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Birth Rates, Immigration, Robotization and Climate change

When I was in college—fifty years ago—the rapidly growing world population was one of the biggest threats to the future of humanity and our planet. Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb” was a best-seller. Predictions were dire and most concluded that social changes could not be made rapidly enough to stave off overpopulation. Today, there are few voices raising an alarm about the size of the population—in fact, most of the alarms are related to falling birth rates in countries which are already at or below the replacement rate and are worrying about young workers to support an aging population. Most predictions are that the population will level off near the end of this century and remain stable or begin falling by 2100. 

No one is sure why fertility rates decline in urban, developed countries, only that they do. Even within the countries with the largest populations—India and China—the fertility rate in urban centers is below the replacement rate, although that is not true in the rural areas. China is alarmed enough about its low birth rate that it not only abandoned its one-child policy, it now offers incentives for larger families, as does Japan, which, for the third year, did not reach even one million births and is already suffering from too few workers to support its older citizens. Only in the least developed countries, almost entirely in Africa, is population growing, and as the African continent becomes more urbanized, most population scientists are confident that it will begin to show lessening population growth and eventually level off.

In developed countries such as those in Europe or the United States, population growth, when it is occurring, is largely due to immigration. The influx of new people from foreign cultures, with their own languages and often, religions, combined with either poorly developed technical skills of the kind needed in today’s modern countries, or discrimination in hiring that keeps many of them unemployed, has created politically explosive social pressures within the countries that receive these immigrants. At the same time, the most well-trained technical and scientific members of developing societies are migrating to developed countries that are hungry for young, talented workers, creating a “brain drain” in many developing countries. In the United States, more than a quarter of all new businesses are started by immigrants and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were begun by immigrants or their children. A quarter of the U.S. engineering and technology companies started between 2006-2012 had at least one immigrant as a key founder of that company. 

At the same time, the United States, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Macedonia, Austria and France have built or begun building walls to keep out immigrants.

Beginning with Malthus, and including Ehrlich, most population alarmists have focused on food production as the factor that would create the biggest crisis with an every-growing population. Food production has kept up with population growth, although distribution of food to all segments of the world population has not and we still have famines, caused as often by man-made conditions such as war as by climate. That may be changing as droughts and floods become more prevalent due to climate change. Common sense tells us that an increasing population causes more pollution and climate-heating carbon emissions, and the industries involved in raising a country’s economic level add to this. More cars and more fossil fuel powered electricity generating plants are a major source of carbon emissions. 

Many of those alarmed in countries with falling birth rates are concerned about the economic consequences of having an older population without a sizeable tax-producing young workforce. At the same time, they do not want an influx of unskilled migrant workers who might not contribute as much as they cost to support with social programs. While the latter equation of cost vs. tax benefit is largely a fiction, not supported by facts, it is realistic enough to spur anti-immigrant feelings among current citizens. An alternative solution to the dearth of young workers in what are becoming highly technical industries is the use of robots or automation to replace human workers. This has occurred already in some industries, such as auto-making and retail clerking. Of course robots don’t pay taxes, so our tax structures would need to change to take into account replacement of human workers by robots. Nevertheless, large scale replacement of humans by robots in the workplace seems like a viable way to adjust to a shrinking population. Japan has even replaced home health care workers with robots in caring for its elder citizens. Battery-powered robots would also produce a smaller carbon footprint, most of it related probably to their manufacture.

Some population and climate specialists have minimized the effects that lowering the world’s population would have on human-produced climate change. However, such speculations have used modest reductions in population as the basis for their predictions, and have not taken into account all the human-related sources of carbon and methane emissions. A accelerated radical reduction in population—much more than a leveling out—would produce less need for automobiles, for heating and air-conditioning, for manufacturing, for the use of livestock for food (which produces its own methane emissions) and would allow us to leave more virgin forests in place and even replace some that have been removed for farming or housing. 

Saving our planet requires many simultaneous actions. One of those that is appearing to happen naturally (and no one is completely sure why) is the reduction in birth rates in developed urbanized population centers that is eventually destined to reduce our world population. Spurring this process along and not trying to mitigate it for short-term economic considerations could be very helpful in fighting climate change. Welcoming the robotization or automation of some industries would take the economic burden off of population growth as a remedy for having fewer young workers. Investment in non-human intensive industries that don’t use fossil fuels, would allow developing countries to curtail their own population growth. Stopping wars in Africa and the Middle East and drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico would also lower immigration of unskilled workers into the United States. 

Developed countries must take the lead in terms of curbing their own emissions, assisting less developed countries to modernize their countries without creating greater pollution, stopping instead of supporting wars, and working on international problems such as drug trafficking instead of building walls to keep drugs and people out. Population shrinkage can be a major factor in reducing climate change, but only within a larger context of working on these other issues as well as continued efforts to find ways to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint. The future has possibilities and walls and wars and building up our own population through increasing the birth rate are not solutions that will help. 


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