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There’s no condom for consumption.
October 19, 2013 9:53 PM   Subscribe

Alan Weisman's new book argues that we should not only slow population growth, we should decrease the world's population to 2 billion. In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert considers his argument for the 2 billion person world in the context of a long history of Malthusian and neo-Malthusian arguments over population growth and resource limits. “Before artificial nitrogen fertilizer became widely available, the world’s population was around 2 billion. When we no longer have it—or if we ever decide to stop using it—that may be a number to which our own naturally gravitates.” For more context, see Paul Sabin's new book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.

Weisman returns to some familiar neo-Malthusian arguments:
That doesn’t mean that poor people in developing nations don’t have a severe impact on the environment. I was in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate on the planet now. Its average is around eight children per fertile female. In every village, I heard, “Had you been here twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t have seen that house over there for all the trees that we used to have.” Where did the trees go? Well, they needed them for firewood, and then the climate began changing on them and there’s less rain now. They’re not responsible for the industrial pollution that has gunked up the atmosphere, but when you take down trees, things change. You graze too many animals, and things really change. They’re now in chronic drought. In every village, hundreds of children had died.

Political ecologists have been critiquing neo-Malthusian arguments regarding population's role in environmental degradation for decades. Tim Forsyth's book Critical Political Ecology is a good place to start. As he wrote in 1998 (pdf on his site) for the UN Development Programme, we "challenge the existing orthodox view that poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked, and are self enforcing."
posted by spamandkimchi (153 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Heavy.
posted by glaucon at 10:16 PM on October 19, 2013


I like the notion that how educated a woman is plays a major factor in population control. Men, get the fuck out of the way!
posted by Brocktoon at 10:18 PM on October 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


I like the notion that how educated a woman is plays a major factor in population control.

Is that observation controlled for prosperity? (ie. "wealthier" families, aside form being generally better-educated, also on average have fewer children)?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:22 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is just going to invigorate the Alex Jones crowd.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:54 PM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now now, there should be plenty of jellyfish for everyone
posted by lordaych at 11:11 PM on October 19, 2013 [19 favorites]


Alan: Some argue that population is in fact self-correcting, and that the correction is already underway. But it’s a little like saying a house fire is self-correcting, because it will eventually put itself out. Unfortunately the damage is done. One way or another, when a species exceeds its resource base, the population will come down. Nature does that in 100 percent of the cases in the history of biology. The question that I keep coming back to is how soon is that going to happen?

Some argue that it's self-correcting, not through starvation and disaster but simply through urbanisation and development, and that it's already happening.
posted by Segundus at 11:12 PM on October 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I like the notion that how educated a woman is plays a major factor in population control. Men, get the fuck out of the way!

The sad part is that we're conditioned so much that this seems like a neat notion but if you flip the equation around it's like "hmm when you keep women pregnant and in the kitchen they don't get educated!"
posted by lordaych at 11:13 PM on October 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


In hell, Garrett Hardin smiles.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:19 PM on October 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Aren't fears of overpopulation in of itself overblown? It seems like if anything, the problem is lack of uneven population distribution. I always keep hear that the prosperous states of Western Europe and Eastern Asia are in for a terrible awakening within decades as their social safety nets erode from lack of young taxpayers. In the long run, China's below-replacement birthrate and gender inequalities will similarly cause grave economic problems as well. Demographics is destiny, and all that. Meanwhile, population rates in the Global South are still high, and education and contraception still have a long ways to go there. Of course, handling immigration is incredibly difficult, and many of these societies are not particularly as receptive to immigrants, nor pluralistic, as the U.S. is.

Sure, maybe we can learn to consume less. But frankly, if we try to attack consumption to solve all of our problems, by the time we change human nature enough so that people consume a lot less, I think the earth will be trashed in the meantime. So I think there are other things we have to do.

Improving education and contraception is certainly a noble goal, but this just seems like a defeatist attitude towards the main problem.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:44 PM on October 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I always keep hear that the prosperous states of Western Europe and Eastern Asia are in for a terrible awakening within decades as their social safety nets erode from lack of young taxpayers.

Don't worry, the right-wing of basically every state is busy ensuring the social safety net erodes much more quickly than that.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:04 AM on October 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


Well, the problem is we are not playing Civ IV or anything else. We're playing politics (and economics) and the solutions are not so straight forward as clever planning. Or figuring out how many billions belong.

It's a distribution problem, and those are tricky.
posted by notyou at 12:16 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm noticing the difference of increased population density on everything, just in my lifetime. People often complain that things are more regulated now than they were back in the day, and the reason for that is that the burdens on everything are so much higher with so many more people. It's especially noticeable in outdoor recreation.
posted by anonymisc at 12:38 AM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


It's interesting that this takes the form of (presumably white) Westerners telling people in countries like Niger how they are to blame for our environmental crisis by having too many children.
posted by Sara C. at 2:01 AM on October 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


People often complain that things are more regulated now than they were back in the day, and the reason for that is that the burdens on everything are so much higher with so many more people. It's especially noticeable in outdoor recreation.

Naah, not really, it's more that we're much more aware and concerned about things like safety or the environment and less concerned with the "freedom" of fuckwits to behave like assholes, e.g.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:04 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm reading a book on apes right now which puts a few of the 700+ remaining mountain gorillas at the time being poached and killed up against the tens of thousands of villagers getting killed and abducted. At one point, a local politician expresses scorn that Westerners will pay the equivalent of a year's salary to watch an ape, and I found myself agreeing with her at the insanity of this (I like apes and believe in anti-poaching etc) because of the way the author casually dismissed the habitat destruction of villagers as a terrible ecological wildlife crime instead of oh, I don't know, extremely poor people looking for fuel and food to keep their families alive.

I would feed a gorilla to my kids if they were hungry, sorry Koko.

Seriously the crazy distribution of population and resource access has way more to do with this than population alone. Rich people nabbed and developed wild lands and now poor people are being told to not have more children, to move into crowded cities and to basically die off please so the Educated Elite can have a nice ecologically-sound planet? Urgh.

I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs, and always, the unwavering conviction that they and their relatives were of course worthy of being on the population shortlist.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:41 AM on October 20, 2013 [33 favorites]


The wikipedia pages on Total Fertility Rate (TFR) are quite remarkable. The general page shows how TFR has plummeted from 4.95 to 2.36 in only 50 years.

The maps and country list showing TFR show how few places have really high fertility any more.
posted by sien at 3:11 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Quick everyone let's kill people to stop them from dying!
posted by Literaryhero at 3:17 AM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


After you, Alan.
posted by walrus at 3:51 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs"

Really? I don't *think* i have race or class issues behind my belief that the planet has a limit to the number of humans it can support. I haven't had any children of my own for precisely this reason. I've never met a person who believed that the planet could support indefinite growth who didn't turn out to have some kind of fundamentalist religious faith.
posted by silence at 4:08 AM on October 20, 2013 [35 favorites]


"I always keep hear that the prosperous states of Western Europe and Eastern Asia are in for a terrible awakening within decades as their social safety nets erode from lack of young taxpayers."

That's a weird argument I've heard from many source (especially in the US); rather than face some tough times now, and facing the difficult economic situation of feeding the older population with a smaller younger population (in itself depressingly ageist), we *keep growing the population* so that eventually when we do have to face the problem, it's many times worse. It's the "credit card" solution - instead of spending less and living through some hard years, the plan is to keep spending and hoping the problem will magically disappear...
posted by silence at 4:08 AM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


The thing about Weisman and his ilk is that they cloak their inherent fascist attitude in the language of the left and the environmentally consciousness, but of course their "solutions" are completely unworkable. Suggesting we can only save the world if we limit ourselves to billion people, when there are some seven billion of us right now, is actually saying that we can't save the world and therefore anything but mass genocide is fooling ourselves as there just isn't enough lebensraum.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:08 AM on October 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


The high population of humans on earth really is causing problems. Overfishing, enormous garbage patches in the oceans, animals going extinct as their habitat is destroyed ...

I mean it's good that population growth has slowed a little, but I simply don't understand why any concern, no matter how expressed, tends to meet a wall of "THERE IS NO PROBLEM AND IF THERE IS IT'S ONLY DISTRIBUTION AND ANYWAY POPULATION GROWTH IS GOING DOWN PLUS YOU MUST BE A RACIST IF YOU EVEN THINK THIS IS A PROBLEM."
posted by kyrademon at 4:13 AM on October 20, 2013 [42 favorites]


I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs, and always, the unwavering conviction that they and their relatives were of course worthy of being on the population shortlist.

To which all I can say is that you don't get out much.

Sensible, intelligent discussions of earth's ultimate carrying capacity can be had without mentioning racism. But are rarely had when racism is part of the framing.

Do people decrying the central point accept that there is some ultimate limit to human population, or can it go on forever? 15 billion, 100 billion? Of course not. So really we're just talking about what the limit is for a sustainable population, and whether or not we have crossed it already, or will do sometime in the future. Now according to basically ALL of the experts in biological sciences, we are consuming massively more of the total planet capacity than can currently be sustained, with no sign of slowing down. Threatened species lists keep growing (except for all the extinct species I guess), we're mining the soil for crops, fertiliser flows are currently non-renewable, i find it laughably absurd that anyone could suggest we dont have a problem and that human ingenuity will get us out of this mess, and that we can wave off these arguments by suggesting that those who raise the issue don't like black people.
posted by wilful at 4:23 AM on October 20, 2013 [22 favorites]


Population growth isn't causing the environmental problems that neo-Malthusians are trying to get rid of. The reality is that most people in growing countries live a very austere life relative to environmental impact. The problem is the way industry is set up, which is maximum extraction for profit, rather than designing all consumption for sustainability. If you had a billion people living like in the United States today, they'd be much more fucked than with twenty billion living like in Africa.

The most accurate population projections level out around 9-10 billion and go down from there. We could create sustainable farming, building and industrial methods to feed, clothe and house 9 billion people. We'd need a worldwide mobilization of economic resources, but it is possible. It's much more important to stop burning carbon and to begin the shift in agriculture toward sustainable green methods.
posted by graymouser at 4:24 AM on October 20, 2013 [30 favorites]


krydaemon,

Each of the three things that you mention actually have very little to do with overpopulation, and much to do with the uneven distribution and consumption of resources:

-Overfishing? Cod is delicious- and is mostly gone thanks to demand from industrialized, urban populations. Same with tuna. In some cases, trawler factories are now camping off the shores of some of the poorest, most unstable places in the world and vacuuming up the fish. Guess who isn't eating that fish.

-Garbage patch in the ocean- primarily the result of the consumption of manufactured goods, again by industrialized, urban populations.

-Destruction of habitat? Primarily resource extraction supporting industrial production. Where do you think the coltan in your cell phone comes from? Who do you think is eating all the beef being raised on what used to be Amazon rain forest? Live in North America and like driving your car? Travel up to the Morgul Vale Northern Alberta some time, and see where the oil comes from.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:36 AM on October 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


America's Stonehenge recommends 500,000,000.
posted by fishhouses at 5:37 AM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


I have to agree this is more complex than just over population. This is about what resources we use without considering the impact of their use.

Population control is important, but we need to start regulating production and business practices. We can carry more people if we use resources wisely, plan cities, make it possible to not use cars, build houses that are heat and cold resistant, use rainwater collection and grey water replenishing systems.

Population REDUCTION means you're deciding some people aren't going to reproduce or howmany children they are going to have. Don't get me wrong nothing wrong with encouraging people toward one or two kids and none if they don't want any but we neat to start developing technology that permits us to live healthy lives without regular use on fuel or non-degradable/toxic goods.

We need to do both and these conversations tend to simplify the ridiculously irresponsible use production and consumption of goods in wealthy nations and focus on those people making 8 babies.Who yes usually happen to be non-white. What if even those people had a better strategy to acquire fuel and began tree planting projects and selected trees that easily replenished for fuel sources? Also how heat resistant are their dwellings and could they be built better to reduce fuel needs?

