Posts Tagged 'demographic decline'

The immigration heresies.

I. Selective indignation.
II. The Nogoodnik Rule.
III. Phase transitions.
IV. Managing diversity.

These four essays, all on the topic of immigration, were written at intervals over the last three years. I’m finally posting them as part of my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series.

It would annoy me if readers came away with the impression that I’m opposed to immigration, let alone (as the media will lazily slur anyone who expresses reservations about the subject) “anti-immigrant”.

As I see it, I’m pro-immigrant: I want immigrants to do well. My fear is that struggling newcomers will coalesce into a resentful ethnic underclass – as seems to be happening in parts of Western Europe. The way to avoid this is to select the applicants who are likeliest to thrive, and to give them, once they’re here, every opportunity to do so.

Taking in any and all who wish to come, however downtrodden and ill-educated, may lead to feelings of universal brotherhood and plaudits from the Toronto Star editorial board, but such newcomers are more likely to struggle – and their descendants to wonder why they and all their relatives have incomes below the Canadian median.

I try as a rule to avoid stridency in my writing, but let me give vent to my exasperation for a moment. Here in the west, a couple generations back, we discovered the exception to what Robert A. Heinlein in 1950 described as “the basic theorom of population mathematics”:

Life is not merely persistent … life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life — the ragged edge of starvation.

Happily, that turned out not to be true: in advanced human societies the combination of birth control and female emancipation will not only arrest population growth, but actually reverse it. What luck! It turns out we have the flexibility to undo some of the more damaging decisions made by our ancestors as they rushed pell-mell to clear space for the apparently unstoppable surge of civilization. Forests clear-cut, wild prairies tamed and fenced, wildlife driven into preserves, urban streams buried in metal pipes: a shrinking population leaves room for us to rethink these short-sighted actions – not only for the good of wolves and bison and migrating salmon, but for the good of our children and grandchildren, who can enjoy living in proximity to the natural world that, with the best of intentions, we and our parents mutilated. This needn’t mean everyone retiring to thatched-roofed huts and hoeing their gardens by hand. It might mean fewer, bigger, denser cities, with clusters of high-rises overlooking newly-replanted forests where subdivisions once sprawled.

Admittedly we have the short-term problem of funding a comfortable retirement for the baby boomers. But once that demographic lump has passed through, it should be possible to run a productive economy with a stable or gradually decreasing population, kept in balance by modest, selective immigration from the parts of the world that haven’t yet stepped off the Malthusian treadmill.

It’s true that it would be more profitable to go on basing our economy on cheap labour and galloping population growth. It may even be true that my idyllic vision of the future is unachievable, and that the only route to sustainability requires mass immigration for the foreseeable future. For many people, the fact that free market eggheads and social justice mushheads fall back on the same open-borders gospel proves the gospel must be true: for cynics like me, the question is which side has co-opted which.

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s not that I think that mine is the only acceptable vision for Canada’s future. It’s just that I resent like hell being dismissed as a Nazi for holding it.


Robert Heinlein and the basic theorem of population mechanics.

It’s been a project of mine, over the last few months, to catch up on some of Robert Heinlein’s less-famous books that I never got around to reading as a youthful sci-fi fan. That’s how I happened to be reading his 1950 novel Farmer in the Sky on the same day that I saw this Jordan Weissmann article on the Atlantic website about solving America’s demographics problem.

The problem is that the fertility rate in the United States has recently fallen below replacement level. That level in developed countries is around 2.1 children per woman – one baby to replace the mother, one to replace the father, and an extra fraction of a baby to cover accidental deaths. Below that level, barring immigration, a population will gradually contract. The problem isn’t contracting population per se. It’s that as fewer children are born, the ratio of working adults to non-working senior citizens tips toward the latter. With fewer workers, the economy can’t produce enough wealth to support its growing complement of seniors in the state of comfortable retirement they’ve come to expect.

Weissmann’s solution is straightforward – America just needs to bring in more immigrants. He needles the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat for his recent musings on the fertility problem which declined to endorse the open-borders approach Weissmann favours.

