Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Is it a Bad Idea to Have Fewer Children? Jorgen Randers at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Jorgen Randers speaks at the 1st Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, in Florence, Sep 2017

The Summer Academy of the Club of Rome saw an interesting debate when a young participant asked to take the floor and speak about what he and his group were seeing as a problem: the current tendency of having fewer children. He showed data about the resulting unbalanced age distribution with too many old people who turn out to be a burden for society. And he said that having such an unbalanced distribution could be a disaster in the case of an economic downturn or even a collapse.

Jorgen Randers produced a strong response to this presentation. I am reporting from memory, but I think I am being faithful to the gist of what Randers said, which was something like this:

"Young man, you gave a very bad presentation. I think it was truly horrible and you should stop giving it. You see, the problem you are presenting is a completely fake problem. It comes from the fact that, in the past, an agreement had developed in most Western societies that the families would provide for children, whereas the state would support the elderly. Now, of course, with more old people, the state must pay more. But we forget that having fewer children the burden for families - and for society - is much reduced. So, there is a simple solution to what you see as a problem: raise the retirement age. That's what my country, Norway, did. They leave citizens to choose when to retire, but they give favorable conditions to those who retire later. And most citizens decide to retire at a late age. Look at me: I am 72 years old, I am still working and I think I'll keep working until I turn 85; then maybe I'll retire. But I keep working and I am not living on a pension, so I am not a burden for society. And I am still caring for my 99-year old mother, who is not a burden for the younger generations. So, the problem you pose is mostly of our own creation and it vanishes when compared with the much larger and difficult problem of overpopulation. We need to take into account that there exist limits to growth and that if we want to solve the problem of overpopulation, we need to have fewer children."

This story is interesting for various reasons. Perhaps Randers was too harsh on the young activist, who wasn't saying that we should keep having many children. But it is remarkable how emotionally charged the issue of population is. For some people, any effort aimed at reducing the burden of the human population on the ecosystem amounts to little less than a sacrilege. An insult to the human right to dominate everything which is not human.

On the reasons for this attitude, I can say little, but it seems to be rather common. I was surprised to see it appearing in a meeting dedicated to sustainability and, surely, it has to be even more common outside the world of people concerned with this subject. As a further example of this humanocentric attitude, I think it is appropriate to reproduce here a post that I published last year on "Cassandra's Legacy"

(note: The presentation criticized by Randers is available upon request, just ask me - ugo.bardi(thingette)

Saturday, June 18, 2016
If Switzerland had a Sahara Desert, it would be a small Africa. Does the world really have an "overpopulation problem"?

Dealing with such issues as oil depletion and climate change is already politically and emotionally charged but, at least, these are physical problems that we can examine using the scientific method. But overpopulation? It is the perfect recipe for an instant politicized quarrel.

The movie "Population Boom" by Werner Boote is a good example of how emotional the population question can become. It starts almost immediately with a potshot at the Reverend Malthus, accused to "have predicted a catastrophe for 1860" (something that poor Malthus never said.). Then, it goes on for one hour and a half in the attempt to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as an "overpopulation problem." Rather, the film's thesis is that the world is seeing a conspiracy by the elites of the rich countries who are trying to stop the people in poor countries from having as many children as they want so that they could become rich, too, and challenge the world dominance of the present elites.

If we accept the idea that all opinions are legitimate, then also this one should be - even though probably a bit too extreme for most of us. The problem is that the way the film tries to demonstrate its thesis oscillates between the boring and the silly; without ever providing a serious argument. Mainly, we see the filmmaker, Mr. Werner Boote, walking around while carrying his umbrella in places where it never seems to rain. In his ramblings, Mr. Boote interviews people who, frankly, don't seem to have a clue about overpopulation, except for seeing it as an invention of the evil Western Elites (and the same is true for global warming, explicitly defined as such in one of the interviews).

Most of the arguments made in these interviews are so silly that they are not even worth deconstructing. Just as an example, in a scene we see Mr. Boote (for once without his umbrella) discussing with a man who tells him that Africa is not overpopulated because it has only 40 inhabitants per square km, compared with the 170 of Europe. Then, the man takes Boote somewhere on top of a hill and he shows him an empty landscape, saying, "do you see? Africa is not overpopulated!"

Now, there are several problems here. First, the numbers are wrong, at least in part. The datum for the population density in Africa seems to be correct, but the population density in Europe is 105 inhabitants per square km, not 170. Maybe Mr. Boote's informant meant Western Europe, but if you take that as meaning the European Union, then the population density still is only 116. Then, one would be tempted to remind to Mr. Boote's informant that Europe doesn't have a Sahara desert; to say nothing about the Kalahari desert and other areas unsuitable for human occupation in Africa. So, he conveniently forgets that an African country such as Nigeria has about the same density of population as Switzerland (nearly 200 people per square km), to say nothing about Rwanda, that has 460 people per square km (more than twice than Switzerland). Finally, one could show to Mr. Boote and to his informant the Yosemite Valley or the Death Valley and then tell them: "you see? Almost no one lives in California!