I'm just saying, you plan your production and consumption to include the impact on the environment and the use of replenishing sustainable resources and the problem is much different, but somehow inhumane eugenics type population control seems to be the direction these conversations go. Most people don't want 8 babies to care for if they have access to birth control and don't NEED the kids for labor to survive harsh conditions. Improve their living conditions and provide birth control and education and you reduce that kind of population growth a lot.
posted by xarnop at 5:42 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're freaking out about overpopulation because we can't fathom demanding that we IMMEDIATELY stop our dependance on practices that are destroying our environment and eliminate our resources without sustainable practices. It's much easier to demand other people out there stop making babies so we can stay the same and claim the problem is those other people making too many babies. I think this entire line of thinking is a just a distraction from facing the actual changes we need to be making NOW and to place blame on already impoverished struggling people instead of on the shitty greed and refusal to change of people with light years more resources/technology/intelligence but a refusal to take responsibility for their OWN behavior.
posted by xarnop at 5:52 AM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Bruce Sterling's book Heavy Weather touches on this issue in an interesting way. I don't want to give away the plot but it's set in a future where infrastructure is crumbling, agricultural capacity is diminished, and technology continues to advance for a select few. Certain people take it on themselves to address the population issue directly.
posted by fraxil at 5:55 AM on October 20, 2013


Population Control: the anti-pro-choice choice.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:09 AM on October 20, 2013


What is this weird insistence that I think it is "other people out there" and "impoverished struggling people" who are the problem? I think the United States and Europe are overpopulated, and if it matters for my credibility I personally don't intend to have any children, OK?

Yes, resource management and sustainable practices are important parts of the problem, of course. I also think overpopulation is part of the problem. I have yet to see anyone in this thread present any real evidence that the earth could sustainably support ten billion people other than people declaring it could be done. Somehow.
posted by kyrademon at 6:19 AM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


Counterpoint: More population means worse conditions for the poor, means that sooner or later the the poor are more likely to overthrow their subjugators.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:30 AM on October 20, 2013


They may want to overthrow their subjugators, but look at the way industrialized nations continue to pull ahead with military technology that allows them to engage in "targeted" warfare without endangering their own lives. Honestly I think the only way developing nations really have of leveling the playing field is nukes, which are more likely to used against immediate neighbors over local control of resources than anything else.
posted by fraxil at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm with Kyrademon (except I have two kids, and it's too late to send them back). The idea that the earth can sustain many more people than exist today is wishful thinking at the Biology 101 level. the industrialized North has benefited greatly from resource exploitation in he underdeveloped South, while continuing to ignore the reality that there are limits growth. Meanwhile, in those countries where the profits from exploitation have either been used to enrich Europeans and Americans or wasted by dictators and their militaries, poor, uneducated humans survive by eating their way down the foodchains around them. Although nowadays they're abetted by corporations who profit by poaching lumber from the remaining rainforests or by cutting down those forests to grow sugar and palm oil. That educated Westerners continue to believe that population growth can either continue indefinitely or is necessary to our continued economic health is one of the crazy realities of modern life. But not for long, I fear.
posted by sneebler at 6:49 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


So of all the problems going on right now that OUR BEHAVIOR can positively alter, why is the focus on other people's bad behavior? Yes yes, those people over there are doing things wrong. SO WHAT.

How is this relevant other than as a distraction from how outrageously and heinously shitty practices in developed nations are, indeed the very products and goods and purchasing habits of the very people having the conversation about THOSE OTHER bad people doing things wrong and endangering the plant.

Yes of course, get everyone access to education, birth control, and resources technology to improve their circumstances and reduce poverty. That's all good. The hand wringing about other people in the world who are destroying it, is still being used as a distraction from facing that it's the most wealthy, indeed most likely the very people having this conversation, who are destroying the environment the most and indeed who have the most power to change that. Of course we should reduce population but other than providing education and birth control, the only other options we're talking about are eugenics and controlling other people's reproductive choices for them.

Which I'm sorry but fuck creating policies like that coming from people who are sitting here on COMPUTERS talking about THOSE OTHER bad people who damage the environment and what a problem they are. THE PROBLEM IS US. If you clean up your act, then point your fingers on the sins of others.
posted by xarnop at 6:57 AM on October 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you clean up your act, then point your fingers on the sins of others.


Protip: To survive we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
posted by lalochezia at 7:04 AM on October 20, 2013 [11 favorites]


I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs, and always, the unwavering conviction that they and their relatives were of course worthy of being on the population shortlist.

Well, that didn't take long, even by the standards of MeFi...

This is one of the main reasons this problem depresses me so much. Even mentioning it almost immediately brings accusations of racism from the left. Liberals used to be concerned about overpopulation because they were concerned about the environment...but now you're a racist for even admitting that there might be a problem...

So the right is busy insisting that we need even more people...because, of course, economies can and must grow forever...and also to prevent those scary Muslims from outbreeding us... And it's becoming an article of liberal faith that overpopulation simply can't be a problem because it would be racist if it were... So I reckon we're basically screwed, unless the problem just happens to correct itself.

And, of course, it's simply false that everybody who is concerned about overpopulation "has huge racial or class issues behind their belief", and also false that we all think we are the ones who should reproduce most. Like silence, I'm not having kids, and largely because of my concerns about the population.

The very fact that this very serious problem can't even be discussed without ad hominems flying is cause for despair. In fact, it's infuriating in its irrationality.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:13 AM on October 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


WHERE IS JESSICA HYDE?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:23 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don’t think we need to legislate population management. What we need to do is make it very attractive to people, and let them manage their own population. I’ve got several examples in this book, big examples, of where this has worked brilliantly. There are a couple of Muslim nations that I refer to that have brought their populations down to replacement levels without draconian controls from above, without any edicts. They’ve done it through making family planning available, and making it available for free in one case, and also opening up the universities to women and encouraging them to get educated.
This is fair ball.
posted by No Robots at 7:32 AM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


This problem is fixing itself. As long as we don't screw over poor countries, then it looks like world population is going to stabilize at around 14 billion (TED Talk). Our challenge is to figure out how to live well with 14 billion people. If we can't, then Malthus wins! If we can, then we might just be able to live sustainably on our spaceship, and Buckmister Fuller wins!
posted by pmb at 7:32 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


WHERE IS JESSICA HYDE?

Damn; I just came on here to prompt that Utopia (poss. best TV drama of 2013) covered this in an unexpected and thought-provoking way.
posted by Wordshore at 7:38 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's interesting that this takes the form of (presumably white) Westerners telling people in countries like Niger how they are to blame for our environmental crisis by having too many children.
posted by Sara C. at 2:01 AM on October 20


Usually when I hear people making assertions similar to those in the OP, the point is not that Nigeriens or people from other poor countries are the problem. Instead it's that:
1. overpopulation among the overconsuming countries is even worse than overpopulation among the poorest countries,
2. but either way the poor countries will hopefully not stay poor and under-consuming, which means they may soon be consuming and polluting nearly as much as we are. So efforts to cope with overpopulation and demographic transitions are useful everywhere.
posted by Jacob Knitig at 7:40 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have yet to see anyone in this thread present any real evidence that the earth could sustainably support ten billion people other than people declaring it could be done. Somehow.

Well, since you ask... my completely nonscientific speculative guess is that the key would be ultra-low-energy-cost nanotech desalination, which is something we've made significant technological progress on in the last couple of decades (e.g.) It would by no means deal with all of the environmental problems and would in fact create an additional one in the form of massive amounts of saline waste but I'd think we could survive things like the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer and the Australian Great Artesian Basin if we had an unlimited supply of fresh water, because I'd expect that if we could un-desert-ify the Sahara and the Kalahari and the Gobi and all of the other deserts on Earth and convert them to farmland, the way it's been done in southwestern North America and southeastern Australia, and return to societies where most of the population is devoted to farming, maybe we could get by with the yield rates of sustainable farming.

It would be much better to figure out how to survive without redlining the agricultural capacity of the planet, but since we tend to end up with the worst possible solutions to things like this, if the global population really self-limits at that level it seems feasible to me that we might avoid the worst-case perpetual 1970s-China cannibalistic Malthusegeddon. Maybe even with some nice vat-grown-meat barbecue once in a while.
posted by XMLicious at 7:41 AM on October 20, 2013


14 billion

Given the issues we're having with just 8 billion, that number needs to go down an order of magnitude (at the very least). And good luck with doing that in a way that's effective, non-violent, consensual, and not evil distilled.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every time I read something like this, I just want to ask the author, "OK, so which three out of your four favorite people do you want to die off?"

(The real answer, of course, is none, they're expecting the population loss to come out of a nameless, faceless third world country.)
posted by maryr at 7:45 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, that didn't take long, even by the standards of MeFi...

Well, only because so much of the rhetoric of lowering the population is quite obviously driven by racial and class bias, and has been for generations. Like the Eugenics movement, the urge is always focused outwards, usually toward the poor and foreign, and it often goes hand in hand with anti-immigration sentiment. It does not mean that everyone advocating for lower population is necessarily racist and classist -- I know quite a few people who have chosen to go childless because of population concerns and others who have decided to adopt for similar reasons. However, these advocates need to tread carefully, since so many of their fellow-travelers have somewhat more sinister agendas.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:46 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of anti-civ anarchists who have been saying this since the 1970s. Yet, most anti-civ anarchists I know are also blatantly anti-choice. So, there's that.
posted by parmanparman at 7:47 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


This problem is fixing itself. As long as we don't screw over poor countries, then it looks like world population is going to stabilize at around 14 billion (TED Talk). Our challenge is to figure out how to live well with 14 billion people.

No, 14 billion doesn't win automatically simply because that's where things might stabilize (in some fairly short-term sense of 'stabilize'...)...anymore than contemporary American standards of consumption win automatically because that's where we seem to have stabilized.

The challenge isn't learning to survive with whatever population we end up with, any more than the challenge is learning to survive with whatever level of consumption we end up with. The first challenge is trying to figure out whether or not a gigantic population is valuable or desirable at all.

We might very well be able to convince everyone to throttle back on both factors until we can reach a sane and sustainable population, with sane and sustainable levels of consumption.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 7:51 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


On the grand scale of things, mankind is a minor aberrant blip for which nature definitely has a solution. Nature plays one helluva long game.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:55 AM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have yet to meet or even hear of a Malthusian who is willing to be the change they want to see in the world.
posted by srboisvert at 8:12 AM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


> We might very well be able to convince everyone to throttle back on both factors until we can reach a sane and sustainable population

I always hope to hear who this "we" is which has the power, resources, group intelligence, and group long-term unanimity of focus to do that. So far, answer comes there none. It's hard not to worry that such a "we" is a hopeful figment.
posted by jfuller at 8:19 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Um, exactly what problems are we having with 8 billion people?

If you were to go to Mexico, for example, you would find that people who grew up in families of 8 or 10 kids are having 2 or 3 kids, recognizing that automation, medical care, and calorie availability have reduced the twin incentives for poor people to have lots of kids (labor and early mortality), and that the biggest current health problem is rampaging Type II Diabetes, the result of calories being available in more quantity and lower price than ever before, to a culture who in easy living memory had a primary BMI maintenance focus of not starting to death.
posted by MattD at 8:28 AM on October 20, 2013


That it appears the population will stabilize around 14 billion is not any kind of solution. We face very serious issues supporting the population we already have at acceptable standards of living in a sustainable way, not to mention that all the issues developed countries are worried about right now with regard to an aging population will hit even harder when the population is 14 billion and growth has slowed everywhere so immigration can't be used as a stopgap. We do need to figure out how to slow population growth faster. And we do need to figure out how to make our societies work economically without that growth.
posted by Nothing at 8:29 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


> "OK, so which three out of your four favorite people do you want to die off?"

Well, fun fact - all of them are going to die off, eventually, whether he wants them to or not.

And that fact makes many of us view the question as, which of your favorite people are you ok with not having children.

And my answer is, all of them. If none of my friends and relatives have any kids, that sounds super to me. I do not give two spits about my own genes or family name or unique snowflake perspective or whatever the heck it is that people want to persist beyond them, in comparison to what I see as a growing crisis for all humans and most higher order animals.

Whether people can be convinced to have fewer kids is a serious question (although the answer of "that's impossible so a more realistic answer is some kind of miraculous as-yet-uninvented technology" strikes me as a bit simplistic), but it really is possible to consistently hold such views without being genocidal, suicidal, or racist.
posted by kyrademon at 8:36 AM on October 20, 2013 [19 favorites]


On the grand scale of things, mankind is a minor aberrant blip for which nature definitely has a solution. Nature plays one helluva long game.

True, that. I'd hope for a gradual reduction in global population, natural death rate exceeding natural birth rate over a prolonged period, coupled with sustained whole-food-chain production, recycling, energy capture and usage. Almost definitely not going to happen though.

I fear, instead, it's much more likely that nature will probably unleash some HxNx version or mutation sooner rather than later that is easily transmittable, pandemic and often lethal. Which isn't to be wished on anyone (I survived H1N1/09, spent a while at its worst wishing I would die, and am still receiving medical treatment for one of the side effects nearly five years on).

