An ideal world population?

Within 100 years world population will be tumbling. Western Europe will have been the first to start, followed by America, and then by 5 billion or so of the world’s poor as they pack themselves even more densely into 30 or 40 megacities around the world, each family with little more living space than for a microwave cooker (welfare food packs supplied by government), a video-player (free electricity from governmental benign neglect in order to keep the men quiet) and, if present practice in Sao Paulo, etc continues, one child, perhaps two but rarely more.

During the same period, China will have hoovered up all the silver, copper, iron ore, rare earth elements and other important resources that are presently easily available and relatively cheap. The time will have come for us to move out of what some call the "metal bashing" era and into one when most consumer and producer objects are made from organic compounds — that is, those mainly containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. We have already started, of course, with the manufacture of plastics.

But we can also talk about the manufacture of organic products hugely wider than merely plastic. For example, we could make organic wire (using the same proteins as in a spider’s web — each strand ten times stronger than steel of equivalent thickness), or we could even make whole objects (e.g. a fully strung violin) from many different materials "in the round" in a simultaneous way (3D-printing from all angles, as it were). DNA is already being considered as an electrical conductor (probably a super-conductor — something that physicists have been striving for for decades).

It wouldn’t matter in the further future what the world population was, so long as it were much smaller than today’s. To keep life interesting, we would need a regular supply of a few geniuses every generation. This suggests a minimum population of, say 100 million. To keep the economy going we would need to survive on solar energy only, but preferably without impacting too much on the beautiful natural world that could then be around us. This suggests a maximum population of, say. 500 million.


The coming recruitment war between the US and the PRC

The last great orator we had in this country, Aneurin Bevan, said that England was a nation that is "mainly made of coal and surrounded by fish" (1945). He said this in the context "that only an organizing genius" could produce a shortage of coal and fish. (Well, without going into further detail here, UK governments and the EU between them have certainly become geniuses!)

I wonder what Bevan would have said today? As it happens, about half of England is sitting on top of the cheapest and cleanest fossil fuel that has ever been discovered. I speak of shale gas, of course. One gasfield of 8,000 square miles (20,000 square kilometres) straddles England from east to west. Even before this is touched, there are enough other large pockets to be able to supply all our energy needs for centuries to come.

Bevan couldn’t make an exception of us today because there are huge gasfields under all continents and many are undoubtedly larger. Almost all countries will now have access to as much as they want. The reason for this is that millions of square miles of ocean bottoms with 3,700 million years of rotting organic life have been subducted under all the major land masses.

America, with 35,000 wells, has already gone all out to develop shale gas. It is only pausing at present until it modifies many of its oil-fed power stations and builds more gas-fed ones. It will also reduce its considerable imports of oil and gas. Within a few weeks of UK discoveries and further prospecting, the UK is undergoing the most radical change ever made in its energy policies.

Most countries are dilly-dallying, so far. Not China. It saw the writing on the wall immediately. From what one is able to gather, it is already prospecting widely. It is going to produce widely, too. It was already running short of conventional fossil fuels. This will also now be its golden opportunity to develop a new swathe of industries and bring the rural poor (700 million) into the ‘ghost cities’ it has already built. Besides, China now knows that it will have to face the most enormous resumption of American manufacturing — and, more to the point, exporting to countries that China now exports to almost exclusively.

Until the 1980s America was by far the greatest economic power on earth. A very considerable part of the reason for this was that, for the most part of the 20th century, America had been recruiting hundreds of the best scientists that Europe produced and, latterly, many from Asia. This is why America is at the forefront in almost all engineering and scientific areas. In recent decades America may have lost out to China in the production of consumer goods but not of the cutting-edge producer goods. China is unable to create the latter. Its government admits that its young people are uncreative because of its Confucian culture. Its problem is that, try as it may, it has been unable to correct the situation.

Thus China will always trail America economically until it, too, starts recruiting the best of the world’s scientists and gradually developing its own creative culture. What it needs to do is offer as much funding as a research scientist needs. The rest, such as lovely houses in superb locations and any type of school that scientists and partners want for their children are relatively easily supplied.

China started its Green Card system some ten years ago when it realized that it needed a great number of experienced managers in banking and industry and teachers of English (which is now becoming China’s second official language [unofficially so far!]). Shale gas, if developed as quickly as America is going to do, or, more likely, even more rapidly, will enable China to promote itself into the Research and Development league where it really needs to be.


Nosediving world population

Parents, more specifically mothers, will always try to adjust the number of their children according to economic circumstances. In hunter-gatherer groups living in exiguous food circumstances, children born with physical handicaps are immediately culled, as are one of any rare pair of twins. In seriously deprived situations, even previously vigorous children are neglected to the point of allowing them to die even while the mother instinctively eats sufficiently to survive (she can have another child when times are better). In agricultural regions, however, where large numbers of children are useful for planting and harvesting. large families are not only desirable but peer pressure against any form of birth control can be intense.

Concern by intellectuals in the advanced countries about massive world over-population began about 40 years ago. The concern was, of course, valid for all sorts of reasons, but what was totally overlooked at the time is that parents in the West were beginning to think a lot more seriously about family size. Children were beginning to be extremely expensive. Parents were finding it increasingly difficult to buy a house that is priced according to their felt social status as well as filling it with the standard stock of status goods expected of them and a car (or two) of similar status in the drive, as well as having the two or three or four children they used to not long ago. Moreover, by 30 years ago, average wages in the advanced countries were failing to keep up with the cost of living. One child per family is more than enough expense for most parents. The birth rate in all European countries is already well below replacement rate and, within a generation, populations will be falling steeply.

