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Saturday, 15 September 2007

Imagine (not quite) all the people

A really, really long post but one which means a lot to me.

There are a whole litany of serious environmental and resource-depletion crises besetting this amazing Earth. We're fairly well aware of Climate Change and Peak Oil because of media exposure and their direct impacts on us, but there's also the destruction of habitats and the resulting mass extinctions, the over-exploitation of fisheries leading to ecosystem collapses... and on and on it goes. At some level we can frequently find links between these issues and purely human problems like war, poverty and disease.

Everybody in the developed world knows all of this. Most of us care to some degree but are generally too involved in our immediate, day-to-day concerns to try and do anything serious about alleviating these problems. Most of the time it all just seems overwhelming. But in the backs of our minds lurks one simple, indisputable, dangerous fact which offers a solution to all of these woes and at the same time is almost anathema:

The Earth would be far better off if there were not so many people living on it.

It doesn't sound so scary on the surface, but let's scratch at it a little. Arbitrarily, let's say we think that three billion of us would be a nice sustainable number. That's a bit less than half the number of people living today. How do we get from here to there?

If it would save the world, would it be justifiable to deliberately kill off half of humanity? I don't think so. But not everybody would agree with me. White supremacists, for example, would be very quick to suggest which half of the population should inherit the Earth. Still, simply halving the population is a foolish notion anyway because the real long-term problem is with population growth.

Pretend that our current world population of six-odd billion is sustainable in environmental and resource availability terms. Then ponder for a moment (a long moment, preferably) how we might keep the population at that level and no higher.

This is the really hard bit. Remember my recent post about how values drive behaviour? (Here) As far as I can recall, Maslov didn't explicitly talk about humans having a "need" to have children. Perhaps he should have, or perhaps it's just so obvious it didn't need to be mentioned. But I believe that as clever and "evolved" as we are, we are still deeply driven by instinctive, natural forces to go forth and multiply. Every single one of your ancestors, right back to Adam or the Amoeba (depending on your world view) did exactly that. It's who you are. It's intrinsic to the nature of every living thing.

Over time that instinct has been reinforced by the natural law of strength in numbers. Species which have more offspring tend to have a survival advantage whether it be through simply playing the numbers game (like sea turtles) or through group behaviours (like ants or bees).

Getting back to that simple, indisputable, dangerous idea... I think we find the notion of population limits so troubling because it's unnatural.

My wife and I have three children, each of them deliberately conceived and dearly loved. It's natural and wonderful and I delight in my family. But in choosing to have a third child I have become part of the overpopulation problem.

(In my defense let me note that Michelle was about five months pregnant already when I had the emotional breakdown which resulted in me taking up the cause of sustainability. We won't be having a fourth.)

I get to wondering about what possible hope there might be for the future. It seems obvious to me that if we continue on our present and entirely natural track we're going to repeat the Easter Island story on a global scale, or something similarly catastrophic. Somehow we must become self-limiting not only in our consumption of resources (which we are actually starting to do!) but also in our reproduction.

Pause there and take a breather before I try and condense all of the above into a single paragraph...

We're bringing calamity upon ourselves and the rest of the world as a result of us simply doing what comes naturally. It's not ethical (or in any way practical) to try and cull the existing population. Saving the world will require nothing less than all six billion of us agreeing to deliberately limit the number of descendants we have, in direct defiance of nature itself. Failure to do this could result in the extinction of humanity and possibly of most or all life on Earth.

It's an impossibly daunting idea.

But just imagine if it could be done. What would such a society be like to live in? If we're going to succeed in the long term I suspect we'll see well-established pockets of this kind of society by 2050.

By definition I'm not talking about a "one child policy" such as exists in China. That's a strategy for reducing population rather than maintaining a steady one. In a steady-state population each adult would have exactly two children, on average.

Perhaps a "two child policy" will form the basis of our future civilisation. For the sake of human rights I don't think it's something which should be in any way enforceable by law - if a couple wanted fourteen children I feel it would be morally wrong to forceably prevent them from having them (assuming that the children would be properly cared for). But at the same time if birth numbers were carefully monitored then a system of "voluntary allocation" could be devised to help keep the population steady.

Start with the notion that beyond the inherent right to reproduce, it's reasonable for every person to have two children. Of course you need two people to make a child so this is not a doubling process. Each child represents two combined "rights" from two parents.

I suspect that in a society with a strong philosophy of sustainable population there would be an increased number of people who would choose to remain childless. It may be that they wish to live a life of rich experience without parental responsibility. Or they may feel that the best way for them to contribute to society would be by devoting themselves to professional or philanthrophic endeavours. Such a person could notionally "give up" their right to have two children and in doing so make it reasonable that another couple somewhere might have one more. (Remember that individuals don't have children - couples do. Making one child requires two "rights" to come together.)

It's almost certain that there will always be premature deaths. If an adult dies before having produced any offspring then "their" children could reasonably be had by somebody else. Should a child die, I imagine the bereaved parents would be considered to have the right to bear another should they so desire - but if they chose not to then it seems reasonable that another couple might have an additional child to make up for the one lost.

