By Brian Czech
In a world of vexing issues—and our topic this week is certainly that—population growth might just be the most ironic. That’s because it should be among the simplest of issues; almost trifling in its mathematics. Yet opinions about it are beset with political, economic, and even some technical controversy.
For steady staters it seems perfectly clear: Population must be stabilized for the sake of societal well-being and even mere sustainability. On this, steady staters are aligned with ecologists, anthropologists, and most folks grounded in the natural sciences. Steady staters are more than just academic observers, though. Population stabilization is a central policy goal in advancing the steady state economy. It must be pursued through public education, fiscal policy, sustainable immigration, and international diplomacy.
Unfortunately, for many other groups, population growth is like the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention. Most environmental organizations, despite dealing with one controversy after another, won’t touch population with a 10-foot pole. Conventional economists and politicians think little about limits to growth and almost invariably promote population growth. Even the Degrowth movement in Europe tends to dismiss population as an issue for colonialist hypocrites to wring their hands over.
Let’s consider a few of these controversies and complications that cloud the issue of population growth. Then we’ll identify some starting points for population policy congruent with a steady state economy. But first we’ll take another crack, as so many others have, at demonstrating the raw untenability of population growth using a few eye-popping calculations.
Lilies, Rice, and Warm Bodies Stacked Up at the Fed
So much has been written about the power of exponential growth, yet it never seems to sink into the brain of the body politic. We’ve all heard about lilies on the pond and rice on the checkerboard. Maybe we need to put it in simple terms of humans on the planet.
If our global population of 7.8 billion grew at 1 percent per year—a tenth of a percentage point slower than the current rate—we’d have 21 billion people on the planet a century from now. Yes, that’s 21 billion at 2121. (Any numerologists out there?)
Some folks don’t think very far ahead, but a century is hardly eons. We have quite a few folks on this side of the grass who remember Black Tuesday, the Bolshevik revolution, and Babe Ruth. Ask any of these old-timers and they’ll tell you: 2121 will be here before you know it.
Now can you imagine the traffic, horn-blowing, and garbage with almost three times the current crowding? And of course, these are mere inconveniences compared to the existential threats of global heating, resource wars, and pandemics. Yet if you think 21 billion sounds bad, consider that a thousand years from now, in the year 3021, we’d have 163 trillion. We better hope they’re all wearing deodorant, because that’s about 1.1 warm bodies per square meter of dry land!
You don’t need a population dynamics course to come up with these calculations. Anybody can find the simple formula and tinker with projections using an online population calculator.
So much for blunt math. Now let’s try a thought experiment. If, as the no-limits folks assure us, we can accommodate a perpetually growing population with space-saving technology such as agroponics, genetic engineering, and nanobubbles, surely we could use that exact same technology to accommodate our current numbers in smaller areas. For example, we (7.8 billion humans) could all reside in North America.
But why stop there? Why not have everyone confined to Washington, DC? In fact, we could all move into some headquarters of this or that where the current occupants think there’s no limit. Maybe at the Federal Reserve or the Cato Institute. Not that we’d want to be there, stacked up like shrimps at Bubba Gump’s. But then, why would we want 163 trillion humans on Earth, either? Or 21 billion? Or even 8 billion? (The latter is slated for 2023.)
Yes, to think there is no limit to population growth is patently and provably absurd. All it takes is a modicum of math and a glimpse of geometry. Yet here we are, squeezing into the proverbial Bubba Gump’s with that 1.1 percent growth rate. So, what’s going on in the minds of those economists, politicians, environmental organizations, and degrowthers who refuse to call for stable population?
Population Growth in Conventional Economic Growth Theory
It is crucial for steady staters, population activists, and environmentalists to understand how conventional economists think about population growth. The “second team” of sustainability—anthropologists, engineers, and perhaps public health professionals—should understand likewise. Most would already know that economists are very pro-growth, at least GDP growth. But most of these same rational thinkers probably also assume that economists aren’t necessarily pro-population growth. Most would probably surmise that economists are for GDP growth with a stable population. That way, everyone would have more—a higher per capita consumption—while the hand-wringing over population growth would cease. Surely our GDP-promoting economists would be for that, right?
Wrong! As I described at length on the Steady Stater, the most shocking idea to come out of conventional economics is this: Not only does it take a growing population to increase GDP, but it takes a growing population to increase…(brace yourself)…GDP per capita!
Yes, you read that right. Mainstream economists believe it takes a growing human population not only to grow the economy but to grow the economy per person. In other words, not only can a growing per capita consumption be reconciled with population growth—it requires population growth. So, if you want your grandkids to have a bigger piece of the pie, you better hope the world provides more mouths to feed!
Julian Simon explained this counterintuitive notion—his self-christened “Grand Theory”—in The Ultimate Resource (1981). He said in a nutshell that, yes, environmental problems crop up as the population grows, but so does the number of brains to solve those problems. These brains would ultimately trump resource shortages every time. In fact, there’d be enough brainpower left over to solve any kind of environmental problem. It was a simplistic, shoddy, and sloppily derived hypothesis (as I documented at length in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train), but pro-growth interests loved it and spread it far and wide.
The bigger problem came along when Paul Romer, in so many other ways a brilliant scholar, adopted the same basic logic in his “endogenous growth theory” thirteen years later. That’s what set him on a path to fame among economists, economic journalists, and of course the pro-growth think tanks. His Nobel Prize (which wasn’t a Nobel prize per se, but that’s another story) served to legitimatize whatever he had postulated.
Compared with the unfounded optimism (or salesmanship) of Simon’s “theory,” Romer’s growth calculus was much more complex, and I doubt he actually thought GDP or GDP/capita could grow forever. But based on his writings, neither did he think limits to growth were relevant at this point in history. That’s approximately the next-biggest mistake for big-picture thinking in the 21st century.
Fake News, Conspiracy Theories, and the Southern Poverty Law Center
Population activists range all along the spectrums of innocence, ethics, and intent. Many are ecologists concerned with protecting biodiversity. Others are humanists concerned with posterity’s prospects. Still others are card-carrying white supremacists who hate non-white immigrants. We should be grateful, then, that organizations have formed to root out intolerance and rub out the stains of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, guilt by association is an ever-present threat.
Enter the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They and like-minded groups have smeared the names of population stability advocates, often with the broad brush of guilt by association. Such smearing is a travesty for numerous individuals and organizations, and more importantly a huge barrier to population stabilization. It spreads like wildfire, too.
A good example starts with the late John Tanton, who simultaneously drew the praise of population activists and the perdition of the SPLC. Tanton was a philanthropic saint for population organizations and a race-baiting sinner to the SPLC network. I’m not here to play God one way or the other, but I do declare that the very first Google result I checked pursuant to this matter contained an obvious error. I immediately found the SPLC page that states (as of 1/20/21), “President Dan stein [sic] (left) and fair (sic; should be “FAIR”) founder John Tanton have both suggested that america [sic] is better off under ‘Anglo-Saxon dominance.’” Yet I believe the photo on the left—indeed the only photo on the page—is of Tanton, not Stein. Either that or Stein is a helluva doppelganger.
In other words, the SPLC’s sloppily written page contained a reckless misidentification of a person the page was chiefly concerned with—a dead person no less.
I have no reason to doubt that the SPLC was borne out of the excellent intentions of “fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice.” That doesn’t mean they’re good at it, though. If they’re recklessly fomenting a movement that ends up hamstringing other crucial missions—such as the sustainability of the human race—then they’re not so good after all. It’s ironic, too, because while they’re busy fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice, they sure seem hateful and intolerant of population activists, unjustly painting them with the guilt-by-association brush.
And so it was that on Sunday, August 23, 2020, I received an email from an entity calling itself “End Environmental Racism.” This otherwise anonymous entity stated, “It has come to our attention that you have accepted funding from an organization that also funds systemic racist organizations. We, together with the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations, see an “urgent need to dismantle systemic racism within our own organization and the environmental movement” (Sierra Club). Many environmental groups have refused funding from organizations linked to racism.” It goes on to identify the “racist organizations” as “a cluster of organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Institute [sic] regards as hate groups, and that have been founded by activist John Tanton.”