Though on paper a quick population drop may look attractive, the repercussions of it for the survivors are not e.g. critical services (nuclear workers, specialist medical treatments, specialist security, energy production and maintenance) suffering. The relief of surviving when many of your neighbors have not may be short-lived if the local nuclear power station goes into meltdown.

No, Gaia rebalancing is a two-dice roll, not one. The first to survive the rebalance; the second to survive the painful restructuring of society.

Side-point: why haven't the nuclear power stations in The Walking Dead all gone "pop" by now because their workers became walkers, turning America into a vast radioactive desert?
posted by Wordshore at 8:42 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Population will, eventually, find a way to stabilize. The question for me is, do we find that way voluntarily or do we require nature to show us the way against our will? I know it seems immoral to ask the world to voluntarily reproduce less as it is anathema to religion or custom. But if China and India decide that they have the same right to an American lifestyle (meaning we are 5% of the population but use about 25% of the resources) then we are all sunk as there are not enough resources to cover that desire. I won't even start about the filthy air and water from all this industrialization for our swollen numbers and the dramatic loss of fish from over-harvesting to feed us. And that is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Is the idea of fewer of us really that horrific?
posted by FrankBlack at 8:50 AM on October 20, 2013


I fear, instead, it's much more likely that nature will probably unleash some HxNx version or mutation sooner rather than later that is easily transmittable, pandemic and often lethal.

Nature can't do anything as "nature" has no conscious will. You're just indulging in the modern day equivalent of predicting the wrath of god for the sinful ways of society.

If we want to improve our relationship with the environment, we should stop indulging in Hollywoodesque DOOOM scenarios and accept that there won't be an end of civilisation, there won't be any magic bullets and we'll just have to keep muddling through like every species has done since forever.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:50 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once again, people are being distracted from the real problem- it's not population, but overconsuption. It frankly doesn't matter if Asia and Africa reduce their populations by 50%, because the West consumes 86% of world resources. If America was reduced to the material consumption level of say, Niger, that would make a hundred times the difference depopulating Africa.

It's really simple; if you want to save the world, you need to advocate nuking the U.S. and Europe. Any other proposal is ignoring the actual facts in favor of blaming the brown people.
posted by happyroach at 8:54 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


MartinWisse: If we want to improve our relationship with the environment, we should stop indulging in Hollywoodesque DOOOM scenarios and accept that there won't be an end of civilisation, there won't be any magic bullets and we'll just have to keep muddling through like every species has done since forever.

Something like 99.9% of the species that have ever lived are now extinct.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:01 AM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


If we want to improve our relationship with the environment, we should stop indulging in Hollywoodesque DOOOM scenarios and accept that there won't be an end of civilisation, there won't be any magic bullets and we'll just have to keep muddling through like every species has done since forever.


Actually, what almost "every species has done since forever" is gone extinct. If you think humans are exceptionally good ecological stewards compared to all prior dominant species, you have a lot of explaining to do.
posted by grobstein at 9:02 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ha, jinx.
posted by grobstein at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2013


The difference between the global energy consumption rate and the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth is 5 orders of magnitude. If the carrying capacity of our planet is limited, it's only by our ingenuity.
posted by anifinder at 9:07 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, the big problem with ecological destruction is biodiversity loss. That's the permanent thing. The pacific garbage patch would rot over a fairly reasonable timeframe, if we left the climate alone it would fix itself in a few thousand years, and so on. But biodiversity loss is nearly forever. The species richness will only recover over millions of years, which is about how long it would take humanity to naturally evolve into something else or go extinct (assuming no nuclear war or anything like that).

So keep that in mind, when considering things like overpopulation. Most of the planet will get better if we stop actively ruining it, but lost species are lost forever and will never recover as long as humanity exists.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:10 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, only because so much of the rhetoric of lowering the population is quite obviously driven by racial and class bias, and has been for generations

Well, I suppose this is one of the big differences between the people I'm used to having serious discussions with and MeFi... I'm used conventions such that, if something is obviously an important question, and seriously answers are being offered and justified, one doesn't deploy accusations of racism. For almost any view, someone, somewhere has held it for reprehensible reasons... It seems like a question about the burden of proof...and I don't see why people are guilty until proven innocent in this respect...

I always hope to hear who this "we" is which has the power, resources, group intelligence, and group long-term unanimity of focus to do that. So far, answer comes there none. It's hard not to worry that such a "we" is a hopeful figment.

Not true. Some of us have already been convinced to reproduce less. Others can be convinced by good policies--such as tax incentives that favor 2 children or fewer. Don't exaggerate a difficulty into an impossibility.

> "OK, so which three out of your four favorite people do you want to die off?"

Why clutter a sensible discussion with stuff like this?
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:14 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's really simple; if you want to save the world, you need to advocate nuking the U.S. and Europe. Any other proposal is ignoring the actual facts in favor of blaming the brown people.

Another variation on "If you are not willing to kill yourself and your loved ones, here and now then you, yes you specifically, are OBVIOUSLY a RACIST."

Looks like I'm a racist then. I'd better stop going on those anti-EDL marches, and doing equality advocacy, as I was obviously faking it. And bow to the binary choice that is only "EVERYONE BREED NOW" or "RACIST" instead.

Thanks for the logic lesson.
posted by Wordshore at 9:15 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is one of the main reasons this problem depresses me so much. Even mentioning it almost immediately brings accusations of racism from the left. Liberals used to be concerned about overpopulation because they were concerned about the environment...but now you're a racist for even admitting that there might be a problem...

Well, look at it this way. When this problem dramatically corrects itself - hell any serious reduction in global population happens for pretty much any reason - what's going to take the hit is abstraction. It's a hell of a lot easier to take out global just in time supply chain logistics, for example, than it is to take out subsistence farming.

Who do you think is most likely to make it into that notional two billion humans? A bunch of white project managers living in suburban tract housing with literally less concept of how to raise and butcher a pig than how to determine the net present value of a futures contract for pork bellies in January? Or a bunch of non-white peasants living in an underdeveloped south who have had to spend their entire lives doing without the fruits of that massively abstract society living up to their north?

I'm sure there are racists and class snobs who think that because they're now part of the one percent of the world, they don't need all those brown peasants - who just clog up what would otherwise be perfectly lovely coastal zones with gorgeous beaches. And I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't actively trying to create a world where a mostly white elite lives like gods with just enough underlings of whatever color to keep things running. But that's not how it's going to happen. Personally, I believe there are people alive today who will see a world in which people will survive through subsistence farming on the island of Lanai with no idea that it once belonged to some white guy named Larry Ellison, who they've never heard of, and who was so astonishingly rich for reasons that are literally inexplicable to them.
posted by Naberius at 9:22 AM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Naberius: Who do you think is most likely to make it into that notional two billion humans? A bunch of white project managers living in suburban tract housing with literally less concept of how to raise and butcher a pig than how to determine the net present value of a futures contract for pork bellies in January? Or a bunch of non-white peasants living in an underdeveloped south who have had to spend their entire lives doing without the fruits of that massively abstract society living up to their north?

The ones with nuclear weapons, stealth bombers, and drones?
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:28 AM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Mitrovarr - So you're envisioning a scenario in which we are the refugees swamping the lifeboat of the third world?

Or that we are going to be so pissed off at dying that we're going to take the rest of the world with us? I suppose we might try, but I don't think we'd succeed.

What you're describing is how we maintain ascendancy in a complex, abstract world, not something that would help us survive in a world that is rapidly descending back into a pre-industrial state. It's sort of the way that rifles helped the British army defeat the Zulus on the battlefield. That subjugated the natives, but didn't destroy them, and in the long run it didn't preserve their colonial holdings.
posted by Naberius at 9:45 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The difference between the global energy consumption rate and the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth is 5 orders of magnitude. If the carrying capacity of our planet is limited, it's only by our ingenuity.

This is wrong on just about the simplest level possible.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:49 AM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's what I don't get about the "it's just an overconsumption/distribution" problem argument. Bear in mind, before I start, that I think overconsumption and uneven distribution are indeed very, very serious problems that need to be solved.

But solving them in the context of a global population shooting towards 14 billion seems to present certain problems.

OK, so first let's say we solve distribution. The quality of life of people in the countries that have been hogging the resources goes down, everyone else's goes up. OK, that's only fair. Sorry, resource hogs, your house is now an apartment, your car is now a moped, you don't eat meat every day. But your conditions are now the same as everyone else in the world, so no fair complaining. Your life is fine.

But wait, we still need to solve overconsumption! There's still overfishing, overlogging, overmining, overhunting, we just spread it out to everyone. So let's cut all that down until it's sustainable. You're now sharing that apartment with three other people, your moped is now a bicycle, and get used to potatoes and lentils because meat is a special treat now. Well, OK, that's still better than the way a lot of people used to live worldwide, right? Probably still a net gain.

Oh, wait, the world's population just doubled. But we're not increasing consumption again, we just got things sustainable! Now you're living in a 5' by 7' cell eating reconstituted algae gruel, but we did it! The world is supporting everyone!

But, why? What's so great about warm human bodies that we need so many? Why not solve overconsumption and uneven distribution, and at the same time work to lower population levels (by whatever fair, reasonable means are available) so not so many people need the resources? Are 14 billion people living badly a better scenario than 4 billion people living well?

I realize some of you think technology will simply solve all the problems of resource availability. But for those of us who are not nearly so certain of the likelihood of this, reducing the world population level seems like a sensible, and very probably necessary, direction to go.
posted by kyrademon at 9:49 AM on October 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


Why is contraception access different than negative population growth? There are a lot of women who, when given education and options, do not want children. If there was a need for the world to have more children, I might feel some obligation to have biological children. In the absence of such, I don't. I am not alone. Lots of people also think that one child is plenty when they aren't worried about what's going to happen to them when they get old. Solve those problems, I would be surprised to see the average birth rate stay above two, and delayed childbearing also helps.

But the idea is that we're going to choose between a bunch of lily-white people and a bunch of Africans and Asians in that future population is also silly. It's not going to be a thing that happens next week. I am white and I am also Hispanic. My family is white people and it is also brown people. This is happening more and more often. It is not "us" versus "them". It is "the part of us who live over there" and "the part of us who live over here", and every year there's less distance between. If you have biological children, you are almost certainly still going to have biological descendants. As long as you're okay with them being browner than you are, you probably shouldn't need to be that worried about who's going to survive.
posted by Sequence at 9:50 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Naberius: So you're envisioning a scenario in which we are the refugees swamping the lifeboat of the third world?

Or that we are going to be so pissed off at dying that we're going to take the rest of the world with us? I suppose we might try, but I don't think we'd succeed.


How are you anticipating the population suddenly collapsing? If it's either due to resources getting depleted or climate change ruining arable lands, I can absolutely see scenarios where the first world storms the third world to take whatever they think will save them. Yeah, the British didn't destroy the Zulus, but their survival didn't depend on it, and the power differential between the first world and the third world is greater now than it was then.

Also, I think there's a real chance that if society crumbles, the death throes of the first world will kill everyone. All it takes is one destabilized major power to start a global thermonuclear war.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:52 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now that we've all had our shot at posturing, I wonder what the facts are.
posted by Twang at 9:55 AM on October 20, 2013


“But what about Man? Who or what regulates us?

She nodded appreciatively. There were scores of good books she could refer the young man to. But he must have already accessed the standard answers and found them unsatisfying.

We are an unregulated cancer, proclaimed many eco-radicals. Man must cut his numbers and standard of living by a factor of ten, or even a hundred, to save the world.

Some even suggested it would be better if the destroyer species — Homo sapiens — died out altogether, and good riddance.

Those pursuing the “organic” metaphor suggested the problem would be solved once humanity adjusted to its proper role as “brain” of the planetary organism. We can learn to regulate ourselves, pronounced the moderators of the North American Church of Gaia, as they pushed “soft” technologies and birth control. We must learn to be smart planetary managers.

There were still other opinions.

Everything would be fine on Earth if humans just left! That was the message of the space colonization movement, as they promoted plans for cities and factories in the sky. Out in space, resources are endless. We’ll move out and turn the little blue planet into a park!

To Madrid Catholics and some other old-line religious groups, The world was made for our use. The end of days will come soon. So why “regulate,” when it’s all temporary anyway? One unborn human fetus is worth all the whales in the sea.

