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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Child Mortality and Overpopulation

posted by on September 13 at 18:37 PM

As the New York Times reported today, a higher than ever percentage of children are surviving until their fifth birthday.

This public health triumph has arisen, Unicef officials said, partly from campaigns against measles, malaria and bottle-feeding, and partly from improvements in the economies of most of the world outside Africa.

So, with more babies surviving through early childhood, will there be a population boom? Maybe not.

If you live in a culture where children are the only feasible retirement plan—i.e. most of the world—it’s really important one child survives through your retirement, right? And if there is about a one in three chance that any given child won’t survive to see his or her fifth birthday (where Sub-Saharan Africa was a few decades ago), you better have several children.

Here comes some math to back up this notion. If your only willing to risk a one in a hundred chance of ending up destitute in old age, and there is a thirty percent chance than any given child will perish, the math tells us you’ll need to have four kids. Drop the mortality to fifteen percent—where Sub-Saharan Africa is today—and three kids will cut it. Five percent chance of perishing before five, like present day North Africa? Two kids will cut it. Magic. Smaller families through better survival.

Logic like this helps us understand why people in economically marginal areas of the world continue to have large families—further stretching resources, resulting in higher childhood mortalities, causing larger yet families—and how this pattern can be broken by public health.

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The overpopulation problem is about more than just the number of people on the planet. It is about how many resources those people use up. So if more of the world gets richer and healthier, it can lead to both decrease in population growth and increase in resource use. Do these things cancel each other out?

Then again, people have been talking about the impending catastrophe of overpopulation since the 60's or 70's, and it hasn't happened yet.

Posted by L-Train8 | September 13, 2007 6:46 PM

What about countries with poor birth control options? Then I think you end up with as many kids as you end up with. No mortality considerations there.

Posted by ky | September 13, 2007 6:51 PM

People in Africa aren't getting richer on average. Read Malthus to see what's happening there.

Posted by Andrew | September 13, 2007 6:52 PM

It sounds like Africa has quite good actuarial skills. Perhaps the insurance industry could outsource some work there.

Posted by elenchos | September 13, 2007 7:33 PM

Isn't the current thinking that countries that adopt family planning have reasonable population growth rates, and those that don't, don't. Didn't Pakistan and Bangladesh totally curb their growth rates by encouraging women to use birth control? Isn't part of the answer that women will have fewer children if you offer them the tools to do so?

Posted by Big Sven | September 13, 2007 8:18 PM

Excellent article and 100% right.

But that will not prevent the myriad of obnoxious child hating anti-human seattlite douchebags from piping up about the evil human race and the need for us all to die.

Of course, they say that whilest listening to their IPOD and smuggling meditating on their sense of supierority.

Those who oppose abortion obviously never lived on Captial Hill and hung out at Vitrola...

Posted by ecce homo | September 13, 2007 8:30 PM

Evoking Malthus in current debate on population growth is like drawing 18th century social mores into rational debate about birth control. You may make your voice heard - you might even get people on your bandwagon, but you're still the wing-nut outside holding a picket sign shouting in.

Malthus used incorrect mathematical models, failed to account for industrialization, and assumed all the worlds problems were associated with population growth. In truth, the issue with population growth in Africa is significantly more dynamic, involving much more than the simplistic food supply/production v. population argument.

Posted by Horsewash | September 13, 2007 8:37 PM

Don't those societies take a while to get with the program? In other words, their populations will continue to grow as most couples continue to have as many kids as ever, only those kids survive to adulthood and have their own children. Only after a few generations does it kick in that, oh right, we don't have to have as many children as we used to. Eventually population will peak, but we still have about 2.5 billion to go (according to current projections).

Posted by keshmeshi | September 13, 2007 8:47 PM

malthus also failed to take education into account, he assumed a purely mechanical procreation.

Posted by vooodooo84 | September 13, 2007 9:27 PM

Don't know-my stepsister just popped out her 7th. No fucking kidding! She claims that "God wants her to have these children." WTF? I told her that God only wants her to have those children IF she gets pregnant on birth control. She is breeding like a fucking rabbit to indoctrinate more bible thumpers- SCARY SHIT. Makes you question agenda vs. education.

Posted by Kat | September 13, 2007 11:37 PM

This FEELS very, very true to me, and compassionate. I'd be real surprised if it wasn't. Selfishness sure won't save us.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | September 14, 2007 1:19 AM

I'm sure the poor people in Africa and the like have read through these studies and are now rethinking having more children.

Posted by monkey | September 14, 2007 6:51 AM

Idiot Savant Actuaries of Africa - a true tale of sex, adventure and a future world. Malthus' basic concern of population outstripping the earth's ability to sustain life on an acceptable level may be borne out by the dying oceans, polluted air, GW etc.

Medical advances without social advances, not always so good.

Posted by whatever | September 14, 2007 8:25 AM

Just to be clear here, I'm not suggesting that starving people worldwide are reading WHO reports, grabbing statistics textbooks and calculating the new probabilities.

The logic here--children support you later in life; many children won't survive to adulthood; you should have more children--doesn't require fancy math to figure out.

Likewise, if children all around you are surviving longer--if you feel more secure--you'll feel safer in having fewer children. No math required.

I just like math.

And yes, access to birth control and liberation of women are also key in reducing birth rates.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | September 14, 2007 8:50 AM

say golob will health care also have more people living longer and needing more care? you actually think that the starving people were limiting the number of children they were having and if so to how many and why? what seems to work in reducing birth rates is education, wealth and government action.

"you'll feel safer in having fewer children." - I think you meant to say that they'll feel as safe with fewer children or should feelas safe - but in fact they'll feel safer with more children no matter what the mortality rate - I also like math.

Posted by whatever | September 14, 2007 1:42 PM

it may still take a while for the social condition to change... which means more than enough kids until people lifestyles are comfortable enough.

Posted by infrequent | September 14, 2007 2:27 PM

In b4 Anti-Spirals attack

Posted by Anonymous | September 16, 2007 1:32 PM

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