I’m not going to identify the “cluster of organizations” or the funder, because gossip is a plague worse than COVID (according to Pope Francis). It destroys people left and right. What I will say is that the funder is one of the few organizations with the fortitude and clarity to go straight at the root cause of biodiversity loss, global heating, and the ecological footprint at large. Just as the funder is rare in that regard, so are the organizations to be funded. Indeed, the Sierra Club is not one of them, nor are any of the big environmental NGOs. With their corporate boards, they won’t say a thing about limits to growth; it’s left to organizations like CASSE to do the heavy lifting.
Meanwhile, neither the funder nor CASSE can help it if other organizations (focused on immigration for example) end up having some racist followers. Yet the August 23 email ended with, “We would like to know your concerns about receiving funding from an organization being linked to racism.”
“Linked to racism?” Libel much? And what does that mean, “being linked?” Who’s assessing what constitutes a link—the SPLC?
Who’s next to be “linked” to racism, CASSE itself? That seems to be the implication of the vaguely threatening email. Yet linking CASSE to racism would be like linking Aunt Gertie to obstruction of justice if she accepted grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency, because the EPA happened to originate under Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, John Tanton is deceased and his actions on Earth go way back in time. Meanwhile, population organizations, boards, and staff have come and gone.
So, what’s next, linking us with Robert E. Lee? Via funding sources, the ghost of John Tanton, and the Satanists at the Comet Ping Pong?
No, what CASSE is firmly linked to is its mission and its position on economic growth, which calls for population stabilization. The SPLC and the anonymous emailer ought to have better things to do than harassing fighters for the common good like CASSE.
But since they brought it up, who’s funding the SPLC, anyway? The Koch Brothers? Cato Institute? Heritage Foundation? Any number of pro-growth operators would love to see the demise of limits-to-growth organizations. They must be “linked” in some way.
Other Detractors from Population Stabilization
Aside from neoclassical economics and the Southern Poverty Law Center, several other groups put a damper on population stabilization politics. One such group could be called Anti-Abortion Christianity. That includes the Catholic Church but also a far-right complex of God and Guns.
Pardon the awful metaphor, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It’s easy to empathize with the Catholic teaching on abortion (especially outside of extreme contexts such as rape and incest). We face accelerating threats to the integrity of human life and the reproduction thereof: genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, cloning, CRISPR, cryonics, etc. Protecting life in the womb is looking quaint and quixotic in the face of such assaults on naturalness.
The problem is, of course, that the anti-abortion stance tends to morph into politics against family planning in general. Yet, with a pope advising that we don’t have to breed “like rabbits” and calling for “responsible parenthood,” I don’t think Anti-Abortion Christianity is the biggest challenge today. Thank goodness, “God and Guns” won’t get far either. My vote would be for neoclassical economics, Wall Street, or Dark Money.
Another group, and more surprisingly at first glance, is the Degrowth movement in Europe. This group is far from united on goals and policies, but many degrowthers seem to be against the immigration reforms that would be necessary to stabilize populations in European countries. In such countries (as well as the USA), the “native” birthrate is at or below the replacement rate, and population growth results primarily from high rates of immigration; 90 percent in the case of the USA.
The degrowthers’ case against immigration reform stems from a concern for social justice. Degrowthers realize that European nations have a history of colonization, of taking slaves and resources over vast regions of the world. In some ways, colonization continues, if we include corporations among the colonizing powers. For degrowthers, it only exacerbates the injustice when emigrants from colonized regions are locked out of the colonizing countries where they might find greener pastures.
Population Stabilization and Steady Statesmanship
Steady staters can empathize with the degrowthers, and in fact just about all the groups noted above (not including white supremacists or Dark Money.) However, we start with the principles of steady-state economics, which means we deal with three major issues: sustainability, justice, and efficiency. We seek an efficient allocation of resources toward a socially just distribution of wealth, in an aggregate amount that fits on the planet.