A group based in California offered a unique proposal. “Sheckleyans” they called themselves, and they agitated — tongue in cheek, Jen imagined — for the genetic engineering of new predators smart and agile enough to prey on human beings. These new hunters would cull the population in a “natural” manner, allowing the rest of the race to thrive in smaller numbers. Vampires were a favorite candidate predator — certainly canny and capable enough, if they could be made — but another Sheckleyan subsect held out for werewolves, a less snooty, less aristocratically conceited sort of monster. Either way, romance and adventure would return, and mankind, too, would at last be “regulated.” Jen sent the Sheckleyans an anonymous donation every year. After all, you never could tell.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


It might just be the case that the best solution to the environmental crisis would be to both reduce average per-capita resource consumption and the human population, while also looking for more renewable and sustainable sources of energy and raw materials. I have never understood why people have a tendency to champion a single-strategy solution to this problem -- the crisis is big enough that it seems obvious to me that we should be attacking it from every available angle.

On a societal level (to the limited extent that it makes sense to talk about humanity as a global society) my view is that we need to be working to redefine quality of life in terms of values like educational attainment, security (financial, healthcare, food, shelter, physical), individual empowerment, and freedom of self-expression rather than traditional ones like consumption rate and family size. We also need to be transforming sustainability, environmental health, and good relations with the natural community into social/cultural/political priorities on par with existing ones like high GDP and national security.

This is obviously a much more nebulous and difficult goal than proposing concrete solutions to the social and environmental problems that stem from overpopulation, overconsumption, and unfair distribution. However, it seems to me like we'll never get those concrete solutions to happen on a global scale unless we can first realign our values and priorities such that those solutions become more attractive. Pushing specific solutions can, if done right, help to adjust our priorities (look at the way that recycling has become basically a moral issue in many communities) but it still strikes me as putting the cart before the horse more often than not.

The issue is not that solving the environmental (and attendant social justice) crisis is hard or requires big logistical and behavioral changes. That's true, but it's never been enough to stop us before. The problem is that as a global society (again, for an appropriately-limited definition of "global society") we just don't give enough of a shit about this problem. Our values and priorities don't lend themselves to a sustainable, equitable way of living. If they did, we'd be on top of this problem and we'd get it under control.

Changing those values and priorities is much harder. They're nebulous things, and people and social systems are slippery and complicated and frequently highly resistant to imposed changes like those. It still seems to me though that it's the major missing piece in the conservation/social justice movement, and that we could stand to be looking harder for solutions along those lines.
posted by Scientist at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


There should be another term, similar to eponysterical, that refers to serendipitous timing of articles. This one came out this today- perhaps Japan will be the testbed for these population theories?
posted by Apocryphon at 10:05 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs"

Jump on me if I'm not thinking this through or exhibiting a racist attitude I don't realize I harbor...

I believe that there is a huge issue with access to contraception with regard to class and race. I also believe if there were equal access to contraception for everyone, more people in the third world, as well as the first, would limit their reproduction. I don't believe that providing contraception, to be used as desired by each woman to limit, or not limit, their reproduction is genocide. Furthermore, I don't think social encouragement to limit reproduction to one or two children is wrong. Right now in the US, someone who has eight or ten kids, or even five, gets the fish eye by most educated, non-religious folks. I had four, in the seventies, and even then that was considered a large family. It certainly made a difference in our disposable income and social standing, even here in a seriously conservative state.

China's policy of one child certainly raised that country's standard of living. It was a particularly onerous and draconian policy that caused much grief, but there's quite a bit of difference between law and social expectation.

I firmly believe that if we provide birth control, jobs, education, proper nutrition and health care, there would be a reduction of population and poverty in the US. That reduction would come within certain races, classes, and ages. So is that a moral issue, knowing that the government would be 'controlling' the reproduction of certain segments of society?
posted by BlueHorse at 10:23 AM on October 20, 2013


Earth for the breeders, the stars for me.
posted by Teakettle at 10:26 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the flipside to the distribution problem- that farmer in Africa or wherever, who is having 8 or so kids, is probably not a subsistence farmer. More likely they are producing food crops to support resource extraction, or to feed workers in industrial centers, or they are producing raw materials for manufactured consumer goods. They are being paid in cash, but in many cases, they still employ primarily non-mechanized farming practices.

What's the best way to maximize your return in this situation? Put as many hands as possible into the fields. What's one way to do that? Have a bunch of kids.

If we're concerned about overpopulation, perhaps one thing we might consider is not insisting on the absolute lowest prices on our chocolate, or our cotton goods, or our electronics.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:28 AM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


You know there's something in the whole victimology narrative here where Westerners are denouncing Westerners ... do you think Indians and Chinese people, to grab a huge swath of the Earth's population, are by and large so uneducated or ignorant they don't know overpopulation is an issue? Because actually plenty of them are plenty smart, smart enough that they think it's and issue and population control is Indian and Chinese policy. And also they have internal debate over it, and like, different opinions, and notions about its effects on society.

It's like, you'd think when the Indian gov't debates population policy it's "Well, Mr. Krishnan, several million racist Americans and Europeans think our brown people are breeding too much." "Ah, yes, that inclines me to support the PSA campaign encouraging family planning."
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:23 AM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


“If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?”
-Arthur Schopenhauer
posted by bookman117 at 11:26 AM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


do you think Indians and Chinese people, to grab a huge swath of the Earth's population, are by and large so uneducated or ignorant they don't know overpopulation is an issue?

No, actually the opposite. I think that the Indian and Chinese governments were swayed by these arguments because they came from educated Westerners, and jeez, maybe this is a huge problem, and hey, we're in the middle of a bunch of nation-building and making a shitload of weird unilateral policies anyway, so we better get on board with this whole population problem Daddy Postcolonial says is a thing.

And come to find out it isn't such a problem, and now those countries are left with the legacies of their fucked up unilateral decisions to curtail people's reproductive freedom. Meanwhile the scholars who went in for the population scare are happy at home in Cambridge or Palo Alto or wherever with little Madison and Logan, completely insulated from the effects of their wankery.

My guess is that, for people in the countries where this is still a problem, yes, the average person having 8 kids probably is not at the level of deciding how many kids to have based on abstract ideas like what some dudes at Harvard think.
posted by Sara C. at 11:34 AM on October 20, 2013


Quick everyone let's kill people to stop them from dying!--Literaryhero

if we limit ourselves to billion people, when there are some seven billion of us right now, is actually saying that we can't save the world and therefore anything but mass genocide is fooling ourselves as there just isn't enough lebensraum.
-- MartinWisse

Why do you assume that the way to reduce the population is to kill people? What's with all the morbid thinking? If people stop conceiving, the population will go to zero within a generation, no matter what population you start with. No need for any killing.
posted by eye of newt at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Why do you assume that the way to reduce the population is to kill people? What's with all the morbid thinking?

Because there are only two real ways to get from eight billion to two billion in the kind of time frame Malthusians are talking about.

1. Genocide.

2. Extreme and far-reaching caps on people's reproductive freedom that do irreparable damage to the cultures and economies in countries that enact them.

It's apparent that the third option -- get everyone's basic needs met, give them access to education and healthcare, and let folks decide for themselves -- which is already happening throughout most of the world, is not good enough or fast enough or dramatic enough for the Malthusians. You've even got people in this very thread worried at what will happen when affluent first world lifestyles reach the third world; illustrating that those people very clearly would prefer mass death or mass human rights violations instead.

What solution do Malthusians propose, if not genocide or human rights violations on a horrific scale?
posted by Sara C. at 12:00 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


In the early 70s, ZPG (Zero Population Growth) was a political organization with a big following (it still exists--called Population Connection, which, unfortunately seems to be a very bland, forgettable name).

Just to put things in perspective:
in 1970 there were 3.7 billion people in the world. Now there are 7 billion.
The US has only 1/3 of a billion. all of Europe, 2/3 of a billion, so chances are the issue isn't affecting most of us in a way that is immediately noticeable.
posted by eye of newt at 12:00 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


The USA is already at negative population growth in terms of reproduction, its population is only growing because the country is accepting immigrants from other parts of the world.
All this talk about about force is bullshit. On average, people are genuinely ok with not having to raise 8 kids. People like not being run off their feet all day having to feed eight kids. Right now, a lot of people aren't given that choice and that freedom. And there are things I can do which seem likely to contribute to the growth of choice and freedom in this world.
posted by anonymisc at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


What solution do Malthusians propose, if not genocide or human rights violations on a horrific scale?-- Sara C

I must have missed those proposals in the links provided.
posted by eye of newt at 12:13 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that the Indian and Chinese governments were swayed by these arguments because they came from educated Westerners, and jeez, maybe this is a huge problem, and hey, we're in the middle of a bunch of nation-building and making a shitload of weird unilateral policies anyway, so we better get on board with this whole population problem Daddy Postcolonial says is a thing.

Is this really true? I mean, I'm sure Western ideas had influence, but I thought that India and East Asia actually have much more experience than Europe with overpopulation problems and consequences like famines where millions of people die, stretching well back into history.

(So I'm genuinely asking, does evidence show that Indian and Chinese governments formulated population-control policies primarily as a result of Western influence, and without it they wouldn't have prioritized limiting population growth?)
posted by XMLicious at 12:14 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sara C., suggesting that those making observations about overpopulation must therefore tacitly approve of genocide and human rights violations is falling into a trap that inevitably results in bad, politically driven science.

I think there is and should be a difference between observing an issue and enacting policy. It's wrong to take the implications of someone's study and suggest that the person who performed the study is somehow in tacit approval of those implications.

It's rather like when environmental scientists project to what extent carbon emissions must be reduced in order to forestall global warming. This inevitably results in a right-wind brouhaha about 'you want to shut down all our factories! You want to ruin our economy!' No they don't. They want to build models that predict what carbon emissions will do to the planet. Sometimes those models will result in what Al Gore would call "inconvenient truths". Does that make environmental scientists amoral, destructive anarchists? The right would have you think so.

This is not to ignore that science has a long history of political motivations. In that I don't disagree with you. But by accusing people of supporting horrible deeds because they believe a certain event is happening is playing into that kind of motivation, not reducing it.
posted by lemmsjid at 12:20 PM on October 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


By the way, there was a movie called Z.P.G. made in 1972, which showed what they thought the future would look like as a result of overpopulation.

A preview on Youtube
Full movie

it looks pretty bad, in a fun way
posted by eye of newt at 12:25 PM on October 20, 2013


> "Because there are only two real ways to get from eight billion to two billion in the kind of time frame Malthusians are talking about."

I don't recall mentioning a time frame.

A 10% reduction in population every generation (for every ten people, there are nine children) gets us from 7 billion to half that in six generations, or about 150 years. That's actually probably a bit too fast. How about aiming for 4 billion people by 2300? Think that can be accomplished without genocide or horrific human rights violations? Because that's around what I was talking about.
posted by kyrademon at 12:28 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah the anarchist/libertarian anti-choice population control people are pretty vocal here in Austin among people I know and they do, in fact, state that women should be sterilized after one or two children (why not the men? hmmm) and vent about these terrible people reproducing when they should be forcibly put on birth control or sterilized instead. Note: it is almost ALWAYS the women who need to be forced to take hormonal birth control/IUDs or be sterilized.

I asked one guy why not the men, he said "Well that seems unnecessary if you stop all the women from making so many babies that would rectify the problem."

If you don't want your population control agenda to come across as being filled with sexism and racism and anti-reproductive choice rhetoric then you should be appalled that people say these things and doing your best to demonstrate what the meaningful difference is in your vs their strategy.

To me it's like if you say "I am a MRA but I'm the good non-sexist kind" you probably should be unsurprised people are suspicious and find it hard to believe you're actually ethical.

I think most everyone here agrees that all people should have education, reproductive health access, and education about overpopulation and family planning. On that I'm pretty sure we all ALREADY agree.

So what more is the hand wringing about overpopulation really about? What MORE than what we already all agree should be done, should be done? And it almost always turns about to be forcing women to have abortions or be sterilized or to be on hbc even if it's making their mental health worse or they don't tolerate it well which happens to plenty of women.

In nations with birth control access and education this levels off- and in the US it's areas with less education and higher poverty rates where this is more of a problem, again addressing poverty and education/birth control access would be the solution.

Poor women's reproduction has been a source of much hand wringing and moralizing for the more educated and wealthy for a long time- so it's hard not to see people who leap on the bandwagon of "WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT THE YUCKY POORS AND MINORTIES MAKING SO MANY BABIES"as being suspect of both classism and sexism and being ANTI reproductive justice.

These also tend to be people who rant about welfare and families who need support to care for their children and this issue tends to fuel a lot of hatred and judgement to poor families for reproducing at all when they should be forcibly sterilized or forced to have an abortion if they have a crisis pregnancy. It becomes kind of barbaric rhetoric and there's a good reason people are on guard for how population control solutions can be used in these ways.
posted by xarnop at 12:46 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "And it almost always turns about to be forcing women to have abortions or be sterilized ..."