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers. As Weissmann argues, in the short run it’s probably necessary. But in the long run, reversing demographic decline isn’t a simple matter of slapping a welcome mat by the abandoned border checkpoints. First off, the decline isn’t limited to the developed world. The United States, Canada, and Western Europe are joined on the vanishing side of the 2.1 cutoff line by traditional people-exporters like China, Vietnam, and Iran. India’s fertility rate is 2.58 and falling fast – that’s about what the U.S. rate was in the 1960s. Mexico’s is down to 2.27.

In the past these countries were happy to watch their surplus population drained off via emigration to the West. If current trends continue, it won’t be long before they feel the demographic crunch too. They’ll begin offering incentives to keep their brightest and most ambitious young people at home. America will be obliged to compete against other rich countries, most of them in much direr demographic straits, for a shrinking pool of potential immigrants.

The West will have no difficulty recruiting newcomers, not anytime soon. But these newcomers will be harder to assimilate than ever before. If we want to bring them in sufficient numbers to counter demographic trends, there will simply have to be more of them than we’re used to – a larger lump dropped in the melting pot all at once. And the composition of the lump will resist mixing. Up till now we could take our pick of striving geniuses stifled by a lack of opportunity in their crowded home countries. Increasingly we’ll have to hustle for a share of the dissatisfied B-students whose countries couldn’t be bothered to make an effort to retain them. The easiest to recruit will be those from the poorest, most chaotic, and most fecund countries. They’ll be less literate, slower to pick up the language, more alien to the existing culture than previous immigrants. Being generally ill-educated, they’ll compete for jobs with the poorest slice of the native-born population, driving down the cost of unskilled labour and exacerbating income inequality.

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves. But it’s not such a cost-free operation as Weissmann implies. And once fully assimilated, the newcomers will be just as apathetic about reproducing as the rest of us.

robert a. heinlein farmer in the sky

What does all this have to do with Robert Heinlein? Here’s Paul du Maurier, an incidental character in Farmer in the Sky, discussing population projections with a fellow colonist on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. They’re debating how many ex-Earthlings their growing colony can accommodate:

“Studied any bionomics, Bill?”
“Mathematical population bionomics?”
“Well – no.”
“But you do know that in the greatest wars the Earth ever had there were always more people after the war than before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, as Jock puts it; life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life – the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth’s population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth’s new ecological dynamic.”

This lump of unleavened Malthusianism represents the best wisdom of the forward-thinkingest slice of the American intelligentsia circa 1950. In science-fiction from that era, unconstrained population growth is simply assumed. That was why all those intrepid space cadets blazed their trails to the stars in the first place – so that humanity’s teeming hordes could be deposited on the snowy plains of Ganymede, making room for more babies back home. It would never have crossed Heinlein’s mind that the Ganymede colony might have trouble attracting qualified geo-engineers because the aging home planet refused to let them emigrate.

I don’t read enough modern fiction to know if Heinlein’s successors are contemplating, as he did, the dystopian possibilities of current population trends. My sense is that the so-called demographic death-spiral has been relatively neglected, compared to the attention the population bomb got fifty years ago. I can think of a couple of recent-vintage sci-fi stories that are still built around population-bomb assumptions, but the only death-spiral story I know of is P.D. James’ allegorical The Children of Men, discussed in the article linked above. (I reviewed the entertaining but largely off-point film adaptation a few years back.)

Why has the death-spiral been neglected? For starters, many well-informed people seem oblivious to the direction the demographic arrow is now pointing. Secondarily, there’s an ideological bias at work. While death-spiralers are noticeably clustered on the political right, population-bombers tend to be on the left. Among the latter, there seems to be a widespread feeling that if we do dwindle away, hell, who’d miss us. Take this recent article in the New Yorker on the ethical implications of having children. Elizabeth Kolbert blandly quotes the philosopher David Benatar, who is untroubled by the prospect of human extinction:

“Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth,” he writes. “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more” of us.

…But she’s openly skeptical of the economist Bryan Caplan’s suggestion that maybe having kids is, you know, a good thing:

“More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.

