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October 24, 2007

Numbers and Tastes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Steve Sailer points out that part of what explains catastrophic Southern California wildfires is booming population growth.

* Terrierman makes the case that part of what's driving increases in atmospheric CO2 is ... booming population growth.

Terrierman -- who I discovered thanks to those brainy backpackers at Querencia -- strikes me as a real find, as well as one of the most substantial bloggers out there. Terrierman's overt subject may be working dogs -- and he's great on that topic. But his brain and his writing also set off all kinds of meaty, non-dog-related thoughts.

Here's a characteristically vigorous and unsentimental example. Here's another. And a real beauty. Reid Farmer points out this extra-special posting, and I'm thrilled to see that Terrierman approves of Cesar "Dog Whisperer" Millan. The Wife and I love watching "The Dog Whisperer" -- which, like the Terrierman blog, ain't just about dogs. You can buy Terrierman's book about working terriers here. Fun to see that the go-it-his-own-way Terrierman has made use of the self-publishing outfit, which I've praised in numerous postings. Irascible and curmudgeonly people often seem to stumble across the same resources, don't they?

(And speaking of population levels ... Querencia host Steve Bodio points out this report about mountain snowpack. Although ocean levels may be rising, the quantity of fresh water in America's snowpack is currently at its lowest level in 20 years. Is it wise to be stuffing -- er, inviting -- ever more people into our Southwest when supplies of fresh water there are actually on the decrease?)

As a leftover '70s-style eco-buff myself, I find it weird that such questions as "How crowded with humans do we want the world to be?" and "How crowded with humans do we want our country to be?" are so seldom raised these days. You don't suppose that sanctimoniousness about multiculturalism and touchiness about immigration policies might have anything to do with this, do you?

Hey, a visual that I'm fond of:


Incidentally, if anyone should be in a combative mood: That's great, I look forward to your thoughts. But please take into account the fact that I haven't asked how many people the planet (or country) is capable of holding, but how many we'd like it to have. That's a conversation that strikes me as much too rarely raised.

It's also one during which the question of preferences will inevitably come up -- and matters of preference inevitably connect to the slippery question of tastes.

Where do tastes come from? How do they arise? Do they need to be justified, or are they just what they are? If that's the case, how can they be discussed? Is it even possible to win an argument where tastes are concerned? And if not, on what basis can policies that include a "tastes and preferences" component be made?

As much as some people like to think (and argue) that the question of taste can be bypassed or dismissed, or overridden by more "objective" criteria, where "How do we want to live?"-style value-discussions go, I don't see how this can be done. Do you? Perhaps "objectivity" kicks in when the extremes -- extinction or collapse -- are approached. But in between those extremes, preferences certainly must play a powerful and unavoidable role.

Funny how that fact makes so many Americans uneasy, isn't it? Why should this be so? My hunch is that our discomfort where matters of taste are concerned has to do with a deep sense of cultural insecurity. Unsure of our preferences and pleasures, aware that we're being prodded and manipulated by Larger Forces, we grasp at just about anything that seems more solid. To my thinking, we thereby lose yet more of our balance and our footing. On the other hand, maybe I just have a minority taste-set, and am dreaming up reasons why my taste-set should prevail. Hard to know for sure!

Aesthetics: It isn't a silly, decoration-after-the-essential-stuff-has-been-done topic. Well, it isn't just a silly, decoration-after-the-essential-stuff-has-been-done topic.



posted by Michael at October 24, 2007


I don't think anyone is suggesting that questions of taste are overridden by "objective" considerations. I think they are saying that they are overriden by moral ones. If you think everyone should be allowed to have as many children as they wish (and I think we all do, in America), or you believe that no one should be shamed for having a lot of children, or that having a lot of children should not be regarded as a Bad Thing (and again I think many, including me, find this pretty essential to a basic recognition of human dignity)--then questions of taste don't matter. If you believe that all people have the right to live where they want (and this is of course far from universally believed, but libertarians and leftist supporters of immigration usually believe some version of it)--then again, taste doesn't matter at all.

I suppose it would help if I understood what actual policy measures you're proposing. If all you want is to state your preferences, no one is stopping you.

The idea, by the way, that America is even approaching overcrowding is pretty ludicrous. America is huge and mostly empty.

Posted by: BP on October 25, 2007 12:54 AM

"How crowded with humans do we want the world to be?"

