Where Have All the People Gone?

The average woman is having fewer kids today than her counterpart 50 years ago. Birth rates in about half the world’s nations are below replacement levels.

I don’t think humanity is doomed, partly because folks in the other half are making up the difference.

Instead of jumping on the latest ‘crisis’ bandwagon, I’ll take a very quick look at today’s situation, grim predictions of days gone by, and what I think are good ideas.

Religion, Science and Apocalypses

I can see why folks living in America occasionally see Catholics as irrational, ignorant, stupid, or all of the above.

Some may see us as a particularly wacky segment of America’s religious contingent.

That’s understandable.

America began as a very Protestant country, with some tolerance of Catholics and other non-Protestants.

That’s been changing.

Reactions to America’s changes are varied. I suppose some of us like the current status quo, but keep a low profile.

Others apparently think we haven’t changed nearly enough, or see “change” and “decline” as synonyms.

Folks of both persuasions often express themselves loudly, which arguably makes them easy to notice. I’m not convinced that it helps their credibility. Or encourages what a Pope called “rational reflection:”

“…the Church … seeks to lead people to respond, with the support also of rational reflection and of the human sciences, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society….”
(Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” Saint John Paul II (December 30, 1987)))

Allegedly-scientific apocalyptic prognostications joined America’s traditional End Times Bible Prophecies at some point. They’ve been increasingly popular, and about as reliable as their faith-based forerunners:

“[From La Pre]
Sacramento Daily Union (May 9, 1857)

“It is truly Lamentable to see the excitement produced by the indiscretion of a journal which announced as the prediction of a German astronomer the destruction of the world by a comet, on the 13th of June next. This ridiculous news, repeated by echoes great and small, has spread over Europe with amazing rapidity….”

June 13, 1857, passed into history. The comet didn’t appear. The anonymous German astronomer’s origin may have been in a Belgian’s imagination.

I see no point in dismissing science or religion because crackpots and con artists say they’re being scientific or faith-based.

Catholic crackpots represent my faith about as well as America’s wannabe prophets and their perennial End Times predictions represent Protestants.

So do Catholics who learned our faith in part by absorbing American spiritual mores. Or apparently see customs they learned in their parents’ parish as the only ‘real’ Catholicism.

That, and leftover propaganda from Europe’s turf wars, doesn’t help folks learn what the Catholic Church says about kids, families, and being human.

Briefly, families are important but not all-important. Large families are a blessing, but having no kids isn’t a curse. Kids are a gift, and aren’t property. They’re people. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2113, 22012233, 23732379)

Being responsible parents includes deciding how many kids we can handle. That doesn’t mean we can do as we like, as long as our goal is having the ‘right’ size family. Ethics matter. That’s true whether we’re looking at reproduction, scientific research or any other human activity. (Catechism, 17301738, 2399, 2417)

If that’s not what you’ve heard or read, I’m not surprised. What ‘everybody knows’ isn’t, I think, always entirely so.

“A Remarkable Transition:” Fertility Rates Down

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

‘Remarkable’ decline in fertility rates
James Gallagher, BBC News (November 9, 2018)

There has been a remarkable global decline in the number of children women are having, say researchers.

“Their report found fertility rate falls meant nearly half of countries were now facing a ‘baby bust’ – meaning there are insufficient children to maintain their population size.

“The researchers said the findings were a ‘huge surprise’.

“And there would be profound consequences for societies with ‘more grandparents than grandchildren’….”

My hat’s off to BBC News, for identifying the expert who said these results were a “huge surprise.” More about that later.

James Gallagher’s article also linked to a list of articles that relate to his topic. That gave me enough information to find one that might be the focus of his “‘Remarkable’ decline” piece.

They’re all in The Lancet’s November 10, 2018, issue. The BBC News piece came out November 9, so I’m guessing that Gallagher had access to a pre-publication copy.

“Disturbing … Crisis … Growing Threats”

The November 10 Lancet’s editorial reminded readers of what’s happened since the first GBD, Global Burden of Disease Study, in 1990.

The editorial acknowledged steady improvement of people’s health, on average, discussed in earlier GBD reports.

It also said that current events were “a time of crisis.” Insistence on seeing a silver cloud’s dark lining is what I’ve learned to expect in most publications:

GBD 2017: a fragile world
Editorial, © 2018 Elsevier Ltd. (November 10, 2018)

“…Careful reading of the results of GBD 2017 shatter this comforting trend of gradual improvement….

