Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Demographic Dilemma –– Part I

Exactly three years ago, a five part series titled, The Doomsday Book: An Environmental Nightmare, started in the April 2007 issue of Viewpoint. Covered in some detail was a book authored by Lester R. Brown, president of the World Watch Institute. The book was titled Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. In that article I wrote: “Mr. Brown’s tome, that I have identified as the ‘Doomsday Book,’ does outline a series of issues that left unaddressed could indeed lead to catastrophic consequences, many of which have not been recognized as problematic. Consider, for example, one such issue that I strongly suspect you have overlooked — SEX. That does not refer to gender, but to sexual activity that will drive the world’s population from its current number of over 6,600,000,000 to over 9,400,000,000, almost half again as large by 2050,”

Is SEX the Problem or the Solution?

The article continued, “The organization, World Population Awareness, describes overpopulation as ‘the root of most, if not all, environmental and many economic issues: timber over-harvesting, loss of arable land, ocean depletion, food shortages, water shortages, air pollution, water pollution, flooding, plant and animal habitat loss, global warming, and immigration.’” I then wrote, “Far be it for me to discourage sex. However, even the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund states, ‘We cannot confront the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease, and environmental destruction unless we address issues of population and reproductive health.’”

Alluding primarily to environmental problems provoked by the world’s population growth, the 2007 Viewpointe article did not specifically address the significant rate of population growth in the United States, or the consequences of that growth as it affects the future social and economic structure of the country. With the ongoing census count now in force, it will be interesting to learn how closely the new numbers will correlate to current population projections. Nevertheless, see if you can get your mind around this: According to current U.S. Census Bureau statistics, by the year 2050, our country’s population will have increased by an astonishing 100 million more people. Will we be able to provide adequate amounts of food; drinking water; energy including oil, gas, electricity, and other alternative fuels; shelter; not to mention the environmental impact on problems such as climate change that could be exacerbated –– and let’s not forget JOBS, a subject not discussed adequately by Mr. Brown.

While this is a Cassandra like view that seems to be the result of (if you will excuse the term) a muscular increase in the sexual proclivity of our fellow Americans, is this transition as calamitous as opponents of population growth profess? If we consider that question from a global perspective, this prediction of our country’s 36 percent population growth rate pales in comparison with the forecast of a worldwide increase of 42 percent, so we are not quite as testosterone driven as might first be assumed. However, by using a different frame of reference, how our population growth compares to that of our major economic competitors, we encounter a fascinating view of our future, one that appears to completely contradict the population growth doomsayers, at least as it relates to our country.

The Numbers Are Surprising

Before we examine that more favorable supposition, let’s look into the numbers. First however, I will admit that statistics are boring –– that’s what prevented me from becoming an economist –– but what you read next might surprise you. The countries with the largest populations beginning in 1950 to the present day are, in order of population size, China, India, and the United States. During that period, China’s population increased almost two and a half times, India’s more than tripled, and the United States doubled its population. However, from 2010 to 2050 the numbers change dramatically. India will replace China as the most populous country increasing 50 percent, from 1.2 billion to 1.8 billion. China falls to second place with a surprisingly much smaller percentage increase of just five percent, from 1.35 billion to 1.42 billion. The United States however, jumps 36 percent, from a current population of 309 million to 420 million in 2050. While Americans might not be as amorously disposed as the Indians, that’s not too shabby an effort.

Change is the only constant

“Think back to 1967. The job you have today may not even have existed. The Internet, and all the jobs that have come with it, were decades away. The Detroit automakers were dominant. Quality of life was different, too: The median household income was an inflation-adjusted $40,261, compared with $50,303 in 2008. There were also a hundred million fewer of us; 1967 was the year the U.S. population hit 200 million. We passed the 300 million mark in 2006, and by 2050, there will very likely be more than 400 million Americans. The lifestyle of the average American may change just as much from 2010 to 2050 as it did from 1967 to 2006. The economy will especially undergo change.”

The above is a quote from the February 2 nd issue of U.S. News & World Report. The author, Joel Kotkin, is a columnist for Forbes magazine, and a Distinguished American Fellow at Chapman University in Orange, California. Two days later, his book titled, The Next 100 Million: America in 2050, was on bookshelves around the country. If you believe in the doomsday predictions of the sort mentioned above, it might be difficult to entertain the views expressed in this new book. It asserts that, “ America's population growth makes it a notable outlier among the advanced industrialized countries. The country boasts a fertility rate 50% higher than that of Russia, Germany, or Japan, and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore, North Korea, and virtually all of Eastern Europe. Add to that the even greater impact of continued large-scale immigration to America from around the world. By the year 2050, the U.S. population will swell by roughly 100 million, and the country's demographic vitality will drive its economic resilience in the coming decade.” (My underline.)

In an article published in World Affairs Journal, Mr. Kotkin elaborates on his theory stating, “ Perhaps the key distinguishing characteristics of the once and future American exceptionalism derive from the fact that in the coming decades America’s population will grow dramatically, adding at least 100 million people by 2050. This contrasts with more rapidly aging basic rivals in Europe and the Far East, including China. Although its percentage of childless women continues to rise, America still boasts the highest fertility rate among advanced countries: 50 percent higher than Germany or Japan, and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore, Korea, and virtually all of Eastern Europe. The contrast between the United States and Russia, America’s onetime primary rival for world power, is particularly telling. Thirty years ago, Russia constituted the core of a vast Soviet empire that was considerably more populous than the United States. Today, even with its energy riches, Russia’s low birthrate and high mortality suggests that its population will decline 30 percent by 2050, to less than one-third that of the United States. Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spoken of “the serious threat of turning into a decaying nation.”

The Future of America

Mr. Kotkin believes that “ In stark contrast to the rest of the world’s advanced nations, the United States is growing at a record rate. This projected rise in population is the strongest indicator of our long-term economic strength, and will make us more diverse and more competitive than any nation on earth.” He also boldly predicts that, “The America of 2050 may not stride the world like a hegemonic giant, but it will evolve into the one truly transcendent superpower in terms of society, technology and culture,”

A review by the New York Times describes Kotkin’s prediction as to what this “nonhegemonic transcendent superpower” will look like: “The Internet’s democratization of information will mean more people will work at home. The heartland will be revived as places with “skill surpluses” like Fargo, N.D., and Boise, Idaho, prosper through technology. The nation’s suburbs will become more like preindustrial villages with vibrant town centers and less like bedroom communities catering to commuters. As a result, the core of many central cities will shrivel and become anachronisms as the sprawling, multi-polar, car-dependent cities of the South and Southwest (which can lure younger families with lower property prices) become cutting-edge cultural incubators. Some older urban areas, like New York, may survive as ‘luxury cities,’ but Mr. Kotkin perceptively warns that municipal officials who believe they can position their cities only as playgrounds for the rich are doomed to a demographic dead end. He invokes Jane Jacobs: “Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.”

So, here we have two respected futurists, Lester Brown, with a doomsday prediction for the world based on a seemingly unrelenting and uncontrollable population growth, and Joel Kotkin, with a decidedly upbeat prophecy for the United States, despite a significant population increase. Which one do you think is correct? To make that decision, more facts must be considered, details that will be provided in next month’s column.