophic failures do occur, they must be sudden. Otherwise, systems, people, organisms, planets. etc. adapt and evolve.

    An asteroid impact causing a sudden cooling period was catastrophic for large cold-blooded animals, but it was fortunate for small warm blooded animals.

    @bob sykes

    You are 100% correct about warming, but I disagree about the next ice age. Like all other animals, humans will adapt, but most likely, there will be a decline in population.

    For those less scientifically inclined, there will be another ice age followed by a warming period followed by an ice age followed by a …

    (NOTE: There is no skipping an ice age. It is simply a season in a longer cycle, and it has nothing to do with CO2.)

  • Jan Link

    Tasty, nice to see climate change described in such plain and simple terms.

  • TastyBits Link


    Most of it is simple physics and thermodynamics. What @bob sykes wrote is common sense, and it is scientifically and historically accurate. During warming periods, the frostline moves north, and more land is available to farm. More land means more people.

    During the Middle Ages, there was the “Little Ice Age”. The frostline moved south, and the crops began to fail. As with today, people did not understand the reason, and they turned to religion. Then it was witches, and today it is CO2.

    (Interestingly, there was hysteria about the glaciers, as well. I do not recall where it is, but in one glacier, there is still a cross where a priest did an exorcism.)

    “The single biggest threat of climate change is the collapse of food systems.”

    This is one of the most scientifically ignorant statements, and I am guessing that Jerry Hatfield is a political scientist.. The stupidity is stunning, and @bob sykes is correct about scientific fraud.

    (If you already know this, it may help somebody else.)

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