Transcript: Jim Motavalli, "Is there really a Birth Dearth?", Nov 14 2006
Jim Motavalli is the editor of E Magazine, the Environmental Magazine.
Thom Hartmann interviewed Jim Motavalli 14 November 2006 on KPOJ
[Jim Motavalli] Great to be on, Thom.
[Thom Hartmann] Glad to have you with us. In the current issue of "E the Environmental Magazine" which, by the way, has organic wines on the cover, one of my favorite topics, there's an article, on page 26: is there really a Birth Dearth? We're hearing this from, interestingly, from political conservatives it seems that there's, in fact yesterday there was in one of the legislatures around the country there was a proposal, Missouri I believe it was, the Republicans in Missouri put out a bill saying that the reason why illegal immigration was a problem in the United States was because of abortion; because there's a lack of births; there's not enough workers. And I'm thinking, "Hey, wait a minute! Has anybody looked at the ghettos in America, at the large areas of poverty?" It's not like we have a shortage of potential workers if we had the jobs.
[Jim Motavalli] Well, the United States is not actually experiencing a birth dearth. It's one of the few industrialized countries that is actually seeing its population grow rather dramatically. The birth dearth is in Western Europe, in Russia, in Japan. Those are the major countries that are experiencing it. And it's serious there. I'm not denying that it actually exists there. It's just very selective. Other parts of the world, particularly the developing world and not so much Latin America but Africa and the Middle East, who have very high birth rates, and that's why the population as a whole is still increasing.
[Thom Hartmann] So what is, what does the birth dearth mean and what is the significance of it?
[Jim Motavalli] Well, a number of countries in the developed world, and most dramatically in Western Europe, have had declining birth rates for a long time. What's seen as replacement level births is having 2 kids per family. Basically you replace yourself. But what's happening in those countries is birth rates of, even in catholic countries like Italy, the birth rate is actually around 1.2 or 1.3, which means people are not being replaced and particularly in those countries that have very tight immigration policies, and Japan is an example of this, they are seeing the population shrink really dramatically. If you were to take the current German birth rate, for instance, and extend it out about 50 years, Germany would have a population of 600,000 people which, you know, is obviously pretty alarming to the Germans.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, 600,000 is a problem, although when you look back at 1346, I think it was, when the Black Plague started hitting Europe or 1352 or whatever the year was [it arrived 1348 - ed.], the population of Europe decreased by a third in most areas and 2/3 in some areas and the result of that reduction in population over the next five generations was an increase in the ratio of resources to people so much so that a middle class emerged and along with that came what we refer to in history as the Renaissance.
[Jim Motavalli] Yeah, I would say that the birth dearth that we are experiencing is being talked about as this huge alarmist thing by conservative commentators; I don't think it's necessarily a terrible thing. If you accept that we're living beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth right now, then you have to somewhat applaud a birth dearth.
[Thom Hartmann] Right, in fact let's, just for our listeners, just recap the population statistics. I mean, at the time of Christ, for example, there were 1/4 billion people on the planet; 250 million people on the planet. By the year 1000 we had a half billion; 500 million people and then we started using coal, in Europe in particular, in Asia, and the population began growing more rapidly to the point that…
[Jim Motavalli] That's interesting that you would tie using coal to that. You think that's a big factor?
[Thom Hartmann] Oh yeah. I wrote a book about it called "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight".
[Jim Motavalli] Right.
[Thom Hartmann] I did the research. Yeah. What happened was, prior to the use of coal people had to maintain forests in order to (a) provide for firewood and (b) provide an environment in which there, you know, they could hunt, but primarily for heat; for firewood. And when they started using coal they no longer needed the forest for firewood and so they converted the forest land into agricultural land. That produced more food which produced more people. And, you know, it's a pretty simple equation. And, so, by the year 1000 we had a half billion people. By 1800, in the year 1800, we hit our first 1 billion people, so, all of human history, 1 billion people in 1800. Now, the world was not lightly populated in 1800. There were significant signs of the stress of human population. I mean wars and things. The second billion people didn't take 160,000 years like the first billion did. The second billion people only took 130 years; 1930. And again, in 1930 there were 2 billion people on the planet; today there's 6. And so there was a third as many people on the planet as there are now. And you look back at 1930 and again you don't think, 'Gee, the planet was desolate'. The third billion people only took, let's see, 1930, must have been about 30 years 1960, yeah. The third billion people took 30 years, 1960. The fourth billion people took fourteen years, 1974. The fifth billion people took thirteen years, 1987, and the sixth billion took only 11 years, you know, 1999. So if we were to just look at the year that John Kennedy was inaugurated, 1960, there were half as many people on the planet as there are today.