“…GBD 2017 is disturbing. … But the GBD is also an encouragement to think differently in this time of crisis. … GBD 2017 should be an electric shock, galvanising national governments and international agencies not only to redouble their efforts to avoid the imminent loss of hard-won gains but also to adopt a fresh approach to growing threats.”

The editorial was likely written by a committee, or one of The Lancet’s editors, or somebody else. Maybe Lancet subscribers have that information. I didn’t find it.

Editorial anonymity wasn’t extended to top contributors for Lancet articles discussing GBD-related topics. Finding their names was a fairly straightforward task. So was finding what I assume was the main ‘population’ article and its many contributors.1

My guess is that the researchers aren’t shy about their identities. Their fellow-professionals probably have easier access to contributor’s names and credentials. Or maybe, having more experience, know where to start looking. In any case, impressing someone like me won’t help their careers.

And getting known by non-professionals might lead to obloquy, calumny, and ignorant invective.

I’ve got some sympathy for folks who aren’t keen on being known outside their social and professional circles.

It probably doesn’t take more than a few loud-mouthed louts to evoke memories of torch-wielding mobs.

Like the one in James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein.” They don’t make movies like that any more, and that’s another topic.

I won’t hurl defamatory hogwash, partly because calumny is an offense against truth. And a bad idea. (Catechism, 2477)

“The Population Bomb”

(From Christopher J L Murray et al., via The Lancet, used w/o permission.)
(Fertility rates for women ages up to 24 years. The highest rates are shown in red.)

“…Prof Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told the BBC: ‘We’ve reached this watershed where half of countries have fertility rates below the replacement level, so if nothing happens the populations will decline in those countries.

“‘It’s a remarkable transition.

“‘It’s a surprise even to people like myself, the idea that it’s half the countries in the world will be a huge surprise to people.’…”
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

I’m not surprised that birth rates are dropping. What does impress me is that so many countries aren’t having enough kids to replace folks who stop living.

That, I think, is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of cultural, professional and government leaders in many nations.

I can’t know what happens inside another person’s mind, so I don’t know why overpopulation became a bogeyman. Or why folks in so many countries seem determined to depopulate their homelands.

I seriously doubt there’s just one explanation for either question.

I’ll take a quick look at what I suspect helped many Americans decide that what the world needed was fewer humans.

Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller, “The Population Bomb,” took overpopulation into mainstream culture. Or maybe cashed in on an existing trend. The idea has deeper roots. Dystopic images of an overcrowded Earth go back at least to Isaac Asimov’s 1953 “Caves of Steel.”

It’s still among my favorite science fiction tales. Possibly because Asimov saw his high-density New York City as the setting for a science fiction novel that was also a detective/mystery tale. Not a grim warning of looming horrors.

Caves of Soylent Dredd??

Asimov’s description of a vast and teeming New York City was eloquent. And, unlike some writers, gave readers numbers to work with:

“…Efficiency had been forced on Earth with increasing population. Two billion, three billion, even five billion could be supported by the planet by progressive lowering of the standard of living. When the population reaches eight billion however, semistarvation becomes too much like the real thing….

“…New York City spread over two thousand square miles and at the last census its population was well over twenty million….

“…Each City became a semiautonomous unit, economically all but self-sufficient….

“…Toward the outskirts were the factories, the hydroponic plants, the yeast-culture vats, the power plants….”
(“Caves of Steel,” chapter 2, Isaac Asimov (1954))

A “Caves” Del Rey/Ballantine edition’s introduction included a look at how Asimov started writing the novel.

An editor wanted a novel-length Asimov robot tale. When Asimov hesitated, the editor suggested a novel about “an overpopulated world in which robots are taking over human jobs.” A “heavy sociological story” seemed “too depressing” for Asimov, so we got a science fiction mystery novel.

Editorial preference may explain the novel’s teeming cities and yeast-culture vats. Asimov’s view of science and technology probably accounts for his New York City being high-density but reasonably comfortable. “Caves of Steel” became a popular novel.

And gloomy fictional futures became fashionable. Two decades after “Caves,” “Soylent Green” featured overpopulation and yeast with a secret ingredient. The movie was slightly based on a 1966 ‘overpopulation’ novel. Judge Dredd debuted in 1977.

I’m not convinced that dystopias are any more plausible than the technotopias of older science fiction. Maybe they’re more dramatic, in the disaster-movie sense.

The New York City in Asimov’s novel is bigger and more crowded than towns here in central Minnesota. But not as big as Chongqing, or crowded as Mumbai. New York isn’t even close to being the world’s most crowded city. But parts of it are tightly-packed.

Like I said, Asimov included numbers in his description of New York. His city’s 20,000,000-plus people lived on more than 2,000 square miles.