Sorry, but I disagree with the premise of this question. Just my old Catholic sensibilities. This is not an issue that's on my table. The world should have as many humans as individual humans accidently or intentionally produce. We'll deal with the problems as we go along. Humans have done pretty well with this strategy.

As I've stated before, I was very adversely influenced by all the fear about overpopulation. I have only two children, and I wish that I'd had half a dozen.

I'm actually worried in the other direction... about what happens when so many people remain childless. Childless people remain far too committed to idealism and individualism. Note: I don't have any intention of running anybody's life but my own.

Since my home is in Woodstock, I see the evils of idealism and individualism without limits. Woodstock is filled with people who thought that they should base their lives on endless campaigns to perfect the world. For most people, this has been a personal disaster. And, this process creates pious, sanctimonious creeps. Life in Woodstock is an endless circle jerk of halo preening.

Fred Reed recently published a post in which he suggested that intelligence is, in fact, a curse. There's some substance to this theory.

Why are we supposed to worry so much about things? I used to understand, but I just don't any more. Clayton Cramer writes frequently that three decades ago the doomsayers were prophesying global cooling.

I wish I had six kids and a dozen grandkids. The theoretical fate of the world is not my concern. I want to see life renewing its cycle all around me. The kids will face all kinds of dilemmas and evils. They're supposed to. That's how their moral and spiritual selves are tested.

And, Blowhards forgive me, this is what God intended. I have this odd (and totally non-intellectual) feeling that this effort to run the entire world according to the intellect is hubris to the extreme... and we might be well advised to remember what the ancient myths tell us about the outcome of hubris. Readers of this site are well-read. Do you remember the warnings of Greek and Roman mythology?

In other words, accept that these things are (and should be) beyond our control.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 25, 2007 12:57 AM

BP -- The desire to put the discussion on a *moral* basis also seems to me part of the effort people make to override aesthetics. And, sure, of course many people try to put the discussion on an "objective" basis too. Arguments about population and Social Security, about aging, about GDP -- there have been tons of articles in influential policy mags about these topics. They're at least in part efforts to override the "preferences" question. The topic of "what do we want" is seldom broached -- it's simply taken for granted that "we want," above all things, GDP growth, etc. Your own assertion that "The idea ... that America is even approaching overcrowding is pretty ludicrous. America is huge and mostly empty" represents a reaching-out to "objectivity" to bolster a point. What does "overcrowding" mean, anyway? It kinda depends on your preferences and your point of view, doesn't it? There might well be someone for whom a U.S. population of 50 thousand means "overcrowded," and someone else for whom nothing short of a billion is overcrowded. We're back to tastes and preferences.

ST -- Given that I actually agree with you on most of those points, I think you have me mixed up with a lot of top-down, do-gooding control freaks, which I'm anything but. People can and should make their own decisions, and then change their minds, it's OK with me. I think you're a little goofy only on one point: that the current state of things, especially in this country, represents people making free choices. An example: circa 1970, the U.S.'s population was leveling off in the low 200 millions. That was, in essence, the American people expressing (at that time anyway) their free choice in population level. Since then, though, we've grown to over 300 mill, and we're headed for 400 in a relatively short period of time. Informed of this, most Americans are horrified. Nearly all of this is down to immigration-driven growth, which is hugely unpopular with most Americans. Which means that this growth doesn't represent the preferences or druthers of Americans, it represents elite-imposed policies -- namely letting immigration, both legal and illegal run riot. In this case anyway, there are indeed people imposing unwanted, controlling, top-down policies - but they aren't me, and they aren't eco-freaks, and they aren't most everyday Americans either. Instead, they're the political people and the businesspeople who favor and enforce large-scale, unwanted, immigration-driven population growth. Because they're doing this to the rest of us, I think the "what do we really want?" question becomes pressing and valuable.

I shrink from the Woodstock crowd the same way you do, but I think it's a mistake to think that they're in charge of this situation.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 25, 2007 1:19 AM

Every once in awhile I'll ask an economist if they think that population increase combined with a rising standard of living can be continued indefinitely. The bold ones say "yes" and explain that technology has made the physical environment irrelevant, and that there are no physical limits. (One "National Review" guy, Landsberg I think, claimed that present economic growth will continue indefinitely and that the average person 200 years from now will be earning a million a year in today's dollars.

