What’s So Great About Replacement?

Conservatives are viewing with alarm the fact that non-Hispanics** in the US are not reproducing energetically enough to replace themselves in the next generation.  This alarm stems partly from their objections to learning Spanish (well, except for the late William F. Buckley, whose first language was Spanish), and partly because the usual solution to labor shortages in the US, now that women and children have pretty much been absorbed into the labor market, is immigration, which conservatives also tend to view with alarm.


Population pessimists also point to the “aging” of Japan and parts of Europe, on the theory that elderly people not only outnumber children in those societies but are more of a “drain” on the economy because they are “dependent” for longer (usually 20+ years, as opposed to the 18 years after which a young person is expected to be more or less independent.)


Got that?  Light-skinned children good; immigrants, dark-skinned children, and geezers bad. 


OTOH—the earth and its resources are finite.  Paul Ehrlich and the other overpopulation pessimists of the previous century were largely discredited simply because the catastrophe they predicted didn’t happen soon enough or completely enough.  Yet.  Mostly.  Some of the earth’s resources are obviously diminishing, far beyond our amazing power to ignore reality.  Fish and seafood, for instance.  Wood.  Animal and plant species which, in many instances, we haven’t yet had time to catalog or assess the utility of. (I sometimes nourish my tendency to schadenfreude with the flight of fancy that the cure for cancer was available only in an enzyme secreted by the liver of the Passenger Pigeon.)  Potable water.  Landfill space.  Parking space, for that matter.


We may still be producing enough food for everyone on the planet, even if we can’t distribute it properly.  But, since we have made no revolutionary breakthroughs in food distribution and nobody seems to be working on one, that doesn’t much matter. As long as the poor can subsist only on the crumbs left behind at the banquets of the rich, we need to produce a lot more food to feed the wretched of the earth. 


Or we need to reduce the numbers of those who use all these resources.  Even if that leaves us overrun with greedy geezers, impoverished immigrants, and childless urbanites.


Let’s look at the conservative case more closely.  They are saying that the industrialized and developed nations should continue to reproduce at or above replacement rates, even though they are now consuming the earth’s resources at more than twenty times the per capita rate of Third World residents.  The unspoken message is that they (we) have earned that right by their (our) superior diligence and discipline.


There is an element of special pleading in this case, since most of these “developed” peoples consider themselves to be superior to darker-skinned, poorer, and more prolific people.  They also believe the planet will be worse off if the lighter-skinned races are out-reproduced by their darker brethren and cistern.


But most of these conservatives don’t expect the Third World birthrate to diminish.  So they expect the world’s population as a whole to keep on increasing.  “The market”** will somehow keep us from consuming all of the planet’s resources, or anyway, postpone the inevitable, until we have managed to begin exploiting other, presumably unpopulated, worlds.


In fact, while “the market” is not exactly homeostatic, the ecology is.  That is, “the market” will not necessarily enable human beings to provide what they need for continued survival.  But the planet can do what it needs to keep the population of any single species, including ours, at or below its carrying capacity.  The methods it normally uses to achieve that goal are famine, plague, and war.  Sound familiar?


Still, on yet another hand, we have already seen what can happen to a society which strongly and often coercively encourages one-child families, and in which cultural norms tend to mandate that that one child, whenever possible, should be male.  An entire generation of Chinese males will grow up with no siblings, no uncles and aunts, and no available local mates.  The psychological and social consequences could be quite unpleasant.


Are there work-arounds for this problem?  Yes, and being cultural and social rather than economic, they are likely to be easier to arrange.  In fact, arguably, the US is in the process of creating them.  Watch this space for more on the subject of redefinition of the family.


Jane Grey

* Full disclosure:  I am a card-carrying Hispanic myself. Spanish wasn’t exactly my first language, but it was the language my parents told their secrets in.  I am also, of course, a geezer.  Geezeress? Crone?

** I put “the market” in quotes because, as a card-carrying nominalist, I strongly doubt its reality.  It is in fact merely the sum of individual human decisions, made under varying degrees of social and economic coercion.

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