What if there were far fewer people?

by Chris Armstrong on January 8, 2024

One of the most common arguments in debates about environmental crisis is: “it’s the rising population, stupid.” There are just too many human beings, using up too much stuff, leaving too little space for everyone else. The next step is often to gesture towards some kind of population control, or just to leave the issue hanging.

Whatever you think of that position, I’ve been struck lately by the increasing prominence of its diametric opposite. This holds that the problem we face – or will soon face, anyway – is that there are actually too few of us. Consider this opinion piece from the New York Times back in September (only the latest in a series of pieces the NYT has published on the topic, often with much the same message. Here’s one from 2021, and another from 2022). The real problem, it suggests, is that the human population will not only peak in 2085, but that it will then decline, perhaps precipitously. Within a couple of hundred years, there might be only be 2 billion of us left. The claim is not, note, that population will fall in one country or other – we’re familiar with that idea. The claim is that the global population is set to decline, perhaps precipitously.

The key question is: why would this matter? There are several reasons for thinking it wouldn’t, actually. Liberals will say that if people freely decide not to reproduce, that’s their business. Some population ethicists might retort that no-one is wronged by not being brought into existence. And then, of course, there’s the biggie: fewer people would mean much more space for every other living thing. We have crowded out (or killed) so many of our fellow creatures. In a post-Anthropocene world, wildlife could recover some of its past glories. Which is why some think a smaller population would be a good thing for multiple reasons.

Why, then, think we should worry about declining numbers of people? Well, what reasons does the NYT piece provide? The argument could be a lot more direct. But the key suggestion seems to be that larger populations generate more innovation, and hence more (per capita) economic growth. That, of course, will hardly persuade people who think more growth is something we can ill afford on a limited planet. We’re also, obviously, owed an account of why less growth would necessarily mean lower levels of well-being (FN). But it seems the idea is simply that fewer people means fewer Mozarts, fewer Marie Curies, fewer Henry Fords.

If that is the argument, it brings us close the position of prominent longtermists (though the author does not make the link). Some longtermists have wondered, after all, whether most animals might not be better off dead anyway. By contrast the more human beings there are, the greater the chance that we eventually colonise the stars and become Ultra-High-Well-being Cyborgs™. Perhaps today’s twenty-something in a rented flat and a precarious job – and wondering whether she could ever afford to raise children – just needs to think of that cyborg composing twenty symphonies before its synthetic lunch, and get breeding.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s likely to cut the mustard. But I am curious about the emergence of this trope, which bemoans the declining population long before it happens. It seems distinct from arguments decrying the declining birth rate in some continents rather than others (the favoured topic of ‘great replacement’ conspiracy-mongers). But I am curious what its political or intellectual origins are, and what, if anything, might be said in favour of it. Why, then, would it matter if there were far fewer of us?

  • (FN). We’re also owed an account, of course, of why diminishing human well-being wouldn’t be more than compensated for by greater opportunities for animal flourishing. The NYT piece is a little evasive here. It acknowledges that a lower population might be a boon to the environment, but replies that decarbonisation and the protection of biodiversity has to happen now: to wait for population decline as a solution is to wait too long. Well, sure. But that doesn’t mean we can push aside bigger, wider questions about the relationship between human population and the wider environment!



    Chris Bertram 01.08.24 at 8:48 am

    The Mozart problem, if it is one, seems to me to be belied by the fact that we can look back to extraordinary flowerings of creativity within relatively small networks in the past: the Scottish enlightenment, fin-de-siècle Vienna, classical period Athens etc. We’d do better to attend to what made these episodes possible than to assume there’s some fixed ration of geniuses to population. (Tech billionaires and other right-wingers are rather attracted to the natural-genius-in-a-sea-of-mediocrity theory, as that legitimates their view of themselves and inequality as natural,)


    Doug Muir 01.08.24 at 9:28 am

    Well, at some point you don’t have enough people to support modernity. Markets, factories, supply chains all require a certain minimum number of producers and consumers in order to work. A world with 1/100th of the current population would not have iPhones, Airbus jets, or Baldur’s Gate; there simply wouldn’t be enough consumers to support the production of those things.

    “Oh but I don’t care about — ” yes well, shrink the population enough, and at some point it won’t be able to produce things you do care about, like laptop computers and publishing houses and cancer medication. Or, if it shrinks down small enough, tractors and street lights and contact lenses and supermarkets. To take the extreme case, a human population of ten million people, spread across the planet, would be a human population living mostly at an Iron Age level of technology.

    TBC, I don’t think this would be an issue at half or a quarter of our current population. But once you got below a couple of billion humans, yeah, some things would start to disappear. In order to support a world of humans living at a comfortable mid-21st century standard of living, you probably need at least several hundred million people.

    Doug M.


    Steve 01.08.24 at 9:28 am

    Most of the problems are not with the absolute numbers, but with the transition from the old number to the new – a world with only (say) 2bn people may or may not be better than the one we have, but physically caring for the aging remnant of our current 7.8bn sounds like too big a job for a relatively small number of younger workers to manage. Unless, of course, the decline can be paced somehow, or there’s some huge improvement in robotics, which certainly some are doing their best to achieve …


    Aaron M 01.08.24 at 10:32 am

    My sense is like Steve’s that most of the concerns have to do with handling dramatic changes to demographics. The process of population decline involves a flipping of the demographic pyramid that modern societies were built on, i.e. lots of young people supporting fewer old people. The concern is that we don’t really know how to organise a society when the older are greater than the younger and the population is declining, especially if this is happening at a global level. Then there are the maximisers in economics and philosophy (with contrarian instincts) that the think the human population on earth should be 10X or more to maximise welfare.


    engels 01.08.24 at 10:48 am

    The reason Western political classes worrry about population isn’t anything long-term but that in the structure of housing markets, careers and welfare systems Western economies are basically Ponzi schemes, that require a continuous stream of enthusiastic twenty-somethings to keep the balls in the air. That be can purveyed either by breeding or immigration, which are (un)popular with different constituencies.


    Phil H 01.08.24 at 11:58 am

    … oh, wait, no I just came to say what Engels said. I was going to put it in prettier language, with mention of inflation and interest rates and that kind of thing. But on reflection, I like engels’ version better.
    I think there might be another argument to make for having a big population. Even though small groups make the scientific breakthroughs and the amazing art, you need a receptive audience or market for what they make, and that requires a big population. Plus, you’re more likely to get a group of great inventors forming if you have lots of people.
    A second reason might be insurance: in the event of something very deadly, it seems prima facie more likely that the human race will survive if there are lots of us than if there are few.
    A third is straightforward utilitarianism: a future with lots of people experiencing great things is better than a future with few.
    I’m not sure this is a trope, yet, nor why you’d want to dismiss the arguments as a trope. Isn’t this what newspapers are for, in part? Wringing our hands over unlikely possibilities? It seems like it would be OK just to accept these op ed arguments as part of a big, interesting discourse, even if the arguments aren’t very good.


    nastywoman 01.08.24 at 1:11 pm

    Well – Mozart showed up in a very small population of a very small country!

    Right Prof. Bertram and where did Banksy show UP?



    Doug Muir 01.08.24 at 1:55 pm

    “But on reflection, I like engels’ version better.”

    Right, so countries with elderly and declining populations should see declining housing prices.

    Okay, what’s a country with a very elderly and declining population? Japan! [googles] Huh — housing prices in Japan have been rising steadily for over a decade now.

    Okay, how about Italy? [googles] Hmm — Italy’s housing prices declined until 2019, but have been rising ever since; they’re now back to the level they were in 2015 and still rising. What’s going on here?

    Well, it turns out housing markets are very very very complicated! Who knew?

    Here’s a single factor to consider: aging populations need different housing. Population has a lot of people in their 30s and 40s with three or more kids? They’ll want lots of single-family homes with yards or gardens. Lots of twentysomething DINKs? They’ll be more interested in townhouses and urban apartments. Lots of 65+ empty-nest old people? They’ll prefer little single-story ranch style houses and apartments in buildings with elevators.

    Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but the underlying point is real: as the population ages, you need dramatically different housing stock. And that’s just one of a dozen or so different factors that affect housing /demand/, and that’s before we even talk about the madness that is housing /supply/.

    So, a simplistic “fewer people, cheaper housing” model… no, that doesn’t actually work very well in reality.

    Doug M.


    engels 01.08.24 at 2:22 pm

    as the population ages, you need dramatically different housing stock

    Up to a point but the Ponzi is about owning the housing, not necessarily living in it (the retired empty nester in the sprawling bungalow ranch owns the pseudo-modernist rabbit hutch the 20-something DINKs are working three minimum wage jobs to pay the rent on).


    Thor Ribeiro 01.08.24 at 2:23 pm

    One point I feel this analyses miss is that a world with very few children and lots of old people seems like a very sad, un-magical world. Most people will be single children, no brothers or uncles or cousins. Maybe we can compensate a bit by moving away from the bourgeois family model, but I feel the sociological implications from this radical shift are rarely mentioned.


    Chris Armstrong 01.08.24 at 2:44 pm

    @10 That’s an interesting point. There would be fewer (actual) children than (possible) parents while the population was declining. But whatever level it stabilised at, we’d then by definition be back to replacement levels of childbearing (which are commonly expressed as 2.1 children per woman – not my formulation!). I don’t know what sociologists have had to say about this, but I do know that political theorists have addressed the issue. One argument would be that, if we are to meet our interests in parenting in a world with below-replacement-level birthrates, we would need to detach what we might call ‘social’ parenting from biological parenting: if we’re prepared to be creative, most people could still enjoy a parental or quasi-parental role in some form or another.


    steven t johnson 01.08.24 at 3:14 pm

    “We’re also owed an account, of course, of why diminishing human well-being wouldn’t be more than compensated for by greater opportunities for animal flourishing.”

