Thursday, August 12, 2010

Populate or Perish

For those who have not had the pleasure of trying not to be intellectually crippled by Australia's current 2010 pre-election bun-fight, one of the major topics of debate leading to blows is the policy of population growth.
It has had the dubious distinction of cutting across multiple lines of debate, from the "are you or are you not xenophobic" immigration debate, through environmental sustainability, to the future of our economy, country and, presumably from much of the hubris, the fate of the planet as a whole.
Yet, by the time one excavates away all the personal invective, mud-slinging and spittle that has accumulated, there seems to be little in the way of evidence that increasing domestic and international economies, through increased consumerism from larger populations, is the only way forward.
Indeed one of the few rational sounding arguments that the pro-growth lobby can put forward is that increased productivity and continued economic growth will continue to raise the standard of living through development of technology, increased life expectancy and presumably the multiple-batman-fully-interactive-action-figure-per-child initiatives upon which they depend.

The problem is, that rational as it may sound, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why technological development, and even economic growth CANNOT progress under a stabilising population. Granted, it would take a change in current market forces and thinking (heaven forbid, apparently), but I see no theoretical reason why fewer people, spending more per capita, would not maintain economic growth, with the added bonus of concentrating and improving resources per person (ergo greater personal standard of life).

This bothers me as a scientist. One of the first lessons bludgeoned into one as an investigative researcher is: sample size: to confirm, replicate, confirm and replicate again. Ie, a single data point tells you next-to-nothing. So the hypothesis growth=improved living should be tested. Multiple times before any conclusions can be drawn. But it cant. The global economy IS, a single data point. Thus, claims that there is a correlation between economic and industrial growth and raised standards of living, are akin to the old climate change joke that global warming is inversely proportional to the number of pirates (declining since the 1600s; and yes, climate change labours under the same problem: we just don't have enough replicates to not assume the worst). And before anyone tells you that "wait, we have dozens of national economies all showing the same pattern independently" watch for the look of pure pain on the face of the statistician standing next to you. Such 'comparisons' are pseudo replicates at best (taken from the same larger sample) and are in no way independent, with mirriad interactions between them (just glance at the British economy trying desperately to prop up failing economies in Greece, Italy etc).
So, is population = economy = better living causation or correlation??

Well, for the same reasons that from this data it is impossible to prove, it is impossible to disprove (not enough independent data points), however what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and I too can make tenuous claims from poor data. A subset of the same data in fact. World Wars I and II to be exact.
Apart from maybe the Spanish flu or the black plague, there has been no other time in modern existence in which the human population has fallen so dramatically. Not only did the death-rate rise, but the birth-rate fell. Net population was in free-fall. And yet this was also a time of unprecedented industrial growth, technological advancement, and social growth. Aeronautics, chemistry, mathematics, algorithms, political and social change etc etc.
Admittedly personal standards of living could not be said to have improved by any but the most hardened of spartans, but there is no reason why similar levels of pure productivity could not be induced in todays society if the right pressures or thinking were applied, with a similar LACK of population growth and happily, lack of death and destruction.
The cynic in me says that maybe the wars era was not considered by many to be a golden age of industrialisation because little of it was driven directly by the private commercialists who today are raising their voices to frenzy pitch for increased population and consumerism, while clutching desperately at their back-pockets.
But this form of 'productivity,' selling more units of the same product to a growing market is lazy economics that appeals to the unimaginative residents of mid-range consumerism, making profits shifting sheer volume. Simple entropy will tell you that this is not sustainable in the longer term anyway. Clever commercialists can make more from less, selling innovation and novelty to a fixed size market. It's just harder to do than encouraging people to breed.
So until the populate-or-perish preachers can sell to me that the only hope for a comfortable survival of the human race, is for me to provide more children for them to stuff cheap plastic toys down, I'm just not going to buy it.

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