I could go on, but I think this is enough for this movie. Let me just add that if you think that the poor do not pollute the ecosystem, you would do well reading this post by Jacopo Simonetta.


  1. a very easy comment for a person like jorgen randers to make. indeed, any affluent person with a physically undemanding job can work until 72, 75, 80 or older. people with physically demanding jobs are less fortunate. they can't work so long and they die younger. one of the great scams currently popular is pushing back the retirement age with full knowledge that many people with hard, physical jobs will pay into social security etc. for decades and then die before they can even retire.

    1. He mentioned this point, saying that, obviously, people engaged in physically demanding job should retire earlier. But in a modern society they seem to be no more than about 10%

  2. I think JR's response was unhelpful in every way. I hope he later apologised. 1. 'Young man' is a put down . 2. Answering a statistical description with a personal circumstance is (I imagine) a demographer's nightmare, validly so. 3. Norway's increase of retirement age does not respond appropriately or address the context of global population overshoot. 4. The increase of the age of human biomass is a substantive issue in itself, separable in some ways from population overshoot and likely to trigger a collapse if not addressed specifically and arguably prior to numerical population. 5. Public policy and messaging in the post industrial world specifically misleads public perceptions about longevity and the validity of prolonging life for the aged , to the extent that resources are clearly being diverted and consumed disproportionately.

    1. @crybaby
      I tend to agree. Elderly environmental activists (I count myself as a low level activist) might better criticise their ongoing failure to connect with the complex reality of an only partially industrialised world. If we activists failed, why do we keep repeating the same performance? JR actually may have done us a favour by demonstrating why he (we) failed.

      England went from under 6M in 1750 to nearly 18M by 1850, which already exceeded food growing capacity (calories). And doubled again by early 20th C. Food growing capcity cannot be equated with surface area per person. Switzerland? USA still has surplus food-growing capacity but only because of critical fossil fuel input. Rate of total fossil fuel use per person - not just for agriculture - might be a better metric for comparison. I looked at some numbers a few years ago. Each American required perhaps x50 the input of an average person in Bangladesh (iirc).

      I wish JR and his mother continued good health. I am sure he has reduced his personal consumption of 'carrying capacity' as much as he can already. But I think the ability of young people to take care of their obligations is already highly constrained. We should give their
      concerns some meticulous answers.

  3. Ah, eschatology - such a powerful distractor. When it comes to the end, either collective or personal end, even among thinkers facts take several steps back and emotion comes - scantily clad - to the fore. But this is an important reminder: even in complex systems' modeling, whenever humans are involved as a factor, never forget or underestimate emotional impact.

  4. Isn't 97% of earths biomass enough for us? I would rather see more butterflies, more wild animals more insects, more plants & more birds than one more human!
    I'm sick to death of seeing only humans, hearing only humans, smelling only humans & their dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, horses, farts etc but I rarely see or hear anything else living anymore.

    Humans should have to get a license before they can reproduce, some people should never have children,(me) a few should have more, most need to have far fewer than their having now.

    What "brain" thought we needed more young people to take care of old people anyhow, can't they see where that would lead?
    A sooner & faster collapse!

    We cannot solve the shortage of caretakers for old people by having more people! Those excess young humans will grow older to become old people themselves & need care too, then what? Give 'em a 'BOT!

    We will have to euthanize many old folks & defectives who are no longer really with us, their bodies hang around but they are gone, then we can off millions of worthless, lying politicians, criminals, dictators, rulers, priests, "fathers", Emoms, Rabis & all the other useless, needy, greedy, "god" men.
    Of course if they choose to work instead of just being "god" men praying & counting their beads, they should be spared.

    They want to raise the retirement age?


    They don't want working people, they want 'BOTS!
    'BOTS are cheaper, faster, more accurate, never complain, never ask for a raise, don't get sick, don't need expensive health insurance, can be worked 24/7 without complaint or overtime, of course they want 'BOTS not humans!

    We are being replaces with 'BOTS as fast as they can roll them out so how can they tell us to keep working when our employers are kicking us out the door as soon as a 'BOT rolls in to replace 20, 100 or more of us?

    'BOTS are set to replace hundreds of millions of jobs so forcing us to work longer is impossible when there are no jobs, should they just off themselves since 'BOTS turned them into "useless eaters" through no fault of their own?
    Then of course with so many former consumers unemployed & 'BOTS unable to buy their products or services, who or what will be the new "consumer"?

  5. Looking after one's parents in an age of certain economic decline isn't going to be as easy as Mr Rander's thinks. If they develop serious dementia it is quite impossible - perhaps he hasn't experienced this? He is correct about resources and population reduction though.

    The rather tragic fact is that many people dream of their pensions, because their heart isn't in their job and retirement is all they have to look forward to. As someone said to me 'Think, money you don't have to earn!!'

