The Jury Talks Back


Obama’s Science Advisor Choice

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amphipolis @ 12:49 pm

Yuval Levin at NRO’s The Corner has a post on Obama’s choice for Science Advisor, Harvard’s John P. Holdren. On the one hand, Levin seems to unfairly characterize Holdren’s statement on overpopulation from a 2006 speech –

My favorite part of that speech is his call for ending population growth

He didn’t call for the end of population growth. He merely listed it as a driving force behind shortfalls in the pursuit of sustainable well-being. A footnote in the Science reprint of the speech refers to Paul Ehrlich’s discredited The Population Bomb, but it did not endorse the book, it only sites this one key insight – that population growth interferes with sustainability.

But, on the other hand, what of this key insight? For one thing, the population explosion myth was based on fertility rates from the 1960s. This was before the startling decline in the fertility of much of the world (Russia, Japan, Italy, and Spain are already seeing net decreases), China’s one-child policy, and AIDS. World population is beginning to level off, with peaks expected in another generation or two – albeit at 9 billion or so. Holdren does not seem to be appraised of this.

What of the wider assumption? Will a lack of population growth really help sustain human well-being? He has defined the pillars of human well-being to be:

Economic conditions and processes, such as production, employment, income, wealth, markets, trade, and the technologies that facilitate all of these;
Sociopolitical conditions and processes, such as national and personal security, liberty, justice, the rule of law, education, health care, the pursuit of science and the arts, and other aspects of civil society and culture; and
Environmental conditions and processes, including our planet’s air, water, soils, mineral resources, biota, and climate, and all of the natural and anthropogenic processes that affect them.

Historically the well-being of a society was proven by population growth. While I would of course agree that exponential population growth as erroneously predicted by the book Holdren cites could be disasterous, so could population death spirals such as now being experienced in Russia. None of the above pillars are sustainable without the social and economic necessity of population growth.

I hope that outdated overpopulation hysteria doesn’t bring about more catastrophic population drops, and I hope that the new administration’s science advisor learns about the devastating impact underpopulation can have on human well-being.


  1. From the North Sea, to the Urals, and from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, it is the outlier country that has positive population growth (See Mark Steyn’s America Alone).
    China’s one-child policy is so effective, it is believed by social scientists that India will, sometime this Century, surpass China as the most populous country.
    Anyone whose major concern is the “population bomb” has been overtaken by history.

    Comment by Another Drew — 12/19/2008 @ 4:45 pm

  2. I’m not sure that population growth is a necessary factor for societal success.
    1) The linkage more likely is that population growth is a sign of prosperity. People can have children earlier and more often, feed, clothe, and shelter them better, provide better health care, etc.–and of course can look forward to those children having some prosperity in their own productive life. In short, the better off a society is, the more children who survive and become productive adults.
    2)Population growth before 1900 almost always produced migration. From the Greek cities establishing colonies on, people moved to other places–from Europe to America, from the US East Coast to the US West, etc. Of course, there were plenty of other places that participated in this, but the key is that places where population were growing were able to export part of their new population to other places which were not heavily populated–and there were plenty of such places, up until the 20th century. Now, however, most of those places that remain are not very hospitable to human habitation unless serious investment is made, and of course that only happens when there is significant economic incentive. (Think of the Artic–human settlement by anyone other than the Inuit and Eskimos is tied to mining and drilling.)
    So future population growth requires a society where migration out is not an option, and therefore mechanisms have to develop to provide for the people-who-would-otherwise-migrate, or else we have to abandon population growth as a goal. (Which is not the same as calling for shrinking the population.)

    Comment by kishnevi — 12/19/2008 @ 5:17 pm

  3. First, the idea that population growth or decline can be affected is, IMO, ridiculous. Having been to China, I was repeatedly informed by my guides that the one-child rule is only enforced in urban centers, where the government has more control. In the rural areas, nobody’s really keeping tabs. If the Chinese can’t really enforce it, then the rest of the world can forget it.

    The decline of birthrates has had much more to do with the creation of wealth, where people who were previously at subsistence level needed additional labor. Now families that have a modicum of earnings see an opposite effect of larger families in that it takes resources that could be used for (relative) luxuries that weren’t affordable before. When you have nothing, have children, and somebody is liable to make it. When you are making money, then each additional child restricts your abilities.

    In 1945 the world population was approximately 2.5 Billion. It has tripled now, and the addition of another 2 Chinas to the world population by 2050 will have an effect. We have seen a technological explosion since 1900, and what has enabled the world to handle the increase in population will most likely enable us to handle any decreases, but the idea that we can control it is ridiculous.

    Comment by Apogee — 12/19/2008 @ 6:48 pm

  4. John Tierney at the NYT logs in on this issue too.
    H/T InstaPundit

    Comment by Another Drew — 12/19/2008 @ 7:32 pm

  5. kishnevi –

    Population growth is indeed a sign of prosperity, and not just due to affluence. People have children because they have hope for the future of their society.

    Those populations increased tremendously even with emigration. Historically, it is rare for any population to experience a net decline.

    Perhaps population growth is not a necessary factor for societal success, even though it has always been in the past. But would any society be able to sustain a precipitous population decline?

    Comment by Amphipolis — 12/19/2008 @ 7:44 pm

  6. But would any society be able to sustain a precipitous population decline.”

    If we can believe Mark Steyn, we shall soon find out in many of the industrial countries of EU.

    Comment by Another Drew — 12/19/2008 @ 8:28 pm

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