Until recently that “outrageous claim” was held nearly universally. In a few rich countries it appears already to be the minority view. How much longer will it hold sway in the rest of the world?

The United Nations’ 2004 report World Population to 2300 projects the planet will peak at 9.22 billion people in 2075, then stabilize at around 9 billion. But that projection assumes fertility rates will do something weird:

[F]ertility will fall in all countries below replacement (in the medium scenario) and rebound to replacement after a period largely similar across countries of a century or so.

It’s obvious enough why the UN is projecting fertility rates to fall – that’s what they’re doing already, pretty much everywhere; the only question is whether they’ll plummet in the developing world to the depths they’ve reached in the rich countries. But what about the UN’s assumption that after a seemingly arbitrary period of “a century or so”, fertility will “rebound”? Is there any reason to suppose this will happen in the countries that have already fallen below replacement level?

Is it reasonable to expect fertility to rise from current levels? It is impossible to tell, but one can consider the implications if it does not. … By 2300 … [a]bout half the countries of Europe would lose 95 per cent or more of their population, and such countries as the Russian Federation and Italy would have only 1 per cent of their population left. Although one might entertain the possibility that fertility will never rise above current levels, the consequences appear sufficiently grotesque as to make this seem improbable.

As near as I can tell, this is the only explanation in the report for the assumption that in the long term, fertility rates will “rebound” to replacement level: It would be “grotesque” if they didn’t. Well, there you go.

The UN recognizes, and Farmer in the Sky demonstrates, that you can’t simply project current trendlines until they slope off the edge of the graph. Who knows, maybe there’s another baby boom right around the corner. Or maybe not. Robert Heinlein imagined that mankind was cursed with a biological imperative to overbreed, and that with a little gumption we would escape this curse by conquering the stars. But what if our imperative is nothing more than a polite suggestion, and our real curse is that, given the choice, few of us bother to heed it?


I’ve been kvetching about this issue for years, most recently in a 2010 post about how the future will belong to fast-breeding religious conservatives.

Update, July 27, 2020: Redirected a couple dead links, added cover image, and linked to Bibliography page.

Those fast-breeding religious conservatives again.

I’ve written before about the dim future of secular liberalism. Folks like me and my friends – and, in all likelihood if you’re reading this, you and your friends – can’t be bothered to have more than one or two kids, if we get around to reproducing at all.

Meanwhile the religious folks – Christians and Muslims and Jews of various stripes – are breeding their bellybuttons off. Today I learned (from an interview in the New Humanist with Eric Kaufmann, author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?) about an American religious movement called Quiverfull,

a coalition of neo-fundamentalist protestant denominations and communities, dedicated to biblical literalism, deeply patriarchal and morally conservative and separatist in mindset, [with] a 200-year plan, a “self-conscious strategy for victory through fertility”, as Kaufmann calls it. “They look around and see the low birth rate amongst the secular population, and the success of the sects, and they say, ‘Hey, we can take over here and quickly.'”

Consider the stunning population growth of Orthodox Jews in Israel:

From a trace element of the Israeli population in the 1950s, one out of three children in grade one are now Orthodox. They have achieved this with a fertility rate of 7.5 babies per  woman.

The Israeli experience suggests that though fundamentalist sects might start out “uninterested in politics or imposing their values on others,” as they get bigger they will eventually awaken to their own political clout, and begin to vote and lobby for more socially conservative policies. A few tens of thousands of Hutterites or Amish we needn’t worry about, but when in fifty years or so there are dozens of Quiverfull adherents sitting in Congress, we shouldn’t be surprised when they start telling the rest of us what to watch, where to pray, and who to screw.

The article goes on to ask what I think is the key question: What the heck can we do to prevent this? Kaufmann’s answer – paraphrased by the interviewer – is that we

need to displace the multicultural “celebration of difference” model of toleration with one that contains a far more robust sense of common values and a far more stringent rejection of reactionary fundamentalism. “We need a stronger sense of liberal values,” Kaufmann told me. “We should answer back to all fundamentalisms.”

Frankly, I think we’re doomed if that’s the best we can come up with. But I haven’t got any better ideas, and I’ve been grousing about the problem for years. Since my comments are buried in the archives, for the benefit of newer readers I thought I’d reprint them here:

March 16, 2006.

Probably our descendants, sitting in Bible-study class in their ankle-length skirts and kerchiefs, will look back on our licentious era with horror, as a dignified Victorian gentleman might have looked back upon the bear-baiting excesses of Shakespeare’s age. The Victorians of the future will regard their litany of petty taboos as signs not of repression but of enlightenment, and, just like every culture, will celebrate what stifles them. They’ll be content. But we don’t have to be. Although we won’t survive long enough to be appalled by the backwardness of those who come after us, we’re alive right now, and we have every right to worry that our cultural heirs might be a bunch of prudes and uptight a-holes. If only we could disinherit them, and pass on our culture – with all its kinks and perversions intact – to someone who could be trusted to preserve it – a race of space aliens, maybe, who would continue masturbating to internet porn, and quoting liberally from old Seinfeld episodes, and neglecting to procreate, just as we’d wish them to, beneath the surface of one of Saturn’s water-bearing moons.

But till those masturbating aliens come along, we’re stuck with the dilemma of how to preserve our culture here on the planet earth. As I see it, there are three possible strategies:

1) We outbreed the cultural conservatives.
2) We prevent them from breeding.
3) We corrupt their offspring before they get old enough to start bullying the rest of us around.

Option 1 is a non-starter, unless we develop new reproductive technology to enhance our fertility. Maybe if all the downtown-dwelling bachelors and bachelorettes could be convinced to clone themselves, we could keep pace with the rural South Dakotan housewife who thinks permanent pregnancy is her sacred duty to God and the Founding Fathers. But the technology isn’t developing fast enough for this solution to be viable. By the time I drag Michael v2.0 naked and shivering from his fluid-filled sac, the demographic battle will already be lost.

Option 2 isn’t really feasible, either. To coercively limit the birthrate, as the Communist Party did in China, goes against the very principle of liberty that we’re trying to preserve. Which leaves Option 3 – the one we’re already pursuing, by default – the corruption of the youth. This is a delicate operation. Obviously in order to coax the kids over to our side we need to make decadence and unrestrained free expression as attractive as possible – which isn’t difficult – but, if we go too far we’ll provoke a reaction from their vigilant parents, who’ll just lock their sons and daughters in the basement, slap a V-chip on the television and an internet content filter on the computer, and ignore the outside world as it parties itself to extinction. Also, we can’t cop to our strategy or else the parents will figure out what we’re up to – you can already hear them muttering about “activist judges” and the “homosexual agenda” – so it’s difficult to coordinate our scattered efforts to undermine the traditional family.

Unfortunately, we’re not likely to live long enough to see whether our plan has been successful. Or maybe that’s a blessing. If these really are the Last Days of the Roman Empire, as the survivalists and conspiracy theorists have been ranting for years, we can only hope for a pleasant death in a nursing home, with Seinfeld reruns on the TV, while the barbarians glower at us through the windows.


Mark Steyn in the Archive.

This is a landing page for archived posts about the writer, political pundit, and cat-themed crooner Mark Steyn.

I first brought him up in this post from January, 2006:

Conservative forecasts.

“That’s my utopian vision of Canada: nothing but bison and bears in the middle of the country, with a small, cosmopolitan, and well-educated population living in cities along the coasts. But I have to acknowledge the fears of conservative writers like Mark Steyn, who believes that the West is low-birthrating itself out of existence.” …

And while I didn’t mention his name again for another decade, his arguments were obviously on my mind over the following months:

Bring on the jellyfish babies.
February 28, 2006

More about low birthrates and the impending death of liberalism.
March 16, 2006

Mike Judge’s Idiocracy and my Revised Low Birthrate Theory.
September 5, 2006

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.
April 30, 2007

…And subsequently, in other blog posts tagged demographic decline.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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