I enjoyed reading your book and continue to get value from your excellent podcast(s). Recently you discussed the biblical case for never-ending population growth, and that it requires over 3 new people to care for one older person.
Do you consider this an absolute that cannot be addressed through human ingenuity and technological advances? It would seem that never-ending exponential population growth would eventually become either unsustainable, or at least undesirable.
What would be wrong with a stable birth (replacement) rate and why couldn’t civilization sustain itself with a stable birthrate?
Doesn’t Like Crowds 🙂
Where to begin? Perhaps with appreciation for your kind words about our books and podcasts. You already know that the motto we regularly use is, “How the world really works.” What we mean by this is that many ideas sound quite wonderful and many public policies sound like “any normal person” would want them implemented immediately if not sooner. These include free health care for all, minimum wage laws and graduated taxation. History (remember when they used to teach that at Government Indoctrination Camps formerly known as public schools?) reminds us that in spite of being revived every few decades and in spite of them being imposed in different countries, they never work quite as intended. Yet, so strong is the emotional commitment that many feel towards these ideas that even when people acknowledge that they failed before, they are confident that this time will be different.
Population control is one of those ideas. You mention that you don’t like crowds, a sentiment that you probably share with many others. Though it is interesting, isn’t it, that solitary confinement is not a reward for harried mothers or a benefit granted to overworked employees, it is actually a torture! We venture to say that if you were forced to choose between living in populous Hong Kong or on Pitcairn Island (settled by the HMS Bounty mutineers in 1790) with its 56 individuals averaging only about 25 people per square mile, even you might choose Hong Kong with its density of about 20,000 for every square mile.
We realize of course that one can’t effectively argue something by pointing at the extremes. Just because neither Pitcairn nor Hong Kong is ideal doesn’t argue against population control, so let’s see what the issues really are.
Just one little correction to something you said as we head into our answer: What I said was that it takes at least three children to care for two parents. Now we’re analyzing how the world really works.
Some couples will say, “Hey, we aren’t going to have children and we don’t need to be supported by our children because we have retirement plans and investment portfolios.” Again, it sounds good, but the theory collapses under economic scrutiny. You see, whether your children support you directly as happens in less developed parts of the world or whether they support you indirectly, the numbers stay the same. What is indirect support? When grown children purchase the goods and services sold by the companies whose stock is held in the parents’ retirement plans and investment portfolios, they are making it possible for those stocks to pay the dividends upon which those parents depend. There is just no getting away from this basic economic reality—you need more people in the coming generation in order for those in the previous generation to survive.
For everyone currently in their earning years to make a living, there must be a larger population of children coming up. Whether you run a shoe store or whether you’re a plumber, teacher or dentist, this is an inescapable truth. This is why almost without exception, every country with a shrinking population, depicted by an unstable upside-down pyramid, shows declining economic outlook. By contrast, countries whose population figures resemble right-way-up pyramids tend to have vibrant and optimistic economies.
The United States in 2018 had a population 16% bigger than it had in 2000 while Japan’s population shrunk by almost the same percentage in that period. Not surprisingly, in spite of almost no unemployment, Japan’s Gross Domestic Product continues to diminish year by year. They are being done in by demographics. The same is true for Italy and several other developed countries.
Countries like France and Germany who, watching their declining population, saw the economic writing on the wall and recklessly decided to solve the problem by bringing in millions of immigrants have not fared well. This is because the future is secured, not merely by a growing head-count but by an increasing population comprising like-minded individuals who share a common culture.
While certainly not pointing a finger at any particular real-life couple, one could argue that those who choose to remain childless will have their lives subsidized by those who made the tough decision to have and raise children.
In 1968 Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich advised Americans to stop having children in his best-selling book, The Population Bomb which confidently predicted that before 2000, millions of Americans would be dying from starvation. This did not happen. Of course, the most common American food-related problem is obesity. Nonetheless, Paul Ehrlich is still educating the children of those who didn’t take his advice and who feel such wisdom is worth $60K a year tuition.
You ask whether this absolute necessity of a growing population can’t be addressed by technological advance. This is a bit like asking, can humans’ need for food be solved by human ingenuity? The answer is that our need for food and water cannot and will never be changed. All that technology can do is make it easier to obtain food and water. Likewise, people who want to eat must live in a society with more population each generation. All that technology can do is make more variety available but since human dreams and desires expand with availability, every two people are still going to need a minimum of three people beneath them. However, they will live in greater comfort and health than their grandparents who also needed three people below them for their own more limited lives.
You correctly observe that eventually, exponential population growth must become unsustainable. True; if world population grew to the extent that each person had, say, only a few square feet, the apocalypse would be near. However, just as tackling a problem too late is a very bad idea, so is tackling a problem too early. For instance, burning coal in London’s hearths did cause health problems in the 19th and 20th century. But banning coal in the 17th century would have been premature and tragic. Similarly, right now, were we to place every single American in a four-person household, and were we to give each such household its own detached home on a nice quarter-acre property, all of America’s population could be comfortably housed only in that part of California between Los Angeles and the Mexican border. Thus, whether the world will or won’t reach unsustainable population levels is unknown but what we do know is that worrying about that now is unhealthily premature.
You concluded your interesting and important question by expressing your distaste for crowds. Ancient Jewish wisdom describes that although most of Israel’s population would mount a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, there was never a shortage of space for everyone. The explanation for this ‘miracle’ is that when you’re surrounded by selfish, noisy, pushy people, even three of them is an intolerable crowd. But when you’re surrounded by people all of whom share high values, even a hundred thousand can be pleasant. I (RDL) have been among fifty thousand British football hooligans and it was one of the most frightening and unpleasant experiences of my life. I have also been among fifty thousand Christian men at a Promise Keepers convention. It was a memorably pleasant and inspiring occasion.
When a medical team responds to a life-threatening code, even if the patient was conscious, we don’t imagine him requesting a smaller team. Each medical professional there has a vital role in helping him. If we all live with the view that our presence is to enhance others’ lives, we would not be surrounded by crowds but by support teams.
No machine is ever going to be able to replace one human heart relating to another human heart. We believe that God’s instruction to have children and to raise them properly (the ancient Jewish wisdom understanding of ‘be fruitful and multiply’) is what is best for the world. Rather than limiting the number of blessings we would prefer to work on ensuring that we raise them to honor God and their fellow inhabitants on Earth.
Sincerely and signed–
(Also Don’t Like Crowds, but love large groups of like-minded people with good values)
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin