We’ve introduced this here and there in other posts, but the topic is important enough to warrant a header of its own. In short, we’ve got a big problem, and it’s getting worse fast: that being, that the earth’s population has just surpassed 7 billion, and the UN projects that it will reach 10 billion before it begins to level off ca. 2050.
Now, why is that a problem, people all-too-commonly ask? Well, leaving aside the appeal of a world where everyone could afford to own multiple acres of real estate, and where there would be huge swaths of relatively pristine wilderness to adventure in, we can start with the fact that overpopulation is the root cause of almost every bad thing that Al Gore mentions in An Inconvenient Truth. Gore mentions this briefly, but he doesn’t dwell on it, since he knows that mentioning population control is even more of a political pickle than his brave championing of environmental issues. You see, Global Warming = average eco. footprint x number of people. So, Gore has been focusing on reducing our ecological footprints per capita – which is fine and dandy, but the simple fact is, that if the population of the planet were say about 1/7th or 1/10th of what it is now, we’d have a lot fewer emissions – and, what is better: everyone alive could pollute like a smokestack, and not have to worry about its impact on the environment. I, for one, would far rather live in a world where I could drive whenever I wanted, burn wood in my chimney, and leave all the lights on, than have to live in a world where I am allowed 200 sf of space, can’t drive, have a fireplace, or consume anything more elaborate than a bowl of chic peas (which are my favourite bean, by the way–but beans, after all, are only beans). The point is not to emphasize my own selfish desires, of course, but to point out that this would be the case for everyone–having to ‘go green’ would become more or less a non-issue!
So, the desirability of lowering the population is clear, from an environmental point of view. And if the world only had say 500 million people, wow – I mean, think of the wide open spaces that we could all have to roam in, all the time? Think of the nature that could flourish in such a world! And the diversity that wouldn’t need to be protected by inevitably half-heartedly enforced laws. Today we marvel when we go to South Dakota and see a herd of a few hundred bison grazing, and imagine what it must have been like when there were millions, and when they had free roam of the plains from Texas to Alberta. Now they get a few measly square miles, and are carefully regulated every step of the way: it’s like the Far Side’s “Nature Preserves.”
Also, one then has to ask the question, why would one not want a lower the global population? Why do people look at you like you’re a nutcase just for suggesting that a world with a billion people would ideally be better? I guess part of the problem is that people are so un-used to thinking in terms of ideals that they assume you’re going to advocate nuclear armageddon or something as your means for lowering population, when as hinted in other posts, one can do just nicely with not-too-drastic, in fact barely noticeable, tax incentives, wisely implemented. But more on that later. For now the main thing is that lowering population would not only be good (read: essential) from an environmental perspective, but also fabulous because property prices will drop drastically along with population decreases. This is wonderful, because the average person will therefore be able to afford a lot more land – I have studied the Black Death at some length, and while it certainly sucked to die of plague or to have family members die, those who came after the plague found that they could afford literally three times the real estate that their parents could afford. So, the point is, now that we have so much more potential to regulate ourselves, we could engineer such an effect with minimal pain or trauma, and maximum benefit to the average person.
So the question is, why don’t we see big billboards advocating that we all have 1.8 children, which would slowly but securely lower the population levels over, say, 200 years? The answer is, that economists, and most of the people with mega-dollars who depend upon them, are terrified of any notion of population decline. In fact, many middle class people in the US would be against population stagnation or decline for economic reasons as well, for the following reasons. One, property values would decline, which would mean that everyone’s house would be worth less, although this effect, if the decline was mild, would not be universal, and might be so gradual that people wouldn’t really notice. And in an absolute sense, it really matters rather little if your house if worth 260k or 240k. Many people obsess about this figure as if it actually impacts their monthly cash flow, which, usually, it does not. And yet, human nature being what it is, of course most people get far more worked up about their own house losing 10% of its value over 10 years, rather than have the earth’s population increase by that amount in the same period – the numbers are simply too abstract for the average person to grasp on their own – unless the pundits seize upon this issue, and make it a public one.
