The Ageing Population Bogeyman

Section
5. Reduce Population
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5.8

If Growth is the god and the economy/capitalism the religion, then the human is nothing but a widget in the system whose sole role is to procreate, produce and consume. In such a mean and tortured belief system, those towards the start and end of life have no value, or worse, are ‘a burden’. Children are spared this abominable yoke because they are physical representations of growth, and are celebrated, but the old are not so lucky. The sickness of such a society hardly needs elaboration, but this value system, implicitly or explicitly, is presented to us almost daily without a murmur of protest. Why media outlets and interviewers don’t ask each one of these growth disciples whether they would like to be seen as a burden when they pass 65 years of age I don’t know, but the mean, narrow nastiness of such a construct beggars belief.

Thankfully, not all are blind to the essential wrongness – morally and practically – of this framework, and a good introductory article on the topic was written by Zoe Williams for ‘The Guardian’ (July 23rd, 2009) and is reproduced here.

Our ageing world isn’t a catastrophe. It’s a triumph | Zoe Williams | The Guardian

“Our ageing world isn’t a catastrophe. It’s a triumph

Zoe Williams

We are healthier, living longer and birth rates are falling. Only the most blinkered of economists could fail to rejoice.
Datablog: how the world is getting older

Thu 23 Jul 2009 07.30 AEST

This week the US census bureau announced that, within 10 years and for the first time in history, old people will outnumber young people across the globe. They were careful not to be too judgmental about this – there being so little we can do about it anyway – and concentrated not on consequent problems but on the “challenges to policymakers”. And yet whenever this demographic shift comes up, it is presented in terms of a crisis on one hand and a burden on the other.

Pensions area always in turmoil and dependency ratios, particularly in developed economies, are always dangerously skewed. This paper talked about the bureau having “sounded the alarm”, about the “burden on carers and social services” and “intense pressures on individuals and families”. But so did all the other papers: these are the terms of any discussion about an ageing population – that it represents a calamity. But what if it isn’t calamitous? What if it’s a good thing?

To start with, there is no sweet spot with life expectancy. The orthodoxy is the higher the better. In Zimbabwe a combination of HIV/Aids, starvation, bad sanitation, and the wellspring of these ills, poor governance, has cut life expectancy at birth to 40 years. In Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy, you can now expect to live to 82. Nowhere in any census or policy document will you see anyone saying “some kind of midpoint would be nice … 61?”. This is for a number of reasons – the most obvious being that people, while they enjoy good health, tend not to want to die.

The rise in the number of the old (and, according to this report, the “oldest old”, classified as the over-80s) is a massive human success story: life expectancy increases because of better education, greater wealth, lower infant mortality, better healthcare, less disease, the reduction of armed conflict, and the development of technology and its application in pursuit of good. It is, frankly, insane to look at an ageing population and not rejoice. Why do we even have a concept of public health, of co-operation, of sharing knowledge, if not to extend life, wherever we find it?

The problem, then, is not age as such but the proportion of the aged: not only will the old outnumber the young globally but in 11 major nations, the population is ageing while its numbers simultaneously decline – an unprecedented combination. It will lead to a very substantially increased “older dependency ratio”, which is taken, inexorably, to be damaging to economies.

Again, this presentation ignores benefits that are much more significant than any country’s GDP. It is a consensus among environmentalists that a decline in human fertility will, if not solve the planet’s problems, at least give us some breathing space in which to solve them. The spectre of Malthus, the world’s most famous Guy Who Was Wrong, muddies the water unnecessarily. Yes, he was wrong; and yes, the neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich fell victim to overblown predictions of catastrophe in the 1960s.

In the Population Bomb, he wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” That kind of drama didn’t transpire, but he wasn’t far off – 300 million people have died of hunger or related causes since 1967. But just because burgeoning fertility has not been the catastrophe some have claimed, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take heart from its decline. And if fertility does fall, then of course this will tip the balance in favour of the old.