The order is important, too. No other goals are feasible for long—by definition—without sustainability. So, while others may prioritize social justice (such as the SPLC and many degrowthers) and others prioritize efficient allocation (such as most economists), we prioritize “sustainable scale.” That means a stabilized population and economy at a sustainable size; ideally at an optimal size.
To stabilize population, we need buy-in from the public and policymakers. That starts with public education. How can we expect any policies toward population stability without it? Articles like this and blogs such as the Steady State Herald can help, but of course, we need sweeping coverage in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. Nuggets about lilies and rice grains work for starters, but public education must build up to sustainability concepts such as the ecological footprint and carrying capacity.
At post-graduate levels, where education blends into policy formulation, how exactly should our message be presented? A good strategy for steady staters is to “lead” with the need to stabilize the economy as measured with GDP. That way we don’t run immediately into the undiscriminating teeth of Anti-Abortion Christianity. When population does come up—as of course it must—we can quickly point out that it’s not angels on the head of a pin we’re talking about. Rather, we’re interested in population growth only because real, warm-blooded humans consume and have an ecological footprint that affects every other human (present and future) with a right to life. But we lead with GDP—and constantly go back to a focus on GDP—because GDP growth is a very secular issue and not at all taboo. It’s constantly on the airwaves, televisions, and internet.
Yet when limits to GDP and the devastating effects of GDP are firmly established in political dialog, population comes back into the spotlight, right next to per capita consumption. Agreement builds that population cannot be left to chance, passion, or an attitude of “outgrowing” other groups.
Once we achieve that level of understanding, we can get down to the brass tacks of population policy. The brass tacks are fiscal policy reforms. The two that immediately come to mind in the USA are the earned income tax credit (EITC) and the child tax credit (CTC). Reforming the EITC to provide more eligibility for childless workers and less credit for multi-child couples (especially wealthy couples) is a clear and viable starting point. So is reducing or even eliminating the CTC, especially for those with higher incomes (and therefore heavier ecological footprints). These are low-hanging fruits; they’re already-existing tools in the tax code. They simply need to be re-tooled toward population stabilization rather than population growth.
Policy reforms beyond these low-hanging fruits are a matter of policy entrepreneurship. Fiscal policy—the budgets and tax codes of federal, state, and local governments—is the working environment of the population policy entrepreneur. Fiscal policy is especially relevant to “native” population growth, stemming from the reproduction of current citizens.
Immigration, on the other hand, requires more than just fiscal policy. It requires statesmanship; steady statesmanship in this case.
If population growth is the elephant in the room at an 800-pound gorilla convention, then immigration is the black sheep in a room full of elephants at the gorilla convention. In order to get the discussion going with a dispassionate and apolitical tone, pure math is the place to start. A steady state economy requires a population growth rate of zero—do the math—and if the immigration rate tips the balance into a positive growth rate, reform is required.
That said, once again the ordering of goals is crucial. The ordering of policy goals is what separates steady staters from “non-growth at all costs” population activists as well as diversity-hating white supremacists. Steady staters are convinced that, until the USA (for example) establishes a steady state economy, at least as a policy goal, closing the borders will backfire. Closing the borders while pursuing GDP growth—with American interests extracting rents from Tuvalu to Timbuktu—would make the USA look like a greedy hog. Not only would it be unethical; it would be disastrous for national security.
Imagine instead that the USA announces it is undertaking a transition, pursuant to the Full and Sustainable Employment Act, away from unsustainable growth to a steady state economy. Imagine the president announcing that, as part of this transition, the borders will be gradually tightened until the population is stabilized. Meanwhile, the USA will assist poverty-stricken nations in their own backyards. The Secretary of State clarifies that such assistance will be predicated on goals of population stabilization in those nations as well. The USA will be practicing steady statesmanship, in other words.
Now that would be good for national security, and good for the soul of America.
Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.