If my figuring is right, that’s 10,000 people per square mile, more or less. It’s about the same density as Santa Monica, California.

It’s also on the same order of magnitude as Manhattan’s current density: 72,918 per square mile.

Manhattan is the most densely populated borough in New York City.

It covers roughly 30 square miles, two thirds of which is land. The borough includes Central Park’s comparatively empty 1.3 square miles. The park doesn’t help the city be self-sufficient. That’s not why it’s there.

Central Park is the biggest recreational area in Manhattan, but not the only one. Some are at street level, but not all.

The Rockefeller Center has nice rooftop gardens. I don’t know how accessible they are, compared to Central Park.

We are learning, and re-learning, how to make cities more human-friendly.

Asimov was writing a science fiction mystery novel, not a statistical analysis of urban engineering. Maybe he figured New York’s support systems would take up most of his domed city’s interior.

The point I’m trying to make is that places can hold more folks, closer together, than Sauk Centre, Minnesota — and still be less unpleasant than Judge Dredd’s megacities.2

50 Years After “The Population Bomb”

I think “The Population Bomb” helped take the horrors of overpopulation, mass starvation and ecological disaster out of pulp fiction and into American politics.

The good news, from my viewpoint, is that many cities now have cleaner air and water than they did in my ‘good old days.’ Not clean, cleaner. It’s a work in progress. (July 1, 2018; August 12, 2016)

I have many more neighbors than I did in my youth. America didn’t keep up with global birth rates, but our population is rising. Much of my homeland’s growth comes from immigration. I think that’s good news. Some Americans don’t, and that’s yet another topic.

I can see Ehrlich’s point, sort of. He’d seen America’s post-war baby boom. Dwindling birth rates in the 1950s may not have been as apparent as McCarthyism and the Cold War.

If folks in my country had kept having kids at baby boom rates, there’d be a whole lot more of us today. That didn’t happen. Neither did the predicted food riots, plagues and environmental apocalypse.

“…in ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish….”
(Paul Ehrlich, on first Earth Day, (1970))

We also didn’t experience another Great Depression. World War III was a non-starter. Post-war prosperity lasted through the 1950s. Prosperity for folks who look a bit like me, anyway, and that’s yet again another topic.

Again, WW II’s returning soldiers eventually made up for lost time and birth rates started leveling off.

That statistical datum didn’t, from what I remember, inspire bestselling books or anguished editorials.

Human population in the Great Plains continued a decline that started around 1900. America’s coastal cities kept growing.

The population explosion lost some of its luster as a cause célèbre, but never quite faded.3

Americans who kept up with international events noticed that many folks living in poverty-stricken countries weren’t quite so desperately poor as they had been. They were also, sometimes, getting access to improved medical technologies.

I see that as a good thing. So do many other Americans.

Old attitudes die hard, though.

Maybe efforts to achieve “sustainable” populations in non-European countries are driven by a sincere desire to help folks who aren’t sufficiently pale.

On the other hand, I can’t quite shake the impression that there’s a smidgen of old-school Eurocentrism behind some desires to bring “fluttered folk and wild … Half-devil and half-child” to heel. Kippling’s now-infamous 1899 poem is a can of worms I’ll leave for another day.

I’ll grant that my family history may encourage acceptance of ‘low types.’ As one of my ancestors said of another, “he doesn’t have family. He’s Irish.”

Fertility Rates

(From Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, U. of Washington; via BBC News; used w/o permission.)

I didn’t start out talking about science fiction and rooftop gardens. So how did I get to “The Population Bomb” and Wagner and Ezquerra’s Dredd dystopia? Let’s see: fertility rates, “growing threats,” a 1968 bestseller, New York City, Judge Dredd. Right. Got it.

Getting back to what the U. of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation director said:

“…’It’s a surprise even to people like myself, the idea that it’s half the countries in the world will be a huge surprise to people.’…”
(James Gallagher, BBC News)

I’m not so surprised, but I haven’t had professorial and administrative duties during the last few decades. That gave me time to notice little back-page articles about declining birth rates and lists of permitted names. And, more recently, controversial claims that having kids may not be as easy as it once was.4

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Homo sapiens sapiens is an endangered species.

We’re opportunistic omnivores living on every continent except Antarctica. Living full-time, that is. We’ve got several permanent and semi-permanent habitats there, and one in low Earth orbit.

Our prospects might be different, if average fertility rates had kept changing as fast as they did between about 1970 and 1975.

And kept changing the same way, with everyone being near the 50th percentile.

Taking those rates and a ‘straight line progression’ approach, we’d have negative fertility at some point. I’m not at all sure what that would mean in practical terms.