Another difficulty with those “worrying” older dependency ratios is that they are all based on a traditional retirement age – which most of us know to be outdated. The National Association of Pension Funds points out that women’s eligibility for the state pension was reduced from 70 to 60 in 1940. The prewar situation was the hardboiled if bizarre one that life expectancy as a woman was 64, and yet you didn’t qualify for state aid until six years later. For men it was moderately worse. Their life expectancy was 59 in 1941, and their eligibility for state pension wasn’t brought down to 65 until 1948. The state has never expected to support people for 21 years before death; rather for a year or two, or hopefully minus six.

The counter-argument is that as life expectancy rises so do chronic and degenerative conditions, so that people just aren’t well enough to work, in the five years before their death, as they were when life expectancy was lower.

This is contested territory, though, and the spectre of decades of disability at the end of life is not borne out by the figures. Many prefer the “dynamic equilibrium” prediction, in which the factors extending life – a healthier lifestyle, faster detection of conditions, better treatment – also minimise disability; and where there is ill health, it is compressed into a short period before death.

Our ageing world, in other words, is brilliant news. This is what we have been working towards for as long as the concept of working towards anything has existed. The response so far makes me think that maybe there is just no pleasing a statistician.”

 

While I think Zoe Williams covers a number of points well, I don’t agree with all aspects of the piece, especially the easy criticism of Ehrlich and Malthus. She hedges this criticism by saying Ehrlich, at least, was part right, but I don’t think this goes far enough: both were essentially correct (they recognised the power of exponential population growth and that, ultimately, the planet was finite), it is just that their timing wasn’t right (and Malthus’ moralising and displacement of the problem to the poor is odious), but the overall understanding holds and is more ‘right’ with each passing day. Also, the consequences of our runaway population growth have – in part – been avoided by humans, up until now, through consumption of our natural capital stocks and finite resource stocks, and by technology, but not by any means by the other life forms on the planet, as seen with the mass ecocide of 68% of the world’s vertebrates in the last 46 years!1. This great outward ‘tsunami’ of growth and consumption will, inevitably, ‘hit the wall’ of absolute limits, and almost complete depletion of Nature, and will then ‘backwash’ onto the human population with terrible consequences.

 

Delving into the topic in more detail, there is an excellent podcast by the people at Population Balance where they interview Australian researcher at the University of Queensland, Jane O’Sullivan. The podcast lasts just under 50 minutes and Jane is a fine, clear speaker who takes each ‘growthbooster’ point in turn and refutes them. My basic notes, and minutes elapsed, are below:

Ageing Population: Nothing to Fear. Jan. 5, 2021.

Episode 55: Jane O’Sullivan — Population Balance

 

 

0:  An embarrassing beginning. Soundbite from my country’s public broadcaster, the ABC, engaging in scaremongering re an ageing population and naked growth-boosterism. More on this at minutes 8-11;

3:  Ref. to Jane O’Sullivan’s discussion paper which informs much of podcast: ‘Silver Tsunami or Silver Lining?’ – Silver tsunami or silver lining? Why we should not fear an ageing population – Sustainable Population Australia ;

4:  JO says “Ageing developed as an excuse for population growth”;

5:  Population growth increases consumption and decreases wages;

6:  Apparently, the Tanzanian President has accused women in his country who do not want large families of being “lazy!”. (Tanzania, BTW, has a population of over 60 million and a growth rate of around 3% [www.macrotrends.net/countries/TZA/tanzania/population-growth-rate], three times the world average. Proof, if ever it were needed, that overpopulation will not fix itself, especially with populous leaders with very similar outlooks to this, popping up all over the world);

8-11:  Oh dear, the ABC again. Apparently JO can’t get access to their ‘talkback’, nor exposure for her paper, etc. As Dave Gardner, one of the interviewers says, it is hard to believe what he’s hearing is from a journalist, not a growth-boosting politician (and DG is from the USA!). JO says that the ABC has taken upon itself to censor alternative views in the belief that they are anti-migrant and xenophobic. Breathtaking. And this is from the public broadcaster whose charter2 is to be ‘comprehensive’, ‘independent’, of a ‘high standard’, and to ‘inform’. To add insult to injury, it finishes each talkback call with the formulaic “Thank you for calling: we value your opinion”. What humbug! And to think I have been a life-long supporter;

12:  Less growth does not equal less GDP per person;

13:  Disproportionate expense of extra people because of infrastructure building. Increasing population draws resources from ‘better’ to ‘more’;

14:  Despite the doomsday hysteria of declining fertility rate, Australia’s pop. growth well above world average;

17:  “Hits on revenue (of fert. decline) complete nonsense”;

19:  “Don’t need anything like the number of jobs we have now” in the future;

22:  Healthcare expenditure on aged exaggerated b/c remains confined to the last five years of life, not the whole of older age;

25:  Why is consumption through baby booms and the like ‘good’, whereas consumption through old age ‘bad?

