Population, Part 2: Why 21st-Century Nations Want People to Have MORE Children

When an industrialized nation's population shrinks, fewer and fewer working-age people have to support more and more retirees.

A central tenet of the population-panic school is that throughout the world, as Chris Hedges wrote last year in his usual Jeremiah-meets-angry-beehive style, we are heading for "an age of extinction and desolation" because "population growth is exploding." This is false: Environmental desolation may indeed be around the corner, but population growth is not the reason.


In fact, population growth rates are in free fall. They have been dropping for nearly 50 years. Thanks to improvements in health care and housing, nation after nation has passed through the "demographic transition,'' in which, as the mathematical biologist Joel Cohen once said, people "realize that their children were surviving to adulthood, so they didn't need to give birth to 8 children in order to have two around to take care of them in their old age.'' The more-than-exponential growth rates of the 20th century will never be seen again. They were a one-time fluke.

In 1950, the world's overall fertility rate was 5 children per woman per lifetime. Today it is 2.26, and dropping. The trend is global, encompassing nations as different as Iran (7.0 in 1965, 2.1 in 2005), Thailand (6.5 in 1968, 1.64 in 2006), Paraguay (5.91 in 1970, 3.8 in 2008) and Togo (7.05 in 1970, 4.85 in 2008). Of course, there's a big difference among those numbers. "Replacement rate'' fertility for a developed country is 2.1 children per woman per lifetime (it can be as high as 2.3 in poorer nations), so Thailand and Togo are on very different paths for now. The downward trend, though, is worldwide.

If that pattern continues (and for now demographers see no reason to expect otherwise), the population of the Earth (now 6.7 billion) will peak in 2050 at somewhere between 7.8 and 12 billion, according to United Nations Population Division estimates. (Nine billion people, its medium-fertility projection, is today's best guess.) After mid-century, population will decline, the UN estimates. As best as demographers can tell, there is no "population bomb." Or, rather, it has already gone off.

Instead, the most striking contemporary consequence of the demographic transition is a push in more and more nations to increase their birth rates, for reasons both logical and politically popular. The last century's demographic changes didn't just falsify the notion that we're "breeding ourselves into oblivion." They also made it politically impossible to enact policies based on this belief.

Here's why: When an industrialized nation's population shrinks, fewer and fewer working-age people have to support more and more retirees. China, for example, now has about six working-age people for each retired person. On current trends that ratio will be 2 workers per retiree by 2050. That's a prescription for labor shortages, falling production, and political uproar as promised pensions and health-care for the elderly become impossible to pay for.

As Mara Hvistendahl reported last month in Science (you can read a pdf of her piece here) a group of concerned Chinese demographers is working to change that country's "one-child" policy, which currently limits more than 60 percent of the population to one offspring only. (The policy doesn't affect everyone because of a byzantine system of exceptions and exemptions, as described here, in a 2007 article in Population and Development Review. It was, amazingly, the first systematic analysis of the policy by demographers.)

Earlier this month, in this lucid post, one of the authors of that review, the sociologist Wang Feng, summarized the "imminent and inevitable" crisis facing China as a consequence of its falling growth rate. He is one of the demographers who think, as he told Hvistendahl, "it's time to start experimenting and looking at how to phase out the policy."

Meanwhile many, if not most, rich nations are already nudging their people to have more children. The French state, for instance, is typical in its incentives: it pays in full for citizens' infertility treatments, and gives 10 weeks additional paid maternity leave for a third child than for the first two. And France's fertility rate, 1.9 births per woman per lifetime, is already near the crucial ``replacement rate'' of 2.1.  Many other industrialized nations, including Japan, Italy, Spain and Russia, fall around 1.3, so they're nudging harder. Since 2006, for instance, Russian parents with one child receive $9,200 in ``baby money'' for each additional offspring.

As long as the world is organized into nation-states, politicians have little choice. If Italians keep reproducing at a rate of 1.3 children per woman, there will be no more Italians (at least, not Italians-by-descent) in 2110. What could be dafter, then, than a rich-nation "think tank" proselytizing for drastic cuts in population?

The political unpopularity of national extinction isn't the only source of resistance to anti-fertility arguments. There's also the innate psychology of a social species: Unless you are very frightened or very privileged or very educated in a particularly technocratic point of view on the world, you will have a hard time seeing the birth of a human infant as bad news. Population-panic groups try their best to get around this, but their own data show how hard it is to budge the public.

On its website, for instance, the Optimum Population Trust touts a 2009 poll it commissioned in the United Kingdom, in which 72 percent of respondents said they agreed with the claim that there are just too many human beings on Earth, and 70 percent found their own country overpopulated too. I downloaded the complete data, in spreadsheet form was struck by a different number: The 65 percent who said their own area needed only "slightly fewer" people, or was just fine at its current density, or could actually use a higher population.

In other words, these poll respondents were easily convinced that someone else's population is too high. (Their favorite solution to the U.K.'s population issues, chosen by 69 percent, was reductions in immigration). When it comes to their own family, friends and neighborhood, though, a majority don't feel crowded. This is why, I think, talk of "overpopulation" lends itself to the crudest forms of Us-Them rhetoric. It's always someone else's population, somehow, that's "over" the natural limit. About which more in the next few days.

Of course, global population-reduction could be a great idea, even if it isn't politically feasible. I don't think that's so. That's the subject of the next post in this series.

Baochang, G., Feng, W., Zhigang, G., & Erli, Z. (2007). China's Local and National Fertility Policies at the End of the Twentieth Century Population and Development Review, 33 (1), 129-148 DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2007.00161.x

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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