He may sound bizarre when he mentions words like ‘try the norm recipe’ and ‘Humlog’ in the same breath. Perhaps, quite an iconoclast in the way he interprets population-related problems and contemporary solutions. But that’s Bill Ryerson, Founder and President of Population Media Centre & Chair of the Population Institute for you.
Tongue-in-cheek, perceptive beyond imagination, ruthless with prescriptions and without any rose-tinted glasses. In an interaction with Shashwat DC, he shares his worries and concerns about a world that is heading towards a disaster because of the burgeoning population.
When someone like him says “We will see a rapid increase in the death rate” or “We know that it’s more important for people to fit in than to tell the truth. So people will knowingly lie to fit in with the crowd”, you finally get the taste of how it feels when no words are minced.
He got me at ‘Intellectual info is notoriously ineffective at changing behaviour’. But would his recommendations be easy to swallow? Take a bite.
Why (in India) have we not been able to even engineer a discussion on such a critical issue as population explosion?
Certainly it’s time to have this discussion in India. I think Indira Gandhi made a huge mistake and so the field of population globally has become controversial. In part because of the emergency in India and the ‘one child policy’ in China. All of this could have been done through persuasion; without coercion. Coercion is ineffective, and indeed backfires as we’ve seen in these cases; while in most of the countries with replacement-level fertility, they’ve done it just with persuasion.
By overcoming misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of contraception and helping to remove the cultural barriers related to contraceptive use, people can choose to have a small family. It doesn’t matter if a few people choose large families, but the countries that have reached replacement level fertility, have put in favourable conditions for small families, so, in fact, small families have become the norm. And once one perceives the norm as having small families, rest follows because perception of the norms is what drives behaviour.
There is a very interesting psychologist from Harvard whose paper I had read when I was a freshman in college—Solomon Asch, who studied conformism. Now, if I were to ask you, “Which is longer: the tablet or the pen”, what would you say? The tablet of course! What he did was, he got a room full of 10-15 people, all the same age, mates of one of the subjects, in the room and he instructed all the others except the subject to lie. And then he’d say, “Which looks longer from where you’re sitting, the tablet or the pen?” And then all answered, “The pen sir!” When it got to the one person who had not been informed of what was going on, he also followed suit and answered,“The Pen”. We know that it’s more important for people to fit in than to tell the truth. So people will knowingly lie to fit in with the crowd. We all have a wet finger in the air trying to understand ‘what is the norm?’ So how do you change the norm? To change the norm, you have to change the perception of the norm. You can do that through national leaders, celebrities and you can do that through very popular fictional characters and programmes like ‘Humlog’.
You mean to say that ‘norms’ can be the missing part here?
Well, that’s really what’s required—changing the perception of what’s normal. We can change the norm fairly easily and fairly quickly if we do that. The other key psychologist in this work is Albert Bandura,who studied how role models emotionally influenced behaviour. What we know from a lot of work, particularly that of a brain scientist named Paul D MacLean, is that the behaviour of people are based in the emotional parts of the brain and not in the intellectual parts of the brain. So in fact, emotional influences are far more influential with changing behaviour than intellectual information. If I tell you a bunch of intellectual info about how smoking is bad, it may still not change your behaviour unless you’re looking for that info. Yet, if a very powerful role model influences you at an emotional level, it can change social norms very quickly. So that’s why we are using soap operas, serialized melodramas, rather than intellectual information. Intellectual info is notoriously ineffective at changing behaviour. And what we’re doing here in India now, is exploring the possibility for doing something similar to ‘Humlog’ dealing with the issues India is facing now.
You had said ‘the first Earth day was about population growth then it became a taboo, but part of why it became a taboo was human rights violations committed by India and China ’. Can you explain that? ?