The same dramatic fall in birth rate has also occurred in several East Asian countries as rural populations enter cities. Relative to Europeans, parents have a far greater need to reduce family size because, without a welfare state, they are saving hard because they have to think of their own old age as well as the cost of raising children. Like us, this second phase of family limitation will mean that these countries will have steeply falling populations within a generation or two.

Yet another powerful third phase has begun to happen. In the last few years only, big investment funds of the West and the very rich, increasingly despairing of low or risky returns from bonds and equities, have now begun to buy prime agricultural land on a huge scale. This is not so much for feeding the two billion starving people of the world but to grow feedstuffs for meat and fish production, as required by the growing middle-class of China and other countries that are managing to develop. The result is that people are being pushed off the land as never before. Migration into cities is accelerating, not so much because there’s a need for more industrial workers in many countries, but because, living in dense shanty districts of metropolises, the poor at least have a roof over their heads. These potential parents are so poor that they can’t afford contraceptives as those in the first two phases, but amateur abortionists are always available when there’s a need.

The first phase of population reduction has only recently been discernible (and even then only to those who care to look) but the next two phases will follow for exactly the same reason — economic necessity. One child per family is already, or soon will be, more than enough in order to survive. As an increasingly highly educated rump remains in a century or so and a more beautiful and fascinating natural world revives, then it’s likely, in my view, that the birth rate will become normal again. But when that happens it’s likely that they’ll make quite sure that they don’t get caught in the population-growth trap as happened in the agricultural era.

Keith Hudson

A brand-new economy is inevitable

It’s a pity that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) never met — which they could have done so easily. For one thing, they shared 64 of their years. For another, for much of their lives they lived little more than a modest hackney drive from each other. They could have had a fascinating conversation because, each within in his own sphere and expressed in his own terminology, they had reached exactly the same conclusion. The environment is all-important. This is that, in Darwin’s ecological view, it is the (climatic) environment that’s the major player in selecting the more efficient genes* and thus, subsequently, in the overall choice and balance of species on earth. In Marx’s economic hypothesis, it is the (widescale factory) environment that shaped the genes* that have to do with rank-ordering and thus, subsequently, the class structure. (*In their time, of course, neither Darwin nor Marx were aware of genes as deterministic entities. Mendel was nearest to understanding genes at that time but his discoveries were confined to an obscure journal.)

In retrospect, we can easily see the Gargantuan changes that took place over the course of the industrial revolution during which 80% of the population, leading wretched, under-nourished lives in the countryside migrated to the growing cities where, ultimately, prosperous factory workers of the 1960s were then able to enjoy the sort of consumer products and the lifestyle that only royalty had experienced in previous times. But it was too early for Karl Marx to see those changes clearly in his time.

However, since the 1960s a new crop of Gargantuan changes had been burgeoning. These were quite a different crop that Marx, or even Keynes (60 years later), could never have possibly foreseen. Software-led automation had already arrived in commerce and was already nibbling into job numbers. In every year since then, automation has bitten deeper and deeper into the economic machine, whether it’s in extractive jobs or transportation, manufacturing or retailing. Because each new ‘generation’ of automation is more energy efficient and thus creates profits for further investment, it is impossible to guess just where and when it will end. We are only seeing the beginnings of it so far. In due course, every conceivable repetitive job, whether physical or mental, will be replaceable by machinery. No employer would dream of delaying automation in the slightest for fear of being pipped by another firm.

Critics may protest that with declining work-forces there’ll be declining consumer markets and thus declining profits and thus declining investments. However, because of its software nature, automatic machinery is able to be profitable with shorter and shorter production runs. Investment machinery doesn’t have to be larger in incremental size or number. So long as the software algorithms are able to become smarter than ever, then the machinery can be versatile enough to produce profitable single items (and to turn immediately from one product or service to another).

Critics might also protest that incentives will be taken away from ‘greedy’ entrepreneurs (or, today, bankers!) who will therefore be deprived of great wealth. But ‘greedy’ individuals are not Dickensian caricatures who start businesses or operate there merely in order to count up his earnings at the end of the day. No, they are individuals who have strong creative needs, or who have been given a lucky opportunity and decided to run with it, or who wish to be wealthy in order ro be able to pick among the best experiences and products that the world has to offer, or who desire high social status (not necessarily in wide public view).

The consumer market had already begun to shrink 30 years ago quite besides the onslaught of automation. Increasingly in Western advanced countries, parents have already been deciding on less than replacement sized families. For this reason alone populations will be declining very steeply well with two generations. Within three or four generations, we will be heading for extinction.

But will we want to go extinct? It’s most unlikely. The lower the population becomes, and the more the natural world re-beautifies itself, the more enjoyable it will become for the smaller numbers of those who remain. And among those will be the designers of automatic equipment, backed up by equally gifted and educated specializations. In this new economy, all is not at all likely to be perfect. There’ll be competition and trading between all the different highly skilled power groups and political differences, too. But this time, being all the more dependent on one another they’ll be more content with modest differences in wealth and income differentials as they occur and not the outrageous ones of today. Each of tomorrow’s specialized services would have the power to veto any assumption of privilege that militarists, industrialists, politicians and, most recently, bankers, have been able to do throughout history so far