Friday, November 27, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Neo-Malthusian


I would like to first off say that I'm a realist. I don't believe in Red or Blue, or Conservative or Democrat. I believe in what happens on the ground. Perhaps that would be obvious given that I try to document reality and real life on a daily basis. I take my political ideology from what I see in my daily life. I take my understanding of what state our society or planet is in by my work, my travel and my experiences. And after reading a special report by the Economist, a few weeks back, on population growth I have a few comments I'd like to share on this blog. I hope you'll find them thought provoking, and a strong base for debate.

I think it is important to start out by saying that I live in China, the world's most populous country. At the moment there are around 1.3 or 1.4 billion people that call China home; that means just about 1 in every 4 people in the world is Chinese.

Within China I travel almost weekly, visiting cities and rural communities alike, and often after my jobs are completed and I make my way back to my home in Shanghai (a city of 20 million) I can't help but often think to myself that there are just too many people in this country. It's impossible for them all to obtain a high standard of living and it's impossible for the government to reach each person with basic government services like education and healthcare. There is just too much to manage, democracy or no democracy; managing a country effectively with more than a billion people might just not be possible. One only has to look to democratic India to see how messy democratic development can be.

Sure that might sound like a good excuse, "oh, we have too many people to govern effectively"; but it could actually have a lot of truth to it. Too many people means competition is intense at every level of society which leaves the masses feeling often helpless, which often leads to people thinking that corruption is their only escape or way out. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but when I see ten year old kids coming out of school exams crying hysterically because they didn't do well and they won't get in to a good middle school, echoing words like: "my life is over", "I've failed my parents", and "I'll never get a good job"; I can't help but thinking that is a lot of pressure for a ten year old kid. When I was ten years old Canada had about 25 million people, a shade more than Shanghai, and I can't remember ever feeling like that - even right up until the end of my University career. So what is my point?

My point is that I'm starting to get a sick feeling in my stomach every time I visit a small village somewhere in rural China and see a husband and wife with 5 or 6 kids and not enough food or clothes to go around. I'm pained by reading about Philippine laborers losing their jobs in Taiwan and having to return to Manila with no money and no plan to feed their wife and five children. I'm exhausted by reading about how the world needs Chinese citizens to consume more, to what end? As our societies evolve and women have more educational and employment opportunities birth rates do fall, and they have started falling across much of the world; and that is a good thing. Very few of us, less than 1/4 of the global population, live in an environment where our only form of social security comes from the number of children we have. And hopefully that number will continue to decrease, in fact it must.

While the joys of having children and rising a family are obvious, so too are the successes of family planning and lighter forms of population control. Any country that promotes abstinence should be smacked for thinking the world lives in a sitcom from the 1950s. People have sex, and lots of it; often because it feels great and is a lot of fun if done so responsibly; so getting condoms and educating people how to use them is crucial. And there is a lot of evidence of that paying dividends in Africa and parts of Asia. The Economist even reported that women in Latin America and Asia used condoms 4x more often then women in Africa, so there is still much work to be done on the micro-planning level.

What about the macro-level? How does government family planning work? Well, like all macro planning; it is often very painful for some at the ground level but often better for the society as a whole. Much has been made of China's "One Child Policy" since it's inception in the late 1970s, but reports show that that policy alone has prevented about 400 million new births; meaning that the population of China is today only 1.3 billion instead of 1.7 billion and there are only 20 million new graduates entering the labor market each year instead of 40 million. Now it is true that such macro level planning restricts individual rights and freedoms, there have been horror stories of forced abortions, abandonment of baby girls, sterilization and all the rest of it; but can you imagine the energy demands of a China with 1.7 billion people? Already with 1.3 billion China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, one could make the argument that effective macro level population control in China is benefiting the global environment. Are individuals responsible enough to make the right choices on their own? Do they know what is best for them? Often yes, but perhaps sometimes no.

The Economist reports that the world population is likely to peak around 9.6 billion people in 2050, and then decline from there. China will actually start declining much sooner and be taken over by India as the most populous country in the world; which is a very scary prospect for both urban and rural Indians. Between now and 2050 our world needs to figure out a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions, find ways to generate renewable energy, waste less, consume less, produce more food, use water more efficiently, create better infrastructure, manage mega cities more effectively and above all else (as the Chinese government would say) keep political stability.

It's really an incredible task. I read the other day that a woman in the US had seven babies at one time, a result of fertility drugs; and that she is on welfare and hasn't held a steady job in years. I also read that in 1949 when the Communist government took control of China there were only 350 million people here. Can the world prosper with less people? Yes. Can individuals throughout the world become responsible and educated global citizens and manage issues like individual birth rates, waste and consumption on their own? I really hope so.

Ryan Pyle

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This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle