Tag Archives: human behavior

“Empty Planet – The Shock of Global Population Decline” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson

Published 2019 by Crown Publishing, 240 pages plus footnotes and index.

This book (found at my public library) took me entirely by surprise, and caused me to look on climate change (and certain other social problems) differently, and with somewhat more optimism.

The authors discuss a future drop in human population, NOT (as has often been predicted) due to climate related calamity, but due to changes in human reproductive behavior. These changes comprise the “demographic transition”, defined in Chapter One, entitled “A Brief History of Population”. For eons, the human race simply struggled to survive. Following the retreat of the last Ice Age, agriculture allowed population to increase through a series of stages, beginning with high birth rate coupled with high death rate, moving through periods of imbalance and ending (in “developed” societies) with low birth rate, long life and low death rate. Bricker and Ibbitson believe the entire global population will arrive at the latter pattern within the next two or three generations. Hence, human population with stabilize relatively soon, and then continue to fall slowly.

Having grown up reading The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, I was startled by this book and read it very carefully. I’ve asked the opinion of friends and even my favorite demographer (a relative), and I eagerly await their responses.

Actually, I heard the warning call of this change a few years ago. In 2015, China reversed its “one child policy”. I was VERY surprised, and failed to recognize the significance of the change. Come to think of it, 25 years ago I heard a Russian woman described as a “hero mother” because she had TWO children. I didn’t understand what was behind this.

What do demographers measure, in addition to absolute population? Birth rate is crucial. How many babies does each woman have? “Replacement” is pegged at 2.1, to allow for the fact that not all children survive to become parents. At this point, it all starts to feel personal. I had two babies. So did my parents. But their parents had a total of 10 surviving children! What changed? American families left the farm. (The post World War II baby boom, in case you are wondering, was an aberration.)

Bricker and Ibbitson attribute falling birth rates to the education and subsequent increased employment of women, and to urbanization. They consider these changes unlikely to be reversed.

I think Empty Planet went to press just before the flareup of immigration as a “hot button” topic in the US. It would help if people on both sides of the issue would settle down and read this book! Immigrants and refugees are not identical. Most people, most of the time, prefer to live where they were born.

What do Bricker and Ibbitson project for the future? Both are Canadian, and their other collaborative publication (The Big Shift, 2013) deals with Canadian politics and culture. They expect the future big winners (nations able to maintain their populations and to innovate) to be Canada, the African states and (maybe) the United States. “WHAT?!” you squawk. Better read the book!

At some point, an entirely new concept is introduced – the post national state. I’m still trying to get a grip on it.

“The Rosie Effect” by Graeme Simsion

See my blog post of August 7, 2016, for information about Simsion’s earlier novel.

This is the second novel about the autistic genius Don Tillman and his brilliantly flamboyant wife Rosie. Don is still trying to figure out “normal people” and emotions. His wife’s unexpected pregnancy throws both wife and husband for a loop.

Simsion draws out the confusion extensively – hey, that’s what romantic comedy is all about! Along the way he creates some great characters. There’s Bud (baby under development), and Aaron the Air Marshal ( assigned to determine if Don’s autistic behavior means he’s going to blow up a flight to LA) and the B-team, three researchers dedicated to explicating the reactions of babies to lesbian mothering.

This book is wildly funny. Read it for good laughs! I hope for a sequel.

“SuperStorm – Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy” by Kathryn Miles

Published 2014, 332 pages, 8 color plates.

Maybe I should get the personal stuff out of the way first? Sandy was not our first weather catastrophe in 2012. South Jersey was hit hard by a derecho on June 30. It was a rogue thunderstorm with “straight line winds”, and it was not predicted. My husband and I woke around 1 am to an impressive display of heat lightning. A glance at the Rain-dar cell phone weather app showed that a storm was closing around us. The wind hit hard, thunder and lightning exploded, and we hurried downstairs, frightened. I don’t think the action lasted more than ten minutes. Our electricity was off. We wandered back to bed, relatively unconcerned. In the morning, we discovered the intensity and extent of the damage. Personally, we were lucky.

And regionally, we were (sort of) lucky. When Hurricane Sandy came lumbering through five months later, the weaker trees had already fallen down and lots of utility poles and wires and transmission towers were newly repaired.

Hurricane Sandy was very different from the derecho. Sandy was predicted. We listened to days and days of analysis. Remembering our 48 hours without power after the derecho, we stocked up on batteries, water and food that wouldn’t require cooking. Institutions made plans and battened themselves down. The local college closed its dormitories and sent the students home. Sandy was not officially a hurricane when it hit the East coast. The eye passed over us almost innocuously. The colossal storm surge did much of the damage, and the worst winds and rain missed our neighborhood.

The book Superstorm is a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the storm, with emphasis on meteorology and forecasting. The book follows several interesting threads, like the sinking of the tall ship Bounty and the heroic efforts that saved all but two members of the crew.

Superstorm is organized chronologically and emphasizes science but reaches out into politics, history, psychology and other fields in order to deal with important questions about human behavior. How do you explain the uncertainty inherent in weather forecasting? What motivates people to evacuate, on the one hand, or to defiantly remain in the face of danger? How do you communicate when your audience is already saturated with internet and social media chatter that ranges from informative to just plain bizarre (like conspiracy theory)?

Read this book! I would really like author Kathryn Miles to tackle the issues that emerged after Sandy. Where should we rebuild? Are there parts of the coast that must be abandoned? How much money should be invested in putting houses and businesses back into their pre-storm condition? How much should be invested in infrastructure changes? How do you manage reconstruction to minimize fraud?

Another set of issues emerging after Sandy surrounded the definition of a hurricane. Criteria for wind speed, wave height and “eye” structure don’t tell the whole story. In the future, there will be more emphasis on storm surge prediction.

This book is another in a series of high quality “science for non-scientists” books I’ve read lately. (See my posts of June 19, May 3 and January 29, 2015.) Is this a genre? If so, it’s one of my favorites. This is the kind of book I could aspire to write.