    Not at all clear on who “we” is in this demand. There are two issues with this. First, the case for equality among humans is still bitterly contested, not just in practice but in the academy as well, I think. The presumption that animals are equals to human still needs more work, no matter what the demand assumes.

    Second, even if someone were to temporarily wave away serious issues in favor of animal equality, why this discrimination in favor of animals? Plants and fungi deserve their rights too, but putting caterpillars on the same level as people is a bigoted attack on every leaf in the arboretum! Why, given that bacteria and protists compose a huge proportion of all life, why this fixation on animals, except you can draw cartoons of them with big eyes? All humor aside, the argument is actually incoherent I think.

    Further given the importance of current economic arrangements in subsidizing arguments that the economy will suffer if there’s not enough cheap labor, the OP’s presumption that people are a Bad Thing for the animals who count just as much (if not more? because they unlike people are innocent?) is kind of irrelevant. The issue is questioning the current economic arrangements which are irrevocably committed to an insane notion of “growth.” Unlimited growth of profits and universal repayment of all debts with compound interest no matter what is the real problem I think. Attacking motherhood rather than the NIPA fetish finds more of an audience maybe but that doesn’t make it useful.

    Worst of all, reducing populations without confronting the problem of, which populations is worse than useless. It is its own problem in itself.


    bekabot 01.08.24 at 3:17 pm

    “fewer Mozarts, fewer Marie Curies, fewer Henry Fords”

    Yes, but. We’ve had more than 330 years to make more Mozarts and there’s still only ever been just one.


    bekabot 01.08.24 at 3:21 pm

    {added: make that 230 years: sorry}


    Doug Muir 01.08.24 at 3:25 pm

    “There would be fewer (actual) children than (possible) parents while the population was declining. But whatever level it stabilised at, we’d then by definition be back to replacement levels of childbearing (which are commonly expressed as 2.1 children per woman – not my formulation!). ”

    2.1 is a simplification. Worldwide about 3% of kids die between birth and age 18, which means that a worldwide replacement TFR would be around 2 x (1.03) or around 2.06. That figure would be more like 2.02 in the developed world and closer to 2.12 in places like Afghanistan or Niger. But since measuring TFR is methodologically challenging even in developed countries, it’s simpler to just say 2.1 as close enough.

    Meanwhile, “at whatever level it stabilized” is doing a lot of work. I’m not aware of any country where TFR has dropped below 1.6 where it has subsequently risen back to replacement level.

    I’m not saying it isn’t possible — I’m sure it is, actually. But I am saying that we’re almost certainly looking at a long period of population decline across much of the world.

    Doug M.


    Chris Armstrong 01.08.24 at 3:29 pm

    @12 – The OP carefully avoided any claims about animal equality. You’re right that they’re controversial. But they’re also not needed here. This is because humans are so hugely outnumbered by non-human animals. For instance, there are an estimated 3.5 trillion fish in the world. So to say that fish (in total) count for as much as humans (in total), you don’t need to prove equal worth; you just need to prove that a human is not more important than 500 fish. When you add all of the other trillions of animals, the implication is that each human has to be worth more than many, many thousands of other animals. I don’t find that plausible. There seem to be two ways out of the conclusion that humans (in total) are actually quite a bit less important than other animals (in total): deny animals any worth at all; or claim that other animals have negative utility, in which case they’re better off dead (that seems to be MacAskill’s hunch).


    Aardvark Cheeselog 01.08.24 at 3:49 pm

    As for making more Mozarts or Curies (not sure we want more Henry Fords?) I feel morally certain that providing opportunity for self-actualization to the huge fraction of the population that currently does not have that would be the most efficient approach.

    How many potential Mozarts or Curies have had their lives burned away performing scutwork for some capitalist in order to keep eating?


    engels 01.08.24 at 3:55 pm

    We’ve had more than 330 years to make more Mozarts and there’s still only ever been just one.

    But there are lots of little Henry Fords, especially among NYT readers.

    I think we’ve already detached “social” from biological parenting: it’s done by low-paid employees and childless relatives of the wealthy professionals who can afford the houses to have the kids in…


    Doug Muir 01.08.24 at 4:15 pm

    …actually, we’ve had dozens if not hundreds of musicians as talented and as successful as Mozart.

    If you want to argue this point, spend a few moments with google. You can start with Charly Garcia, Kit Armstrong, and Emily Bear, but there are many, many more. If you want to be puckish, you could argue the case for Eddie Van Halen, a musical polymath (piano/guitar/composer/singer/songwriter/musical engineer who had three patents). Eddie had shelves full of awards by the time he entered high school, most of them won in competitions against much older and more experienced musicians, and he went on to do things with a guitar that are still being picked apart today.

    Sure, there’s a sense in which you can only have one Mozart, for the same reason you can only have one Newton or Picasso or Einstein: some breakthroughs can only be made once, and we will always remember the guy who came first.

    But if you mean Mozart in the sense of “incredibly talented child prodigy who becomes a great musician and highly successful composer”, yeah no. There’ve been a bunch of them.

    Doug M.


    SamChevre 01.08.24 at 5:03 pm

    I think part of the issue here is trying to make consistent arguments across domains. In almost every discussion of immigration, the “_, we’re full” argument are disparaged more than argued with. You have immigration enthusiasts like Matt Yglesias, arguing that “1 Billion Americans” would be great.

    If you start there, it’s hard to see why only the US and the UK should have an every-growing population.


    engels 01.08.24 at 5:14 pm

    Is it really necessary to point out that Mozart’s achievement is on a different level to Van Halen and isn’t a matter of number of awards?


    Paula Casal 01.08.24 at 6:00 pm

    The emergence of Mozarts does not depend on sheer numbers of individuals but on opportunities. This is why we have no great female or African Mozarts, philosophers, etc. Lower birthrates will actually increase the chances of more outstanding individuals, because women will be liberated from childcare and the planet will be less damaged and poverty-stricken.


    Peter Dorman 01.08.24 at 6:29 pm

    A small addendum to the critique of the Mozart argument: in the creative world the gifts are cumulative. We are not Mozart’s contemporaries, but we benefit far more from his creativity than those alive at the time; I’m thinking CDs, streaming, etc. Similarly with the rest of the classical cannon, other musical traditions, the visual arts, drama, literature and the rest.

    In fact, you could argue that the deeper problem is not insufficient art but crowding out. I love music, but I don’t have time to listen to all the music I’d like, and people keep creating more of it. Honestly, by the time the 23rd or whatever century rolls around, I don’t know how our future sparsely populated species will deal with the overabundance of cultural magnificence.


    engels 01.08.24 at 7:08 pm

    My impression is that the arts today are increasingly dominated by the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, who have astronomically greatest opportunities than anyone before them in history, yet the results seem… less than impressive.


    TJH 01.08.24 at 7:13 pm

    I think the linked NYT article does a good job of laying out the political and intellectual origins of this discussion. Whenever birthrates and population changes are discussed it’s usually in the context of immigration which is a political football in most Western countries. On an intellectual level, the UN is reporting population is going to decline so I think it’s understandable for people to start gaming out that scenario for society. I even understand the author’s point that it might be beneficial to have a broad public discourse on this to immunize the population from the fear-mongering that is sure to come from it.

    However, when people start dropping lines like this one from the article:

    Sustained below-replacement fertility will mean tens of billions of lives not lived over the next few centuries — many lives that could have been wonderful for the people who would have lived them and by your standards, too.

    It just smacks of more longtermism nonsense. The billions of lives not lived are meaningless, it’s crying over milk that was unspilt from cows that were never milked. It’s just a scale cheat, if you can get someone to concede a theoretical future life is important then you can “logic” them into agreeing that the present doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things by continuously increasing the number of lives in the future. I’ve seen as much as “TRILLIONS of lives over thousands of years” be thrown around to achieve this goal.

    To the question of missing out on future Mozarts, Curies, or Baldwins I agree with Aardvark @17. If missing out on future genius was important then the present is where we should be focusing instead of thinking of it as a numbers game in the future. We could stop essentially throwing away the lives of billions of under-valued humans now instead of hoping a great person will be born like in a Civilization game.


    M Caswell 01.08.24 at 7:32 pm

    Some believe life is a good.


    Harry 01.08.24 at 8:11 pm

    “the arts today are increasingly dominated by the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie”.

    Off topic, but is that true? It’s hard to tell because the very most successful positions in the arts (especially the performing arts) only became prestigious and lucrative (and hence desirable) with the advent of technology allowing for that. Previously it was very common for actors to breed actors, musicians musicians, etc (George Formby, Elvis Costello). But, eg, I wonder whether BBC executives, are any more drawn from the bourgeoisie now than they were 30, 50, 70 or 100 years ago. (Conjecture: maybe more than 30 and 50 years ago, but surely not more than 70 or 100 years ago).


    Dr. Hilarius 01.08.24 at 8:15 pm

    Political cultist Lyndon LaRouche believed that population growth would increase the number of geniuses who would create new technologies which would solve all of our problems (including those created by population growth.

    This ignores the basic issue that technology’s benefits are not evenly distributed across humanity. Existing technology has created medical treatments unavailable to most of the world. Expecting additional growth to produce novel, presently unforeseeable technologies is a cargo cult which reinforces indifference to solving existing problems with existing technology.

    As for the idea that more people equals more innovation, Stephen Jay Gould summed up the flaw in that notion: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”


    Jacques Distler 01.08.24 at 9:00 pm

    Seems to me that the “Oh no’s; the world population is going to plummet!” crowd should sit down and have a serious chat with the “Oh no’s; the robots are going to take all our jobs! What’re all those soon-to-be-unemployed people going to do?” folks.

    These two problems kinda cancel each other out. In a world where fewer and fewer people are needed to produce all the goods and services demanded by the population, it seems rather fortuitous that the employed population should decline to match. The rest of us can spend our mornings composing symphonies and our afternoons inventing new stuff for the robots to make for us.