Holy criminy. I was thinking, like, offer incentives for having fewer kids. Maybe some kind of tax rebate or benefits program, progressively structured so it doesn't only affect the poor.

Obviously even that has serious potential ramifications that would need to be considered, and might end up being a bad idea for a variety of reasons. But not all of us are making the leap from "I think overpopulation is a problem" to "STERILIZE THE BROWN PEOPLES".
posted by kyrademon at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


"I have never met a population limits (not about contraception access - someone who pushes for negative population growth) person who didn't turn out to have huge racial or class issues behind their beliefs"

I mentioned him upthread, but among the worst of these people is Garrett Hardin, whose "Lifeboat Ethics" is this great bit of neo-Malthusian nuttery which amounts to using a lot of words to say "I think poor brown people should die, because otherwise the survival of wealthy white people is in peril." It's a wonderful chain of logical fallacies and barely-shrouded racism hiding behind a veneer of Fuck You, Got Mine.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:03 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


" But not all of us are making the leap from "I think overpopulation is a problem" to "STERILIZE THE BROWN PEOPLES"."

I totally believe that. But the guy I was talking to also didn't have a specific sexist agenda, he just happened to be comfortable with sexist, anti-choice solutions, particularly that impact women and the poor/minorities the most.

So it's not about INTENDING to negatively impact minority groups, it's just about whether their needs are even factored into these solutions made by people with more education and power often with the intent of controlling those with less power who are already struggling more. The entire field of reproductive justice deals with this concept and how population control policies often wind up being anti-choice, anti female empowerment and negatively impact the poor whether that was the intent or not.

An example
"The belief in overpopulation leads to discriminatory population control practices that target poor women and women of color at home and abroad. The most well-known form of population control is coercive family planning. While women’s health activists support access for all women to high-quality, voluntary birth control and abortion services, population control programs try to drive down birth rates as fast and cheaply as possible through the aggressive promotion of sterilization or long-acting contraceptives like Norplant and Depo-Provera, often in the absence of adequate health care or informed consent.
The 1994 UN population conference in Cairo came out against coercive population control, and today many people assume it is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Today, in India, for example, a number of states punish poor parents that have more than two children by denying them access to government assistance, employment and election to public office. There is a parallel here with ‘family caps’ implemented as part of U.S. welfare reform."

You don't have to INTEND to be advocating policies that could hurt the poor/minorities/women and reduce reproductive choice to be actually doing so even though you don't mean to.
posted by xarnop at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


You've even got people in this very thread worried at what will happen when affluent first world lifestyles reach the third world; illustrating that those people very clearly would prefer mass death or mass human rights violations instead.

I absolutely do not see how that follows. We are not sustainable now. We are burning through non-renewable resources, the oceans are dying, the planet is warming. Even with zero population growth it would take an increase total in resource usage by a factor of 5 to 10 to support an American standard of living globally. Is that even possible? I expect it is not. And if it is not, then what does that mean? If we do nothing, it probably does mean mass death and human rights violations. Yes, increasing standard of living and access to education has effects that mitigate things like population growth dramatically. That addresses the boogeyman of the population bomb, but does nothing to address the issue of resource depletion, and refusing to talk about it won't help.
posted by Nothing at 1:45 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


OK, well then, xarnop, to be clear, and to respond not just to you but to a number of others on this thread:

First, I completely disagree with whatever racist, sexist, or classist lunatics you may have previously encountered who also advocate for negative population growth, and in fact I hereby repudiate and condemn them.

Second, I do not agree with any proposal or program that advocates genocide, mass suicide, forced sterilization, or forced abortion.

Third, I do not agree with any birth control proposal or program that deliberately disproportionately targets women, minorities, poor people, or people of any particular country or ethnicity, except for those that are solely intended to provide education, provide greater access to optional birth control, provide greater freedom of choice, or improve their material condition.

Fourth, I think any program designed to reduce population growth should have its potential effects carefully examined before implementation and its real effects carefully examined after implementation to ensure that it is not having a disproportionately negative effect on any particular subgroup.

Fifth, I am happy to discuss whether any particular program or proposal might have such effects, and whether or not it is possible to mitigate them.

Sixth and finally, I am happy to discuss whether or not overpopulation is actually a problem in the first place, but not in a context where I am being called a genocidal racist etc. unless actual evidence can be presented, from my own words here, that I am a genocidal racist etc.

OK?
posted by kyrademon at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


What a depressing pile of terrible Internet comments. The linked materials make two strong points that are willfully ignored by most of the people responding here: That fertility rates rapidly drop when women have the same legal and social status as men, and that the most effective and fastest drop to "replacement level" reproduction has occurred in Iran without any sort of top-down law like China's one-child policy.

Iran made pre-marital education and all forms of birth control for men and women available nationwide, even in the most remote villages. People--primarily women--made their choices accordingly. This is state-provided health care and family planning. It works without any kind of enforcement, because people prefer it when given the choice.

This is not "nuttery," and nobody looks smarter by throwing around Malthusian (neo- or otherwise) fear mongering about death panels. Take responsibility for your own reproduction choices first, and maybe start supporting the very few organizations with brave enough leadership to deal with population numbers through the political and social equality of women and the widespread availability of all forms of contraception. "Replacement level" means just what it sounds like: Two children per couple. As soon as all women have the ability to freely make these choices, populations miraculously reach replacement levels.
posted by kenlayne at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2013 [14 favorites]


That should say does nothing to address the issue of resource depletion at even current levels of consumption.
posted by Nothing at 1:56 PM on October 20, 2013


"People--primarily women--made their choices accordingly. This is state-provided health care and family planning. It works without any kind of enforcement, because people prefer it when given the choice."

I absolutely agree. So therefore the point is to provide family planning, education, birth control access, and women's empowerment. Anything beyond that and venturing into coercive family planning strategies becomes ethically problematic. A lot of people don't understand however that this still includes respecting women's reproductive choices and efforts to say, shame or reduce financial resources for families with three children as opposed to two hurts real people- CHILDREN which is a whole other level of unethical.

Again, generally most people do not want to raise more than one or two children, if that, and the goal is to increase options (of having less children), not reduce options (to forced numbers of children).
posted by xarnop at 2:06 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a forced conflation of two discussions here:

1. Is overpopulation an increasing problem that will result in great difficulties for near-future humanity?
2. If so, what should be done about it?

Personally, I am quite capable of agreeing with #1 without knowing what to do about #2. In fact, I am capable of agreeing with #1 while believing that the results of not doing anything about #2 may be better than some of the more proactive approaches. In other words, in my mind mass starvation, while difficult to contemplate, is probably a morally superior scenario to warfare and genocide.

The place where the discussion gets derailed is when people state that if you believe #1 then you must therefore believe certain things about #2. Why? Because their libertarian friends believe it, famously racist people believe it, etc. And the burden of proof is now on you to prove that you aren't one of their libertarian friends or that you aren't famously racist.

As shown by the birth rate declines of industrialized nations, population growth is one of those things that is tied to increasing education and prosperity.

Furthermore (and this goes into #2 territory), I think the discussion is getting polarized further by people insisting that the believers of #1 must be racist because all of the gentler forms of population control have already been done, so if you want more population control you *must* go in the direction of forced sterilization, etc. This is not true. A WHO survey found that half of Indian adults felt they didn't have good access to contraceptives. The Catholic Church has enormous sway in the world and isn't friendly to contraception. There are in fact gentler versions of #2 that require that people have a healthy fear of #1, without requiring that they believe genocide is the answer.

But still. No discussion about #2 should inform how studies into #1 are conducted. It may very well be that #1 is so dire that no reduction in birth rates will resolve the issue, and that humanity is caroming toward a terrible period of population reduction. Does that mean that we should therefore abandon our morals and advocate horrible approaches to population reduction? I think not.
posted by lemmsjid at 2:31 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


The problem with overpopulation theory is that environmental problems are not per capita. That is, they do not scale in a linear way with population. It is a wealth and inequality problem.

In principle, we can certainly provide enough energy for nine billion people through sustainable methods; the unused solar capacity is tremendous. The main question is sustainable agriculture, but organic methods would probably feed people better than modern agriculture if you could implement it on a large scale. So the whole "carrying capacity" idea does not hold water.
posted by graymouser at 2:44 PM on October 20, 2013


to Xarnop:

I asked one guy why not the men

The correct anwer to that is that men are not the limit to population control of a group. A single unsterilised male can go out and impregnate 1000 females in a year. It would take some arranging, but it is possible. If you wander around sterilising the women though you limit the maximum birth rate possible. Chopping off testicles could have no effect on birth rates, unless you get to a majority of the population, wheras if you sterilise 10% of the female population you have reduced the potential birth rate by 10%.
posted by koolkat at 3:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


What the world needs is more highly-educated, extremely "busy" business majors and financiers, who work to accumulate the shared wealth, and don't have time for children. The subsequent preponderance of absolutely objectively useless individuals who contribute zero value to the human endeavour will result in the problem taking care of itself within, I estimate, two generations.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:07 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, once we get that "B Ark" finished.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:14 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Population is the issue.

There is a perverse alliance between the bible thumpers and the left on this topic. The people making these arguments that the issue is lifestyle or distribution are playing a silly game with themselves - the quibble is over the number (what population will become unsustainable?) not the outcome.

Urbanists tend to poo-poo the population issues (if everyone lived in high density housing, no problem!), but that it s matter of taste and they are avoiding discussion of pollution, food supply and water supply. People who are naturalists would argue that we've already far exceeded capacity.

The problem is, by not admitting there is a problem and playing head-in-sand games about it (~"all people who talk about this are just racists!") they are effectively delegating the decision of who gets to have kids and how they will live to the rich and powerful. That's OK with me, though.
posted by rr at 3:15 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


rr, that's precisely wrong. People have drastically different environmental impacts, to the point where you can't say one person in the USA equals one person or even ten people in Subsaharan Africa in terms of how they affect pollution, climate change etc. The problems can't be solved in any reasonable time by population control either - that takes generations while we have decades, if we're lucky.
posted by graymouser at 3:21 PM on October 20, 2013


It's apparent that the third option -- get everyone's basic needs met, give them access to education and healthcare, and let folks decide for themselves -- which is already happening throughout most of the world...

In what world is this happening? Certainly not in the US! We still haven't got basic needs met, education in some parts of the country is abysmal, our healthcare certainly isn't worked out yet, and women aren't allowed to make decisions on their reproductive needs unless they have plenty of money to do so.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:57 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's hard for people to question their own understanding of environmental change, not necessarily because we are trying to protect our own lifestyles, but because these narratives of crisis are so compelling. I'm going to quote Forsyth (pdf on his own site) here. Emphases added.
Consequently, much research within political ecology since the 1980s has focused on how and why institutionalized beliefs about environmental change come into place, and on finding alternative, more inclusive, ways of addressing environmental problems. In Nepal, as discussed, the so-called Theory of Himalayan Degradation has been shown to be a simplistic and unrepresentative indication of environmental or social change (Thompson et al., 1986; Ives and Messerli, 1989; Ives, 2004). Other narrative work includes the argument that smallholder farmers are not as responsible as commonly thought for deforestation in West Africa (Fairhead and Leach, 1996); or that desiccation and desertification may not result primarily from overgrazing or human settlement in drylands (Bassett and Zuéli, 2000). Indeed, the political use of ‘crisis’ has emerged as a further theme of analyzing narratives, where it is argued, in the words of Roe (1995, p. 1066): ‘Crisis narratives are the primary means whereby development experts and the institutions for which they work claim rights to stewardship over land and resources they do not own’.
I guess I am just bummed that there has been so much good research that has complicated the simple neo-Malthusian narratives and yet the simplifying pull of those arguments remain so potent.
posted by spamandkimchi at 4:16 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think there is a difference between criticizing how the narrative of crisis is used by certain groups, and denying that there is a crisis.
posted by Nothing at 4:53 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess for me, I just think that YES we need to panic and the idea the only solution is DRASTIC POPULATION CONTROL NOW is missingthe ridiculous large spectrum of things we can do both as individuals and collectively to stop the harms of excess production and consumption that is not sustainable and is toxic/harmful to human beings and other living creatures.

Yes there is a problem, yes we need to all be changing out behavior and work collectively to make big changes. Again, griping about population control is a distraction from this while I of course agree that education, contraceptives, andfamily planning should be accessible to all people. It's fine to work on that as a goal but that is NOT ENOUGH and we need to actually work.