[Jim Motavalli] And yet that's when The Population Bomb came out and scared a lot of people.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.
[Jim Motavalli] Paul Ehrlich's book.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, actually, I think it was '71 that that came out, wasn't it?
[Jim Motavalli] No, it was the mid 60s, I think.
[Thom Hartmann] Oh, it was? OK, in any case, I mean, there we were at 3 billion people in 1960 and I remember that year, and it's not like the world was lightly populated. So why are the conservatives all hysterical about declining populations and to what extent should we either be concerned about or applaud increases or decreases in population?
[Jim Motavalli] Well, if you look at it in economic terms, certainly the birth dearth can be a disaster for the economy because you don't have as many young workers and you have the graying of the population. That's very definitely true in Western Europe and Japan and Russia. You don't have as many young workers with a long work history ahead of them. And you have the need to take care of an increasingly graying population. So economically it is fairly disastrous if you look at it that way. If you look at it environmentally, it's a good thing in many different levels. There's both good and bad aspects to it.
[Thom Hartmann] Well, the economic disaster part of it, though, assumes that you have basically an industrial economy, doesn't it? I mean, what about simply as you have a smaller population doing essentially what happened in the 13 or 14 hundreds, which is pay people more and increase the standard of living of everybody?
[Jim Motavalli] Well, the interesting thing is, in the U.S., if we just had, if we didn't have immigration as a factor, the U.S. would probably have about replacement level fertility; probably about 2.1 or 2.0, but because we have a million legal immigrants a year, our population is growing.
[Thom Hartmann] Right.
[Jim Motavalli] And if you look at it again in economic terms, you could say that that's what keeps a steady flow of people willing to work at McDonald's and other minimum wage jobs. Maybe that's what keeps the minimum wage low.
[Thom Hartmann] I was going to say, you could also argue that that's why we have ghettoes and huge pockets of poverty in the United States. It's why Flint, Michigan looks like a ghost town; it's desolate because there's more people than there are jobs.
[Jim Motavalli] And I certainly, it's been sort of a bipartisan agreement that we want this level of immigration to the U.S. but it's certainly driving about 60-70% of our population growth. I don't think we've really had a national conversation about what we want American population to be. Do we really want to double, probably, in 50 years? Cause that's what it's slated to do.
[Thom Hartmann] Well, it seems that that discussion is starting to happen and, tragically it is starting to happening in a way that is often tinged with xenophobia and racism, you know, around the immigration.
[Jim Motavalli] Yeah, I think our immigration debate is all wrong. I think we're not talking about the right things. I don't think it matters where people come from, what color they are. What matters is the size of the population and whether our country has the natural resources to absorb that many people. That, to me, is the argument.
[Thom Hartmann] Right, the population versus the resource base and as population declines if resources remain steady then everybody gets a little bit richer. If population increases and resources remain steady then everybody gets a little poorer. The theory, economic theory, is that resources actually increase as population increases because one of the resources is the ability to produce things; it's not just natural resources, but you could argue it either way.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah.
[Jim Motavalli] He basically posits that the end of cheap oil will also mean the end of rising agricultural productivity because that's fueled by cheap oil. Without that, we'd no longer be the bread basket of the world and our ability to support such a large population globally will also be in jeopardy.
[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, and in fact, if you if you look back before we were using ancient sunlight - oil - before we were using oil we knew that the carrying capacity of the planet in terms of humans was considered to be between a half billion and a billion people and so now we have basically 5 billion people who are eating oil and 1 billion people who are eating sunlight and if the oil goes away and we just have to go back to sunlight, you know, photosynthesis being the only source of everything, then we're in big trouble.
[Jim Motavalli] Where is the debate on this, Thom?
[Thom Hartmann] Well, you know, I think it's happening, I frankly think it's happening. I mean, like I said, I wrote this book, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, The Long Emergency's out there, there's a number, there's a lot of discussion about it, it's just not happening in the main public arena and we need to, I think we need to have it.
Jim Motavalli is the editor of E the Environmental Magazine. It's on the stands now, the new issue, "Is there really a birth dearth?" Very thought-provoking article. Jim, thanks a lot for being with us.
[Jim Motavalli] Thank you. And people can go to emagazine.com and take a look at what E has to offer.
[Thom Hartmann] There you go, and a fine web site it is. Emagazine.com. Thank you, Jim.