    Oh, and hiking. I like hiking in the wilderness …


    engels 01.08.24 at 9:06 pm

    is that true?

    I was referring to the artists themselves, not the execs, who’d I’d have assumed were always bougie. There was a lot of discussion of this in Britain re pop music and acting a few years ago but I believe the trend is more general.


    Adam Hammond 01.08.24 at 9:13 pm

    Just a comment on genetic diversity. Fascinating reading through the comments! Thanks.

    Genetic diversity is the numerical construct that we need to maximize when trying to evaluate the comparative “value” of species. The individual members of massive mono-cultures are less “valuable” than the individuals that make up the last sustainable group of some species that is the only extant example of its entire genus or family. Save the weirdos!

    Of course, saving diversity winds up requiring saving whole systems …

    I believe that it is True that the human species must either go extinct or become the curators of genetic diversity. I am not claiming that this is obvious when first encountered, but it is derivable, and I believe provable. I don’t know what the time horizon is for the bifurcation, but our destiny is one or the other. We have already kicked off the mass extinction – really hard, and we are still making it worse. It’s all about genetic diversity now.


    engels 01.08.24 at 9:27 pm

    For pop music specifically I think workfare bears a lot of the blame.

    In a world where fewer and fewer people are needed to produce all the goods and services demanded by the population, it seems rather fortuitous that the employed population should decline to match.

    Is there a lower limit to this? Asking for 8 billion friends.


    J-D 01.08.24 at 10:14 pm

    But it seems the idea is simply that fewer people means fewer Mozarts, fewer Marie Curies, fewer Henry Fords.

    Fewer Heinrich Kramers, fewer Berias, fewer Timurs.


    Matthew Exon 01.08.24 at 10:41 pm

    I’m not the intellectual origin of anything, but I’ll put my hand up as a worrier about underpopulation. The problem is this. We had a long 20th century of continual radical change, driven by ever-increasing population plus ever more intensive resource extraction. At least five generations brought up on the manifest reality that nothing your parents know is worth anything. This is the foundation of our meta-culture of continuously reinvented culture, the tradition of ignoring tradition. Radicalism is conservatism to us, taught to us by our punk feminist parents. But if you believe you should be free to think your own thoughts, build your own life, question everything, then you are unique to this tiny unsustainable blip in history, a century and a half, where those things make sense. When that blip is over we will relapse to normality: obey your father, obey your priest, obey your king. Because that’s by definition sustainable.

    It’s not that we need a minimum N Mozarts, but that we need an increasing population to give Mozart a reason to tear up the rule book. Simply, my fear is that the end of resource extraction and the end of population growth means freezing our entire culture in time, science and the arts and all, replaced by permanent reactionaryism. Worshipping at altars to Thomas Kuhn while human progress ceases.

    That said, I exaggerate to make the point. I’m a hell of a lot more scared of the wet bulb temperature. On balance, maybe we’ve just got more urgent things to talk about than what other people are doing with their genitals.


    MisterMr 01.08.24 at 10:45 pm

    IMHO when we speak of “Mozarts” and similar, we are not speaking just of personal talents, but also of representing the peak of some cultural form.
    So the idea that we will have less Mozarts if population shrinks doesn’t make much sense, it is like saying that we would have less olympic medalists if population shrinked.


    Matthew G. Saroff 01.09.24 at 3:20 am

    I dunno. The flowering of European creativity and the rise in living standards after ½ of the population of Europe died of the plague implies that it is not a problem.

    Of course, the rich and powerful will have to cede a bit of their wealth and power to get people to work for them, but that is a good thing, if you do not work for the New York Times.

    One example of how the aftermath of the plague jump-started Europe, peasants became so well off that they could afford to wear underwear, and the bone man, who collected bones to make fertilizer, became the rag and bone man, and the (largely linen) rags were pulped and pressed and became paper, and then this chap named Gutenberg came up with movable type, and the rest is ……… An episode of James Burke’s Connections.


    hix 01.09.24 at 3:23 am

    As if progress would depend on individual genius. If Mozart had not composed it, someone else would. Classical western composition is more craftsmanship than creativity, anyway. Just what was about to come at that state of technology. Marie Curie was maybe a bit more random (not necessarily more individual genius), so she might have taken a bit longer to be substituted still. And Ford? That is an outright societal project.

    Iphone supply chains are how they are because there are many cheap labourers around, that stuff would all still be around, maybe only getting better slower with very very few people.

    All very hypothetical, anyway. Never mind the New York Times, sky is falling prognosis regarding population increase or decrease seem to be able to coexist rather happily since forever.

    Right now we are in solid we got rather many and increasing people territory on a global scale. Not sky is falling many, but still many. And they usually do not grow up under circumstances or in societies that will allow them to contribute some huge progress, no matter how much of geniuses they are.

    Rich societies have to be really stupid, not to solve their particular decrease problem to everyone’s huge benefit with migration. Albeit, my doom and gloom mood suggest we might manage that one in many countries. Not so much not allowing migration, but doing so in an utterly inefficient way, harming everyone.


    Seekonk 01.09.24 at 3:30 am

    Why, then, would it matter if there were far fewer of us?

    Because, although a larger population might produce more geniuses, our current population is overwhelming the planet.

    Population control should be part of our resource-management toolkit. There is a 1999 Cornell University study that says: “Democratically determined population-control practices and sound resource-management policies could have the planet’s 2 billion people thriving in harmony with the environment. Lacking these approaches … 12 billion miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100.” http://news.cornell.edu/stories/1999/09/miserable-life-overcrowded-earth-2100

    As (hopefully) we move to non-toxic, non-catastrophic renewable energy, we tend to
    focus on SUPPLY. We could address DEMAND for energy by paying a stipend to women for each year that they defer having their first child.


    Colin Danby 01.09.24 at 4:50 am

    Re ““it’s the rising population … too many human beings, using up too much stuff, leaving too little space for everyone else. ” — our key challenge, global warming, is mainly caused by the consumption of the world’s wealthy minority.

    “larger populations generate more innovation, and hence more (per capita) economic growth.” — reference? Where in the economic growth literature is this argued? The Mozarts argument as presented here is juvenile, with multiple unsupported assumptions.

    There are some interesting transfer problems in a period of decline as the proportion of retired people to working people rises.

    But the answer to your “curious about the emergence of this trope” question is at the end of your post, though you shy away from it: most of the people pushing this line are racist natalists. They oppose immigration, which is the obvious solution to declining pop growth in wealthy countries.


    John Q 01.09.24 at 7:47 am

    I’m working on a big project on all of this. The short answer is: below replacement fertility is both inevitable and desirable. But even at the low end of projections, we are still talking about a world population of billions well into the 22nd century.


    Chris Armstrong 01.09.24 at 8:02 am

    @39 – That’s exciting to hear, John, I’ll look forward to hearing more about this!


    Adam Roberts 01.09.24 at 8:38 am

    In this blogpost I wonder about the lag between Malthus, in 1798, fretting about over-population and the glut of over-population science fiction scare-stories that started appearing in the 1960s and onwards (Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and so on). Malthusianism was a big deal throughout the 19th-century, and lots of people wrote science-fiction in the 19th-century, but nobody wrote Malthusian science-fictional speculation until the 1960s. That seems to me odd. But, thinking about underpopulation, there’s a similar timeframe. Stories about population withering away were also a feature of Romanticism: Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le dernier homme (1805), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and others; and then, after a similar lag, you get books like Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964) or P D James’s Children of Men (1992). Maybe overpopulation and underpopulation are linked anxieties, two sides of the same coin.

    More recently, Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War (2008) includes a future-earth with a much reduced population, where the global governments are rewilding all the open spaces according to an aggressive green agenda (though it also has widespread space colonisation for surplus population to expand into.


    Mike Huben 01.09.24 at 10:58 am

    Perer Dorman @ 23: “I don’t know how our future sparsely populated species will deal with the overabundance of cultural magnificence.”
    The same way we do now with film, music, and literature. Most of it will be sidelined and nearly forgotten. Sometimes there will be a brief revival, as there was for ragtime decades ago.
    The vast majority of the audience is rather unsophisticated, and will consider current production more relevant, even if it is not as great.


    engels 01.09.24 at 12:54 pm

    I don’t know how our future sparsely populated species will deal with the overabundance of cultural magnificence.

    By burying it under a mountain of cultural mediocrity (the internet is very good for this…)

    the idea that we will have less Mozarts… is like saying that we would have less olympic medalists

    I don’t think so, because we don’t value Mozart primarily as an exemplar of the culture he came out of.

    Btw I agree with Danby that the Mozart argument for population growth risible and it’s interesting to see it was made by LaRouche. The most straightforward argument is the standard utilitarian one: if happiness (or knowledge, aesthetic enjoyment, friendship, whatever) are good things to have in the world than more people = more of the good stuff.


    Shirley0401 01.09.24 at 2:12 pm

    Hi, all. I used to comment more here, but don’t as much anymore although I still often lurk. However, this is a subject that interests me a great deal (and which I’m looking forward to reading JQ tackle in more depth). So I’ll subject anyone still perusing this thread to some thoughts.

    @17 “I feel morally certain that providing opportunity for self-actualization to the huge fraction of the population that currently does not have that would be the most efficient approach.”

    This is pretty much always my response to the population growth defenders in places like the NYT, who (as opposed to say word-of-god Catholic types), seem to at least pretend to come at the issue from the increased welfare angle. It reminds me of the people who suddenly get very concerned about the well-being of the apocryphal fired cashiers and fry cooks whenever someone proposes raising the minimum wage. In other words, I suspects it’s convenient bullshit that can be trotted out as a fig leaf for an argument that has something much closer to “it might mean my Valuable Thing X [stock portfolio or investment properties or HBS degree or whatever] won’t be worth as much.”