The chicken ones say that the future more than 200 years out is so unpredictable that it's not reasonable to try to think that far. They seem to think that since exact prediction is not possible, we shouldn't even try to project observable, intelligible trends at all (e.g., the drawing-down of the Oglalla aquifer). They also seem to be of the opinion that the world is infinite, and that we'll always be able to drill another well.

And they point out that population growth declines when prosperity comes, but they don't acknowledge that slower growth is still growth.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 25, 2007 1:25 AM

Well, Michael, I've got to agree with you on the illegal immigration stuff. I've tried to be a Bush Republican, but the prez lost me on immmigration. God alone knows what he thinks he's doing.

He's alienating his own base.

I know so many Filipinos who play the game legally... and often it doesn't work for them. Most of these people are super educated in a technical or medical skill.

As so often seems to be the case, in the most important issues, both parties fail us. The Democrats seem to be in favor of absolute open borders... apparently because it increases their electoral base. Republicans don't seem really willing to enforce the border. This is apparently the result of Bush's strategy of wooing Hispanic voters that began when he was governor of Texas.

So, unfortunately, there is no political constituency committed to stopping illegal immigration. I'm with you. It should stop. How is that going to happen?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 25, 2007 1:41 AM

I have to agree with you Michael that Patrick Burns (Terrierman) is quite the blogger. He's certainly an inspiration to me. My all time favorite Patrick post is this one from last year he titled "The Mammoth in the Hedge" that discusses the need for humans to think in "deep time", 10,000 years at least:

In a serious, yet entertaining and original way he ties together mammoths, the World Series, Paul Ehrlich, the Osage Orange, sports betting, Julian Simon, the Boston Red Sox, Clovis points, The Whole Earth Catalog, the Honey Locust, Freeman Dyson, Ted Danson, Thomas Malthus, and the World Cup. Just a bravura performance

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 25, 2007 1:48 AM

I first came across that graph of human population a few years ago. It certainly stopped me in my tracks. My initial thoughts:

(1) No wonder our social and political and even religious institutions don't work all that well; they were dreamed up in a world with a (comparatively) miniscule population. Boy, in the last three centuries have we ever been making it up as we went along. If our grades haven't always been so hot, well, no one was exactly prepared for the quiz. We're in the Era of No Precedents, which may well explain why people are reluctant to trust in aesthetics.

(2) As my intuition, rightly or wrongly, is that the human population will eventually return to a more manageable number (at or below 1 billion), I predict that in a thousand years when they write our history, this era will be known as the Era of Great Population, and that the sheer number of people alive today will be considered the most significant thing about our time. (I would also predict that our era will be very hard for future students to get a handle on.)

(3) One thing I first noticed in looking at medieval European history was that humans seem to have some relatively well-developed biological mechanisms to rein in excess population growth. This is done chiefly by discouraging early marriage for all women (despite common misconceptions, most medieval people married relatively late in life) and preventing any marriage for some women (in the medieval era, this was done chiefy via nunneries.) Both trends are visible today, although we don't ascribe biological motives to them but rather economic and political. The Malthusian notion that people always mindlessly propogate up to and beyond nutrition levels is, as far as I can tell, not always true. However, something akin to Malthusian activity does seem to occur in special circumstances, which may involve technological or economic factors suppressing the biological limiting mechanism. (The economic stimulii beginning with the Voyages of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, the rise of capitalism, industrialization, etc. may have kept the biological limiting mechanisms suppressed in the European world for some 400 years.) This would seem to be an excellent field of study for somebody interested in economic/population/evolutionary history. (There must be somebody other than me interested in all that!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 25, 2007 2:14 AM

By my calculation, if the world population continues to grow at the current rate of 1.1 percent per year, in 10,619 years the human race will consist of a sphere of tightly packed human bodies 234,000 times the diameter of the visible universe, expanding outwards at the speed of light.

It's a fair bet we'll have levelled off by then.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 25, 2007 2:21 AM

Perhaps the real question is, "How crowded with humans does the world want to be? In general, species that become too overcrowded are prone to some form of catastrophic collapse, be it plague or famine or whatever. It is our blessing (and curse) that we are thinking, tool-making critters capable of overcoming some of the limits to our expansion. Nevertheless, run that graphic above out a bit more and you'll in all likelihood see a freefall back to ... and there's another good question, back to what level?