The other reason why economists and investors shudder at the thought of population decline is because the overall growth of the world economy each year is virtually guaranteed to increase, in an average year, so long as population continues to increase. More mouths means more consumers, more consumers means more bottom line, especially for the largest global firms. It is true that economic downturn would be spread unevenly, and some industries would always gain shares, even in a declining overall market. But, again, the gigantic companies like Coca-cola, McD’s, Dow, Bayer, Proctor & Gamble, etc, all depend on having more mouths to buy their products each year for their continued economic growth. To witness firsthand how highly pro-population growth the economics field is, one need only turn to The Economist, where one continually sees editorials on how countries with low projected population growth rates are decried as economic minefields, while places with high population growth are declared to be economic Nirvana, even if, as in Eastern Europe, these places’ spiralling population is leading to a drastic reduction of living conditions and well-being for the average person. Generally, economists aren’t in the business of caring about quality of life per capita.
So what we see here, is a clash of interests, between the investing classes (including much of the middle class) and everyone else, who has to suffer from living in high-rise buildings, crowded conditions, noise, pollution, unsightliness squalor, and all the other ills that accompany spiralling population, while the middle classes are at least somewhat insured against these things in the short run.
In the medium and long run, however, the middle classes are not benefitting from their short-sightedness, since the world is quite rapidly becoming overheated. There are wildfires raging in California and Greece on an annual basis, and this is the beginning of desertification. Also, middle class living standards in the US peaked some time ago, and the average house now contains much less land than it did in the 70s, when the average person could still reasonably expect to have a whole 1/3 acre of their own (this should be the minimum size for suburban lots, to ensure enough space between the houses, visually, and for the children of the place to run in and feel free from built-up areas). But compare this to the 1700s, when every American could have 100 acres for the taking! And, though, sure, population reduction would mean less spectacular economic growth, or even an overall contraction, don’t tell me that there won’t still be plenty of ways to get rich if one feels the need to do so–during the last major European economic decline, which was in the late middle ages, there were still plenty of very wealthy people – the main difference was that the middle class got bigger relative to the poorer classes, and everyone in the mass of citizens, both middle and lower classes, benefitted from cheaper land.
So, how about this UN forecast of 10 billion by 2050? Not only is it alarming that population will get that high, but the UN then predicts that the Earth’s population will actually plateau, for the first time in perhaps 6 centuries. Thank goodness that they predict some type of plateau – but let’s remember what that means: the world population will stabilize at 10 billion anyway, and quite soon, so the economists who are so scared of population stagnation or decline now, will have to confront that anyway! The point is: sooner, or not too later, economists are going to have to confront the idea of a stagnant or declining population: the world just does not have room for more than 10 billion people, anyway. Some astonishing people I’ve read on the net or in futurist magazines confidently predict that “by then,” we’ll be able to go “to other worlds.” (Er, by 2040? I think not). And, like, where? Mars? Who the hades wants to live on Mars? Do all the terraforming you might want – you’re still going to have to live in what is essentially a shopping mall, with lower gravity and lower sunlight levels, which will have god knows what effects on you in the long run. No, sorry, folks, Mars is not an option – and I don’t think we’ll have warp drive any time in the next century, –if we ever figure out how to travel to nearby stars with any efficiency (assuming they have liveable planets, etc — all of which is too many ifs to take in any serious way).
So, we’re left with the fact that–sorry–we just have one earth. And even 10 billion people is probably more than its possible long-term capacity, even with super-enviro cars and energy. And besides, who wants to live in a world of 10 billion people, when it could so easily be less? I think that, in the long run, people will realize this, and aim for a much lower target - so that nature can get back in balance. It’s the only viable long-term solution.
Which leaves one further, potentially major, issue to address: what about lengthening lifespans? It does look as if we might even be able to ‘cure’ natural ageing, certainly within 100 years. Then what do we do? I’ve heard friends piously talk about how we can’t limit people’s god-given right to have as many children as they want… well, guess what, I’m biologically capable of a lot of things which are illegal because they harm other people, or they harm the environment. I mean, I’m not allowed to piss on my neighbour’s flower bed, and why not? Well, having 10 kids, in this day and age, is basically pollution, people – deal with it! Every person has a major environmental impact, and nature for centuries had a very simple way of dealing with excess population: it was called starvation and disease, and natural ageing. But now we have to think: if we cure starvation, disease, and ageing, we also have to realize that this will have other effects that we have to control for, like, say, a global population of 10 billion – when historically, it was never more than a few hundred million, or even less before agriculture was invented.