    But then again, like Jacques Distler @ 29, I also simply “like hiking in the wilderness,” so maybe I’m also coming up with post-hoc rationalizations for my concerns that more of us means less of everything else (with a few exceptions like certain birds and rodents who develop a symbiotic relationship with civilization). And nobody has been able to convince me yet that we’ve actually got a plan for how to even feed and hydrate everyone in a +4c world, let alone promote general welfare and provide opportunities for satisfaction or personal growth and development.

    And finally, @ 43
    “The most straightforward argument is the standard utilitarian one: if happiness (or knowledge, aesthetic enjoyment, friendship, whatever) are good things to have in the world than more people = more of the good stuff.”

    I kind of get versions of utilitarianism for people who are alive and are going to have experiences and suffer and whatnot. Which is why I think most ethical systems mostly concern themselves with these people. But when you get into measuring quality of life for theoretical future people against the quality of life for people who are already stuck here in this timeline and are going to have lives one way or the other (not to mention the habitability of the planet they share with one another), I have a hard time even pretending their individual interests should carry much weight at all. It (from places like NYT op-eds at least) feels more like the kind of argument a kid in the debate club would offer if they’ve been assigned a position to defend and are out of ideas.


    Tm 01.09.24 at 2:35 pm

    The belief that population growth is a good thing – or even a necessity – even in a world that already has 8 billion people is breathtakingly irrational, and its popularity at least among the pundit class is testament to the power of the capitalist growth dogma.

    The good news is that women everywhere tend not to accept the role of breeding machines. Wherever they have access to contraception, they opt for fewer children. Pro-natalist campaigns by autocratic governments are falling flat. The development in China is very interesting. Population has started declining and birth rates have been falling despite efforts to raise fertility, after the one child policy was abolished.


    engels 01.09.24 at 2:36 pm

    when you get into measuring quality of life for theoretical future people…

    Whichever side you’re on the debate is mostly about this since the big changes won’t happen in our lifetimes.


    Tm 01.09.24 at 2:39 pm

    Examples of pro-Natalia’s punditry in the last part of
    https://de.slideshare.net/amenning/the-human-population-challenge, which is already old but still quite up to date.


    Tm 01.09.24 at 2:57 pm

    41: „nobody wrote Malthusian science-fictional speculation until the 1960s.“

    Maybe because population growth peaked in the 1960s (at above 2%)? By 1900, world population growth was below 1% and during most of history had been much lower.


    MFA 01.09.24 at 3:36 pm

    Given that population growth / societal momentum prevents decarbonisation and the protection of biodiversity, then “…population decline as a solution is to wait too long” might better be rendered as “population decline as a result is inevitable.”


    JW Mason 01.09.24 at 4:57 pm

    It’s worth noting that these are not new ideas. From what I understand, early modern governments generally saw increased population as an important positive good. Someone like Malthus was very much opposing an earlier conventional wisdom. Here is a relevant bit from Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis:

    during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries … the population problem became one of under-population. Moreover, some countries, particularly Germany and Spain, had actually experienced depopulation … Accordingly, governments began to favor increase in population by all means at their command. Measures … were in some cases—for instance in France under Colbert—as energetic as any that have been resorted to by modern dictators.

    Economists fell in with the humors of their age. With rare exceptions they were enthusiastic about ‘populousness’ and rapid increase in numbers. In fact, until the middle of the eighteenth century, they were as nearly unanimous in this ‘populationist’ attitude as they have ever been in anything. A numerous and increasing population was the most important symptom of wealth; it was the chief cause of wealth; it was wealth itself—the greatest asset for any nation to have. … In England, in particular, the first-flight men who go on record as leaders of populationist sentiment, such as Child, Petty, Barbon, Davenant, were joined by almost all the rank and file.

    Schumpeter argues that these writers explicitly (tho of course not in modern language) based their arguments on the idea of increasing returns — that under prevailing conditions, more people normally translated into higher income per person. On which point, he adds, they were “manifestly correct.”


    steven t johnson 01.09.24 at 5:16 pm

    Chris Armstrong@16 “… you just need to prove that a human is not more important than 500 fish.” No doubt CT would see the proposition I am not worth more than 500 fish as inarguable. That may be why no one has noted the proposition that follows from this, that a human is worth less than 1 000 fish. Or that if people really can be somehow proved to have a numerical value re fish, then it is equally probable some people can be claimed to worth more than others. And the ones worth less are the populations meant to improve the world by not existing. I do not think it is possible to advocate population decline without addressing the questions, which populations?

    Overall I’m not at all clear on how this doesn’t posit an equality of people and fish in the example, even if the claim wasn’t explicitly made.

    “When you add all of the other trillions of animals, the implication is that each human has to be worth more than many, many thousands of other animals. I don’t find that plausible.” There are two problems here, first the very notion of assigning numerical values, even mere ordinal “numbers,” to such groups. Inseparable from this, worth while to whom? To make any sense in this argument, it has to be, to themselves. I don’t know what that even means, though it may explain the fetishization of animals over plants and fungi and bacteria and protists.

    Second all the animals and plants and fungi and bacteria and protists are collectively, Nature or the biosphere or the environment and it is entirely unclear to me how you can separate their value to themselves from their collective value as our home. We too are a part of Nature, which is not a helpless victim. Abolishing people is not even re-wilding, it is creating something new. In geological history, there are no pristine environments. The disappearance of species is the inevitable norm. Trying to preserve an imaginary geological past is another fundamentally reactionary utopia. That this one abolishes people is a trivial detail in some respects, because it’s a true utopia and pursuing the genuinely impossible is doomed to failure.

    The notion that people are worth more to themselves than animals are, does not mean indifference to Nature. We can’t be indifferent. Some people have the expropriated parts of the world and its creatures as private property and are effectively looting it but opposing that is not the same thing as opposing people in general, not at all. In the end, I think, supporting removal of people is about reforming property rights, a way to minimize the damage without abolishing that kind of private property.

    Your conclusion “…humans (in total) are actually quite a bit less important than other animals (in total)” fails I think.


    engels 01.09.24 at 5:30 pm

    Btw I don’t really follow these debates but I imagine the “galaxy brain” rejoinder to EA-style hyper-natalism is we could get the same galaxy of positive mental states at a lower environmental cost by simulating billions of artificial consciousnesses instead of breeding humans. Are you reading, Elon?


    Chris Armstrong 01.09.24 at 5:41 pm

    @ 51 – This is an exercise in throwing lots of arguments at a wall and hoping something will stick. But no, saying that a human is not worth more than 500 fish is not to say that a human and a fish have equal worth (as should be obvious). And no, nothing in that argument necessitates the claim that some humans are worth more than others, still less that it would be better if some people didn’t exist.

    I’m not sure I understand the rest of your comments – but suffice to say that I don’t see how they support the claim that we should value humans stupendously more highly than other animals (which is what is at stake).


    Tm 01.09.24 at 8:07 pm

    50: Wasn’t it the standard view of mercantilism that a large and growing population was needed to supply soldiers and workers and to prevail in the competition with rival nations?

    „under prevailing conditions, more people normally translated into higher income per person. On which point, he adds, they were “manifestly correct.”“

    How does this make sense? Under what „prevailing conditions“? Is he referring to the need for a critical mass of workers for industrial development to be feasible? That perhaps makes sense under early capitalism, although the converse is at least as plausible: the more technologically advanced countries with the highest productivity were the ones with the highest population growth.

    In the contemporary debate, it is striking that the growth fanatics insist that the relevant metric is the absolute economic product, not per capita. Iow They insist that negative GDP growth is bad even if per capita growth is positive. GDP growth numbers are almost never given per capita. Never made any sense to me.


    Tm 01.09.24 at 8:10 pm

    Needless to add, but I’ll add it anyway, that in the 21st century, empirically, the correlation between population growth and economic prosperity is strongly negative. But that has never deterred a growth fetishist.


    novodom 01.09.24 at 9:05 pm

    I would not say that this issue has a clear solution, at least until now it was not obvious


    divelly 01.09.24 at 11:03 pm

    The Human Race is a disease organism.
    We do little else but destroy.
    We are not fallen Angels, but risen Apes, Killer Apes.
    I’ll wager 500 fish that, before Mozart was mentioned in this piece,
    that no one on this blog has listened to Mozart lately.


    JW Mason 01.10.24 at 3:35 am

    How does this make sense? Under what „prevailing conditions“? Is he referring to the need for a critical mass of workers for industrial development to be feasible?

    I’m not endorsing Schumpeter’s claim, just describing it. My only point is that the problem of underpopulation is a very old theme in the social sciences (as of course is the problem of overpopulation). But I would note that Doug Muir at 2 made the same basic claim, that in many important areas increasing returns prevail up to the scale of total global production.

    This is an important question in the context of climate change (which is not too far off the current topic). As I’ve argued here, the costs of rapid decarbonization look much lower in a world where increasing returns are the norm. After a big expansion of wind capacity, say, do we expect the incremental cost of the next kilowatt from a wind turbine to have gone up, or down?


    Pittsburgh Mike 01.10.24 at 3:54 am

    I have to admit I thought that NYT c column was the stupidest thing I ever read in the Times, at least not written by Brooks or Stephens.

    The idea that we, sitting in 2023, have a clued about what life will be like in 2200, and what will motivate or not motivate people in various societies to have kids, is ridiculous. 2200 is 176 years from now. 176 years ago was 1848 — a time when electricity, medicine of any utility, and even indoor plumbing was years in the future.

    So, I’m not particularly worried about a population crash in the year 2200. We have as much a clue about 2200 as people in 1848 had about what life here, with 8 billion people on Earth is like.


    notGoodenough 01.10.24 at 7:31 am

    @ JW Mason

    Thank you for the link to the post.

    After a big expansion of wind capacity, say, do we expect the incremental cost of the next kilowatt from a wind turbine to have gone up, or down?

