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Overpopulation claims called into question

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Professor John Sitter is surely correct to say that population issues deserve discussion at Notre Dame; but he is overreaching if he means to imply that facts and best science (pointedly excluding economics), coupled with circumspection, moral imagination and humility, will lead us inexorably to the dour and cramped perspective espoused by Liz Coffey. After all, Malthus was not the last seer to be wrong about population and its consequences – Lester Brown for one comes readily to mind.

Facts are filtered and shaped by perceptions and value judgments on their way to moral admonitions directed at young people; and we ought to be hesitant about imparting a world view that adopts a jaundiced and begrudging and unwelcoming attitude toward abundant new life.

I suppose it is a fact that resources are finite; but it is not at all clear where the limits are. That there is a limit to the number of spectators who can watch the volleyball team is undoubtedly true; but not a pressing concern. Suppose the earth can comfortably support 25 billion people; but some crabbed and small-minded professors had successfully persuaded the young people of the world that the sustainable population could not possibly be more than 6 billion – because the professors had visited the slums of Nairobi and Mexico City and Cairo and could not relate to all those millions of people and had decided that their impoverished lives could not possibly be worthwhile, or because the professors had tried to sneak away to the shores of Lake Michigan and found their favorite beach crowded with people with whom they had no desire to associate. What a tragedy it would be (unprecedented in the history of the world) if billions of young people deprived themselves of some of the profound joys of parenthood because some ecologists could not bear the thought of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being less than pristine. (I am, of course, not saying that that is the case; but it is a tendency to be guarded against.)

Given the need for debate about how we should react to a situation, we have to first ascertain what the situation is. Perhaps Professor Sitter would consider some facts, and admittedly a certain take on those facts, even if they are transmitted through an economist, Nobel prize winner Gary Becker. He wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“Very low birth rates in a rapidly increasing number of countries are shaping up as the defining demographic event of the 21st Century. The total fertility rate, which measures the the number of births to the average woman over her lifetime, must be at least 2.1 in order to prevent a country’s population from declining in the long run in the absence of immigration. Yet there are now about 70 countries which comprise about half the world’s population with fertility rates below 2.1; and in many nations birth rates are far under this level.

“Not long ago many persons were concerned, and some still are, about the rapid growth of world population. If they were right, one might have expected the specter of declining population to be welcomed. Yet most countries with low birth rates are worried about the prospects of declining population.”

Becker goes on to describe the birth-incentive programs adopted by France, Russia and Japan among others and asks, “What is concerning people about low birth rates that is overlooked by the many neo-Malthusians who continue to rail against growing population?” Answers to that question should figure prominently in the Notre Dame dialogue.

James J. Rakowski

professor

Economics and Policy Studies

Sept. 20