In India, people were forcibly sterilized against their will—that is a human rights violation. In China, most of what the country has accomplished in my opinion, has been through persuasion. The family planning association of China has 80 million volunteers. They spread into their country talking neighbour-to-neighbour about the benefits of small families to avoid another 30 ml people from starving to death, like what happened during the cultural revolution, and to improve the economy of China—well, the country has a booming economy; the fastest growing economy on the planet. Everybody I’ve talked to when I traveled around that country understands how the demographic dividend is helping them; they are all in favour of small families. They did not need to coerce the few who didn’t want to go along with it—they were under peer-pressure anyway. However, if a few people chose to have large families it wouldn’t have mattered as China still would’ve progressed. However,India decided to use coercion. I didn’t think they needed to.
In the US, you have someone like Ted Turner who is very much in favour of coercion and simultaneously, you have two models where you talk about how successfully China has been presented as a very positive role model and how by 2020-25 India is going to overtake China. We are being told what Indira Gandhi did was something done at the right time, but with the wrong method. What are your views?
I’ve written a paper on why I don’t think coercion works. Number one: who’s going to make the decisions as to what to coerce people to do? What if the wrong people are empowered and coerce people to do the wrong thing? Yet, more important, from the standpoint of global sustainability—what’s the possibility that 170 countries are going to agree on what to coerce people to do. So if you don’t like what country A is doing, country B is going to do something else. So as a strategy for global sustainability, coercion really is far less likely to be successful than convincing people, persuading them of the benefits of taking steps towards sustainability. That’s the key argument I have against coercion.
In India, there’s always a talk about the benefits we have from the youth and from having a good workforce. However, examples are given of Japan where they have a lot of pensioners and don’t have people to work for them…
Where would you rather retire—Tokyo or Mumbai? Every country that has gone from the developing status to the developed status, since WWII (and there are eight of them) first instituted effective family planning programmes and brought the fertility rate down, with no change in income. What happened? Instead of spending all their income on food, housing and clothing (survival needs of the children); now with fewer children they had some money left with them. What did they do with that money? They stuck it in the bank. That meant capital formation took place, businesses could borrow and expand. That built employment. At the same time, over a period of time, the number of people entering the labour force was starting to grow less quickly. So the rising growth of industry led to rising incomes that led to taxable incomes; governments could buildinfrastructure that led to increasing economic productivity.
Simultaneously, some of those savings could be spent on education that led to increased economic productivity. And that’s what is called the demographic dividend: as the number of dependents per-working-adult decreases, you have a greater possibility of economic growth. And we’ve seen this with all the Asian tigers and we see this in India. India is realizing some of that demographic dividend, but there’s a huge pool of people who live in abject poverty in India, in part because they haven’t benefited from the demographic dividend because they haven’t brought their own fertility rate down. High fertility is the major driver of poverty throughout the world. So people who say, “Having lots of youth is a great benefit because it means more consumers, more innovation and so on …”, are ignoring the fact that in Uganda, a huge percentage of the youth are unemployed, sitting bored out of their minds with nothing to do, trying to eke out survival day to day; doing anything being exploited by employers who can do anything to these workers, including raping them and they don’t dare complain because there are 20 people waiting in line for their job. That’s not innovation.
At the same time, the Japanese have a ‘savings’ culture, they have huge employment, they have high incomes; their material progress was, in large part, a result of this demographic dividend I’ve described. Also, because of some healthcare and public health measures, people in Japan are living to a ripe old age of maybe 85 or 87; they can work a long time past age 60. So the retirees don’t have to be retirees by ages 55 or 60; my father, not Japanese, but an American, worked full time till 91, so where’s that dependency? He was earning an income until 91 and he only lived three years after that, but this is a very different situation from Nigeria, where they are having almost six children per woman. All of these children are dependent on parents who are barely employed and the children can’t be educated because the parents don’t have money to pay for education and they can’t get jobs and they are desperate. So yes, having some youthful population is always a good idea, but it is incorrect; and think three of us at this table would argue vigorously with the idea that the aged are somehow incapable of innovation or incapable of doing work. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life and I’m 68. David is 84 and he is coming to India (the man who helped bring ‘Humlog’ to India) to explore doing another project here. This is not lacking innovation; we are not sitting and rocking chairs.