    While outside my expertise, my understanding is the simple answer would be “it depends”. For example, are you only expanding wind, or have you been expanding a mixture of storage, transmission, and generation (including firming technologies)?

    While I expect you’ve already read around the literature, I will note that there seems to be a general understanding that it is inherently difficult to account for the complexities of such systems and that the conclusions one reaches will depend to no small extent on the assumptions employed.


    David in Tokyo 01.10.24 at 7:49 am

    “Yes, but. We’ve had more than 330 years to make more Mozarts and there’s still only ever been just one.”

    You missed Charlie Parker*. To say nothing of Coltrane, Metheny, Coleman, Meldau, and the rest of the jazzers. Heck, even the more inventive of the folkies and rockers, while not as harmonically sophisticated as Uncle Wolfie and the Jazzers, are way better musically and intellectually than the post-Dvorak classical world.

    *: Seriously, the beboppers did the equivalent of classical harmony at insane tempos and in real time. Very much modern mozarts. And the more recent crop of jazzers do that with amazingly precise rhythm. Modern bebop is something else.


    David in Tokyo 01.10.24 at 7:59 am

    What Pitsburgh Mike said.

    Really. Sheesh. Heck, I’m expecting that we’re going to see major disruptions due to climate change by 2040. 2023 was the hottest year on record, and also the year humanity dumped the largest amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmospher. We’re lemmings, and we’ve already gone over the cliff.

    By the way, Japan has a higher ratio of elderly to working age folks than the US will ever have, and Japan’s doing OK. Not great, but not terrible. Nothing that couldn’t be easily fixed by removing regressive elements from the tax system, taxing corporations and rich folks more, and increasing the minimum wage.


    MFA 01.10.24 at 12:53 pm


    Growth since industrialization is based on efficient extraction of resources and a growing market dependent on the systems that provide excess to increase the standard of living. But the extraction of non-renewable resources (or extraction at a rate which exceeds renewal rate) is theft from future generations—a tragedy of the commons taking place across time and generations. It is unsustainable.


    JohnT 01.10.24 at 4:50 pm

    @10 On a belated anecdotal level, I recently took a holiday with my 4 young children to Northern Italy, to a province with a very low birth rate. There I was quite surprised by the number of very elderly Italian people who came up to both praise our children (which was lovely, if undeserved!) but also express the regret that such gaggles of children, which they themselves had grown up in, were now so rare. I was surprised that several of them raised this general point, of the lack of hubbub caused by lots of young children, rather than, say, bemoaning a specific lack of grandchildren for themselves. Very much in line what Thor Ribeiro wrote.


    Harry 01.10.24 at 6:25 pm

    engels — thanks for the articles. I believe it about actors, though its interesting that the Guardian article doesn’t make comparisons over time, and provides counter-evidence at the end. The pop star thing — again there’s comparison over time, and anecdotally when I think of the social origins of rock musicians in the past, I wonder what the truth is (and the ultimate lesson that chap draws is Thatcherite in the extreme!).


    engels 01.10.24 at 9:12 pm

    Another one:

    The great cultural tide that surged through Harold Wilson’s 1960s and beyond, the sea change that swept the McCartneys, Finneys, Bakewells, Courtenays, Baileys, Bennetts et al to positions of influence and eminence, if not actual power, has ebbed and turned. The children of the middle and upper classes are beginning to reassert a much older order. In the arts generally – music, theatre, literature for sure – it is clear that cuts to benefits, the disappearance of the art school (where many a luminous layabout found room to bloom) and the harsh cost of further and higher education are pricing the working class out of careers in the arts and making it increasingly a playground for the comfortably off. The grants are gone and the relatively benign benefits system that sustained the pre-fame Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey is being dismantled daily. …

    There has always been a handful of rock “toffs” but previously these were the exception. Their background made them figures of exotic curiosity if not exactly fun. The 1960s hit-makers the Zombies were bright Home Counties grammar-school boys with bags of O-levels and so this evident “poshness” was thrust upon them as a default gimmick in the teen press. Every early Genesis article relished how they formed at Charterhouse, so outlandish was it that touring rockers would be educated thus – though not for the public-school boys who played or put out their records, such as John Peel or Jonathan King. (If he’d written for the NME, Marx would have had a field day with this.) Even then, the greatest success for Genesis would come when they handed the creative reins to a savvy East End upstart called Phil Collins. It is revealing that Joe Strummer took great pains to hide his diplomat father and prep-school days from the press and that Jim Morrison claimed his parents were dead rather than admit that Daddy was, in fact, an admiral.

    In 2010 the Daily Mail reported on the growing gap in music provision between the state and private school systems. In the state sector local authorities were spending less than half the amount on music teaching that they did 20 years earlier: as little as £1.15 a child per year. “On top of this, families who can afford private school fees are often affluent enough to pay for extra music tuition, for equipment such as drum kits, guitars, amps, and also for rehearsal space,” it said. When the Daily Mail bemoans this trend, you know there’s something afoot. …



    engels 01.10.24 at 9:16 pm


    Harry 01.10.24 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks. Very interesting. The Guardian piece suggests that things haven’t become any more difficult for actors from working class backgrounds, or necessarily easier for upper class people; it just reflects demographic change. Will read the NS piece later — I trust Maconie to get things right! (maybe I shouldn’t…). Though Prog: Supertramp, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd (partial exception of Waters, though there’s a lot of cultural capital there), 10cc…


    Tm 01.10.24 at 9:49 pm

    Re 68 From the Guardian article:

    “This reflected a similar decline in the number of people with working-class origins, according to the paper in the journal Sociology by researchers from the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Sheffield. People whose parents had a working-class job accounted for about 37% of the workforce in 1981, but by 2011 that had fallen to about 21%.”

    Am I reading this correctly that the Guardian is saying that whatever they define as the “working class” has shrunk to a small minority of the population? In that case, perhaps something is wrong with their definition?


    Tm 01.10.24 at 9:59 pm

    “The backdrop is this massive change in British society where there are fewer coal miners or manual labourers to have these kinds of working-class sons and daughters, so there are fewer working-class people coming through.“

    I’m really tired of this bullshit. Coal miners! This is pure patriarchal anachronism, not class analysis! Today’s working class isn’t the same as that of the 19th century.


    Tm 01.10.24 at 10:22 pm

    Final addendum. These silly analyses are based on a selective and as I said anachronistic definition of the “working class” which excludes most service workers, the biggest chunk of the workforce, and also specifically excludes most working women.

    But here’s another issue: who is typically overrepresented among manual laborers, especially those doing “dirty” work? Immigrants. They are certainly disadvantaged due to their economic class, but likely also due to nationality, immigration status and skin color.
    But pointing that out is considered intersectional heresy by some Marxists…


    Harry 01.11.24 at 12:06 am

    I assumed they were using the standard ONS definitions for A, B, C1, C2, D and E. But maybe not.


    Thomas P 01.11.24 at 11:25 am

    I would argue that a larger population gives us fewer Mozarts and Newtons. Today we have lots of physicists as smart as Newton, and because of that each of them only manage to make a few discoveries, while a few hundred years ago a single genius could dominate a broad field. We may get more discoveries, more music, but never again individuals as famous as those two. Einstein may have been the last true science superstar everyone knows about, even those who understand little about what he did.

    This also means that people may feel less and less significant in a larger population. Even if you are very smart, when you look back on your life you will have made little difference overall.


    engels 01.11.24 at 12:27 pm

    I’m really tired of this bullshit. Coal miners! This is pure patriarchal anachronism…

    It’s ONS data based on the Goldthorpe schema. Which isnt perfect for this purpose imo but more interesting than a random Biden supporter yelling at me on the internet for the thousandth time.

    Btw there were 200 000 coal miners in Britain in 1980 and some of them had children who wanted to work in the arts.


    Tm 01.11.24 at 3:30 pm

    Engels, How does mentioning Biden refute my criticism?

    Anyway what is interesting about these data is the finding that ONS classifications are making the working class statistically disappear. I would have expected Marxists to object but never mind.


    Harry 01.11.24 at 3:47 pm

    Here’s the ONS page

    “Social Grade has six possible classifications (A, B, C1, C2, D and E). Census data uses a combined, four-way classification:
    AB: Higher and intermediate managerial, administrative and professional occupations
    C1: Supervisory, clerical, and junior managerial, administrative and professional occupations
    C2: Skilled manual occupations
    DE: Semi-skilled and unskilled manual occupations; unemployed and lowest grade occupations

    This is an entirely sensible way of doing things, which I’m guessing the journalists don’t understand well. As we all know the numbers of C2 have gone down steadily over the past hundred years, numbers of C1 and AB have gone up. Remember, currently successful actors/musicians have parents who were born in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

    I think all this suggests it would be very tricky to study this phenomenon rigorously. Income deciles would be one way, but god knows how you find out in which income decile Paul McCartney’s or Ringo Starr’s dads were. And people move between income deciles a lot. I think the Sutton Trust tends to use attendance at a private school which works well for lots of purposes but I bet that a good number of posh-ish actors actually attended state schools because of parental ideology and confidence.


    engels 01.11.24 at 4:08 pm

    How does mentioning Biden refute my criticism?

    It doesn’t; it refutes your schtick of endlessly and angrily Marxplaining Marxism to me.

    James Tilley’s recent book has a similar approach, and findings of numerical decline, but I don’t think it addressed the arts.

    Imho: Marxists should use different definitions but shouldn’t dismiss this (or interesting empirical work in general) for that reason.


    engels 01.11.24 at 4:50 pm

    ONS classifications are making the working class statistically disappear

    They’re not making it disappear. It’s still a fifth of the population, with distinctive attitudes, experiences, etc, just poorer and politically and culturally marginalised.


    MisterMr 01.11.24 at 5:06 pm

    IMHO, reading the OMS definitions, the problem is that they are classifying in C1 every office worker, and thus treating every office worker as a “manager”.