Aesthetically we may prefer to live in a highly prosperous, technologically advanced, society in a temperate climate where urban, suburban, rural and wilderness areas are available to us within a day's car ride. Practically, as the climate changes and the population increases, mass migrations are bound to take place.

There are, as BP pointed out, significant moral issues that must also be recognized. Whatever the particular details for those individuals who comment on this blog may be, the statistics are that the population of the U.S. is roughly 4% of the world's whole and yet we account for better than 20% of the consumption of its resources. Perhaps, by shifting our aesthetics and moving toward a more Zen/Shaker ideal of austerity and frugality, we can avoid being put in the position of defending our position of privilege from the teeming masses. I can hear the calls in some quarters now for us to simply use every ordinance we have at our disposal on the entire Southern Hemisphere and then hope for the best, but doubt that we'd outrun the law of unintended consequences if we did.

[And, as an aside, if ST hates Woodstock and all it stands for so much, why doesn't he move to Wilton CT or Cincinnati OH or "East Jesus" Hollow WV? Surely there is somewhere in America he can live that won't grate on his nerves so much.]

Posted by: Chris White on October 25, 2007 5:39 AM

ST wrote: "...forgive me, this is what God intended."

Well, damn. I'm glad someone has that direct connection. Digital or analog?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 25, 2007 6:29 AM

MB: The desire to put the discussion on a *moral* basis also seems to me part of the effort people make to override aesthetics.

But you haven't explained why that effort should fail. Are the moral concerns I cited unreal or trivial? In other worse, do you think that people do not have a right to decide how many children they have? Do you think we should revile people who choose to have a lot of children? If you concede that the moral issues exist, how can they not override your aesthetic ones?

As for the thing about America not being crowded, I was sloppy: I didn't mean to appeal to "objectivity." I meant that according to the standards and preferences of most Americans America is not overcrowded.

Posted by: BP on October 25, 2007 6:39 AM

Species perish. The fossil record brims with examples. The human species can perish in spite of its adaptability and for the same reasons other species perished. The triumpant species soon ruins its nurturing environment. These catastrophic events usually are mysterious. We will probably see some major human population collapses in our lifetimes.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on October 25, 2007 7:04 AM

Chris W wrote:
Whatever the particular details for those individuals who comment on this blog may be, the statistics are that the population of the U.S. is roughly 4% of the world's whole and yet we account for better than 20% of the consumption of its resources. Perhaps, by shifting our aesthetics and moving toward a more Zen/Shaker ideal of austerity and frugality..."

I don't find this kind of statistical manipulation tells us much. After all, according to the IMF, US GDP is about 27% of world GDP, with that same pesky 4% of the world doing all that producing and innovating. If the US adopted a Zen/Shaker ideal of production to match Chris W's ideal of consumption, we'd witness a global economic collapse of fairly large proportions. The US doesn't just consume things, it makes them too.

Anyway, I'm not too concerned about world population figures. It's how many of the future billions of 3rd world people the West foolishly decides to let in. It's the quality of life here that will be destroyed by migrant-driven population growth in the West...not because of the growth itself, but because of the people who will make up that growth.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 25, 2007 8:21 AM


You write:

As for the thing about America not being crowded, I was sloppy: I didn't mean to appeal to "objectivity." I meant that according to the standards and preferences of most Americans America is not overcrowded.

Maybe I'm not most people, but I'd say that Southern California is getting pretty dang crowded. I just checked the figures and realized that in the years since I arrived in 1981, California has become home to around 50% more people, a disproprotionate share of which have clustered in Southern California, thus increasing the population locally by more than 50%. The traffic has gone from merely difficult to unbelievably bad, the air remains bad, residential home developments are (as Steve Sailer notes) being driven into more risky hillside sites. You may say that California has lots of empty space (although you might notice that a heck of a lot of it is mountainous or desert); but I would point out that new arrivals tend to cluster in the areas of greatest economic activity, or alternatively, to commute to such areas, thus stressing either urban environments directly or their transportation systems. So all of our empty space may not count for much as we huddle together.

On another point, in your view, does God view the despoilation of the habitats of wild animals with equanimity? Does mankind have any stewardship responsibilities in this regard or merely the right to do whatever the heck he likes? In areas where you see very high human densities (like Germany) the impact on wild animal life has been pretty grim, at least according to my German friends.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 25, 2007 8:29 AM


"And, Blowhards forgive me, this is what God intended."