26:  Ageing will require some redistribution of resources, which we can do. The economy is not a supernatural force, but entirely made by us and can be anything we want it to be;

26:  Ageing will require “a gentle transition”;

27:  A 1% population increase = 7% increase GDP expenditure (public and private);

28:  Good list of all the infrastructure that rapid growth requires;

31:  Pop. increase popular with govts b/c they can be seen to be doing something about ageing, but it won’t help; will stabilise at around 30% of the population, regardless;

32:  Ageing pop. will be active, with numerous volunteers; adding richness and cohesion to society;

34:  The Australian Baby Bonus (embarrassing, again. See Section 3.1, ‘Growth’);

35:  German housing industry progressively restructured to concentrate on refurbishments, renovations, retro-fitting, etc…, not new builds;

38:  Baby bonus schemes coerce the unready/ill-equipped into having additional children; child poverty;

40:  Pro-immigration has been associated with the high moral ground, even amongst environmentalists;

41:  “Low-migration = pro-immigrant” – JO; better jobs, conditions, reduced exploitation;

42:  ‘Right to come’, ‘Open borders’ a philosophical and moral question, not an ‘economy-boosting’ question; no country in world, to date, has open borders;

45:  Because of the sheer scale of world population and the difficulty people in developing nations find in emigrating to the developed world, (only about 1% make this move), it has virtually no impact on the size and distribution of world population;

45-46: An ageing society will be better for: the environment, amenity, support for young people, support for older people (respect/freedom/opportunities), inheritance; recovery and renewal of a wild biosphere; will be a “much richer, more vibrant society”;

47:  An ageing population will: “be in happy balance with Nature”; smaller population will “free people up” and “support the next generations in generous and empowering ways”.

At the end of the podcast there is a link to Jane O’Sullivans’ article3, with two other authors, who neatly encapsulate the arguments against five pervasive growth myths: Five myths about population, aging and environmental sustainability – The Overpopulation Project (overpopulation-project.com) . The myths are: 1. Technology will solve problem; 2. Population declines require human-rights abuses; 3. Population growth is good for the economy; 4. Ageing is a big problem; 5. We can grow for ever. The article is brief, but succinct, and well worth reading.

 

It has come to my attention that a book examining the ageing issue in detail and in a positive light is available, but as yet, I have not been able to obtain it to read and review, but I look forward to doing so asap and will update this page then. For reference for those with better luck at locating a copy, the book is: ‘The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem’4.

More about the book from the author’s website can be seen here: The Imaginary Time Bomb | Phil Mullan .

 

In summary, an article written by scientists for ‘Trends in Ecology and Evolution’5 and summarised by ‘Science Norway’ – An ageing population is good for us and the planet (sciencenorway.no) – adopts an all-embracing, life-affirming stance, when it says:

“Earth’s human-carrying capacity has been exceeded; hence, population growth must end and ageing societies are unavoidable. They should be embraced as part of a just and prosperous future for people and the other species with whom we share our planet.”

 

 

1 WWF. 2020. Living Planet Report 2020 – bending the curve of biodiversity loss. WWF, Gland, Switzerland.

2ABC Charter: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1415/ABCoverview#_Toc395086116 .

3 O’Sullivan, J., Ricciardi, F., Roth, S. 2020. Five Myths About Population, Aging and Environmental Sustainability. Jan. 21st. Five myths about population, aging and environmental sustainability – The Overpopulation Project (overpopulation-project.com) .

4 Mullan, P. 2000. The Imaginary Time Bomb: Why an Ageing Population is Not a Social Problem. I.B. Tauris, London, UK.

5 Gotmark, F., et. al. 2018. Aging Human Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Earth. Nov. 1, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 33/11, Aging Human Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Earth: Trends in Ecology & Evolution (cell.com)

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