So yes there is a crisis. Mandating other peoples reproductive choices is not your right. For sure address poverty and access to contraceptives and family planning resources as much as you can. Also, what are you REALLY going to do about the crisis? I mean you personally, in your own life, what responsability are you willing to take for every purchase and your own consumption and to make change as an individual and team up with others to change how we use resources as communities and cities? As opposed to that which you want to shame others for?

THAT'S WHERE THE REAL BATTLE IS even if we get everyone to one or two kids that crisis of the wealthiest and industrialized nations grotesque and unchecked consumption of goods produced with harmful and unsustainable techiniques is the real battle. And it's the one looking at those people having too many kids is a great distraction from.

The problem is not overpopulation. It is an unchecked means of production that is propelled by greed and disregard for humans harmed now and in the future. And a population that won't stand up and say FUCK THIS we're not going to stay addicted to these fucked up busines that are happy to destroy our world and human well being as long as the profits keep coming.

So yeah, there's a terrible problem, a pressing terrible problem that needs immediate attention and action to be taken RIGHT NOW. It's us, right here, right now. Not them. You can't control other people so you're wasting your time looking to control others for the solution. Control yourself. Somehow I bet you have excuses that seem pressing and legitimate right? So does everyone. Including the people you're blaming the overconsumption of resources and production of excess waste on this planet on.

We should be saving the poor form poverty, providing empowering resources and access to contraception and family planning BECAUSE IT'S THE RIGHT THING- not because we want to control them to serve our purposes. And if you're trying to change and find it hard, maybe we could all humbly, admit it's really hard for everyone and we could stand to help each other instead of finger pointing and blaming the most vulnerable and struggling people (who are the most likely to be having more than one or two children) instead of asking ourselves to address this problem-- by STOPPING the pollution/waste businesses feel entitled to create, and working on building sustainable housing, communities and products that don't harm employees, consumers, or the environment.
posted by xarnop at 5:29 PM on October 20, 2013


Malthus and his intellectual descendants (Erlich, Weisman) all pretty much make the same mistake: they predict in advance that particular problems won't be solved. Unfortunately for them, that has proven to be a pretty bad bet. In fact that entire perspective is rooted in two particular misconceptions:
(1) That a resource is an essentially finite thing that we pull out of the environment, rather than a shifting, parochial concept that depends almost totally on our level of knowledge and technology.
(2) That people are nothing BUT consumers of these resources, that no one ever leaves things in a better state than they found them in.

In the opposite viewpoint, the problems (environmental, logistical) before us are just that - problems, and therefore the more problem-solvers (people) there are in the world, the better off we'll be. The fact that we (rightly) judge ourselves by ever-improving standards shouldn't blind us to how much better off the majority of people are now.

As an aside, it is interesting that the last 200+ years of absolutely refuted predictions of Malthusian thought has been responded to in a way that echoes the whole 'God of the Gaps' problem in the religion debate ("Well okay, but this NEXT problem can't be solved!"). Bonus points to the quote from Weisman in the New Yorker article that we might somehow run out of Nitrogen.
posted by pixelrevolt at 5:34 PM on October 20, 2013


That a resource is an essentially finite thing that we pull out of the environment, rather than a shifting, parochial concept that depends almost totally on our level of knowledge and technology.

This actually seems kind of insane to me. For example, with oil, enhanced recovery techniques, etc., yes, but do you really believe that it is not "essentially finite"?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:05 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


that's precisely wrong. People have drastically different environmental impacts, to the point where you can't say one person in the USA equals one person or even ten people in Subsaharan Africa in terms of how they affect pollution, climate change etc. The problems can't be solved in any reasonable time by population control either - that takes generations while we have decades, if we're lucky

No, it's not wrong. All you're doing is trying to argue that the point on the number line which amounts to catastrophe is beyond the horizon and thus doesn't exist.

There is a finite amount of light energy reaching the earth. Depending on what the earth looks like (like, are there any intact ecosystems of any kind left when we get to that point?), the number of people we can support with the corresponding amount of photosynthesis varies. But there is a limit.
posted by rr at 6:07 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


As an aside, it is interesting that the last 200+ years of absolutely refuted predictions of Malthusian thought has been responded to in a way that echoes the whole 'God of the Gaps' problem in the religion debate ("Well okay, but this NEXT problem can't be solved!"). Bonus points to the quote from Weisman in the New Yorker article that we might somehow run out of Nitrogen.

So far so good right? This time the gains are permanent. Civilization has reached a permanently high plateau.
posted by rr at 6:08 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


SEMM: We want resources for what they can do for us. As soon as it even *looks* like oil will actually run out, the prices rise and there's a huge economic incentive for alternatives to be developed. So ask yourself: Even if we could ever manage a complete survey of the entire Earth's supply of oil (crazy impossible), can you actually envision the very last drop of oil, from the very last barrel, dripping into a machine sometime in the future? The reason it's not essentially finite is because it will stop being considered a resource before we could ever actually use the last of it. That's what I meant by "parochial". If we knew enough about the physical world, matter itself would be the only resource.

rr: It's the difference between on the one hand, taking problems seriously and believing that they are in principle soluble, and on the other hand, predicting the end of problem solving as we know it.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:25 PM on October 20, 2013


lemmsjid's proposal of gentler ways (Catholic Church, step out of the way!) as well as the folks who have been arguing for some version of population control in this thread are in no way Malthus reborn, who argued for letting the poor die of starvation. Supporting girls' education and contraceptive access are all hugely important.

But the people who point to the history and persistence of class/racial biases in overpopulation arguments and population policies are right to be wary of how these arguments are crafted and repurposed because they are so easily used to justify repressive measures and in fact were first originated/formulated within such a political agenda.

So what next? In A Pivotal Moment – Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, editor Laurie Mazur argues that it is not a matter of choosing between reactionary policies from the past but that “we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice” (via).
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:38 PM on October 20, 2013


Also meant to include a link to this book Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis.

...in Too Many People? we consistently “distinguish between the reactionaries who promote population control to protect the status quo and the green activists who sincerely view population growth as a cause of environmental problems.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:41 PM on October 20, 2013


I am not an advocate of drastic population control. I do think it is important to discuss what a rising population means, what the implications of leveling off at 14 billion would be. Or at 10. Or at 20. We know how to achieve a steady-state population. I sincerely support the people and organizations working for better education and reproductive freedom for women specifically, and (though it can be an ideological minefield) poverty reduction in general. But what do we do when we get there?

One side of that discussion is resource usage. We are currently not capable of maintaining our existing population sustainably - that is, without fossil fuels. If we had to do it tomorrow, most of us would die. It's not all bleak - we could potentially do it with technologies that either already exist, or that we are working towards. But neither is our success assured. There is a pretty fine line, and right now we are way over it, relying on a safety net that will not last forever.

The other issue is that we have no real idea how to handle a steady-state population. Our economies are based on perpetual growth, and the two main drivers of that are population and resource consumption. Both of those need to stop growing, and relatively soon. We aren't really talking about how to handle that.
posted by Nothing at 6:57 PM on October 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have yet to meet or even hear of a Malthusian who is willing to be the change they want to see in the world.

Given the advances in synthetic biology and unnatural selection processes you should be really, really grateful about that.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:17 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "In the opposite viewpoint, the problems (environmental, logistical) before us are just that - problems ..."

That is not an opposite viewpoint. We simply have a different view of what one of the solutions is.

I view reducing population as one way to stave off some forseeable problems that are coming down the pike, naturally in concert with technological innovation and better resource management.
posted by kyrademon at 7:22 PM on October 20, 2013


“If we knew enough about the physical world, matter itself would be the only resource.”

Suspect you don’t know much (anything) about ecology, or the pervasive ongoing biodiversity crisis that humans have generated. Species losses are, for relevant timescales, permanent, and have compounding effects. By the time we can apply enough relevant, affordable technology to grow all of our food in solar powered vats under your approach, it will be too late for much that has enormous intangible value. Humans have a very poor track record in re-establishing habitats, and no record at all in bringing species back from extinction.
posted by wilful at 9:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Personally, I hope we all wind up in giant half-underground pyramid-cities with 95% of the world turned into nature reserves, because that would be awesome. And with nanobots and space factories handling industry. Or simply as giant robots with brains in jars swimming in the oceans of a pristine world.

I have discussed negative population growth policies with a bunch of people, and anyone who pushed a policy that placed negative growth for the Greater Good over individual rights was an ass. The population bomb as a symbol of terror is used to excuse a lot of resource appropriation, reproductive punishments and straight up eugenics.

The Guardian piece on why young Japanese stopped having sex (and children) is well worth adding to this conversation. It's not just about women getting educated, it's about the majority of the population realising that having more than one kid is exhausting and child-rearing still being seen as unpaid work.

I have five kids, four adopted from a family of seven. I would love to have, and hope to have, another two or three kids eventually. Some of my friends have 6-9 kids, and the one thing we have in common is that we really, really like parenting, the act of raising children. It's not religion - I had kids before I was religious, and most of my super-religious friends have 0-2 children. If we couldn't have kids for some reason, I guess we would work at a kindergarten or something child-related. I like children! I like teenagers even!

And that is increasingly rare. We are socially and statistically, freaks. Having a big family in a modern industrialized society takes serious effort. We're already the long tail in our country, with the vast majority at 1-2 children and people without children, either married or single, outnumbering large families.

Countries worry about TFR because fully grown, highly educated productive working adults take about two decades of sustained effort from somewhere. You can import them from other countries, but that's not a long-term solution either. Eventually, governments are going to have to start giving out those shiny Mother medals again (all the way back to Imperial Rome!) to anyone dumb enough like me to have more than three kids.

This is such a non-issue used to push horrible policies. It is so clearly solvable with the provision of contraception, education and human rights, and the very real looming disaster of environmental damage is far more linked to resource consumption and industrial policies than to the single metric of population.

Also, the China one-child policy is not universally applied, with quotas for ethnic groups designed to grow or reduce them as the state sees fit, so that's straight up eugenics there.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:24 PM on October 20, 2013


If you wander around sterilising the women

See, it's phrases like this that lead some of us to understand that Malthusianism tends to go hand in hand with bigotry, and specifically with an openness to genocide and human rights violations.

Anytime we're talking about some unknown "you" sterlizing women -- or really anyone, forced sterilizing of men would be no less of an atrocity -- we're immediately right there in "human rights violations on a mass scale" territory. And since I don't think that anyone in this thread is honestly advocating for reproductive rights to be unilaterally abrogated in the US or Western Europe, it's easy to let a statement like that lead directly to racism, and even genocide.

So it becomes kind of hard to believe that Malthusian ideas and bigotry/genocide don't go hand in hand, or that people who advocate one aren't advocating the other. Because, look, right there, you did absolutely say that you want to go around sterilizing people. Which, at the very least, is against the most basic tenets of a liberal/democratic society, and in a more extreme sense can be read as you advocating genocide.
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 PM on October 20, 2013


In what world is this happening?

In the many, MANY places where we see over and over again that, once you create a food secure affluent middle class with access to education and urbanized/sedentary lifestyles, people magically stop having eight kids and would pretty much universally prefer to have only one or two.

So far Iran and Mexico have been explicitly mentioned. This is why populations in Europe and North America have stagnated (and the US population is only growing via immigration, not birth rate). It's happening in India and China as well, though it's hard to see exactly what that can be attributed to, since both countries have a recent history of oppressive top-down population control measures.

The problem is that, if we're also against people who aren't white having said access and lifestyles, we're sort of shooting ourselves in the foot with the notion of organically controlling the population without resorting to genocide or human rights violations.
posted by Sara C. at 9:59 PM on October 20, 2013


wilful: I was simply making an in-the-limit theoretical point about the very concept of a resource; biodiversity problems (which are real problems I am not attempting to downplay) are caused by specific uses (and misuses) of the environment, which are not simply a mandated consequence of population. To be clear, I do not possess a particularly positive view of the use of fossil fuels. Since we're on the subject though, the improving moral values that correctly assign ever higher priorities to animals and their habitats are themselves a consequence of the general increase in flourishing. At heart my protest is due to the fact that there seems to be no top-down way of controlling population that is not totalitarian and repugnant. If the point made by the neo-Malthusians is merely that we need as much education and available contraception as possible (which we all know affect growth), then it's easy to agree.
posted by pixelrevolt at 10:38 PM on October 20, 2013


This thread is extremely frustrating. I cannot understand why one side is so relentlessly arguing with what they imagine the position of the other side to be, rather than the actual position of anyone on that side who is posting in this thread.
posted by kyrademon at 2:30 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, it's not wrong. All you're doing is trying to argue that the point on the number line which amounts to catastrophe is beyond the horizon and thus doesn't exist.

