A Crisp, Sunny January Day

Topics for today: Why China’s decline in population is a good thing; Yuval Noah Harari on identity; Moral panic and the right-wing mind; How climate change has been covered in textbooks since the 1970s.

NY Times, Wang Feng, 30 Jan 2023: The Alternative, Optimistic Story of Population Decline

About how the decline in China’s population, for the first time in six decades, is a *good* thing.

The news has been met with gloom and doom, often framed as the start of China’s inexorable decline and, more broadly, the harbinger of a demographic and economic “time bomb” that will strain the world’s capacity to support aging populations.

Only a few decades ago we were worried about runaway population growth, and made some policy decisions that in retrospect were hasty.

Turns out, that was a transitory phase when mortality rates fell faster than fertility rates because of improved nutrition and public health, and relative peace.

But panic can lead to hasty policy and human tragedy. This reached its fullest form with China’s extreme birth-control campaigns launched in the late 1970s and which caused immense suffering, mostly for women, through forced abortions or fines and other penalties for breaking rules that restricted most couples to having only one child.

It’s long been known that the wealthier a nation becomes, and lower its birth rate.

Compared with a half-century ago, people in many countries are richer, healthier and better educated and women are more empowered.

This is a key point:

There is no doubt that a shrinking global population — a trend expected to set in by the end of this century — poses unprecedented challenges for humanity. China is only the latest and largest major country to join a club that already includes Japan, South Korea, Russia, Italy and others. Germany would most likely be in decline too if not for immigration, and many others could begin shrinking in the years ahead. (The United States is expected to grow moderately in coming decades, largely because of immigration.) Median U.N. projections point to global population peaking in the mid-2080s at more than 10 billion, but if fertility rates continue to drop, the decline could begin decades earlier.

Ironically, without immigration the US population might well be shrinking by now, and with it the GDP. Be careful what you wish for, conservatives. These immigrants at the southern border want to come to the US to *work* and make better lives for themselves.

In any case, population expansion cannot continue indefinitely.

There is no reason the world’s population must keep growing or even remain level. And just as earlier panic led to harmful policies in China and elsewhere, efforts to raise fertility — which may prove futile — risk viewing women once again as birth machines.

Global population will inevitably decline. Rather than trying to reverse that, we need to embrace it and adapt.


Here’s an essay Yuval Noah Harari in the latest Time Magazine, which is devoted to the Davos 2023 conference.

Time, Yuval Noah Harari, 12 Jan 2023: The Dangerous Quest for Identity

All humans ask themselves who they are, where they came from, and what is their identity. This quest for identity is important and fascinating, but it can also be dangerous. In attempting to define a clear identity for myself, I might close myself off to the world. I might conclude that my identity is defined by belonging to a single group of people, emphasizing those parts in me that connect me to the chosen group, and ignoring all my other parts.

We seek to identify with our ‘tribe’ or nation (or political group), but Harari’s initial point is that our society and global history are so complex that there is no one identity distinct from all the others. For example, to go back a ways (after Harari notes he is a Jew):

Not just its language and writing system, but even core religious beliefs came to Judaism from outside. For instance, the belief that humans have an eternal soul that is punished or rewarded in the afterlife isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Torah, and apparently was not a key part of biblical Judaism. The Old Testament God never promises people that if they follow his commandments, they’ll enjoy everlasting bliss in heaven, and nowhere does he threaten that if they sin, they’ll be burned for all eternity in hell. Belief in a personal after-life seeped into Judaism from other faiths, most notably from the Greek philosophy of Plato and from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. The Persians also gave the Jews the idea of the devil—and of the messiah.

(Implicitly in this article is a critique of identity politics, a conservative bête noire.)

Harari goes on asking us to embrace the entire history and culture of humanity.

In contrast to the views held by fanatical racists, as well as by people taking the condemnation of “cultural appropriation” to extremes, Tolstoy isn’t the exclusive property of Russians. Tolstoy belongs to all humans. Tolstoy himself was deeply influenced by the ideas of foreigners like the French Victor Hugo and the German Arthur Schopenhauer, not to mention Jesus and Buddha. Tolstoy speaks of feelings, questions, and insights that are relevant to the inhabitants of Durban and Johannesburg no less than those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The truth is bigger than that of one’s own tribe.

If I insist on narrowing my identity to the fact that I belong to one specific human group, then I ignore all that. I leave little room in my identity to football and chocolate, to Aramaic and Tolstoy, and even to romance. What remains is a narrow tribal story, which may serve as a sharp weapon in the battles of identity politics, but which comes with a high price. As long as I adhere to that narrow story, I’ll never know the truth about myself.


