I hope you’re wrong about population growth!

April 2nd, 2019 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 24 comments

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?

Signed,

Doesn’t Like Crowds 🙂

Dear D.L.C.,

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–

A.D.L.C.

(Also Don’t Like Crowds, but love large groups of like-minded people with good values)

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

Supporting others includes not polluting their environment!
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24 comments

Robert T. says:

Always enjoy reading “Ask the Rabbi” emails and your always insightful answers.

To take your .25 acre example a little farther, a few years ago I was bored and did the math on how large an area would the worlds population fit within. I went with the entire worlds population (I used 7.5 Billion) and had each person stand within a 2′ x 2′ square. This wasn’t supposed to be a comfortable situation just an area calculation. Turns out the entire worlds population will fit within the state of Rhode Island plus room for an additional .7 Billion.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Robert-
And we enjoy hearing from readers like you. Thank you. Your calculation is every bit as surprising as mine and just as true. As we said, worrying about problems too early is just as dangerous as worrying about them too late.
Cordially
RDL

Eric T. says:

It is often fascinating to take note of which worries and fears arise at different stages of social development… At the most primitive level, people are concerned with immediate needs of food and shelter and survival. At the ‘peak’, we find the luxury to worry about broader and broader problems, such as obesity, economic systems, population growth, global climate, and whether or not our dairy products come from cows with certain hormonal additives.

One of the reasons I am an avid listener to the podcast is because the Rabbi has a gift for keeping my feet on the ground, while elevating my thoughts. And discussions like this, with Mrs. Lapin’s collaboration, are always engaging to read. It is most appreciated.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you Eric,
and thank you for mentioning the collaboration I enjoy with Mrs Lapin that makes all possible. You effectively point out the changing concerns of an increasingly decadent society.
We enjoyed your comments.
Cordially
RDL

Janet McIntosh says:

That was absolutely beautiful!!! Makes me wanna cry !! You go Rabbi Daniel Lapin ❤️

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

No don’t cry Janet–
I can’t stand it when girls cry! Thanks for your lovely words. Much appreciated.
Cordially
RDL

Priscilla says:

Oh, I can! I’m crying too, Janet! What would we do without Ancient Jewish Wisdom! I’m so grateful to live in this special time, when so many Christians are discovering the wisdom of the Torah!

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Priscilla-
Never before has there been such a connection between Jews and Christians based on their common Torah heritage. It is my privilege to help make that heritage as accessible as possible to folks of all backgrounds
Cordially
RDL

David J says:

That is a wonderful answer and expressed wonderfully, Rabbi Lapin and Mrs. Lapin.

By the way, I found it interesting that you say three children to support two parents. Traditional Chinese culture says a family of five is the ideal family size.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear David–
Looking to the past for wisdom is generally more effective than peering into the shaky predictions of the future. My understanding of Chinese traditional culture is that it wisely looks into the past for guidance on those matters that never change, including family. I am not surprised to hear from you that they arrived at the same conclusion that each generation needs to be at least 1 1/2 times the population of the previous for viable economies.
Cordially
RDL

David Altschuler says:

Dear RDL and SL,
I love your distinction, “…just as tackling a problem too late is a very bad idea, so is tackling a problem too early.” That’s Big Picture thinking that can help one from falling into some rhetorical traps used by expensively dressed heathens who have many theoretical stances.
But, you might not have properly weighted the challenge that technological progress can partially remedy economic consequences of inadequate population. It seems obvious that if the productivity of one person keeps increasing it should take fewer working people to support their elders. This would not offer mere variety of services: If variety is what is needed then variety will be provided, but if commodities such as water or nursing care are needed then the extra productivity will help provide them instead.
Of course, what is beyond the scope of one essay and set of reader comments is that providing services without numbers of warm, affectionate people brings disadvantages like loneliness and a lack of nuance in care provided. But in measurable terms it seems that economic efficiency via technological progress has already alleviated the population challenge and will continue to do so.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear David–
We always appreciate your thoughtful comments and this one lives up to your standard. As a matter of fact, it should have been addressed in our original response but it was already a longer than usual answer. Your observation is that surely one person is far more productive today than in, say, 1919. If it indeed it took 3 people’s productivity to support 2 parents a hundred years ago, surely today that support could be provided by 2 or perhaps even by 1 person. And this does sound incontrovertibly logical. Now you know that the next word is going to be “but”. What is more, it is going to be a colossal “but”. BUT, we know many logical predictions that never came to pass. One of the most important failed predictions has been made by prominent and influential economists several times. Soon after World War II, the widespread introduction of new machinery made the average European worker nearly one and a half times more productive than his counterpart just twenty five years earlier. The resulting rapid economic revival, spurred French intellectuals to extrapolate out the productivity growth graph and boldly predict that by 1990, there would be no need for Frenchmen to work more than 3.5 days per week. Needless to say, that proved to be incorrect. (Though of course most French workers have yet to reach the target of 3 1/2 days of honest work a week!) More recently, we’ve heard from American industrialists and socio-political pundits who enjoy hanging out with their like in Davos who confidently assert that due to developments in artificial intelligence, the West’s biggest problem will be finding out what to do with all our leisure time once most of our work will be accomplished by robots. Earlier, with the development of water-wheel-driven lumber mills, the newspapers and journals were filled with breathless accounts of how we had arrived at a new age when men would be able to devote themselves to higher purpose as the drudgery of work will be done by this amazing technology-water driven power. Needless to say, none of this has turned out to be even remotely true and American full time workers, in common with ambitious people in most developed countries still work an average of at least six days a week.
So, what happened. One couldn’t argue with the logic that with huge increases in individual productivity, the amount of work it would take to support a person (or a family) would diminish. But it didn’t. We can’t treat this complicated area of economics fully in this answer but the basic idea is that expectations go up as well. Back in 1919, most Americans had very limited travel horizons. Half of all American families lived on farms and the commute was a walk. For anything further, they took the bus or train to wherever they wished to go. Now owning a car is considerably more expensive than depending on public transport yet how many people would be willing to lose their cars in exchange for knocking half a day off their work week? Similarly, many other wonderful enhancements to life are no longer viewed as enhancements but as necessities. The bottom line is that in spite of increased per capita productivity, people still work roughly the same work week as 100, 200, and 300 years ago.
Now this all serves as an example rather than as a precise parallel for why a functioning economy requires at least three people for every two in the previous generation. Yes, you’re right; computers and mobile phones have made them more productive than their parents just as water wheels made colonial kids more productive than their farming parents. But a functioning economy still requires a growing population.
We are sure that these ideas will launch productive contemplation during those few quiet hours each work when you are not working and we look forward to hearing the results of your ruminations.
Cordially
RDL