    My brother is a 'state functionary' in Europe, in the 'education' sector and he is very smug about the pension he believes he is accumulating.

    Hence the sensitivity about the issue.

    I tend to think that on the whole whatever there is worthwhile to do I shall have accomplished by 70 at the latest, and that once ill-health of a disabling kind sets in it will be time to arrange my departure from this life rather than exhaust other human beings in caring for me, or consuming resources I do not deserve in return for merely breathing.

    Desperate clinging to life using more and more social resources is rather shameful, if humanly understandable.

    Eventually we shall have to face up to this,as the burden of the elderly will be unvbearable, to society and themselves.

    1. Yes, my relatives in Italy hired a live-in woman from the Ukraine (taken away from her own three children) to care for a demented mother-in-law for *over fifteen years*. Imagine not seeing your own children grow up because you are baby-sitting a mental vegetable in another country.

      Another elderly relative was served by three shifts of personal nurses. It is clear that a societal system cannot persist when weaker members demand the ongoing productive output of 2-3 able members.

      Tragic, but nonetheless true: there will no longer be surpluses which allow these sorts of things to happen. It seems to be offensive to point this out.

  6. Maybe this as to do with a problem there is not a (kind) solution for. Maybe it has to do with the fact the resources aren't fairly shared (as well as limited). Maybe the young guy and Jorgen are both right. We need to find a way to guarantee a worthy life for everybody while reducing our numbers. When it comes to retirement, though, actually there jobs people must retire from earlier, rather tha later (and vice versa). Actually, it would be much more easier to privide for the basic needs of a lower population, if it wasn't for this unfair economic system we live in. In any case, reducing our numbers will be economically harder as we continue growing. Therefore, the more we delay a dramatic population reduction policy, the more it will get painful. And it's not the we have a plan b solution; we have to reduce our nubers (possibly ASAP), or our fate is dire.

  7. We labour under profound misconceptions. There is really no such thing as 'dignity in old age'.

    It is horrible: one by one faculties and capacities go, often very suddenly -one day you can't see at all, or hear, or walk, until you become weak, dependent and pitiable.

    The elderly can become terrible tyrants, draining the life of those who still have things to do, a contribution to make - not selfish pleasures, but real work.

    Dignity must lie in knowing when to shed this life, after having done what one could do.

    Life is meant to use us up, utterly.

    It's foolish to dream of a leisured retirement as the crowning achievement of one's existence.

  8. I understood that JR point was that, having less children to care for, we may shift resources used for children care to elder care. The total, children plus elder people, for each active person, is not increasing as much, in a decreasing population.

    And the presentation WAS awful. It looked as the problem of the "generation gap" in caring the elder was something comparable with the collapse of the society. I understand now that this is not the opinion of the presenter, but is what I (and many others) understood. Probably he should revise it somewhat.

  9. That birth control, or family planning, in developing countries is considered by many as just another neocolonialist concept is really a pity and a mistake. I think this problem arises out of the fact, that its intellectual origin lies indeed in the developed countries. If it were, by some serendipity, created in Africa, no one would have any objection.
    The argument goes a bit like "You had your population explosion - so let us have ours." Its first part is certainly true. Europe is actually overpopulated. We can produce our food on our soil, yes, but using high intensity agriculture with high input of exergy and chemicals. Our per capita emission signature could be much lower with a lower population density, due to the fact that water, wind and bioenergy resources are basically independent of population density. Not to speak of ruined ecosystems by agriculture, settlements and roads.
    The second part does indeed sound silly. Look at the US, the superpower: its arable land per capita is much lower than Europes, and even lower than that of most African countries. A propos arable land per capita: Many, though not all, african countries are at par with Europe. There is not much room left to grow into. (

    1. Correction: I meant, that in the US the population per unit of arable land is much lower than Europes, and most of Africas, not the other way around.

  10. Ugo, a few brief thoughts on this exchange. First, Mr Randers is wrong about the cost of raising children: it has become dramatically larger and harder to meet. For example, in the US in the 1950s, one breadwinner could support a family of five. Today, two breadwinners can barely support a family of three.

    Wages have stagnated, costs have risen, and a huge bite is taken out of a worker's first dollar by Social Security and Medicare. No, the State does not care for old people, it is the stolen labour of the young that cares for them.

    And the complaint that raising the retirement age cheats the physical labourer is correct - but that is not a defect, it is an integral part of the design. In the case of both US Social Security and the UK State Pension, the scheme was designed around the assumption that at least half of the workers who paid in would die before they could take out. It was only this "ghost divident" that made the system almost sustainable. And now, of course, it is on the edge of your Seneca Cliff.

    Concerning "dignity in old age", I am 72, and still in full-time work. That seems to me to be dignified. And I have a living will that explicitly instructs that no emergency measures are to be taken if there is little hope of a full recovery. I hope therefore to die in a hospice setting, with a little palliative care and a lot of compassion.

    But the consensus of modern society says otherwise. I think that consensus in in for a most painful awakening.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)