Tom Evslin: The problem we face is underpopulation, not overpopulation

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

Peak oil, they said, was coming. Instead fracking was invented and oil has become more abundant. Peak food, Malthus instructed us in 1798, would shortly lead to global starvation and other catastrophes. World population then was around one billion; it is now nine billion and much better fed than in Malthus’ day. In his 1968 book “The Population Bomb” biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s, 65 million Americans would die of starvation in the 1980s, and that England would disappear by 2000. None of that happened.

Tom Evslin

All these predictions were based on population exploding into catastrophe.

Now we have a different problem. We’re running out of people. The UN forecasts world population will peak in the 2080s and then decline. Much of the population growth between now and then is because of longer life spans. We already have plenty of geezers like me and we’ll have even more; but the supply of younger more productive people, whom we geezers need to take care of us both financially and physically, is already in decline.

We’re already in trouble! Nurses are in critically short supply and the problem is getting worse. Ditto daycare workers. In Vermont there aren’t enough people to deliver the mail. In general and everywhere in the developed world, there are shortages of what we used to call blue and pink collar workers, people who do things with their hands besides click a mouse, people in jobs which are very hard to automate. Even if fertility increases again, it’ll take several generations for population growth to resume.

Given the imminence of peak people, most of our assumptions about the future are wrong. Here are some new speculations:

The age of abundance is coming. It will be increasingly easy to provide sustainable and abundant everything for a declining population even when living standards continue to rise. Recycling will provide an increasing share of raw materials as demand declines. For example, when less cars are needed for each successive generation, the lithium in old batteries will be more than enough to make new ones without mining more of the rare metal.

Climate change is a short-term problem. Doomsday climate scenarios, just like the apocalyptic food forecasts of Malthus and Ehrlich, are based on the false assumption of the population balloon inflating until it pops. Not happening. Short and medium mitigation for rising seas and higher temperature will be sufficient until the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stabilizes. As less cropland is needed and expanding forests take CO2 out of the air, the next century may worry about global cooling. Note: there is also a chance that we have over-estimated human effect on global warming and that it will continue or accelerate for non-anthropogenic reasons.

“Creating jobs” will cease being a political raison d’être. It’s workers we need, not unfilled jobs.

We’ll pay a bounty to immigrants.

Workfare will have a new vogue.

Wages will shift to reward hands-on jobs richly.  We’re not short of white-collar workers except those with special skills like doctors, engineers, and (for now, at least) computer programmers. Work from home, which has often meant not working very hard at home, has shown us that we probably had far too many white-collar workers to begin with. Artificial intelligence can substitute for many knowledge workers. Want to make money, learn a skill.

There will be a significant transition problem because of the imbalance between retirees and workers. Public assistance will have to be limited to the indigent. We geezers who can afford it will have to part with wealth to get care from a shrinking workforce; heirs beware.

College as we know it will disappear. Takes too many productive years out of the workforce; doesn’t teach useful skills. Career-long learning, however, will be a necessity in a fast-changing world.

Real estate won’t dependably increase in value.

What else? I’m probably missing the most important consequences of peak people; it’s hard to imagine a world turned upside down.

Image courtesy of Public domain

5 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: The problem we face is underpopulation, not overpopulation

  1. The shortage of mail carriers stems from inept USPS management. There are plenty of applicants for post office jobs, but the USPS takes 6-12 months to do a background check!

    And I bet that the shortage of qualified nurses is simply a temporary mismatch between supply and demand, both of which are impacted by price – i.e., what nurses are paid (of course, there’s also that delay in supply between perceived need and training time). This mismatch is probably exasperated by edicts from medical insurers and state cost regulators (i.e., our current system for delivering medical care is effed-up!). Daycare is a service currently being strangled by State over-regulation.

    We can expect retirees to work in some capacity. I’m 72; my wife is 75. We both still operate our farm and intend to continue doing so. Many elderly people provide volunteer labor. Working nourishes one’s sense of self-worth and thereby supports good health.