    Rank-and-file office workers should constitute working class though (and perhaps very low level managers too, though this is more dubious).


    Alex SL 01.12.24 at 9:40 am

    Pity I missed this discussion while being away. My five cents, which may have been covered: a central flaw of the argument, which at any rate seems more like rationalisation than reason for those who want to overwhelm the planet with humans beyond its carrying capacity, is that these people don’t understand diminishing returns.

    Take the idea that more people means more scientists, thus more progress. I completely agree that two scientists can do twice the discovery that one scientist can do. Two thousand scientists can probably do more than twice the discovery that one thousand scientists can do, because greater specialisation and collaboration may create synergies. But it is also immediately obvious that twenty million scientists will do less than twice the discovery that ten million scientists do, because by then we are deep in diminishing returns territory. Unless we are talking increasingly minor, negligible ideas and observations, they will often find out the same things in parallel. There is only so many times the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, or the Hardy-Weinberg formula have to be described, and generally the right answer is “once”.

    Which brings me to the other aspects of diminishing returns. The longer science goes on, the more we have harvested the low-hanging fruits of discovery, and the investment per relevant new insight increases – not in terms of people, but in terms of equipment. The bottleneck isn’t adding a thousand more geniuses, but building a large hadron collider or a Hubble telescope.

    The same will likely apply to music, art, political leadership, or whatever else they think can be accelerated by stacking more geniuses on top of each other.

    But it is all of a piece – the singularity also only makes sense if one has no concept of diminishing returns.


    Peter T 01.12.24 at 9:54 am

    The historian Geoffrey Parker noted that the two Eurasian states that best weathered the global crisis of the 17th century (the Little Ice Age with accompanying climate-related stresses, such as food shortages and migration) did so with programs of environmental restoration and population limitation (Japan and Iran). Both were brutal in their approaches, but they avoided collapse or prolonged civil war.


    Tm 01.12.24 at 11:15 am

    MisterMr is of course right and I have made this point many times before. There are other problems as well.

    Are only 20% (and declining) of workers working class? And the rest are what, watching the others work? It should be obvious, especially to somebody even minimally touched by Marxian theory or even just leftish politics, that this makes no sense politically or conceptually.


    engels 01.12.24 at 12:49 pm

    Are only 20% (and declining) of workers working class?

    Sorry: to be clear, I was explaining Tilley’s view there; like MrMr I would use a broader definition.


    engels 01.12.24 at 12:50 pm

    None of this casts any doubt on the point the arts in Britain have gentrified in recent years.

    And the rest are what, watching the others work?



    Tm 01.12.24 at 1:44 pm

    84: Hear hear we do agree on something.
    85: I have neither observations or opinions to add regarding the gentrification of British arts. I’m only pointing out that the data you cited do not support your thesis.


    Tm 01.12.24 at 2:03 pm

    Bullshit jobs, predictable. It sure makes sense for capitalists to pay large numbers of workers for activities that do not generate profits for the capitalist class. Dialectical materialism is awesome.


    engels 01.12.24 at 2:20 pm

    My thesis: music and acting have gotten posher
    Study, as reported: fewer working class people in the arts
    Ideologically correct Marxist interpretation of study thanks to Comrade TM: fewer people of manual working class origins in the arts

    Still supports my thesis.


    steven t johnson 01.12.24 at 4:28 pm

    Peter T@82 It is not immediately clear that, if 17th century Iran and Japan, successfully attacked “their” own people without the state facing much opposition this is our definition of “success” today. And that we should be guided by their good example?


    engels 01.13.24 at 12:02 pm

    Just want to say on Harry’s point that declining representation reflects just numerical decline: the study’s authors see that as evidence of a long-term problem of low representation rather than a reason not to worry; also, demographic minority status is part of Tilley’s analysis of “exclusion” I believe.


    Harry 01.13.24 at 2:20 pm

    “Just want to say on Harry’s point that declining representation reflects just numerical decline: the study’s authors see that as evidence of a long-term problem of low representation rather than a reason not to worry.”

    Yes of course, low representation is bad, and the causes of low representation are worse. I was just curious whether there was actually decline, as you had said (primarily because curious about the methodological issues one would face in establishing the truth, esp in the face of the fact that before broadcast technology none of these professions was well paid even at the top end, and had a strong tendency, like many, to stay in the family).


    David in Tokyo 01.14.24 at 8:09 am

    Hmm. What happened in 17th century Japan that people are talking about???

    Off hand, nothing. The year 1600 was, essentially, the start of a 250 year period of internal peace in Japan.

    In particular, 1600 was the year of Sekigahara, the war that established the Tokugawa shogunate (which then moved to Edo in 1603, the official start of the period), which lasted until Perry lobbed cannonballs onto Tokyo (Oops, Edo, 1854 or so). Wealth during that period was measured in barrels of rice, and the game was the local warlords had wealth proportional to how much rice was produced in their feifdoms, all of which was brutally controlled by the Tokugawa military dictatorship. The period is largely seen as good news for everyone who managed to stay out of the Samurais’ way. Art, literature, theater flourished. Most of what we (and the Japanese themselves) think of as “traditional Japanese culture” (Noh, Kabuki, Sumo, Ukie, Hanga) is Edo period.

    (I personally am a fan of the Meiji Restoration: the first written constitution in Asia, major langauge reforms that created universal literacy and modern Japanese literature, TRAINS!!!!, an awareness of and response to western literature and intellectual issues, and an excessive nationalism that led to obnoxious expansionism. Oops. Not all good. Sigh.)

    But “attacking their own people”? Basically the internal wars (Sengoku Jidai, the warring states period) that broke out with the demise of the Muromachi period were over at the beginning of the 17th century and a 250 year period of internal peace started. So that’s an odd way to describe things.

    Dunno much about Iran, though. I did play table tennis with the Iranian nuclear engineering students Cheney and Kissenger brought to MIT before the 1979 revolution.


    ChrisB 01.14.24 at 10:02 am

    Forget Mozart: let’s go directly to the very old Michael Frayn article about Heinrich Pawlovious, who in the mid-1600s not only produced several operas obviously superior to The Magic Flute but also invented the steam-engined helicopter, discovered quantum chaos theory, led an army driving the Silesians out of Silesia and into Bavaria (and vice versa), and refuted Feynman; the only problem being that he was never born because his parents stopped at 11 children, or his mother was a nun, or his father was a eunuch, or in general terms because humanity hadn’t dedicated itself singlemindedly to increasing the number of people on the planet to allow for the maximum opportunity for genetic geniuses. Any populationist argument has the disadvantage that it’s just too good.


    Peter T 01.14.24 at 11:45 am

    re tm @ 87

    Even capitalism cannot drive behaviour so narrowly that capitalists live frugal lives so that they may re-invest as much as possible. They spend big on mega-yachts, fifth mansions, vanity ‘think-tanks’, fantasy politics and much else. And attract and trail small hordes of social parasites and opportunists.

    steven t johnson – given Japan’s topography and climate, unchecked land-clearing can have catastrophic impacts. The Tokugawa and their immediate predecessors imposed reforestation – with draconian penalties – which averted disaster (for the opposite, see the fate of the classic Maya).

    On a small scale, this is still the case – Nepali villages have stringent rules about clearing key areas, again with drastic penalties, and Filipino villagers have been know to behead loggers. Their collective survival is at stake.


    Cranky Observer 01.14.24 at 3:50 pm

    “But it is also immediately obvious that twenty million scientists will do less than twice the discovery that ten million scientists do, because by then we are deep in diminishing returns territory. Unless we are talking increasingly minor, negligible ideas and observations, they will often find out the same things in parallel. There is only so many times the theory of evolution, the theory of relativity, or the Hardy-Weinberg formula have to be described, and generally the right answer is “once”.”

    The deeper human beings delve into the biology and biochemistry of living things the more complex it seems to get. Things we thought were understood at the scale of 10(-5) turn out not really work that way at 10(-7) and then again at 10**(-9), and we have only figured out maybe 0.5% of what there is to usefully figure out, so 10 million more biology researchers could potentially be useful. But there would have to be extensive open communication and coordination which often does not happen under the capitalist model; biochemists working for private pharmaceutical companies can publish papers on medium-important things they discover but any really big breakthroughs with applications to human drugs have to wait 7-11 years until the drug is approved for sale before they can be discussed publicly.


    steven t johnson 01.14.24 at 4:05 pm

    Peter T@94 The original comment was “… programs of environmental restoration and population limitation (Japan and Iran). Both were brutal in their approaches…” Draconian penalties to enforce reforestation is not the claim I thought I was questioning. I rather thoughtthis meant draconian penalties of some sort applied on a wide scale to the lower orders en masse to limit population, which strikes me as an attack on the population even if there are no pitched battles. Perhaps this is a model to emulate today, with “draconian penalties” for big landowners to enforce bioremediation? Or would what is admirable treatment of the people at large would be looked askance if applied to such in today’s democracy?

    But I do think governments criminalizing whole portions of the population constitutes an attack on the people. Admittedly my belief the US is a police state by any objective measure is controversial.

    David in Tokyo@92 doesn’t use the phrase “draconian penalties” of course. But the phrase about those who managed to stay out of the samurai’s way is suggestive. My personal impulse in thinking about such issues is that I would not be one of the lucky ones, not one of the winners, and certainly not one of the samurai, much less the daimios. And both shogun and emperor would be more like natural disasters, inexplicable and inhumanly remote. More or less like an ordinary person in today’s world.

    The comment is informative enough but I’m still not clear on how the shogunate managed to limit population. The use of rice revenues as a sort of tax in kind/monetary system vaguely suggests a Malthusian restriction of population by impoverishing the teeming masses, to stop their teeming? Not at all clear on this. The overall argument does seem to be similar to the way all manner of golden ages have been found. Christians have often managed to find the Middle Ages inspirational for the way they formed so much of high Christian culture, similar to how the bakufu/Edo formed so much of high Japanese culture.

