True, world population is at its height today. But what is dramatically different is the ratio of old to young
Rav Noach Weinberg ztz”l was fond of saying, “In an insane world, Torah society is the least insane of all.” It behooves us to reflect from time to time on the extent of the insanity from which Torah protects us, even if our adherence as a society is imperfect.
Consider, for instance, the alarmism that surrounds global warming. Most people, if asked what the greatest threat to sustained human life is, would answer: climate change. In 2017, the American Psychological Association identified “a chronic fear of environmental doom” or “eco-anxiety,” as a major cause of youthful anxiety and depression. Today’s young adults have grown up on a steady stream of doomsday predictions, such as the Washington Post headline dated October 17, 2018: “The World Has Just Over a Decade to Get Climate Change Under Control, U.N. Scientists Say.” Of course, one could have read the same pronouncement from the AP in June 1989, nearly 20 years earlier: “[We] have a ten-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effects before it goes beyond human control,” said the UN official.
While there is no necessary connection between environmental alarmism and fears of overpopulation, a strong streak of hostility to human beings as destroyers of the natural order is generally found among climate alarmists. Human economic activity, resulting in increased carbon emissions, threatens mankind with extinction, according to the alarmists. AOC’s Green New Deal, which would dramatically reduce economic activity, is representative of the genre.
Yet as environmentalist Michael Shellenberger establishes in his new book Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, it is material and technological progress that is the crucial determinant of dramatic improvements in the human environment and resilience to climate change. The largest sources of global pollution are the poorest countries, whose people still rely on wood and coal for cooking and heating.
By every environmental measure — air quality, clean water, food supply, safety from natural disasters — we are far, far better off today than in the past. Glenn Stanton of the Colorado-based Focus on the Family, a Christian organization, cites much of the empirical research in “The End of the World as We Know It?” Despite all that you have read of climate change triggering natural disasters, in the 1920s, 5.4 million people died in natural disasters worldwide. In the 2010s, the comparable figure was 0.4 million, a 92 percent reduction, despite a quadrupling of the world population in between. Deaths from air pollution have been nearly halved in the last 30 years.
Over the past 25 years, 290,000 people have gained access to clean drinking water every day worldwide. According the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, the world today grows enough food to feed 10 billion people, due to scientific advances in agronomy and wider use of machinery for farming. That is 25 percent above the current world population, which is projected to top out at below 10 billion people, before worldwide population decline sets in.
Though the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are the source of most doomsday declarations, Shellenberger notes that there are no predictions therein of the end of life as we know it. The fourth IPCC assessment predicts a global economy three to six times our present economy, and that it would only diminish GDP by 4.5 percent to adjust to a four-degree-Celsius rise in temperature by 2100. Hardly the end of the world.
BEFORE READERS HEAVE a large sigh of relief, there is another catastrophic scenario cited by Stanton that should worry us even more. And it is the exact opposite of the one stressed by climate alarmists: too few human beings, not too many. A major work of 24 leading demographers, published in Lancet this summer and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tells the story. By the end of current century, 23 leading nations, including major engines of technology and industry (e.g., Japan and Spain) will have lost half their current population. Another 34 will have lost 25 to 50 percent of their population, including China at 48 percent.
True, world population is at its height today. But what is dramatically different is the ratio of old to young. In 1950, there were 35 babies born for every person who turned 80 globally. By 2017, that ratio had fallen to 7:1, and by 2100, demographers project only one birth for every new 80-year-old.
There will be simply too few workers left to support the ever-growing cohort of elders. Then things will turn nasty. And we should not imagine that the Torah community, in which the population will continue to grow, will be exempt. Indeed, we are likely to be an identifiable target of those promoting the “duty to die” and the like.
So people will just start having more children again, right? Wrong. Attempts by governments around the world to encourage more child-bearing have so far proven a dud. For one thing, the economic argument against having more kids takes on consistently greater force in modern societies, in which both husbands and wives work. In the largely agrarian societies of the past, children were economic assets, as helpers on the farm. Today, they are an economic drain — a college education can cost over $250,000, with little to show in return.
THE DECLINE OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF is everywhere strongly correlated with declining birthrates. Until recently, the United States was (except for Israel) the only OECD country with higher-than-replacement-level fertility rates. That is no longer the case, and the decline in religious practice is surely an important contributor.
The time frame of a religious believer extends far beyond his or her own death, into eternity. That longer time frame causes us to think more about our own continuity and to therefore contemplate what comes after us. Children and grandchildren are the insurance of that continuity. Those who believe in a benevolent G-d, Who created the world with a plan and Who will ensure that His plan is fulfilled, are more optimistic and less likely to be deterred from having children by fears of this or that coming catastrophe. By contrast, those who have become convinced that the end is near will understandably be hesitant to bring new life into the world.
The Torah view is that man is the apex of Creation, as opposed to being just another “animal,” at best, or a disrupter of the pristine natural order, at worst. Citing the work of the 2018 Nobel Laureate in economics, Paul Romer, Stanton argues that human beings are, in fact, the most precious natural resource, and the solution, rather than the problem, with respect to adapting to whatever changes come about through global warming.
Romer’s Endogenous Growth Theory is predicated on the recognition that ideas generated by human beings power the motor of scientific and material advance. The more ideas — codified knowledge — the more possible permutations and interactions. Professor Charles Jones of Stanford, a former student of Romer, describes a world of rapid depopulation as one in which living standards and scientific knowledge stagnate.
We have just witnessed that process of new permutations of ideas generating practical outcomes in the rapid development of vaccines for COVID-19, based on previous research on mRNA, when scientists from all over the world devoted themselves to the task.
Ever since Thomas Malthus propounded his theory of geometric population growth and arithmetic growth in the supply of food leading inevitably to widespread starvation, every single Malthusian prediction based on limited resources has been refuted by human ingenuity.
Natural resources are finite, and therefore turn men into competitors. But ideas can be shared by all, and therefore turn human beings into allies. Desalinization, for instance, does not benefit just one water-starved country, but is capable of benefitting all.
HOW FAR REMOVED is Torah society from the increasing disdain for marriage and childrearing. From earliest youth, our children dream of marriage and children, and see them as among the greatest sources of joy in life.
But if the demographers’ projections are accurate, it will not be enough for us to just carry on, oblivious to the different messages of the society around us. We must become ambassadors to the world proclaiming the joys to be found in building a family.
Our task is always to be a “light unto the nations,” but in this instance the fate of the world depends on a renewed commitment to Hashem’s first commandment to mankind: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
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