So, we have to face the fact that we are living in a time when the technology that we worship (perhaps a little too miuch) has created major challenges to the environment, one of the worst is the massive overpopulation which has resulted from medical and food-production technology, especially where it has clashed with third world value systems. It is well known that most of the worst overpopulation today is happening in the 3rd world, and this is largely because, 2 generations ago, people in many parts of the 3rd world were living in a pastoral economy. In this type of herding economy, the goal is to have multiple wives, and have as many kids as possible – because this makes you rich, because then you can herd more goats. (That’s not a joke, though it’s put very succinctly). There is the clash: the first world’s discovery of new technologies has ensured accesss to just eough food and medicine that many more children survive, and yet it is in our nature to cling to social norms for several generations, often after they are useful or even beneficial to us. Even many Americans, especially under the influence of Catholicism and other religious sects, still act as if there is no overpopulation problem, or worse, that God has given them a command to go forth and multiply (do the math: if we all had 8 kids – well, Earth would look like Coruscant in about 50 years - but these things can no longer be sustained. Times they are a-changin.
Back to the notion of ‘curing’ ageing. I really hope they do. I for one would love to live for 500 years (until statistically an accident would get me), and be 26 forever. Awesome! But it will probably be just after my time that they break that genetic code which was designed to continually improve our species’ survival chances, I’d wager. And the cure might only be available for the rich. But when they do cure ageing, then, we’re finally going to see the public and politicians belatedly coming to the realization that, gosh, I guess we have to limit people’s ability to have kids, if they choose to have themselves genetically modified so that they don’t age. Some religious folks will chose not to get ‘cured’ and then they can have their 1.8 kids (or more, if they pay a small surcharge for the privilege). But at that time, society will still have to figure out what to do about the economics of a stagnant population, and have to live with it.
So, economists – get working - I think it won’t be nearly so bad as you think. And for the rest of us, well, I think that, for human society in the long run, a world with a half-billion people is a world that has taken a giant step towards paradise. Thus, the Platonist concludes: for an ideal environment, we need to implement policies which aim to maintain a human population of about 500 million or a billion people. The earth is a finite system, after all, and it’s the goal of the Platonist to discover a population figure which would provide the richest life experience for every member of the race. In a world with 10 billion people, the vast majority will have to live in highly crowded conditions, and as human beings we all evolved in a very sparsely populated hunter-gatherer type environment, entirely surrounded by nature. We all yearn for big spaces, even if we like living in town. We need ready access to the Earth. This is only sustainable in the long run if the Earth’s population is small. What do you think would be the ideal figure?
(Oh, P.S. – forgot to address that tagline of some evangelical preachers who advocate unlimited multiplication: “There’s plenty of open space in the US!” Well, they neglect to take into account that the economy works in terms of central place function: meaning that most of the jobs in any given socity will tend to clump together, in say NYC or LA. So yeah, there’s plenty of land in North Dakota, but there are no jobs, so very few people can sustain themselves there! Thus: it’s a non-argument.)
And here’s a link to the wiki article on the ‘green revolution’, which goes a long way to explaining why we have too darn many people! (Note the section on ‘malthusian criticisms.’ I guess that I would count as a Malthusian in this case): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_revolution#Malthusian_criticism
And, when I googled this topic, I found very few other links which raised this same question: proof that the word needs to get out. In this case, the link was to an Utne Reader article, in which a Cornell professor had estimated that, in the long term, the earth should have no more than 2 billion people in order to have a sustainable population on the earth: and note that these people would have only half the living standard of the average American in the 1990s. Which is why I’d still argue that something closer to 1 billion would be ideal. And note, he estimates that if we got average household size to 1.5 (which would ideally be done thru democratic processes, of course), then the population of the earth could be down to 2 billion in only 100 years. Meaning that this isn’t a pipe dream. Otherwise, as he and I both agree, the 22nd century, with an earth full of 12 billion or more people living in squalor, is no place for human dignity to thrive.