Population in India is thought to be a class issue—the educated and the middle class will have fewer children. My grandfather had 11, out of which four survived; my father had four and I have two, so it’s a progressive decline that we are seeing. However, in the lower strata of society, the numbers will keep on increasing. What’s your opinion here?
Have you ever heard of the Duggar family in Utah? They’re Mormons and have a talk show promoting large families as an ideal. They have 18 children of their own and she’s pregnant with the 19th. If she does have the 19th, I would say to myself,“Okay so their children are learning from their parents and what if each of them has 19 children and keep up the family average, unlike you? Now they’d have almost 400 grandchildren. What if they have 19 children each? They’d have almost 8,000 great grandchildren.” So, I carried that forward just a moment in human history—10 generations that’s about 250 years. Do you know how many offsprings this couple would have after ten generations of a 19 child per children average? Six trillion! That’s 900 times the current world population from one couple in 10 generations.
So in fact, the couples who persist in high fertility rate will end up having their offspring starving. Yet, most of them, I think, will learn in time that diffusion of ideas and particularly with the mass media and new media these people, like all of us will pick up that one. Their children have a much better chance of survival than back before World War II, when there were fewer public health measures and vaccination programmes. So India, in 1925, was at zero population growth. Why? People were having six or seven children, but five of them were dying before adulthood, so that was a replacement level fertility. Now with vaccinations and public health measures, 90 percent of those children are making it to adulthood. So you don’t need to have a large family for replacement number of children, you need to have 2.1 on average and people who haven’t discovered that, need to understand that child survival odds have dramatically improved. I think the mass media can reach these people you’re talking about and model for them smaller family norms and show them the benefits as well as showing them the negative consequences of having a huge family where the children are uneducated, unemployed and in some cases, starving.
The reason why most of the people (in India) have many children is because they want a male child to carry their legacy forward and so they keep trying till they get a male…
My wife earns more money than I do. It’s going to take some time, but India needs to learn that women inherently have the same value as men.
What happens when resources like water get depleted?
This issue will ultimately become a crisis. People can look forward—and humans are unique among most animals in our ability to anticipate the future, but we don’t use it. We tend to be more crisis-oriented; we tend to respond emotionally to what we see in front of us and long-term issues are far less motivating than immediate crises. The idea is that human populations can outgrow the resource base. And what’s clear from the work of Ed Berryat the Sustainable World Initiative, is that we have outgrown the sustainable resource base. Most of our industrial civilization is made possible through high efficient energy sources like oil, as well as gas and coal. Oil is used in agriculture in ploughing and pumping irrigation water, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transport to market, refrigeration and cooking. So the price of oil is driving the price of food and that’s why food is near an all time peak price. And the price of oil is going up because it’s becoming more and more expensive to extract oil from more and more difficult places to reach. Fracking technology has caused a temporary reversal, but the trend of more expensive oil will resume.
The other factor that drives the price of food is water. Fresh water is becoming less and less available. Companies are trying to privatize water so they can grab this rising commodity price. So, indeed, the water situation is also now and ultimately, much more and seriously, in the future going to drive the price of food. These two things will cause the price of food to dramatically escalate in the next, likely 20 years. There are today, one billion people living on less than a dollar a day and two billion people living on less than two dollars a day. Most of these people spend upwards of 90 percent of their income just getting enough food to survive. So when the price of food doubles, which it will, and I can’t tell you the time frame because innovations may buy us some time – those in terms of agricultural productivity innovations through genetic engineering and innovations in extracting more oil which is by the way, driving up the temperature of the planet.
