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We Shouldn't Freak-out About Population Collapse.
And how Pro-Natalist need to grab some economics books jeez...
I have friends who are getting married and are breeding and babies already, and I know for my age that’s somewhat normal (insert meme of “my friends who are in their 30s”) But I have recently seen a small but loud minority of people fearing that if they don’t become freaking breeding machines, western society will collapse, or something like that… .Where do they get that idea?
Well, a couple of months ago I saw a tweet from Elon Musk (probably against my will, because of the dude being a massive A-hole and pushing his ego in everyone’s faces through twitter) talking about how population collapse is a huge issue we should be worrying about, and it’s almost the second largest risk for humanity after AI. And, remembering that old tweet got me into the rabbit hole of Natalism, and how people with a misunderstanding of economics can lead to a quasi-religion to be born.
Wait… WTF is Natalism?
Natalism (or Pro-natalism, to make it even more explicit) is the belief that popping out babies like there is no tomorrow is almost a moral imperative for humans. Because in today’s world we are facing a “population collapse”, and apparently this is a problem that’s on par with the extinction of humanity through an unaligned AGI (yeah, so screw you World Hunger, Climate crisis,Ocean acidification, and biodiversity crisis , not enough human babies… THAT is the problem we should be focusing on)
This movement has had a lot of waves of existence and popularity, for example in France between the 2 world wars there was a lobbying group trying to push forward legislation to give monetary prizes to families with over 9 children and of course banning any type of abortion or birth control methods.
You know what a french lobbying group will never do? Force you to subscribe, but if you do that would be très impressionnant
This type of logic raises a lot of red flags on one hand: once again women’s freedom’s are curtailed by people in positions of power because a women’s only relevant purpose is to breed Duh! (and let’s not forget women represent 50% of humanity, so restraining basic freedoms over their own bodies… kind of a dick move) And of course there is a weird overlap of natalists and traditional catholics, which TBH I’m indifferent ,when it’s a personal belief, to each their own that’s ok but the problem with tradcaths is that they won’t shut up about how others should be living their lives.
But that’s not my beef with natalists, again, to each their own. It is their life and if they want to be breeding 9 children and using their spouse’s vagina as a clown car it’s their prerogative. But the arguments that they are using for their lifestyle choices are based on a flawed understanding of economic growth.
At least because I've seen a lot of them using it almost like its their burden to start popping out tiny humans in the face of population decline and the demographic changes we’ve seen in most of the developing world. So let’s try to understand and debunk a bit of the flawed logic, that if we stop having more babies humanity is on some pathway towards inevitable disaster. (I mean WE ARE but there are many other global catastrophic risks we should worry before this)
Anti-Natalism Economics, or just Economics when you actually read a book.
Ok so let’s start Natalists fear that a lack of people will lead to an economic collapse because for them when population isn’t growing fast enough it means that it is the beginning of the end. And yes for most of human history economic growth was hand in hand with population growth. But luckily just like bloodletting, and using mercury for everything we have moved forward as a species, and so should our economic growth models because our societies and our economies have evolved alongside our technological development as well.
So, here is an EXTREMELY SIMPLIFIED summary of the different economic growth models that humanity has had throughout the ages.(there can be more sub-categories but for sake of brevity here are the most important ones in my opinion)
Malthusian era : This is how humanity was for most of our history subsistence farming, extremely dependent on the available land and food production, because you had no good agricultural technologies your population was the key determinant of your economic resilience but also it was a double edge sword because after a point if there was too many people there wasn't enough food production capacity to feed them or if any drought came along people would die. This led to an inverse relationship that with a fixed amount of land people’s wealth was inversely proportional to the population since more people means sharing the fixed stock of land amongst more people.
Post-Malthusian era: Then luckily humanity broke free from the Malthusian Trap thanks to the industrial revolution. Now, we can feed more people with the same stock of land, and more people means more ideas, and ideas are the ones that drive economic progress forward. Thanks to the advances in medicine, food production hygiene and other areas of scientific knowledge, alongside the institutions for patenting, securing property rights and other key factors that made the industrial revolution possible.
Also humanity had finally reached a point where the acceleration of population growth rates did not negatively impact living standards in the post-Malthusian era; on the contrary, it was driving economic growth forward. So in this case Population growth is a big deal. It was one of the key factors in helping humanity to break out of the Malthusian trap and the economic misery that humanity was stuck in for most of its history.
Modern era: In the early 1900s in Western Europe and North America, fertility rates shifted towards smaller families, leading to a decline in population growth. This transition has spread to other parts of the world, with Latin America and Asia following closely behind, and Africa showing signs of entering the transition as well. Alongside the decline in population growth, there has been an increase in education levels, with most areas experiencing significant growth in average years of schooling. And we see this trend of more developed nations having less children, for many different reasons, better education, people wanting to enjoy more of their lives and postponing the decision to have kids, women gaining access to birth control and having more autonomy over their own bodies and not being seen as mere breeding pods for humans.
So, population growth has been steadily decoupling from economic growth for some time now We can see how the so called “Scale effects”(The compounding effect of more people = more ideas of the post malthusian era) in developed economies doesn’t hold after looking at the data giving no empirical backing to that hypothesis in the modern world.
So we can see that most of the arguments of an economic collapse due to a lack of people is unfounded we have seen for decades the rise and growth of developing nations and how their demographics change with economic development. Also most developing economies are heading that way as they become more developed and industrialized, but we can still se many developed nations leading the way in economic performance and its not because of its population but because of its productivity, and competitiveness. So demographics are useless now, right?...
Population Does Matter, Just not in that Way.
I mean demographic change is a problem, we are seeing it in developed nations where we need to increase the retirement age because retirement systems are dependent on taxes paid by young workers sustaining a minority of old retirees. So if your demographic landscape changes in your country, or you either change the retirement system, one possible solution is increasing the retirement age (shout out to all my french readers) or import young people (shout out to my german readers) and this is somewhat of a good thing if done properly.
But if you just sit down and as things change (because change is inevitable) and don’t adapt your policies and institutions, you’re on a one way ticket towards disaster.
Or you can just be like japan and NOT change anything nor import young immigrants, and just bet on automating and robotizing your society to keep it productive and sustaining ungodly amounts of debt because your country is weird economic anomaly. But is it possible to have economic growth on an emptying country, and what about and empty planet?
So, what about an empty planet?
Forecasting is always a hard thing so I’ll use other people's hard work and use that as the basis for my forecast, Economist Chad Jones (What a CHAD!) has done research for well over a couple of decades on growth economics for the university of Stanford (and oh my god, I suffered so much studying his growth models for my master’s) States in his paper how technology has come to such a point in progress that we no longer need to rely on human population as the main driver of economic growth but sooner rather than later it will be probably AI tools alongside humans the main drivers of technological and economic growth.
Your subscription might not change the destiny of economic growth but it would help me break away from my Malthusian Trap.
And it seems very basic when you think about it the capacity of humans to evolve grow and move forward as a species from subsistence farmers in the 1300s to the life of absolute luxury and wealth that we live (in a very asymmetrical and unequal way) today but that even most of the people at the lower strata in most societies live off better than most of their ancestors. And probably then ext age of human prosperity will be exponentially accelerated by the implementation of (for the sake of our survival well-aligned) AI.
On a similar note economist and policy advisor David Roodman proposed that in the coming years economic growth will be propelled forward by technological developments, such as AI into such a immeasurable explosion that we might as well stop trying to measure things before and after the year 2046( take this with a grain of salt and giver or take some more or less time) But still in nowhere in the model is population a really relevant variable. Because it isn't…
Sooner rather than later our technological progress will keep on accelerating and building upon itself in an exponential fashion further accelerating and probably completely redefining what we believe to be the limits of growth and the economic models we have built for the world before this technological progress.
Maybe we will finally achieve a post-scarcity economy where no human will not have its needs met, where population growth done by biological humans is no longer a relevant factor when we can replicate complex enough AIs that are as unique and as complex as human personalities. This would be a more viable way for humanity to expand and colonize beyond our solar system and expand throughout the cosmos. Or also not limiting ourselves to single individuals as the only vessel for consciousness or identity, the future will be opening up many more pathways than what we can currently imagine( if we manage to survive until then)
And again, having more or less babies has nothing of relevance for the future of humanity, if you want to breed and have kids go for it, if you don’t want to experience the miracle of life that’s ok too. But let’s not create some sort of misguided belief system based on faulty economics.
You can just built a belief system like we used to in the good ol’ days and just hallucinate with enough psychedelics, create an imaginary friend, set some rules and laws and start a cult, and if you’re charismatic or politically oriented enough, and manage to get enough followers of the cult, congrats you got yourself an organized religion!