No, I am arguing that there is no point on the number line that leads to catastrophe, because assuming that there is such a point relies on the false assumption that catastrophe is related to numbers. It is not. The existence of a few hundred thousand extremely rich people is much more environmentally dangerous than that of two billion people living in extreme poverty. It is patterns of consumption that dictate environmental impact, raw numbers are badly misleading and ultimately irrelevant - which is the whole problem in population debates.

There is a finite amount of light energy reaching the earth.

You're joking, right? More solar energy reaches the earth in one hour than every living thing on the planet uses in a year. Treating this as anything other than practically infinite indicates that you're not really serious.
posted by graymouser at 3:02 AM on October 21, 2013


Yeah, this thread is done. Nothing is "practically infinite" (except the universe and human stupidity, ha!) and nobody here is advocating genocide, for fuck's sake, but it's become impossible to have a rational discussion on MetaFilter about this topic.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:10 AM on October 21, 2013


It works without any kind of enforcement, because people prefer it when given the choice.

That's the case with so many problems - addressing the underlying conditions leads to the problems working themselves out. And yet, it happens so rarely.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:46 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Capitalism need exponentially increasing population growth. What kind of commie would demand the opposite?
posted by JJ86 at 7:53 AM on October 21, 2013


> "No, I am arguing that there is no point on the number line that leads to catastrophe ..."

So, are you actually arguing that the earth can support a literally infinite number of humans, so long as they are willing to live at some (unspecified) particular level of consumption, because only patterns of consumption matter and all other factors are irrelevant?

Because that's what you have just said.
posted by kyrademon at 7:54 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


rr's comment specifically said that the sun's energy was "finite." That is a ridiculous point; you'd run out of space to stick humans on earth before you ran out of potential solar energy. So yes, we should treat solar energy as effectively limitless (which I should have said rather than infinite) for purposes of human population. It's simply not relevant to the debate.
posted by graymouser at 8:27 AM on October 21, 2013


This thread is terrible. It's like a global warming thread except the MeFites are all global warming deniers.

I get that people have used population issues to promote some very repressive policies. I also get that people in developed nations use too many resources. But it sounds like people are actually arguing with a straight face that overpopulation is somehow an overblown issue or a non-issue. How can that make any sense?

In any biological system resource pressure increases as population increases. We are going to use up all the arable land, fresh water, fossil fuels, fish, wild spaces and so forth before the population stabilizes, and it's going to be ugly. Even if people back off their resource consumption in the west, it's just delaying the inevitable.

How can anyone not see that? "I met some people who are worried about the effects of overpopulation, and they were jerks" seems to be stated a lot in this thread. Really? That's your argument? Super disappointing and baffling to me.

Kyrademon and Nothing are pretty much correct in their arguments, I think.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:14 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


> > There is a finite amount of light energy reaching the earth.

> You're joking, right?

You should consider trying to be polite here, and it's doubly important when what you are saying is wildly, insanely, unscientifically wrong.

The amount of solar energy that hits the Earth is roughly 8.2 quadrillion BTUs - a finite amount, though large by human standards.

It's important to remember, too, that every square foot that we put a solar power collector on is a square foot where nothing can grow. We could take a huge amount more of the sun's power, but we must reach a limit far, far before we have covered every square inch of the Earth's surface.

But why is this madness even coming up? I see not one person here who's claiming that running out of power is a limiting factor for life on Earth. Why this straw man?

----

Reading this thread is very disturbing.

On one side we have people pointing out that we are already destroying our planet at an alarming rate, we are fishing out the oceans, we are fouling our air and drinking water, we are running out of raw materials of almost every kind, even primary elements like phosphorus - and if the population continues its unlimited growth something will give.

This seems to be a reasonable argument. At the very least, it seems like something that could be discussed rationally.

But what are we getting in return?

Repeated accusations that having this opinion means that you want to commit genocide against people of color and the third world.

Unsupported claims that the Earth can support an unlimited number of people and that resource depletion is simply not a problem - because our intelligence will continue to pull forth new miracles forever.

And near as I can see, deafening silence about the fact that we are destroying our ecosystem.

I'm only going to address the third world issue here - to be brutally frank, if Earth's population continues to grow without bound, there will be suffering on a scale never before seen on this globe, and it will be people of color and the third world who will bear the brunt of it.

Government-imposed fertility control is a terrifying concept - I firmly believe that if people were willing to face up to the fact that there's a problem and work together to try to solve it, we would be able to resolve it. But let me tell you that government-imposed fertility control would be rainbows and candy floss compared to what would happen when we exceed the carrying capacity of the planet.

I took a course on dynamical systems, which concentrated on the mathematics of population - a really interesting field that can't be summed up in a few words. But one of the things that you do see over and over is that populations don't tend toward their limit capacity and make a soft landing (except for overdamped systems, which are very rare, and which we certainly aren't). Instead, populations invariably overshoot their limit capacity by a huge margin - and then there is a collapse of substantial proportions, often to levels significantly below the limit capacity.

Were this to happen to humans, that would translate to, quite literally, billions of deaths in a fairly short period.

The mathematics is so simple, and consequences so terrible, that you would think people would at least be willing to accept that this risk exists. But we're in fact seeing two rebuttals - "We cannot even discuss this because eugenics and thus Nazis", and, "No problem exists, technology will compensate for everything, so there is no risk at all."

It's terrifying. How will we possibly deal with this problem at all rationally if the subject can't even be discussed?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:31 AM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


We are going to use up all the arable land, fresh water, fossil fuels, fish, wild spaces and so forth before the population stabilizes

Currently only 36% of arable land is under cultivation. So even if you don't have tremendous gains in productivity per acre and switches to more nutrient-dense foods, we're a very long way off from running out of land, even if population were to go up to 12 billion. Fresh water I don't have any statistics to hand, but in a crisis there are literal oceans full of salt water that could be desalinated.

Fossil fuels are a nonstarter for population arguments; we'll have climate catastrophes that make a growing population impossible if we continue to consume fossil fuels at current rates. A sustainable diet could also remove the need for commercial fishing. Wild spaces would still exist with 9-12 billion people just as with 7 billion.
posted by graymouser at 11:33 AM on October 21, 2013


But why is this madness even coming up? I see not one person here who's claiming that running out of power is a limiting factor for life on Earth. Why this straw man?

I quoted rr saying that this was a limiting factor for life on earth. They brought up this ridiculous, nonsensical argument - which is why I responded with an "are you joking?".

And near as I can see, deafening silence about the fact that we are destroying our ecosystem.

This is happening at a rate and scale such that population growth is not a factor. We will have catastrophic climate change before we have overpopulation issues of the sort being brought up by our neo-Malthusians, and we could never change the population meaningfully in time to fix the ecological problems we have. And these problems do not scale in a linear way with population.

Neo-Malthusianism is a dangerous and destructive ideology for exactly that reason. It pretends to have a long view when in fact it minimizes the reality that the destructive forces are intimately linked to economic production rather than human population, causing environmentalists to target the wrong problems. Instead of shifting to sustainable production and distribution of foods and goods, they are looking at policies to fix far-off population numbers. But a billion people living like the ones in the US today would be far more dangerous than twelve billion living like in Sub-Saharan Africa.

There isn't enough time to fuck around with correcting population numbers. That takes generations that we don't have. The problem is in production and distribution, and those need to be fixed - now. If they are, humanity could afford to grow to 10 billion people. If they aren't, it won't matter if you get the number down to 1 billion.
posted by graymouser at 11:45 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


graymouser:

> Wild spaces would still exist with 9-12 billion people just as with 7 billion.

Some wild spaces would still exist - though do note how quickly they are already being destroyed with "only" 7 billion, and that the rate of their destruction is increasing faster than the population is.

But absolutely - I agree with you that IF we took the problem dead seriously and made the effort, we could probably support as many as 12 billion people in some sort of reasonable comfort and still keep large wild and semi-wild areas.

What's terrifying is that this isn't happening at all. Many people say that there is no limit to the population we can support - 100 billion, a trillion, whatever. There seems to be little if any concerted effort to get any sort of control on deforestation, pollution, or resource exhaustion. Solar is coming on line steadily - it's a real bright spot - as well as other renewables like wind power, but these will not be sufficient to sustain our technological society. Nuclear is stalled, between frightened environmentalists, corrupt and incompetent industry executives, and the madness of huge bodies of regulation which neither adequately protect the public nor allow the industry to make progress.

> But a billion people living like the ones in the US today would be far more dangerous than twelve billion living like in Sub-Saharan Africa.

I agree with you(*). The root issue is production - or more or less equivalently, consumption.

Do remember, however, that individual consumption (or production per person) tends to increase for both the rich and the poor alike - and even more important, this rate of increase of consumption per person grows at a slower rate than the population grows.

So if the population managed to magically stabilize at today's numbers, then we'd still face the issue of increasing consumption per capita, but more than half the problem would be solved.

(* - well - I'm not sure that the billion vs 12 billion numbers are entirely accurate - it's hard to believe that anything could be worse than 12 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa! - but I agree that high-consuming Westerners are the greatest issue...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:02 PM on October 21, 2013


For some, it is a question of priorities. Some people think that the energy problem is the one that requires immediate and total attention. That doesn't mean that they are hostile to all population control policies, or are not pleased to see people working on population issues.
posted by No Robots at 12:17 PM on October 21, 2013


Do remember, however, that individual consumption (or production per person) tends to increase for both the rich and the poor alike - and even more important, this rate of increase of consumption per person grows at a slower rate than the population grows.

There are two issues with this general statement.

1. Population is growing fastest in the places where people have the lowest impact per capita. That is, the populations that are growing tend to be in the farms and megacities of the third world where people do not drive SUVs or eat factory farm-raised meat shipped in refrigerator trucks across a continent.

2. Industrial consumption and distribution count for a huge amount more of greenhouse gas emissions (and most other forms of pollution) than individual consumption. It's industrial use of electricity and power and transport that are causing the bulk of our problems. That's even further removed from individual consumption by people in fast-growing countries.

Given those two factors, there is a relatively large disconnect between the increase of individual consumption through population growth, and the main ecological problems of our time, climate change and related phenomena. The large policy shift therefore should be toward renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. If this could be carried out on a large scale, it would allow for a world that could support 9-10 billion people.

My concern is that many people who mean well and consider themselves environmentalists get caught up in a losing long game of population decrease, while failing to address the screaming issues in their faces of climate change.
posted by graymouser at 1:18 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Energy Companies Trying To Abuse Intellectual Property Law To Hinder Research Into Impact Of Fracking
posted by jeffburdges at 1:23 PM on October 21, 2013


...Because, look, right there, you did absolutely say that you want to go around sterilizing people

Out of context much? Topic of this FPP is controversial enough without comments like these. Koolkat was responding to a question regarding male/female sterilization - not advocating for one.
posted by 7life at 1:34 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


By all means increase women's education and contraception, reform capitalism so that infinite GDP growth is not expected, find a way to automate production judiciously while keeping the newly unemployed sustained via a guaranteed minimum income. Improve solar power and invest in better forms of energy. But the long-term situation should clearly be the settling of a new frontier, where there may again be land (albeit artificial and manufactured) to farm and room to breathe, and most importantly no natural biome for humanity to despoil. Whether in orbit, under the sea, deep within the Earth's crust, on the Lunar surface, Mercury, Mars, wherever, the next phase should be to take our species to a new environment where we're less able to harm other forms of life. There, we can expand infinitely.

To outer space, every one of us!
posted by Apocryphon at 1:34 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


> "My concern is that many people who mean well and consider themselves environmentalists get caught up in a losing long game of population decrease, while failing to address the screaming issues in their faces of climate change."

Then for the record, I am very concerned about climate change, and I am an advocate for real and immediate changes to mitigate and reverse it, including but not limited to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.

It's almost like I'm not an insane monomaniac with only one concern I can think about or something.
posted by kyrademon at 1:34 PM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Okay, the mathematics is not simple. This is because of a simple structural difference between the two things being compared. The knowledge required to create a new human being is... known to pretty much everybody. I mean it's not difficult at all, that's half the reason people are concerned. So predictions of population usually turn out to be fairly accurate (the current ones are telling us in fact that population growth is NOT unlimited, that the spread of prosperity and the freeing of women from animal-level reproductive cycles is helping to stabilize it)
The future of resource and land usage on the other hand is largely going to be determined by ideas nobody has even thought of yet. Thus predictions of those turn out to be wrong again and again. So the naive conception of resource consumption that looks something like this: (usage rate x predicted n) has been refuted by observation. It is irrational to pretend it hasn't been.