Nevertheless, on a short term scale, we may buy some time, but in the long term, what we are facing is, a future dependent only on renewable resources and what that will mean is that, at some point in the current century, we will find that we cannot sustain the current world population, let alone nine or ten billion people, anywhere near the current lifestyle. We may be able to sustain some significant number at the Ethiopian lifestyle. So we will all face a choice—do we all live the Ethiopian lifestyle and maybe allow eight or nine billion—whatever the number might be, to survive that lifestyle, or do the rich continue to get richer and consume as much as they want and the poor starve to death. The latter seems more likely because that’s the way the world seems to be working.
So, what a Cornell biologist named David Pimentel did, was to sit down and say, “Ok, post non-renewable resources like oil, coal and gas and metals that we depend on, what can be sustained?” And what he calculated was, two billion people can be sustained at the western European lifestyle. We are now at 7.2 billion. That means, if we want to have people living a western European lifestyle, there will be five billion people fewer. If we want to live the Ethiopian lifestyle, I’m not sure what it means in terms of numbers, but it’s very clear to me that given the way the world works and the fact that the rich see no limitations on how much they consume and how much they spend, that were likely to see a major die off in the population in the lifetimes of people alive today. There are ecologists arguing as to when it will occur and how serious it will be but it could be a billion or two billion people who could die in a matter of a few years and that means it will be chaotic around the planet while that’s going on.
There’s another theory how nature takes care of population: outbreaks like Black Death. What’s your spin on that?
For parasites, which viruses and bacteria are, having a very large densely populated host is a great idea because it allows them to multiply very rapidly. So., indeed, a bird flu or some other epidemic that breaks out with some transferability between pigs and humans fueled with the ability to be transferred from human to human, could rapidly affect a huge number of people. Indeed, something is going to stop the population from growing. If we don’t do it voluntarily, some factor of nature—starvation, disease, war or combination will do it for us.
You have the rich and the poor. For the have-nots, there is a scenario that they are starving and yet they are having more and more children. How do you reverse that paradox?
It’s also true for other animals. When you have a population crash of any animal, they may be having babies, but the babies are starving too. What’s likely to happen is, the birth rate may be coming down like that; the death rate coming down like that, but then the death rate takes off. So no matter what’s happening with the birth rate: even if it’s going back up, the death rate is well above it and you have the net loss of a number of people. That’s what’s likely to happen; we will see a rapid increase in the death rate. And I think it will not be a very gradual thing, I think it will happen very dramatically when it happens.
In India, unlike US where they have social security, children are considered the security for old age parents. How does that mindset affect the problem?
Being a rational human being, you have to consider the question? What is better as an old age security strategy: having two children who are educated and employed or 10 children who are starving? So, you can, and we’ve seen this with our soap operas—educate an entire population. That a better strategy for old age security is to have two children who are educated and employed, than to have ten children who are starving. Because ten children, with very small plots of land can’t feed their own children, let alone their parents. That’s not good old-age security.
So, is there any room for optimism at all? Any examples to spur us forth?
I think what we’ve learnt in the last 30 years is: the population problem is solvable; we can educate the whole population through mass media about the reasons for the benefits of, and the normality of switching from big family norms to small family norms. And indeed, if we could get small family norms of one-two children in place and start to shrink the population, we have a slight chance of a soft landing. If we don’t do that, we are going to see a massive die-off in the population. I do think it’s solvable, we shouldn’t lose hope yet. Sustainability of the human population at a decent quality of life requires that we overcome the informational and cultural barriers to contraceptive use. We have seen in places like Thailand, Sri Lanka, China (outside of the coercion) and Iran that this can be done. The president of Rwanda and two radio soap operas have gotten the contraceptive use from six percent to45 percent in a period of a few years, and family size is shrinking dramatically.
So many people think making little effort will be fine. However, we cannot lose sight of the ultimate thing, i.e.,we have to reach sustainability and that means two choices: we can reach sustainability with everybody living in poverty, or we can reach sustainability with a smaller number of people living pretty well.