Salon, Matthew Rozsa, 30 Jan 2023: Why the moral panic over “grooming” is so effective at manipulating the right-wing mind, subtitled “Experts explain the history of the right creating false narratives that connect LGBTQ issues to pedophilia”

The main subject of this article is to remind us how far back conservatives have whipped up moral panic to so reliably work their base into opposing liberals.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began banning books from public schools throughout his state, he justified his actions by claiming that he was protecting children from dangerous material. At the top of this supposed list of concerns, DeSantis and his Republican supporters insisted they were stopping “groomers” and other pedophiles from targeting young people. Literature promoting LGBTQ rights and other liberal ideas are, according to these conservatives, surreptitiously indoctrinating children and making it easier for adults to molest them.

This, of course, is not true. And yet that DeSantis and his peers on the right have latched on to an outlandish conspiracy theory regarding grooming — one that links pedophilia to LGBTQ rights — speaks to the political power of this narrative, which is compelling and motivating to a huge number of voters.

It is also not a new narrative. Whether they know it or not, DeSantis and his ilk are using a tactic that existed for decades, one that can easily be explained using basic psychology. And as far as psychological tactics go, the pedophilia/groomer social panic is one that has been successful at manipulating voters for decades.

The Lavender Scare, and McCarthy era with-hunts against Communists, (and not mentioned, Fredric Wertham’s crusade against comic books in the 1950s)…

In addition, McCarthy-era conservatives realized that if they equated LGBTQ people with pedophilia, they could demonize not only the LGBTQ community but also the liberal causes more broadly. This led to the propagation of materials alleging “recruitment” campaigns targeting children among homosexual adults, with the most notorious being a 1961 short film titled “Boys Beware!”

…then Anita Bryant in the 1970s and her “Save Our Children” crusade, 1980s panics about fantasy games and horror movies, and now the the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories, with their accusations of pedophilia, and DeSantis’ “don’t say gay” policy and alarms about drag shows. (Of course, both gays and drag shows — see Shakespeare, Milton Berle, and Looney Tunes — have been around forever.)

The article doesn’t quite spell out its moral, which I take as: conservatives are reliably panicked and alarmed by people different from them, and thus manipulable by conservatives for their own ends.

(What are those ends? Often mentioned. Latest examples about Ron DeSantis’ current political strategy mentioned here Saturday and last Wednesday (the Jamelle Bouie item).


Slate, Kiley Bense, 30 Jan 2023: How 50 Years of Biology Textbooks Have Covered Climate Change

Now this is interesting, something I hadn’t realized. The recognition of climate change and its dangers is not new, nor is it a fraud as conservatives claim. It’s been recognized for 50 years in biology textbooks.

If you were an American college student studying biology in the 1970s, your course textbook probably contained information about standard topics like photosynthesis, cellular division, genetics, and food chains. But you might also have come across something less expected, tucked in the last few pages of your book: an explanation of the greenhouse effect and what it could mean for global temperatures in the future.

The writer notes that, after a peak in 1990s, the topic of climate change has been diminished in those textbooks, “and a trend of moving climate information further and further back in the book.” We can guess why.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the space that biology textbooks devoted to climate change—and the authors’ certainty about how greenhouse gases would ultimately affect global temperatures—varied, but the topic wasn’t uncommon. (The greenhouse effect has been known since the 19th century, an understanding that was solidified with further research in the 1950s and ‘60s.)

Most striking are passages from those old textbooks. From a 1982 text:

“It has been estimated that a rise of 2°C in the annual mean temperature would not only produce significant climatologic changes but would cause the glacial ice caps to melt,” the book explains, which would lead to catastrophic sea-level rise and threaten to “submerge many of the world’s major cities.”

Effects which are in progress now. From 1978:

We believe that mankind is about to enter one of the Dark Ages of human history. Most of the ecological problems that threaten us will be resolved by the end of the 21st century, either by human intelligence or by nature’s ruthless indifference.

And another from 1978:

Will it be said by the survivors of our era that we stupidly and insensitively foreclosed their future and demeaned their existence? Will our children curse us? Or will they gratefully stand in admiration of our strength, dignity and wisdom at a time when decisions are hard? …[It] depends on what you do, what you will allow and what you simply will not allow.

Many conservatives, still, don’t believe it’s happening, or that we should do anything about it. Keep burning the coal! You can’t let coal miners lose their jobs! And many analogous reactions in other contexts, the health of the planet and future human generations, never mind. Short term thinking, maintaining the status quo at all costs.

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