On the other side of the equation there are those who become parents of more than two children by accident or who simply desire a larger family. In a voluntary steady-state population there would ideally be enough people making deliberate family planning decisions on the basis of the overall population balance that a zero growth rate could be maintained.

I reckon I could live in a world like that. One more thing before I wrap this up: could it possibly work in real life on a global scale?

Honestly, I have no idea. On the positive side I do know that people can choose to alter their behaviour if their values demand they do something other than what's "natural". Witness suicide bombers...

The negatives are pretty big though. Avoiding pregnancy requires either contraception or sexual restraint - already a big challenge in the developing world for several reasons. As far as I know the world's system of economics considers population growth to be necessary thing. And in strategic military terms a larger population is generally more powerful than a smaller one (the old strength in numbers thing) and there's more than enough national, racial and religious tension in the world to make that a current concern.

Yet again for me it comes down to a question of values. If humanity wanted to maintain a sustainable population, I believe it certainly could do so.

What do you think? If you agree with me, what can we do to bring about this kind of change in the world?

Thanks so much for reading.


Crazy Mumma said...

Hi Terry,

This is an issue I have thought about on occaison, and my train of though has gone round and round in circles... We also have three kids, and also started along the sustainability journey *after* having #3, so when I do start thinking about this I get a vague uneasy feeling about it all (the luck of being affluent in an affluent country) and

Such a big issue, but in essence I think you are right. The pessimist in me thinks that it will be forced on us by circumstance: who will be able to *afford* to have more than one/two child/ren?

I dunno. As I said, I actually try not to think about it! Sometimes I find the big issues too overwhelming and depressing, it's far easier to keep my head down and try and get on with reducing the impact of the kids I have already have...

Ian said...

Yes, this is the fundamental problem and it's a hard one :-(

Have seen many of the criticisms made of carbon credit trading I think the idea of trading baby credits would be a pretty hard sell in our current society!

If we seriously consider the idea of limiting reproduction, why should it be to two children per couple and not one (or some other number)? Is it that the current population of the world is "correct", or just that it's easier to choose a growth rate than an absolute number of people, and the current number will do? I'm sure you've tried out one of those "how many earths would it take to sustain the world's population if everybody was able to live like me" calculators and know what a large proportion of the world's population currently lives in poverty and at serious risk of starvation. If we've already got all these overpopulation problems why maintain the population rather than let it come down for a while to a more comfortable level?

Even if we're happy to keep the population over six billion, I'm not sure your dismissal of China's population policy is justified. As I understand it, it was only ever supposed to be temporary (for some value of the word), to put a brake on what was unsustainable population growth. It has been around for a whole generation now and although the fertility rate has now dropped below two children per woman, China's population is still expected to keep growing for the next generation. The "one child" name we use is also misleading; I gather most Chinese are permitted to have more than one child.



TB said...

Hey Julie,

Given our similar life circumstances and attitudes re sustainability, I hope it's safe to suggest that I understand how you feel.

For me the uneasy feelings stem more from the question of what sort of future our kids face. It would probably be exactly the same even if I had only one.

Since we do each have three we must, as you say, minimise our negative impacts. We must also maximise our positive impacts (an aspect too much overlooked - again you need to read C2C) and teach our children to do the same but better.

Sounds like you're off to a great start.


TB said...

Hi Ian,

There's a huge difference between carbon emissions trading and the idea I was trying to convey. The idea of trading isn't even comparable. There is no value attached to my notional "allocations" and absolutely no enforcement or penalties of any kind for choosing to have children - this is about individual decisions hopefully being influenced by a shared social value, on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

You ask why I suggested two children per couple instead of any other number. My point was not to suggest that our current population is sustainable, although it arguably might be if everybody accepted a much lower measure of material "wealth". But what I was really trying to examine is how humanity might overcome its natural tendency to multiply so as to become self-limiting for the sake of sustainability. It's the mechanism, not the level, which I'm interested in here.

Regardless of the level, once you're there the way to sustain it is to average exactly two children per couple.

Achieving population reductions would also need to be voluntary for all sorts of ethical and practical reasons. If the accounting mechanism for reproductive "allocations" was in place it would be possible for a society to set an aspirational target for lowering the population. Any member of the public could choose to commit their personal allocation towards the population reduction target. Of course they could then turn around and have a dozen kids without penalty... it's all just a matter of accounting for it so that everybody can see the overall numbers and make their personal decisions on an informed basis.

Yes I'm dreaming a bit - hence the John Lennon reference in the post's title - but can you suggest any other means to implement a self-regulating population level?


Ian said...

Getting the entire population to voluntarily and co-operatively deny their fundamental evolutionary instinct does seem like a bit of a dream, yes. But, as you would have seen in my recent entrans post, perhaps it is possible, and perhaps it can "just happen" without any need for organisation and co-operation. Perhaps.



Ian said...

Perhaps it is happening.


Ian said...

"The population crash"

Perhaps it is happening.