Utne Blogs > Environment

Peak Population

 by Morgan Winters


Tags: Environment, population, overpopulation, population crisis, energy crisis, global warming, climate change,

Let’s not repeat our energy failures when addressing the global population crisis

OverpopulationAmericans have a long history of inciting political action by shaking one problem under our politicians’ noses to draw attention to another. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. Liberals are notoriously less-than-fond of Big Oil’s rabid profit margins, so we point out the obvious need for alternative energy. Then, because we don’t want to come off as anti-business, we frame it as an environmental problem. But it is also an economic problem, a social problem, and a foreign policy problem. Our hope, however tenuous, is that the environmental issue is one that can bring everybody, liberal and conservative, together to address the oil conundrum. This has proven to be a reasonably effective approach. While our energy crisis is far from solved, at least it is being talked about by both presidential candidates. Which is a lot more mic-time than they’re giving our other global environmental catastrophe: the population crisis.

A recent report (pdf) by the Population Institute notes that global population could increase from 6.7 billion to as much as 12 billion by 2050. Most of this increase is expected to occur in developing countries. In spite of these bleak findings, the closest thing to population reform coming from the right amounts to, “If the world’s brown people would stop having so many babies, there’d be no crisis.” In other words: Population is not our problem. On the left, sentiment has been that if we ease poverty and increase education in developing countries, the trajectory of global population will even itself out. Basically, solve two pressing problems and the third is a freebee.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that as global citizens, the growing number of people inhabiting the Earth is everybody’s problem. It’s also safe to say that, based on solid statistical evidence, there is a direct relationship between lower standards of living and larger family size. Yet there is no guarantee that addressing these quality-of-living issues will solve the population problem, in part because our definition of what constitutes a problem in population is fuzzy.

We are faced with a crisis not because there are too many of us for the planet to sustain, but because we are collectively using up more resources than the planet can produce. This isn’t just true with valuable commodities, like oil and ore. The most basic of resources are growing scarce as well—food, potable water, wood. While reducing consumption in first-world countries will go a long way in addressing this problem, a population that just keeps growing will eventually overwhelm the planet, regardless of consumption. And as formerly impoverished nations achieve moderate prosperity, their consumption grows, likely negating any environmental benefits from reduced population growth via poverty aid. Therefore, a two-pronged solution is needed: reduced consumption and staved population growth.

It is widely believed that the U.S. population is in decline and has been for decades. Hence, the assumption is that limiting our own population won’t address the global problem. This is untrue on two counts. First, as Utne.com noted in January, the birth-to-death ratio in this country recently reached replacement level again. Second, a child born in a first-world country uses far more resources and therefore emits vastly more carbon than a child born in a developing country. Limiting births and limiting carbon emissions would be far more effective than addressing only one of these issues. This not only makes an impact within our own country, it sets an example for other nations as well.   

One of the primary obstacles to enacting effective international policies to curtail the population explosion is that, like climate change up until recently, there is no real consensus that the present global population is a problem. Many countries, including the United States, still actively encourage family growth through tax incentives and other pronatalist policies. Population control—even of the most moderate variety, like simply advocating smaller families—is met with vehement opposition. These objections are not based on science or even logic; they are informed by the human desire to live the way we wish, consequences be damned. Or, put more generously, the biological, mammalian urge to procreate without restriction. The only way to counteract this desire is to make it less profitable to have children.

Rather than giving tax credits to parents, we need policies that attend to educational inadequacies, create affordable food cooperatives, and ensure that all children have medical coverage. Tax credits are meant to provide funds for these necessary services to families. If food, healthcare, and education are provided, actively subsidizing procreation won’t be necessary. This will increase the quality of life for families without punishing parents or promoting family growth.

Next, make birth control and voluntary procedures such as vasectomies and tubal ligations more widely available worldwide. For every unplanned pregnancy averted, one less little bundle of CO2 emissions is born. These changes are not anti-family. They are not a replication of China’s one-child policy. They simply help with family planning and give equal standing to small families, large families, and single people by de-subsidizing procreation. Pair this type of response in Europe, North America, and wealthy nations around the world with poverty relief and education in developing countries, and we may begin to make a real environmental impact that our children, if we choose to have them, can enjoy.

Another barrier facing advocates of population control is that, historically, attempts to limit population growth have often been motivated by the wishes of dynastic Eurasian puppet masters to maintain their grip on the indigenous populations of desirable regions under their control. Put simply, this form of population manipulation is preemptive genocide. Nicholas Kristof offers an astute summation of the grimy history of population control in a review of a book on the subject in the New York Times. This damaging association between the tyrannical and the humanitarian motivations of limiting population bolsters the need for transparent and public worldwide policies. If these policies appear to limit African and Asian populations while France and the United States continue to reward large families, the campaign will be seen as ethnic manipulation rather than an attempt to solve a global emergency. And rightly so.

There is another telling lesson to be gleaned from the crusade to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy: the necessity of acting while we still can. It is beginning to seem that, if velocity continues to build, we may yet solve our energy conundrum. Of course, solving a problem and actually fixing it are two very different things. The one relies on scientific invention (something humanity is notoriously good at), while the other necessitates pragmatic action (something we find much more difficult). Things are still looking pretty bleak. But as the Bush stranglehold begins to weaken, it seems almost certain that we will continue the push toward alternative forms of energy.

We may still dodge the bullet. Because of some long-overdue, forward-thinking policy adjustments—and more to come, one can hope—we may still be allowed a weaning period. In this scenario, energy costs will steadily rise. The poor will bear the brunt of the burden, as they always do in times of economic and industrial transition. But innovation will balloon, and the dividends of increased innovation will grow. If this is the case—and it is far from a forgone conclusion—it will be only because we made the right calls in the nick of time, in spite of heavy opposition from those unwilling to give up the luxuries they’d grown fat on. Any longer and we surely will be forced to forgo a transitional period in favor of more drastic measures.

And what of population? It is no stretch to assume that complacency and an unwillingness to make sacrifices, to self-regulate, will ultimately result in imposed regulation by government or nature. If we do not begin the process now—cautiously and with plenty of forethought, to be sure—our descendants, perhaps only a hundred years from now, will be faced with a crisis so dire that governments will be forced to drastic action.

It is baffling that, given the intense growing pains felt during the transition between fossil and alternative fuels, such concerns are scoffed at. A lack of fortitude and forethought in energy policy almost destroyed the planet, and still might. How much more difficult will it be, sometime in the near future, to make the argument that the choice to have a child is no longer a decision that can be made freely? Better to address the problem now, while we can still stomach the sacrifices a solution requires.

Image by karimian, licensed under Creative Commons.