Population Control

I recently returned from a brief sojourn to the North Shore of Minnesota where the sun is always shining and the temperatures are pleasant. It is truly beautiful. We met my wife’s brother in St. Cloud and drove up together to spend a few days hiking and visiting. It was delightful — though the return to home base with the temperatures in the 90s, the humidity off the charts, and the lawn burned out from the prolonged drought was a bit of a shock.

In any event, on the return trip we had to wait a while in St. Cloud for the train to arrive to take my brother-in-law back to hot and steamy Montana and we turned on the television in the motel room and watched a National Geographic special that touched on a timely topic: world population.

Now I have blogged on this in the past and have made my position clear: exploding human population is in my view the major problem facing the future of this planet — especially if, as expected, food production is adversely affected by global warming. But this program revealed an apparent truth I was unaware of, and that is that population in “developed nations” has dropped and is predicted to drop even further. The program focused on Japan where the country has taken it upon itself an effort to induce young Japanese couples to marry and procreate. It was mentioned that in Russia a young couple is given a refrigerator by the State if they have a child! In any event, there is concern among a number of those countries that their populations are dropping off and that this is a trend that will continue.

One would think this is very good news indeed — declining human populations are a good thing, surely! But it raises a provocative question: why would the countries by worried and making various attempts to provide incentives to young people to have more children? The answer is glaringly obvious once you think about the problem a bit: it’s all about the economy. These countries want bodies that will work, earn money, pay taxes, and buy things they don’t need. Fewer people endanger an economy that requires people to earn and spend.

Joseph Schumpeter, whom I have referenced in earlier blogs, predicted in the 1940s that capitalism would fail not because of the rise of the Proletariat as Marx predicted, but from its own successes. In a word, as young people become more affluent and more self-absorbed they would become more and more calculating (“rationalizing” was his word) in their approach to life and would decide that children would only be a deterrent to the satisfaction of their desires and they would wait to get married and have fewer and fewer children — if they had any at all.

As Schumpeter himself put it, young people

 “. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.” Moreover, they would think, “why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

As a result, Schimpeter predicted, population in those countries that depended on capitalism would see a decline in population and this would eventually cripple the economy. This, of course, explains why the “developed” countries are worried about the decline in human populations in their countries. It’s all about the money.

In sum, it would appear that reduced human populations would be a blessing as far as the preservation of the planet and the reduction of a great many of the global problems humans face at present, but if it hurts the pocketbook then it must be discouraged.


There’s Still Hope!

I meet on a regular basis with a good friend who still teaches at the university where I taught for 37 years. He teaches English and was talking about a remarkable paper written by one of his students in a Freshman Composition class. The student is a high school student taking college classes in order to reduce the time and money spent in college later on. It’s a program that Minnesota has had in place for many years now and some of our best students have been those kids who are still in high school. In any event, the paper this student wrote was so remarkable that I asked for a copy and read it with astonishment. The assignment was to go to the library, take any magazine and write what most impressed the student about that particular publication. The idea was to (a) teach the students where the library is, (b) have them read a magazine and (c) test their observational and writing skills. This student picked the National Geographic. He decided to compare and contrast recent copies with several written years before — as early as 1915.

The student was impressed with the great difference between the older version of the magazine and more recent issues. He compared the length of the articles and was struck by their simplicity and brevity. As he noted “Fewer words and more pictures.” He then went through two articles, both on Armenia as it happens, in the two publications — word by word! After the more recent article, he concluded:

“This passage contains ninety-six words, four sentences, nine commas, two colons, one pair of quotation marks, and one pair of dashes.”

He then contrasted this with an older article on the same topic and noted that:

“This passage has 146 words, four sentences, twenty-two commas, two semi-colons, and a pair of dashes. There are four lists, if groups of adjectives are not counted, and there are even instances of figurative language present in the older article that are not found in the newer one. On average, there are 4.67 letters per word in the first [newer] passage and 1.39 syllables. This is significantly different from the 5.58 letters per word in the second [older] excerpt, and the 2.26 syllables. We are simpler now than we were before. . .”

Needless to say, after this remarkable study of the particulars in the two articles he was eager to draw conclusions — as you can see from his final comment. But he shores up that conclusion with further evidence. At the very end of his paper he contrasts two passages from literature, a short story by Conan Doyle and another current one by Stephanie Meyer. His conclusion is worth pondering:

“These passages both describe characters that the protagonist is meeting for the first time. The descriptions, however, are barely comparable. Meyer is vague and barely scratches the surface of the characters, while Doyle goes in depth about his character. Meyer uses sentence fragments in her writing, while Doyle uses comprehensive sentences. The styles are not simply 2000s writing against 1910s writing; there is more to the differences than that. People do not want to read the older literature on the grounds that it is ‘too hard,’ it takes effort and time to truly comprehend Doyle’s work, where anyone could understand what Meyer writes about.”

I would also note the shrunken vocabularies and diminished imaginations of those who still read and write — a number that also seems to be shrinking.

It is possible that this student is writing what his professor wants him to say (students tend to do that) or even that he pilfered this article from the net. But that would all be sour grapes. I prefer to think that this young person has a good head on his or her shoulders and not only writes well but also thinks well. I realize, of course, as does my friend, that this student is one of those few that have slipped between the cracks of a decaying educational system. This is why we were so excited. So many of their peers in colleges all around this country prefer the picture books and the short paragraphs that demand no intellectual effort whatever. Reading, writing, and thinking have become passé.

This explains the growing popularity of a demagogue who uses small words, twists the truth around his tiny fingers, makes vapid promises he cannot possibly keep, and seems, contrary to Lincoln, capable of fooling a great many people most, if not all, the time. Still, it is delightful to read such a paper and to know that there is hope if young people such as this manage to work their way to the top and have a say about the future of this country and our besieged planet.