Prove it.

"In other words, accept that these things are (and should be) beyond our control."

Your own example disproves your assertion, otherwise you'd now have the six children and abundant grandchildren you regret not having. Fertility is certainly one of the things quite easily within our control, and has been for decades.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 25, 2007 9:59 AM

I think it's perfectly legitimate to ask the aesthetic question. I live in upstate New York. Whenever I mention that most people say, "It's so beautiful up there." Well, the truth is that it's more beautiful in memory than it is in fact. And the reason is simple: too many people, which means too many houses, too much traffic, too much, for lack of a better word, clutter. Yes, the underlying structure of the land is beautiful, but when it's marred by ticky tacky housing at every turn in the road, when even if you live in the country, the peace and quiet are rent by the almost inescapable traffic (secondary roads as well as primary) the beauty is marred. Tragic. But it can't be quantified. Does that mean it doesn't exist? The loss of beauty, I mean. I have no solutions. But to say that overpopulation hasn't taken something irrecoverable from us? It just ain't so.

Posted by: ricpic on October 25, 2007 11:51 AM

I do have a direct line to God... my dad... and his father... and so on and so on... and I can prove it. My great grandfather told my grandfather who told my father who told me. Proof positive. The wisdom of the fathers, which has been ridiculed and slowly discarded over the past 50 years, is the truth.

Any further questions?

And, I've got a right to criticize Woodstock. I've lived there for 30 years. I also have some very good things to say about Woodstock. See my video, "A Walk to Cooper Lake," on YouTube.

Woodstock was one of the places that lead the assault on the dignity and wisdom of the fathers. When I was much younger, I participated in this assault on the fathers. It's time to restore the fathers to their former position of power and respect. Since I played a role in dishonoring the fathers, I bear the responsibility to play whatever role I can in restoring the power, dignity and respect of fathers.

I'm not a scientist... I'm an artist. One of the reasons I am an artist is because I believe that art is the best way to represent our lives and our world. I believe in the truth of the great myths and the great stories... this is the past speaking to us.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 25, 2007 12:18 PM

"We"? Who's "we"? Do you know me from Adam, let alone know me well enough to speak for me by talking about "we"?

As far why 1970s ecotopianism isn't all that popular any more: in my own case, I'm old enough to remember the Baby Boomers declaring loudly that now that they had arrived, and gotten theirs, everybody coming after them (such as myself) should have zero children and live poor.

Weirdly, this did not impress me in the late 1970s and early 1980s, nor does it impress me now, nor am I required to have it impress me, nor -- thank God -- are we living in the sort of despotism that would have to exist in order for anybody to enforce their "taste" on others in matters so basic to human liberty as the right to make money and the right to have children.

And, yes, it is essentially impossible to make any kind of prediction worth a damn about the year 2207. (Imagine Jefferson in 1807 trying to imagine our America, and see why I can be pretty confident in asserting that.)

Posted by: Erich Schwarz on October 25, 2007 4:10 PM

The triumpant species soon ruins its nurturing environment. These catastrophic events usually are mysterious. We will probably see some major human population collapses in our lifetimes.

Posted by Richard S. Wheeler at October 25, 2007

Actually we are seeing one now in the Russian Federation where the populations is declining due to a combination of inherited Soviet environmental pollution and social pathologies (alcoholism, smoking, bad diet, narcotics, etc)

I think that we will see another flu pandemic, but in the developed world I think medical technology advancements will keep the effect below the 1918 event. However, imagine the effect of a flu pandemic meeting all the people in the Third World with HIV compromised immune systems. It will be ugly

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 26, 2007 12:34 AM

The earth has 148 trillion square meters of land. One meter per will give each of us some elbow room, so I guess we don't have to start worrying about population control just yet. Do we?

Posted by: Fred Wickham on October 27, 2007 3:06 AM

There are two issues conflated here. One is immigration, the other is fertility. For the people of a country to control entrance to the country by foreigners is reasonable, except to raving leftists and raving libertarians. But fertility is a personal matter, and social control of it is deeply intrusive. Forced abortions, as in China? Compelled pregnancy, as in Romania under Ceaucescu? It occurs to me that migration issues can get similarly totalitarian - if the regime decides that emigration must be prohibited to keep population up. (And yes, that could be a "democratic" result.)

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 29, 2007 6:17 AM

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