Talking about Population

Posted on February 16, 2012 by


Summary: The ‘population question’ comes and goes, but the issue never really goes away, and there is still a general unwillingness to talk about it. While I certainly don’t see it as the world’s greatest threat, I think the goal of a stable population across the world is an honerable one, and one unavoidable requirement for true sustainablity and freedom from poverty. Rapid population growth is inevitably tied to high levels of poverty.

As the human population passed seven billion recently, a rare opportunity was welcomed by individuals and organizations to once again raise the long-standing  but unresolved question – how many people (and at what living standard) can the Earth support. It is not an easy topic to go about discussing without angering someone, but there are different ways of reasoning.

One line of reasoning could be called the Malthusian-Marxian approach.[1] Here it is argued that the bourgeoisie have long controlled not only production but also reproduction – it being in their interest to:

i.            have fewer children of their own (keep wealth concentrated); and to

ii.            ensure that the proletarians have large families (to maintain a cheap and abundant labor force).

By withholding contraception from the majority, wealth and power is maintained at the top of the pyramid, while any small gains made by the working class quickly dissipate, divided amongst their many offspring. It portrays the wealthy minority in the global North as actively preventing family planning in the Third World, out of their own self-interest. In the same way, they may talk tough but act soft on illegal immigration – benefiting from illegal immigrants who keep wages down and have little bargaining power.

This can appear somewhat cynical or conspiracy-theorist, but the softer form of a similar argument could be made by calling it a democratic deficit. Those in the First World generally have the choice and ability to access contraception and abortion, while many in the Third World don’t have that choice. Pro-life advocates often portray the argument as population control being forced upon the South, while the counter argument says that it is only providing them the same choices that we already have in the North. It should always be emphasized that this isn’t about forcing anything on anybody, but simply supporting the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.

A related line of reasoning could be called the Darwinian approach, to counter arguments that it is unnatural or inhumane to try to restrain our fertility. I believe conciously maintaining a stable population can ultimatelydistinguish us as human. Darwin’s insights imply that all members of the animal kingdom give birth to more offspring than the environment can support, so that there is competition over scarce resources where only the ‘fittest’ will survive. Relating to Malthus’ theories, this implies that without conscious intervention we are destined, to an inevitable scarcity of resources and some degree of subsequent poverty.

Recognizing this, what could be more humane than limiting our own fertility and only giving birth to a population we know the Earth can support? A stable population with a low birth and death rate and an absence of scarcity would be the ultimate achievement, truly distinguishing us from the animal kingdom.

Many objections arise due to religious concerns. This final argument works best for those of us who feel that a population decline is inevitable – that a population of seven billion was only achieved because of a one-off burst of fossil energy and an unsustainable high-yield agricultural model. It is not easy or pleasant to think of population decline, but if you do believe it will happen, we need to consider the ways it can come about. We should aim to pursue the path of least violence [2] – a concept that should be entirely compatible with traditional religious beliefs.

There are many gloomy scenarios for population decline; wars fought over dwindling resources, epidemics, famines, droughts, migrations caused by changing climates. It is certain that any of these will be worsened by a higher population. What is the path of least violence? Surely preventing population growth through individual free-will prior to birth is a far less violent outcome (both among humans, and the violence our species inflicts on the natural world). If contraception really is an ‘evil’, surely it is the lesser of two evils?

Population is central to the concept of steady state economics (“…constant stocks of people and artifacts”). However, it should never be seen as the top priority. A steady state economy (SSE) is most urgently needed in the nations of the ‘developed’ world, where natural fertility rates are already low. Perversely, many of these countries actively seek population growth to support continuing economic growth, policies that will no doubt be dispatched with under an SSE. Targeting excessive affluence should always remain a far more important cause.

In spite of this, wherever a country or individual seeks assistance for family planning, there is no just argument for doing otherwise. Withholding such support is immoral, illogical, undemocratic and, ultimately, little short of criminal. Hopefully these reflections provide help in ensuring that ‘the population issue’ is not sidelined, as if it really is too taboo to debate.

[1] This is along the lines of Herman Daly’s arguments (see for example relevant sections of his books Steady State Economics and Beyond Growth). However, the interpretation given above is my own.

[2] An example of this reasoning is given by Derrick Jensen in ‘premise nine’ of his book Endgame.