Salvo 06.19.2024 5 minutes

Demographic Winter and Global Warming

Rural Town Street

What may finally get us is probably not what we expect.

Back in the seventies, Western scientists created a notable but transient stir when they warned that nuclear war would cause—beyond the predictable material and human devastation—what they called “nuclear winter,” a period of years in which extensive cloud cover produced by acute climatic change would prevent sunlight from penetrating the earth’s atmosphere. Now, a half century later, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, foresees what he calls a “demographic winter” suggested by verifiable statistics demonstrating a falling global fertility rate to below-replacement levels that is already of international concern.

It appears that the “population bomb” that Paul and Barbara Ehrlich made the focus of their professional and political lives throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties exploded without producing a chain effect, making overpopulation a threat we may henceforth put from our minds: the global population may already be shrinking, a rarity in human history. Are there, one wonders, among the many other threats, alarms, and generalized fears that have so preoccupied the world in the last century, others which we may similarly dismiss with a fair degree of confidence?

The prospect of universal nuclear annihilation that induced international fear and neurosis in the fifties never materialized. Neither, consequently, did nuclear winter. Four decades after William Catton published Overshoot, in which he warned that civilization would soon exhaust the nonrenewable resources on which it depends, the catastrophe has yet to happen. One of the most basic of these resources is water, a commodity of which certain regions of the world are indeed short, and a lack of which some experts claim will sooner or later (probably sooner) attain the dimensions of a global crisis. The fact that none of these disasters has occurred does not, of course, mean that they never will, or never can. No one today who pays the slightest attention to what is going on in the world, politically and otherwise, would be in the least surprised if a world war broke out tomorrow. As for the exhaustion of natural resources, they must indeed eventually be used up—if industrial civilization and the human race survive for a sufficiently long time to do it.

This brings us to the latest international concern, one which only in the past decade or so has been publicly recognized as a “crisis,” though scientists have been debating it since at least the late eighties. This, of course, is “global warming,” or “climate change,” which governments, environmentalists, and many—though by no means all, or even perhaps most—scientists consider an existential threat about which “something” must, and can, be done. This attitude prompts four questions: a) Do we really know what to do to reverse or halt warming; b) If so, are we capable of doing it; c) At what human expense and sacrifice ought we to do it; and d) Should we attempt to do it at all? These questions are rarely considered, mostly on account of the semi-hysterical group-think that characterizes the international public treatment of the subject.

In the context of this debate, recent—and recently reported—findings regarding “birth dearth” on the global level are of special interest. This is because “demographic winter,” or even a substantial and sustained decline in the international birth rate, is clearly good news for people concerned about climate change, while having obvious implications for its amelioration. It will be interesting to see how quickly the climate lobby makes the connection between the two.

Historically, population growth has been the concern of a small minority in most societies; governments and businesses have favored and encouraged growth as being conducive to greater national wealth, power, and prestige. In the new climate-conscious era, when growth of nearly every sort is widely associated with carbon and other emissions, more people are understood to mean greater consumption of energy, greater and more widespread pollution, and additional strains upon natural resources. Consequently, in recent decades, even governments and major industries and corporations have learned to view growth more skeptically. Now, certain interests are beginning to reconsider the value of growth—meaning, the value of less as opposed to more of everything—as they concentrate on the inconveniences, and worse, of smaller populations, smaller economies and smaller markets, reduced tax revenues, and a shrinking labor force in certain critical areas, all of which will inevitably benefit and promote the Green New Deal and other environmental efforts. Could this be the answer, or a major part of it, to the “problem” of a warming climate?

Environmentalists like John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would instantly assert that the earth and all of its inhabitants will burn up long before a shrinking population becomes shrunk enough to halt or reverse global warming, unless “we” do “something” soon—meaning now. That may, possibly, be the case, yet this latest global alarm is of interest in other ways than the immediately practical and political ones. It invites us to contemplate the nature of the successive crises on a mass public scale that have so alarmed, intrigued, and in certain ways fascinated people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In particular, it ought to lead us to consider whether “problems” like population growth (or decline), the exhaustion of resources,  and climate change are far more often superseded than they are “solved,” and whether the human race has become in the past two centuries overready and overeager to take matters of vast and unfathomable complexity into its own hands with an enthusiastic activism that has frequently worsened the “problem” while creating new and unintended ones in the process, as John Passmore, the English philosopher, argued 50 years ago in his book, Man’s Responsibility for Nature.

In which case we may be better off in many instances trusting to fate and our ability to adapt to and cope with whatever it throws at us, when and as it comes. It is, after all a truism, that what we die of is almost never what we neither expected nor imagined would get us in the end.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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