Of course technology is not a magical cure-all. We might survive. We might fail to survive. However, a lower population is no guarantee of the former, because our problems simply do not increase or decrease in straightforward proportion to population; the biological analogy does not apply. We could ruin the planet with 1 billion people. Or a supernova nearby could sterilize the world in a day. Our basic stance toward the future should be that our current knowledge is woefully inadequate to deal with new problems and that therefore the safest option is to have the most flourishing and healthy scientific community possible, a policy that commits us to certain values.

I would love to hear an actual plan, though, if somebody has one. A scheme for population control (enforced) that does not trample the freedoms of the individual, or an explanation for why people in developing countries are not to be allowed the freedom those in the West had.
posted by pixelrevolt at 3:27 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "I would love to hear an actual plan, though, if somebody has one."

One of the reasons I've been so irritated by how bonkers this thread has been is that, frankly, I would love to discuss the pros and cons of possible plans, and I am now incredibly reluctant to do so in this venue. At this point, I honestly feel that if I say, "Well, what about the possibility of a tax-based incentive plan structured like so," instead of hearing, "I think that's flawed because of thus-and-such," I'm going to get, "That would unfairly disadvantage the poor! I KNEW IT! YOU'RE HITLER!!!" Why bother?

And once that's hashed out, even the less extreme responses here have been so handwavey and research-free that it's felt like arguing with people convinced of their opinion without bothering to look at it much. We can just use all the available arable land and desalinate ocean water, but we'll manage to do it sustainably without pollution and without causing mass extinctions through habitat loss or losing significant amounts of the natural wild! ... Really? You have any research to show that's possible? We'll just get rid of overconsumption, and then there will be enough for everybody! ... Really? How much will there be for everybody? What will the standard of living be for each of those 14 billion people? What's your route for convincing or forcing rich people to give up their stuff? What's your route for convincing or forcing poor people to accept that they and their kids are never going to have the stuff the rich people used to have? How is telling the worldwide poor, "Sorry, the rich had their fun for a while and you didn't, and now no plane trips or beef for you ever" not exactly the same kind of draconic imposition the population-lowering advocates are being accused of promoting?

Again, what's the point of bothering when it looks like the response is going to be "you're wrong because a miracle is going to happen that will solve everything"?

And to be fair, a miracle might happen - they have happened to stave off Malthusian collapse scenarios in the past. But it's a heck of a thing to rely on, and no one seems to be addressing one elephant in the room, which is namely that those previous miracles came with some pretty hefty problems of their own -- in fact some of them, like industrial agriculture, are themselves the very problems we are desperately trying to fix before they end up causing a different kind of collapse than the one they prevented.

And yes, some of those problems, and other related ones, need fixing RIGHT NOW or there isn't going to be any point to the slow population decrease some of us think is a necessary part of a long-term solution, because a different Doomsday Bomb will go off first. But not thinking about the long term at all is part of how we got into that mess in the first place. And the focus on the immediate has led some people here to say some frankly ridiculous things in order to dismiss the potential long-term problem -- like that there is literally no limit whatsoever to the amount of human life earth can support.

But anyway, to finally answer the question asked ... probably what would be needed, more than anything else, is a change in attitude about population levels. Currently, whenever the birth rate drops below replacement levels, there is PANIC and FEAR and WARNINGS OF DOOM that there are, for example, going to be more old people than young people and this is going to cause dire tax and workforce issues. (Or in some cases, horrible racist/classist fears about being outbred -- which, interestingly enough, is where I have heard the awful icky stuff people have brought up here; not from the people who believe in population lowering, but from people who actually want their "own kind" to "breed more".)

Figuring out a way to both deal with the problems of an aging population, and making them an acceptable short term difficulty on the way to a long term goal would help ... but first people need convincing that the long term goal is necessary. All evidence, including this thread, suggests that's an uphill battle. But, frankly, so is convincing people to move to sustainable practices, accept lowered consumption, and even believe basic climate change research in some cases, so it's not like the goal is more out of reach than the others expressed in this thread.

So there's my answer, I suppose. How to lower population levels without draconian measures? Make lower population levels seem desirable. Using research, information dissemination, and, as everyone has already noted in this thread, improving living standards, education, civil liberties, and access to birth control all around.

But I do think it requires a push for it, a change, rather than the "let things run their natural course and things will level out eventually" that has been brought up a lot. Because maintaining 14 billion people at a standard of living above "hellish" may prove to be a more difficult task than many here are predicting.
posted by kyrademon at 4:52 PM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


One has to admit, using Koranic law to get Muslim nations to enact population control laws (as Iran did, according to the article) is the sort of thing that could get the American right-wing onboard, what with fears of Eurarabia and all that drivel.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:22 PM on October 21, 2013


I think I've been drastically misinterpreted in some areas (if I'm right that certain things are addressed to me) but since I can't leave well enough alone I think it's worth quibbling further about a few things (mainly picking on your post, kyrademon, as it is the most recent):

I thought I was arguing against population *control*. If a country voted into power a party who planned to introduce a tax-based incentive scheme, how could one object? You must already know that such a scheme does not count as coercion in any real sense (as long as it's voted in and it's not a law), and so the subtle accusation of hysterical overreaction seems completely unwarranted. I personally can't even say whether I would be for or against such a scheme - it would mostly depend on the specific country (in the shorter term that kind of thing can ease certain pains).

"-we can just use all the available arable land..." I'm not sure anybody here actually advocated this, but this criticism is too simplistic for two reasons: we are constantly making newly arable land out of previously unusable land (*not* endorsing this), and the per capita agricultural land usage of human beings is continually decreasing. If our priorities were better, we could even be using a lot less (By building vertically and by devoting more smaller urban spaces to private farms and gardens). Again, nothing about the specific number of people around DETERMINES that we must act as rapaciously as Big Agriculture has tended to.

"...a miracle is going to happen" I have some problems with this too. The only prophesy I've heard has come from the Neo-Malthusian side, setting justified predictions (of population) against unjustified ones (of our future knowledge regarding resources, farming techniques etc), and then deriving from those predictions a 'desired' or 'supportable' number of human beings. I have tried to argue that this derivation is unsound (the "evidence" that those opposed to population control are supposedly blind to is overwhelmingly supportive of this criticism). For this reason I don't personally believe I know what the best number of human beings is for a particular time; I just don't believe anyone else does either.

Additionally, the repeated usage of the word "miracle" in this thread is completely misplaced. When a large number of serious people sit down and rationally attempt to solve a problem, solutions can happen. Are they guaranteed? No. But nor should we necessarily be *surprised* when they happen, and it definitely does not in any way constitute a "miracle".

"like that there is literally no limit whatsoever to the amount of human life earth can support." - This is a matter of perspective. It's technically not the Earth that supports us. For most animals, they information they need to survive is in their genes. It's not in ours. If the average Western socialite tried to live in the primeval human habitat they would die. The environment is (roughly) the same, so it's the ideas that actually makes a difference and not the specific form the environment takes. However I appreciate that this statement is so incredibly far removed from the practical and everyday that people might take it the wrong way.

I totally agree that replacement rate should not factor into decision making in the slightest and that falling below it is not a cause for panic. The proposed actions "Using research, information dissemination..." are also completely unobjectionable - but of course those are things we should want as a matter of course. Persuasion is absolutely fine: but all coercive options are unavailable to you (in theory) in Democratic societies, thankfully. I certainly view the invocation of a perceived future emergency as an extremely poor excuse to begin infringing on a person's freedom. Of course the ongoing failure to persuade people of the MANIFEST truth of Malthus is often interpreted as evidence that the "average person" is irrational, stupid or selfish (and that therefore we may be justified in controlling their actions). I accuse no one here of this interpretation but I believe it underlies a lot of talk on this issue, and it is that I'm actually fighting against.
posted by pixelrevolt at 4:55 AM on October 22, 2013


You can't talk about the joy that is the topic of this thread without the thrill of the Jevons Paradox
posted by lalochezia at 7:06 AM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


A few comments, pixelrevolt --

Not all of that was directly addressed to you, and I do understand that your objection was to coercion, not necessarily to the simple concept of population reduction itself. However, there has been a fairly vocal contingent on this thread which has essentially been claiming that the only route to population reduction is coercive, racist, genocidal action, and that therefore if someone supports population reduction they must therefore be authoritarian, racist, and genocidal.

I have no disagreement that any attempt at a Malthusian-style "prediction" measures a well-studied number (predicted future population growth) against a totally unknowable one (future available resources.) But making the *opposite* prediction, that future population growth will cause no problems, is making exactly the same unknowable measurement. And while you are entirely right that thus far, Malthusian predictions have never panned out because of a series of technological innovations, no one has really addressed the fact that some of those very innovations are now causing serious, cascading problems of their own. Were they solutions or stop-gaps? Will future technological innovations solve any upcoming problems or will there somewhere, at some point, be a hard wall? We don't, and can't, know, and taking measures to reduce one obvious point of stress on the system doesn't seem like a bad idea.

And while the term "miracles" was perhaps a bit fighty, the casual way that this point of stress on the system has been dismissed by many on this thread -- to the point of denying that it is or can be a point of stress -- disturbs me greatly. Solutions that are very problematic and difficult have been brought up as if they are easy and obvious. While no one actually advocated for using all arable land, there was certainly a comment that since we're only using about a third of it right now, we'll be fine even with a massive population increase -- with very little, if any, thought given to the potentially far-reaching implications of a giant increase in farmland. It has been repeatedly stated by some that the population number is irrelevant because only consumption matters, which is only true if consumption will or can be brought to an arbitrarily low number for any given individual (or if resources -- ALL resources, including food, energy, materials, and fresh water -- become effectively infinite.) Will resources become effectively infinite? Or will consumption be brought down? Can it be brought down low enough? How low is resource usage for each individual going to get? We can't know, and if the answer to the last one turns out to be "unacceptably low", for whatever "unacceptable" means at the time, then population numbers most certainly do matter.
posted by kyrademon at 7:20 AM on October 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


A couple of my final thoughts:
"...innovations are now causing serious, cascading problems of their own" Solving a problem always creates more problems. There is no problem-free way to live. Will there be a 'hard wall' on our ability to solve problems? There are two interpretations of this question:

1. That we might face a *theoretically* soluble problem which, for whatever reason, we fail to solve in time, and the consequences are so disastrous as to wipe us all out. We have no way of predicting or avoiding most of these. The nearby supernova example is good here: it's just radiation, which in theory we know a little about how to protect ourselves from, and yet we'd stand no chance today and don't even plan for it. If the extinction was less than complete it would of course not constitute a 'hard wall' on problem solving, and thus resource-usage disasters and the like are actually not examples of this type of problem, because their consequences, while potentially horrible, cannot kill everyone at once. The irony is that the best protective measure against many problems in this class would be greater numbers, but I digress.

2. That we might face a problem which no amount of rational thought could ever solve. This is a much deeper proposition: In effect this would be a boundary on the rationality or explicability of the universe. There's no way of settling this question, but it's hard to have an only slightly irrational universe. In my opinion believing in this possibility entails giving up the scientific, rational program altogether.

It is probably also worth distinguishing between technology and knowledge. The word technology in this context evokes apprehension of the looming accusation of scientism (at least it does in me), but technology is just physically embodied knowledge. As an example, some advances in farming came in the form of pure know-how and were not instantiated in any tools or machines.

I do take your point about stress. Some communities or countries may be justified taking democratic measures to 'encourage' a reduced population. It would be an extremely complex decision dependent on many factors. And since all their effort could be ruined (at the global scale) by the country next door breeding more, calling for a reduced WORLD population appears to be the same thing as calling for a worldwide program of population reduction, which I hope we can agree is plainly not feasible (how could you convince everyone?).

Lastly I suppose we will have to agree to disagree about population numbers mattering. I have tried to argue that the concept of a resource is parochial, and that where we misstep in the environment it is due to poor knowledge and priorities. With respect to the point on land: A giant increase in population does not necessarily cause a giant increase in farmland. For example the FAO projects that 80-90% of the growth in food production in developing countries from now until 2030 will come from greater efficiency and not land increases, despite the growing population.

I've enjoyed this debate, thanks.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:11 AM on October 23, 2013


But why is this madness even coming up? I see not one person here who's claiming that running out of power is a limiting factor for life on Earth. Why this straw man?

Apparently you don't realize that light is used for photosynthesis. You know: food.
posted by rr at 12:11 PM on October 23, 2013


Ars Technica:
Reversing climate change even more difficult than it might sound
posted by XMLicious at 6:55 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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