Using science fiction logic’s crazy side, I suppose an author could dramatize negative fertility rates as statistically-induced behavior. Maybe a world where women get kill-crazy. That seems unreasonable. But Gramercy Pictures handled “Barb Wire,” so at least some executives don’t share my opinions.

I’m impressed at how the average age of mothers has been changing. Women in more affluent countries seem to be having kids at more mature ages. If they have kids at all.

An author applying screwball logic to those childbearing demographics might imagine a future when only women over 50 could have kids.

That scenario has probably been done, although I’ve noticed more tales of the “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” variety.

Back in the real world, maybe average fertility rates will keep changing the way they have in the last half-century. Or maybe they won’t. China has been developing a remarkably uneven male/female ratio, and that’s still another topic.

What’s more certain is that today’s statistics won’t stay the same. I’m also quite sure that changes won’t fit mathematically elegant curves. Not unless analysts are careful about what part of a data set they use.

Malthusian Concern

(From SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Thinking that our world won’t stay exactly the way it is now doesn’t bother me much.

I might feel differently if I thought today’s world was the best we can hope for. Or that life wouldn’t be worth living if Anglo-American families became even less prominent than they are today. Or if survival depended on restoring European colonial empires. Or establishing a ‘Pax Americana.’

I don’t. I’m also not at all convinced that we’re on the verge of a Malthusian catastrophe. That’s been failing to happen for about 220 years now.

“…The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second….”
(“An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Thomas Malthus (1798))

I’m pretty sure Malthus meant well. And his math lends itself to clear and dramatic graphics. He was also an 18th century English gentleman.

Thomas Malthus expressed an admirable concern for the lower classes.

He also said that a gentleman’s reasoned judgment would often prevent him from producing more kids than his income would comfortably support.

In his view, folks in the lower classes couldn’t be held to that standard. It made sense, for an 18th century British gentleman. Some British gentry, that is.5

“…A man of liberal education, but with an income only just sufficient to enable him to associate in the rank of gentlemen, must feel absolutely certain that if he marries and has a family he shall be obliged, if he mixes at all in society, to rank himself with moderate farmers and the lower class of tradesmen….

“…These considerations undoubtedly prevent a great number in this rank of life from following the bent of their inclinations in an early attachment. Others, guided either by a stronger passion, or a weaker judgement, break through these restraints, and it would be hard indeed, if the gratification of so delightful a passion as virtuous love, did not, sometimes, more than counterbalance all its attendant evils….

“…the principal argument of this essay tends to place in a strong point of view the improbability that the lower classes of people in any country should ever be sufficiently free from want and labour to obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement….”
(“An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Thomas Malthus (1798))

I’m not convinced that folks on the social ladder’s lower rungs can’t or won’t “obtain any high degree of intellectual improvement.” I’m also dubious about tradesmen and even ‘lesser’ folks being oversexed and irresponsible.

I’ll grant that today’s below-replacement fertility rates and affluence seem to correlate. Whether that’s good news or not may depend on a person’s priorities.

Egypt’s ruler saw a burgeoning population as a threat to his people. Mainly because his people weren’t the ones burgeoning. That was a few millennia back now. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I see parallels between today’s concerns — and solutions — and those described in Exodus 1:916.


I figure folks who believe we face gloom, doom, and disaster unless we whittle humanity down to size are sincere.

Not that many would put it quite that way. Sustainability and family planning have replaced “to better the race” and miscegenation as useful slogans.6

I prefer seeing some current viewpoints as improvements on what’s been tried before. Make that some of what’s been tried, or at least recommended.

Thinking that there’s more to life than plunder and profit, and that humanity’s unity outweighs our divisions, isn’t new.

“For the sake of profit many sin,
and the struggle for wealth blinds the eyes.”
(Sirach 27:1)

“Then I saw another angel flying high overhead, with everlasting good news to announce to those who dwell on earth, to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.”
(Revelation 14:6)

Neither, sadly, is deciding that we’ll see part of what we’ve known, and ignore the rest.

Folks acting as if this world was their property, something they could pull to pieces if they liked, arguably gave Genesis 1:28 and Christianity a bad reputation. Maybe they figured that verse applied exclusively to them.

Yes, we’ve got “dominion.” All of us.

But we don’t own this universe. Or Earth. It’s God’s property. Taking care of it is part of our job.

“God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that crawl on the earth.

“God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing plant on all the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food;

“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed-the sixth day.”
(Genesis 1:2829, 31)

“The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”
(Genesis 2:15)

“Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it.”
(Deuteronomy 10:14)

“A psalm of David. The earth is the LORD’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.”
(Psalms 24:1)

We’re pretty hot stuff.