    I absolutely agree that people in blue- and pink-collar jobs will and should become the bulk of the “middle” class as their wages increase. The number of colleges and universities will definitely shrink as AI continues its march to replace high-paid jobs in medicine, education, engineering, etc.

    Age of abundance? Nope! Our entire civilization is driven by cheap and abundant energy, the sources for which are dwindling. Living standards will drop. Our civilization has already passed its peak standard-of-living. You and I were lucky enough to have grown up in the best of times.

  2. Automation can reduce the need for people in many jobs. we don’t need more people, just better technology.

  3. Tom,

    I appreciate that you seem to have backed off somewhat on climate alarmism. As you say, “Note: there is also a chance that we have over-estimated human effect on global warming and that it will continue or accelerate for non-anthropogenic reasons.”

    You might want to look at some other aspects of climate, particularly balloon data contained in skew-T diagrams. I’ve written some about this, but I haven’t yet done a full analysis of balloon data.

    A couple of important points I’ve discovered:

    1. According to the Connollys– scientists who’ve analyzed data from thousands of balloons– there’s no distortion of the lapse rate profile in any of this data when according to the CO2 catastrophe theory, there should be. In particular, according to the Connollys climate models contain something called “infrared cooling rates” for CO2 which assume that CO2 will inhibit cooling by, in essence, skewing the lapse rate. Weather balloon data as you might know are all about lapse rates. But we see no skewing of lapse rates if we compare data from 1975 to data from 2021, for example.

    2. The lapse rates describe how temperature decreases with altitude due to increasingly lower pressure, and according to the well-established gas laws. An interesting fact about these rates is that it doesn’t matter whether a mass of high pressure comes in, or high temperature, or more or less humid air: whatever different mass of air comes in at any region, the lapse rates still dominant. This demonstrates how dominant the pressure-temperature relationship is despite the temperature, humidity, etc. of any air mass that moves in and disturbs the previous air masses. This can be observed by any of us by looking at weather data and skew-T diagrams of balloon data, and is also a key finding of the Connollys.

    3. It took me a while to figure this out, but Dr. Pierrehumbert tells us that as the average emissions height is raised due to CO2, then we count down from the same temperature at a higher emissions height, using the lapse rate, to get a warmer surface temperature. This tells us that a mere 300 meter rise in the emissions height will make a significant difference in the surface temperature. However, this is impossible, and anyone who knows what a skew-T diagram tells us, what the lapse rates are, what the lapse rates are in the troposphere, tropopause, and stratosphere, knows this is impossible. In fact it’s scientific gobbledygook, and it’d be hard to believe that Dr. Pierrehumbert wouldn’t know that (does he say that to scare us into action, since a mere 300-meter rise in the emissions height is close to disastrous?) The falsity of his statement is easily demonstrated, yet it stands as a pillar of “how catastrophic warming really works.”

    Personally, I believe the theory of catastrophic CO2 warming serves another purpose and that purpose is to nudge people into accepting government control in order to “save the planet.” As I and many others have noticed, there are just too many holes in the theory.

    In fact, if the theory were actually true and our atmosphere were actually warmed by CO2, then all the scientists would have to do it point to actual balloon data and show us how the lapse rate is being distorted: proof positive of CO2’s effect on our atmosphere! The Connollys have noticed this lack of attention to balloon data as well, and one wonders why a science supposedly based on hard data (but it isn’t really, is it?) wouldn’t refer to concrete data from literally 10’s of thousands of weather balloons, from locations all over the earth launched at coordinated times twice each and every day, to prove their theory.

    Unfortunately, understanding that the CO2 narrative is likely simply a narrative in the service of other aims leads to “conspiracy thinking,” and as we all know, good citizens do not entertain conspiracy theories.


  4. More weaponized pathogens will selectively eliminate specific segments of the population.
    Robotics will replace most of the current entry level jobs.
    AI systems will replace most of the next level.

    • Eugenics, perhaps, raising its ugly head yet again? This time justified by a supposed climate crisis? And perhaps also a manufactured financial crisis which would coincidentally enable CBDCs controlled by the central banks, who have been controlling things for quite some time?


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