David J says:

It sounds to me that Mr. Altschuler is only considering finances. I believe there are more to taking care of one’s parents than financial resources. It might be possible for one person to take care of one’s parents financially, but what about time and effort and health and emotional support? If your answer is, “nursing home”, a lot of people would rather just die than go to a nursing home. A nursing home can provide the physical health needs, but not much more, in my opinion. I think those other needs would be difficult for one or two children to provide.

I am not convinced by Mr. Altschuler and still side with Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin.

Jim Osborne says:

I also love your answers. Question: Do you see any possibility for a stable multi-cultural USA to ever exist in “The Real World”. I see unsolvable conflicts between cultures, where coexistence can only occur if millions of individuals within either or both cultures abandon some of their most adamant beliefs. Abortion being a notable current difficulty with almost no common ground between the two sides of the issue.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Jim,
Thanks for your kind words. Regarding your question, when it comes to demographic and geopolitical predictions, never say never. Who would have thought in 1945 that Germany and Japan would become stalwart allies and dependable trading partners of the United States. In 1950 what American would have thought that grown men would be allowed into women’s restrooms within only sixty years? One way that millions of people could change is through the agency of a newly revived and potently fervent Christian reawakening throughout the US. We don’t see it at the moment but could it happen unexpectedly? Oh yes, without question. In fact, I am somewhat optimistic. But then I speak at many wonderful churches each year and they inspire me with hope.
Cordially
RDL

Susan Lapin says:

Jim, if I can add to my husband’s words, abortion is actually an area where the science and the culture are steadily moving towards recognizing the flaws within the concept, which is partially why Leftist extremists are getting more and more extreme. Younger people are not as pro-abortion as older ones.

Ruth says:

You both have so much wisdom that is rarely found. Thank you for sharing.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

You’re welcome, Ruth,
Thanks for being part of our ‘community’.
Cordially
RDL

Maria R says:

Always enjoy your articles, responses to folks questions and podcasts! Blessings to you both and your family.

Susan Lapin says:

Thank you for taking the time to tell us, Maria.

Steve Lancaster says:

Demographers have been talking about the population of Western countries not reaching replacement levels for at least the last twenty years. Most of Europe has birth rates of 1.3-1.5 children per mother, replacement is 2.1. In the US we used to have replacement level, but even with the higher birth rate among illegals we are now below the 2.1 minimum.

What this means is that by 2050, give or take a few years, the native population of Europe will be half of the number it was in 2000. That doesn’t mean there will. Be fewer people, but the native Germans, French, Italians, Spanish and English populations will be on a treadmill to oblivion, for there will also be half as many women to have the children.

While it is difficult to definably find causation there seems to be correlation to the amount of religious belief. Demographers have long known that religious families have more children and pass that tradition on to their children. You don’t need a Ph.D. to see that Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians have more children than their secular neighbors.

One of the most radical concepts to come out of Christianity is the idea of eternal life. It destroyed pagan culture that was based on the survival of the tribe and not the individual. Pagans counted on passing their lives on in the tribe. Christianity offered eternal life for the individual. That destroyed the cohesion of the tribe.

Few people ponder that the cities, towns, factories, and farms of our culture will some day pass away, but it will. That mountain, river lake and stream will be known by some other name. Oh, evidence of what we have done will still exist but the songs we sing, the simple things we do, or have done will, at best, be specters in dark glass.

For the Jews, we will still be here. One of our G-d given chores is to remember.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

An eloquent testimony Steve,
To remember is but one of very many God-given chores,
Cordially
RDL

Al Hoffman says:

I have read history, and was shocked as youth when I read of ,” population control”, for too often it is tactic to decrease opposition. This in military in plans of some to take over.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

True Al,
Sadly.
Cordially
RDL

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