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

But “little less than a god” isn’t “God.”

Our “dominion” comes with one of our jobs: taking care of our home, and leaving it in good working order for future generations. (Genesis 1:26, 2:58; Catechism, 16, 339, 356358, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

National Identity: a Digression

My country’s population isn’t growing as fast as the world average.

But we are growing, faster than most industrialized nations.

As I said before, immigration accounts for much of that increase. Seeing that America is becoming even less dominated by English-American families doesn’t bother me.

I’ll occasionally indulge in nostalgia, remembering when names like Smith and Robinson seemed “American,” while Chandrasekhar and Pajitnov didn’t. They still don’t, for that matter. But my country is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan.

I see that as a good thing, partly because I think ‘being American’ is an outlook — not an ethnicity. Maybe my opinion would be different, if my ancestors had all come over on the Mayflower. Or at least been upstanding citizens in 17th century Boston.

I’m a bit more concerned about folks living in countries whose national identity is linked to ethnicity. Their view of immigration could be very different from mine.

Dealing With Consequences

Disasters, natural and otherwise, happen. Sometimes they kill people.

How we see them is up to us. English preachers, some of them, said the big storm in 1703 was God’s way of smiting Englishmen for not killing enough French subjects.

Their attitude was understandable. The War of the Spanish Succession was in progress. Religion-themed wartime propaganda was in vogue. And I don’t miss the ‘good old days.’ (July 14, 2017)

Seeing high-profile disasters as ‘our’ God smiting ‘those’ sinners — or, in that 1703 example, punishment for not hitting our smiting quota — is less mainstream these days. That’s fine by me.

I don’t think viewing storms as “Mother Nature’s rage and wrath” is much better. (September 10, 2017)

Neither does assuming that every disaster is someone’s fault. Or seeing ourselves as helpless before the forces of nature. (November 17, 2017)

Somewhere between America’s Great Awakenings and Woodstock, assuming that science and technology will solve our problems changed to fear that they’ll destroy us all.

I miss the old unconsidered optimism. But not the problems it caused. I think we’ll be cleaning that mess up for centuries.

More accurately, I feel occasional nostalgia for the days when more folks saw the future in less dismal terms. And were, some of them, a trifle more thoughtful about how we’d build a better world.

I think ideas in Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” looked good. On paper. Folks tried implementing them in the 20th century, with regrettable results. My opinion.

I figure authors of today’s ‘climate change’ bestsellers mean well. I don’t think unquestioned endorsement of their claims is a good idea.

And I sure don’t think fearing science and technology makes sense. That’d be on a par with yearning for cholera epidemics and famines.

Noticing beauty and order in this universe is part of being human. So is learning how it works and using that knowledge to develop new tools. Science and technology are part of being human. (Genesis 1:2627; Catechism, 16, 159, 341, 373, 22922296)

The trick is using them wisely. Ethics matter, no matter what we’re doing. (Catechism, 16, 1704, 17301731, 2294)

I don’t expect making sense of science and using tech will be as easy as it might have been.

We’ve had trouble ever since the first of us broke the lease in Eden. Which doesn’t mean I think God is smiting us for something we didn’t do. Or that using our God-given brains offends an irascible Almighty. And I certainly don’t think Adam and Eve were German. (July 23, 2017; March 26, 2017)

Now What?

The ‘good old days’ aren’t coming back. That’s a good thing, since they weren’t nearly as nifty as nostalgia might suggest.

Today’s status quo isn’t all bad, but I think we can do better.

Happily, we’ve known what’s needed for a very long time. It’s something anyone can work on: including me.

I should love God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. Everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1789, 1825, 18491851, 1955)

Adjusting my outlook and habits won’t change the world. But I can share what I think are good ideas.

We’re not all alike. We’re not supposed to be. But we each have equal dignity. (Catechism, 361, 369370, 1929, 19341938, 2393)

Wealthy individuals and nations can and should help folks dealing with poverty. Giving food and other resources can be a good idea. So is fixing economic and social problems. (Catechism, 1883, 1932, 24392441, 2449)

None of that will be easy. But I think we must keep trying, and learning from past experience:

1 Statistics and opinions:

2 cities:

3 Change and predictions:

4 Demographics and attitudes:

5 Overpopulation in the 18th century:

6 Concerns and causes:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Where Have All the People Gone?

  1. irishbrigid says:

    A missing word and a wrong word: “maybe average fertility rates keep changing they way they have”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!