    But harking back to a possibly less emotionally fraught example, the Good Emperors of ancient Rome? My belief is that beneath the high culture a persistent and radical impoverishment of the larger part of the population, overcrowded and undernourished, was the essential condition to the devastation of the Antonine plagues. That they were not a wholly exogenous catastrophe that ruined the Golden Age, not acts of God, but consequences of, well, an Age that was not really so Golden.

    I too have more sympathy for the Meiji Restoration than is common, even if I believe that creating Japanese capitalism in lieu of the Japanese homologue of “feudalism” led inevitably in the end to Japanese imperialism/fascism. Another way of putting it, is, if the bakufu/Edo was so great, why did it go away?


    William Berry 01.14.24 at 4:34 pm

    Perry’s squadron did not lob cannonballs in Tokyo (Edo) Bay. They fired blank charges in the guise of both imperial salute, and intimidating, but not deadly, show of force.


    Alex SL 01.14.24 at 10:24 pm

    The question of where is the minimum number of humans on the planet to maintain complex technology is related to my earlier comment about diminishing returns. A billion seems about right; certainly we are currently far beyond that. I am somewhat skeptical of the “BS jobs” narrative, but given how many of us globally struggle to get by with street trading, odd jobs, or get rich quick schemes, it seems obvious that only a tiny fraction of the current population actually builds and maintains our amazing infrastructure. Not a bad thing, mind, if we just redistributed our resources more equally, but the salient point is that one should easily be able to have fewer children for several generations without having to give up high speed trains or radiation therapy.

    Must admit I am puzzled by the idea that England, Sweden, or the Ottoman Empire survived the 17th century less well than Iran or Japan, for some reason or other. Was the little ice age even actually very impactful? Best I can tell, the big collapses of that century were in the Americas, caused by introduced disease and colonial conquest, and the Holy Roman Empire, sparked by religious conflict and then really caused by the other European powers using Germany for a lengthy proxy war when Germans had already become war-weary. Those wouldn’t have been avoided by restricting population growth.

    The problem with trying to see a country that limits population as wise is that the entire issue may be a collective action problem. If a nation limits its population while its neighbours don’t, it becomes less competitive against them (fewer soldiers, fewer workers). If it doesn’t limit its population, it will face a crisis further down the road. The solution has historically been to reduce the pressure locally by using some of its population surplus, in particular in the shape of young men on horses or longboats, to conquer others.


    Peter T 01.15.24 at 3:17 am

    steven t

    For peasants. when access to new land is denied (or, in the Japanese case, one is evicted from current land), the choices are emigrate or starve. At the collective level, the choice is to limit population or send the surplus offspring out on the road. It’s usually a mix – in the aftermath of the Black Death, a lot of villages on marginal land were abandoned and have never been repopulated, as the inhabitants either died or moved to now vacant better land. It’s the Malthusian limit in action.

    In Japan, limiting population was a large part of the answer – with infanticide one common method (the same was true for the urban bourgoisie in pre-revolutionary France).

    The limit still applies, only now globally. Fortunately, contraception and migration are both easier.


    David in Tokyo 01.15.24 at 6:09 am

    STJ wrote:
    “I’m still not clear on how the shogunate managed to limit population.”

    Wiki has a long article on pre-Edo and Edo period population* that is too detailed to figure out easily, but it indicated as an aside at one point that there were famines occassionally here and there and that folks moving to urban areas had even lower life expectancies (and children) than their rural brethren. I’d not heard that the shogunate had a population-limiting policy. Maybe they did. But a cursory look does seem to indicate that population did not increase greatly during the Edo period.

    *: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_Japan_before_the_Meiji_Restoration

    STJ also asks:
    “Another way of putting it, is, if the bakufu/Edo was so great, why did it go away?”

    Because people on the wrong end of repressive regimes tend to get tired of it and revolt. IMHO, Perry showed up at a convenient time for the anti-Bakufu types: European technology had run way ahead of Japanese, and Europeans were doing horrible things in Southeast Asia and China, and preventing that from happening to Japan wouldn’t have been possible under the Bakufu sakoku policy. So there was a need for Japan to change course.

    (Did I get this idea across: the Japanese right really loves Edo and really hates the Meiji Restoration. Which is kind of odd, given that they also love the imperial system. Go figure. Also the Japanese write and consume an enormous amount of historical fiction, which I refuse to read because some of it is right-wing screed and much of it is telling people what they want to hear (i.e. lacking in intellectual challenge).
    I suppose some of it is good stuff, but that of which I have read has been problematic: Shibue Chuusai (Mori Ogai’s last novel) is beyond hard, a Kikuchi Kan historical short story was easy reading but hard because I didn’t know what the presuppositions were. And all of it means I’d have to know not just the actual history but what the “what they want to hear” parts are as well.

    There’s a really wonderful series currently being pulished in Gunzo about intellectual issues in Japan from mid-Meiji through the war. It’s on installment number 33 (of which I’ve made it through 3): it’s really hard going. I showed an interesting segment to my SO, and she said “Uh, guy, modern Japanese can’t read this stuff.” I said, “Just read it”, and she did, and was amused. (An American missionary crashed a college baseball game and got beat up by the student fans, causing an international hullaballoo**.)

    Speaking of persuading my SO to read the stuff I do, there’s an absolutely insane off-the-wall over-the-top and fun short story by Yukio Mishima called “The Goddess”. To grok it, you have to understand that Mishima despised the Meiji-created aristocracy and the neauvous riche of the pre-WWII period. So I tell my SO that this story is great, she reads a page or two and says “I don’t have the time to read about people as obnoxious as that”.

    **: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Imbrie


    steven t johnson 01.15.24 at 4:46 pm

    Peter T@99 is responsive, thank you. Perhaps my reaction to this will seem perverse. But I read the use of infanticide and the Malthusian limits invoked as meaning in today’s context, an anti-natalism that focuses on attacking the reproduction of the masses, especially of other countries. That is the aspect that makes me so reluctant to endorse the anti-natalist program. I suspect the observation the urban bourgeoisie in pre-revolutionary France resorted to infanticide is probably something of a typo. The sans culottes (what earlier in Italy had been dubbed the popolo minuto if I remember and understand correctly?) rather than the non-noble propertied.

    David in Tokyo@100 is informative also, though maybe some is effectively diversionary by being interesting yet not directly on topic. The observation regarding famine (which is largely poor people weakened by hunger dying of disease and injuries of fatigue as well as literal starvation, mainly by infants and small children, also invokes what Peter T called Malthusian limits. The observation that life spans for most people were shorter in cities I firmly believe to be incontestably true, thus restricting land ownership and driving excess population out of rural areas is population control. But again, in my perspective that is an attack on the people at large. As before, whether my reaction is regarded as wrong-headed or not, this is why I am not an unreserved anti-natalist.

    To confess all, I tend to think that cities where life spans are on average longer and living standards for most are higher than the countryside are not exploiters of the countryside/Nature. I rather think that such cities are a sign of “modernity” (the term of art for capitalism that skips over the earliest phases when capitalism was born in violence and did not seemingly magically generate vast wealth.) In earlier societies, cities tended to function partly as an abattoir for the extermination of surplus labor driven off the land. Or so it seems to me. The general tendency to see Nature, the countryside as pure and beautiful and cities as ugly excrescences blends with a devotion to land ownership—where the owners are the human—-and a distaste for the vile poor or worse a subhuman mob with unseemly demands to live at the countryside’s expense. Maybe James C. Scott can explain how cities really are tyranny, though?


    Peter T 01.16.24 at 1:49 am


    re French bourgoisie – not a typo. Membership of the bourgoisie, which carried with it various privileges in terms of eligibility for civic office and, at the upper levels, access to the vast state patronage network (via purchase of office), depended on being able to maintain a certain level of income. More children than the family could afford threatened this, so farming infants out to rural wet-nurses was common. The wet-nurses were dubbed ‘angel-makers’ for their inability to keep their charges alive. So it was, in effect, out-sourced infanticide.

    Another resource were the religious institutions where one could anonymously deposit an infant. Again, mortality rates were very high.

    You are right that the limits are not universal, but imposed by class – with the lower classes hitting them while the upper escape. The counter to this is that a collapse hits everyone, and often the upper classes hardest (as elite competition intensifies it becomes bloodier).


    David in Tokyo 01.16.24 at 2:52 am

    As STJ points out, my rants about Japan are only indirectly related. Here’s an attempt at getting back on topic.

    At the back of my mind is the thought that population itself isn’t the problem, but providing for the population you have and making sure that people can do what they want (e.g. having as many kids as they want) is. The Japanese government is freaking out over the forecast population decline here, but the problems are largely due to the idiot right wing government (relatively) taxing the bejesus out of the lower half of the income distribution to make life easier for the rich and the corporations. (The popular press, which doesn’t get the beauty of progressive taxation, nor the obnoxiousness of the regressive taxes, isn’t helping. Sigh.)

    A point raised in this thread is care for the elderly. If Japan paid their nurses and health care workers better and didn’t have an obnoxious regressive tax system, lots of people who have opted out of the job market would love to work half or more time, but don’t because they get hit by the regressive taxes. Japan has been frantically importing foreign workers (the staff at the local convenience store is mostly Nepalese). Mainly agricultural workers, but one aspect of this effort was health care staff for the elderly. But, being a right-wing government, the real point of all these efforts was to avoid raising the minimum wage, and provide a supply of minimum-wage workers.

    Inversely, extreme economic uncertainty is said to result in people having larger numbers of kids in the hope they’ll have carers in their later years. Ironically, China seems to have knocked that mindset out of their population quite effectively. Noticing that the one-child policy had gone to far, they now find that people are happy having one or fewer kids. Oops.

    I’m no expert on developing countries, but I read the articles in Science (the AAAS rag) on progress in irradicating this or that endemic in developing countries disease, and while it’s great science and medicine, at the back of my mind is always the feeling that reducing proverty by figuring out how to make those countries’ economies more effective would reduce a lot more disease burden than vaccines. (I’m probably wrong on this, in the sense that we have to do both, fix malaria/denge/whathaveyou and also be less exploitive/more helpful towards those economies. But I find feeling good about fixing one problem while leaving lots of others suspect.)

    Finally, a point of order on Mozart: Mozart was trained to be the child prodigy he became from age zero by the best violin teacher in Europe (his father). Ditto for the amazing Judit Polgar (and her only slightly less amazing sisters): their father set out to do an experiment in prodigy training, and succeeded in spades. (He wasn’t that obnoxious: he persuaded them to be interested in chess and then taught them like crazy. A statistics article (sorrry, I’ve lost the reference) on chess I read fairly recently argued (convincingly to me, anyway) that given the number of women who play chess at the club/amateur level, the number of really strong women chess players is exactly what you’d expect to see if women had the same talent for chess that men do, that is, it has the exact same distribution that the men have. It’s just that there are so many more men, that the extreme tail of extreme talent has a lot more exemplars. Whatever, I don’t think you need 16 billion people to produce two more Mozarts, just make sure that the talented people we do have can afford the time to teach their kids. (Oh yes, Midori Gotoh was the result of prodigy-directed education by a parent as well. I don’t remember being all that knocked out by her playing, but there was a 12-year old Japanese violinist on the tube here the other day who did knock me out: If I could get that amazing articulation on the violin, I’d go back to it.)

    Your fish are safe: I don’t listen to much Mozart. I do sing Mozart in the shower, though, since the Queen of the Night aria is a great bebop line.

    A problem with looking at pre-contemporary societies (e.g. feudal Japan) is that medical knowledge was problematic (or at least more problematic than it is now), so they made lots of mistakes, and just because a particular result occurred (lower life expectancy in cities, for example) doesn’t mean that was the desired or intended result, or the result that would occur today or in the near future.

    Whatever, I’d be happy with women bearing a lot fewer kids if that’s what they want, since I think that we could make that work well for everyone: all we have to do is tax the rich more.


    J-D 01.16.24 at 3:27 am

    French bourgoisie – not a typo

    Are you sure? When I ask a Web search engine about ‘bourgoisie’, it assumes I mean ‘bourgeoisie’. Is there supposed to be a difference?


    J-D 01.16.24 at 5:04 am

    A point raised in this thread is care for the elderly.

    An aging population means increased need for care for the elderly but also decreased need for care for the young. Of course it’s not as simplistic as converting all the child care workers to aged care workers (and the childcare centres to aged care centres), but any analysis which points to the effects of an increasing elderly dependency ratio without giving any consideration to offsetting effects of a decreasing youth dependency ratio is valueless.


    Peter T 01.16.24 at 8:02 am

    A typo is it is.


    tm 01.16.24 at 9:03 am

    David 103: “Mozart was trained to be the child prodigy he became from age zero by the best violin teacher in Europe (his father).”

    There are so many highly talented and highly trained musicians nowadays, violonists for example. Not all of them Mozart level of course but good enough so that most listeners wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the many excellent and the relatively few really outstanding musicians. Most of them can’t make a living on their music alone simply because there are too many of them. That’s another reason why the Mozart argument is so totally silly.

    But Mozart himself, the reason we remember him is that he was the first to bring a certain style to perfection. Similarly, Einstein is remembered because he was the first to discover a certain law of physics. These kinds of accomplishments cannot be replicated, they can only be accomplished once. They don’t scale. It wouldn’t matter to have had ten Mozarts or ten Einsteins, they wouldn’t have accomplished anything better than just the one.

    The scale argument has been brought up before (e. g. Alex) but I would make it stronger. Scale does matter of course to technological development but it matters precisely at the level of grunt work that doesn’t require exceptional genius. Exceptional genius is by definition not replicable. The Mozart genius argument is self-refuting. If Mozart was possible in a population less than one tenth’s of today’s, but cannot be found on our planet of 8 billion, he cannot be an argument for population growth.


    steven t johnson 01.16.24 at 10:15 pm

    Peter T@102 appears to be more informed about the angel-making proclivities of bourgeois wealthy enough to buy office in pre-revolutionary France. It’s still hard to imagine such men and women depositing legitimate children in orphanages (which I thought were called angel-makers, reminding me my memory is good but not good enough.) The old joke is that the rich can afford sex and the poor can’t afford anything else, so it’s the middle classes which preach continence.

    As to collapse hitting the upper classes hardest? That seems to be especially true of civil war within the nobility and socialist revolution. But as demonstrated perhaps I should re-read Walter Scheidel before continuing?

    David in Tokyo@103 “Inversely, extreme economic uncertainty is said to result in people having larger numbers of kids in the hope they’ll have carers in their later years. Ironically, China seems to have knocked that mindset out of their population quite effectively. Noticing that the one-child policy had gone to far, they now find that people are happy having one or fewer kids. Oops.”

    To be vain, I thought I had clearly said extreme economic uncertainty can cause rapid population decline, and even slow economic decline can cause slow population birth rate decline. (Examples referenced Yeltsin’s/capitalism’s counterrevolutionary assault on the Soviet people for a rapid decline, the so-called demographic transition for the slow.) I think that prospect of poor lifetime wages and property for most people’s children has rendered betting on them for social security is a bad bet. That’s why I’m inclined to believe scattered reports of birth rate declines in countries even poorer than the PRC. And I’m still very dubious of all interpretations of that as women liberated from sexual exploitation.

    Being one of hoi polloi and a hopelessly ignorant vulgarian to boot, I have to ignore the question of more Miltons and Mozarts as hopelessly confused by the question of whether Milton and Mozart are objectively great in all senses but not partly selected as greatness as a class marker.

    [The rest of this is about why birth rates in the PRC are dropping, but not an expert argument and not documented. Read at your own peril.] I’m not certain, since reporting on the PRC is so unreliable. The drop in birth rates in the PRC has an origin roughly like this: So far as I can tell, the Dengist liquidation of the Cultural Revolution involved returning land to long-term private use while raising rural private farmers’ income by lowering urban wages via inflation, the point of dropping price controls. (Yes, the process wasn’t a Big Bang as in the former USSR, which is why Deng wasn’t as catastrophic as Yeltsin, in my view.) And instead of providing for “excess” labor, they were exported into the cities/SEZs, suitably hampered by hukou to provide cheap labor for FDI.

    Dengism didn’t provide enormously greater GDP growth rates, much less improving human welfare overall. The real boom didn’t come until various developments in world economy provided an opening. Despite the desperate devotion to the phrase, “reform and opening up,” most of the opening up was not in the power of the Party to provide.

    Much of the pressure against one child was farmers wanting to breed farmhands, aka sons, as in the old days. (And much of the rest was a social inheritance that taught everyone sons were more profitable—aka desirable— in the long run than daughters, thus another child was needed in effort to get a boy.) Rapid concentration in semi-capitalist forms was also successful because the collectivization of the Fifties and especially the Cultural Revolution broke up old inefficient small acreage farms, fostering effective capital investment, higher cost seed and fertilizer, as well as the greater infrastructure and educational development of the countryside pioneered by the CR.

    But in the longer term, treating land as a private resource has led to a vicious circle where local governments effectively sell land for revenue, leading to an inefficient (in human welfare terms! not in terms of profit!) development structure. That would be the ultimate cause of the real estate overhangs (not literally, there still aren’t enough homes for people, just too many for profit.) And the tendency towards deflation ultimately traces back there too I think. The burgeoning fiscal crisis of the state generates the intensifying pressures on the central government. The concentration of powers in Xi’s hands appears to me to be a routinist bureaucratic effort to deal with that.

    The situation now appears to be, in most of the PRC which is still underdeveloped and rural and low income by wealthy country standards, is that many families cling to some scraps of land that can’t serve as farms, and send children to cities in hopes of some income. Even though the hukou system is something of a dead letter, this is more than compensated by the social brutality of private employers, domestic and foreign. By policy, state-owned enterprises, though not capable of liquidating all employees by selling themselves for cash and stocks and other financial instruments, still must trail the treatment of employees as prices and “competition” dictate. The weak social welfare system and given the general poverty of the PRC (much less poor than most of the world, yes, by the deceptively low World Bank standards, but still poor,) imply a debt system, where credit cards and other forms of finance extract massive profit would be difficult enought. (I think this is what’s called the middle income trap?) Even more, and decisively so I think, such fictitious capital would require a government far more committed to supporting capitalist methods of resolving economic crisis, with entail active attacks on living standards, not widespread raising. Higher education is no guarantee, nor is Party membership. The CPC is still a mass party with multifarious interlinks with wide strate of the population and simply cannot guarantee the children of even the greatest names (such as Bo) secure wealth. Thus, children are not a promising investment for retirement, thus the lowered birth rates.

    India is the latest capitalist wonderland, but I think it is headed toward war, both with Pakistan and Bangla Desh and with massive numbers of internal forces.

    Between India and the PRC, we have a significant portion of humanity, and thus it seems the anti-natalist program will triumph. All those end of the world scenarios and zombie attack scenarios where only man is the enemy but there is absolutely no material deprivation and people can luxuriate in the mansion of their choice are more about hostility to the masses than sound economic projections I think.


    Whirrlaway 01.17.24 at 11:54 pm

    If you imagine “genius” (however defined) as occurring at some constant rate, then fewer people just mean it will take more time for your required quantity to appear. Since the planet has a few million years left on the clock with proper maintenance, no reason why that should be a bad thing, everything possible can get done. Indeed, as a rule for ordinary things, producing them AS FAST AS POSSIBLE, the “choose any two” rule applies.

    But we are cheapskates in a hurry, so we will sacrifice QUALITY every time.

    Comments on this entry are closed.