The future threatens

None of us can foresee the future, yet we have to try to forecast if we need to take action now in order to ward off possible dangers. One issue here is demographics, and luckily the future here can give us a clearer view. For instance in the 1950s it was possible to forecast changes in the Japanese population which would eventually do great damage. And so it happened.

Today there is much concern about the rate of growth in Africa. Fertility rates are dropping globally but remain high in Africa. The world population is expected to grow from around 7.5 billion today to around 10 billion by 2050, and half that growth is likely to occur in Africa.

Of course we can respond to that threat by pointing out that there is plenty of physical room in the world and that our capacity for increasing resources has always flouted the doom mongers of the past. Malthus may have been right in his mathematics but always turned out to be wrong in practice.

However there is another factor. Following World War II, Japan was strongly under the influence of the US. And one important change came about: the spread of contraception to control population growth. It worked very well. But the inevitable problem was that it ensured an imbalance between the proportion of the existing population and the proportion of the younger population. The result was the costs, not only in money, of a huge elderly population which had to be met by a much smaller working population. Much of Japan’s economic problems in recent years have been brought about through this.

The current response to African growth is to provide better family planning. And indeed this summer Priti Patel, the U.K. secretary of state for international development, has undertaken to increase spending on overseas family planning services to a total of $1 billion in the next five years.

I am not concerned here with the morality of family planning, while noting that natural family planning is likely to be a very small part of this. But, if it works, our experience leads us to foresee considerable economic problems, as it did for Japan – and, perhaps at a less critical level, for other countries – including our own. (And, even as I write, I see that it is proposed to raise the age of retirement in the UK. The reason given is the increase in longevity: the real reason is to reduce the bill for the State pension.) I note, with distress, that this programme, to which we are all contributing, includes “safe abortions”. But nowadays all sorts of people of respectable goodwill regard abortion as no more than a health issue — in this case an acceptable method of controlling population. And apparently most of us are happy about this: the proportion of Catholics who agree that abortion should be allowed if a woman does not want the child has increased from 33% in 1985 to 61% in 2016 (National Statistics).

If you want to study the population situation in Africa in more detail, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/25/africa/africa-population-growth-un/index.html is a useful site.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The future threatens

  1. galerimo says:

    Quentin, what a delight to read about the explosion of humanity.

    Remember how one night’s fire bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives; how on August 6th 1945, Harry Truman exploded the first atomic bomb on “the military base!!!!” of Hiroshima leaving 100,000 Japanese dead or worse -and then exploded another one three days later leaving perhaps 50,000 dead – even though, but that time American leaders had broken the Japanese code and knew they had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with even the Emperor himself suggesting it in June 1945.

    And 100,000 killed in the great explosion of bombs on Dresden, referred to by Churchill in his wartime memoirs in no more than “We made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of communication of Germany’s Eastern Front”.

    And the Indians, once the only occupants of the continent of America, despite being pushed back off their land and practically annihilated with about 300,000 left by the turn of the 20th century. But exploding to numbers around 800,000 by 1960.

    And this is just a little bit of our record along with our friends, as the Good Guys, defending freedom and extending civilisation and all that – without even mentioning the nasties like Mr Hitler, Mr Lenin, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot …

    I feel sure the great Sioux leader, Sitting Bull assassinated just before the last of his people were massacred at Pine Ridge would look with deep satisfaction at the explosion of his people’s numbers, as I do.

    And the rise in the level of devotion to life among Catholics that you describe adds even more weight to my argument that there is no need to worry about the future.

    Nothing much has changed.

    Colonialism in some other shape or form along with the sheer physical size of the arsenals of nuclear weapons will take care of everything.

    And isn’t it nice how warm the weather is getting?

  2. Iona says:

    Hollow laugh.

  3. Horace says:

    See Church Militant “OVERPOPULATION IS A MYTH”.

