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.


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)