  4. John Thomas says:

    Yes, I think overpopulation is indeed a myth – mainly one perpetrated by Westerners afraid of what will happen when such as Africa really really awakes, economically (I’ve heard it said that Africa is held back by lack of sufficient population to exploit its vast natural resources). Quentin’s stats about Catholics accepting the “right” to abortion is very depressing. Once the RCC (I’m not Catholic, myself) really goes down the abortion road, it is finished … without God … The West? Well, that’s finished already.

    • Vincent says:

      John, if I read you aright you seem to have missed the point. Quentin is not talking about overpopulation, i.e. total volume, but change in the reproduction rate. So, if you have a large existing population as a result of high reproduction rates, and then the reproduction rate falls (typically a result of widespread introduction of easy contraception) then a relatively small younger population has to support the large aged population. This is not just supposition it’s actually what is seen to happen,

  5. Martha says:

    Don’t you think that this problem might be counteracted by better health for longer in old age, and more stamina allowing retirement age to be raised?

  6. Some statistics from the United Nations may help the discussion about the myth of over population. In 1950 the population of Africa plus the Middle East from Palestine to Pakistan was 300 million; in 2050 it is expected to be over 3,000 million and increasing rapidly. In 1950, the population of Europe including Russia was 549 million. By 2050 it is expected to have risen to 709 million but to be declining steadily.

    In The Spectator recently the figures for drownings in the Mediterranean were given as 2777 in 2015; 5083 in 2016; and 2359 so far this year

    If I had the choice of living in Japan or in the Middle East or Africa I would choose Japan.

  7. In defence of Malthus. Quentin believes that Malthus was wrong in practice. I’m not so sure
    Malthus believed that populations double every 25 years unless controlled by checks. In the Essay Chapter 5, he writes, “All these checks can be fairly resolved into misery and vice.” He was too delicate to mention contraception, but who can doubt that he counted this as a vice.
    In most of the world the check of artificial contraception is no longer thought of as a vice and it is being effectively used to save us from Malthusian misery, but in Africa and the Middle East there is little of this type of ‘vice’, so populations continue to double.
    In Uganda the population is expected to increase from 5 million to over 80 million in the century 1950-2050, that is doubling every 25 years as Malthus predicted. And Malthusian misery is arriving.

    • Quentin says:

      There is an additional factor nowadays. The effect of global warming is tending to push populations away from the Equator. Emigration is certainly affected by this.

      But of course my main point is the proportion between workers and the aged. This gets worse as less developed societies popularise birth control. Eventually, over many decades, this works itself through but it’s tough getting there. Ironically the advent of immigrant families into the UK helps to alleviate the problem.

      • tim says:

        “The effect of global warming is tending to push populations away from the Equator.”
        When you say that, smile! (or at least give us a reference). Compare John, 19, v,21.

    • tim says:

      “Malthusian misery is arriving” But always in the future, fortunately, rather than today.

      Apocalyptic visions sell well – and (remarkably) do not rebound on the seers when they fail to happen. Take Dr Paul Ehrlich -“well known [Wikipedia says] for his controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, which asserted that the world’s human population would soon [within a decade] increase to the point where mass starvation ensued “ He said this was inevitable – that efforts to prevent it were misguided as well as futile and suggested “Among the solutions he suggested in that book was population control, to be used … if voluntary methods were to fail” [Wikipedia again].

      You might think that such a record of failed prophecies would have permanently wrecked his credit. Not at all, In 2012 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

      Another theory (more to my taste) is that more human beings mean more resource available to solve all our problems better and faster. A variant of this theory particularly welcomes more Africans. The thesis is that Africa, as the generally credited origin of the human species that has spread around the world, has a greater degree of human genetic variability. The bell curve of human talents is thus broader and flatter than elsewhere. This has a downside – but also an upside – more geniuses! So we are to hope for African geniuses who will solve our problems. The rest of the world should help to develop in Africa the conditions that will allow such genius to flourish.

  8. pnyikos says:

    I am sometimes haunted by a short essay about the low birth rate in Latvia. It said that the young might feel so burdened with having to support an aging population that large numbers will emigrate to countries with a less top-heavy population. But then, of course, the ones who stay will be even more heavily burdened, and the future of the whole country may be in jeopardy.

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