Post No.: 0139
The size of the global human population matters because this planet only has a limited amount of resources, including land, and can only take so much human-made pollution. The vast majority of human existence has been about hunter-gathering and not over-exploiting environmental resources. Agriculture (which started around an estimated 10,000 years ago), the Industrial Revolution (which started around 200 years ago) and advances in sanitation and medicine increased population numbers exponentially. What makes a species powerful and dominant on the planet could eventually be the root cause of that specie’s future downfall. (You can read Post No.: 0049 for a few potential ways how.) And humans are forcibly dragging other species of life from all ecosystems down with them too (which is not very libertarian).
No one is suggesting going back to hunter-gathering though, so to stabilise global populations, some argue that each couple should only have about two children, and if/when populations drop too much then allow three per couple.
One strong hypothesis for how to keep the global population in check argues that more people need to escape poverty, more women need to be allowed to go to school, more people need to be educated about family planning, and contraceptive use must increase.
There are broadly two ways to stabilise population growth – people having lots of children but many of these children die before becoming parents themselves (this is what most of human history has been like until the last couple of hundred years because most people lived in poverty), or having on average a little over two children and the vast majority of these children live to become parents themselves (a world where poverty is totally eradicated). The net result is the same but the latter world is definitely more preferable i.e. a world where everyone is out of poverty rather than everyone in it, and a world where fewer people die even though fewer people are born. Anything in-between will result in population growth or decline (e.g. having many children with many of them surviving will result in population growth).
So we preferably need to lower childhood mortality and eradicate extreme poverty to stabilise the global population because if you expect all of your children to survive and you don’t need children as labour to work on the family farm or business to survive then people will autonomously choose to bear fewer children. We’ll stabilise the global population if we help lift everyone in the world out from poverty, which is important because the planet’s resources are limited. If we help remove people from suffering today – we’ll help yet-born people from suffering in the furry future. The call-to-action is thus clear – (re)distribute these limited resources better to decrease inequality and eradicate poverty today for the sake of your children’s future world! Woof!
Fertility rates have been decreasing, rapidly in some cases, in many economically-developed countries of the world – via choice (e.g. by increasing contraceptive usage and the numbers of women working) rather than via infant mortality, which has been decreasing. And more countries will likely follow suit. This is a great success story!
But whether the overall net global population will start to go down will depend on the death rates too, and this has been going down because people are living for much longer on average. And a demographic imbalance creates new problems too e.g. too many old people and too few young, which affects the retirement age, pensions, care, healthcare, housing and the economy, for instance. We don’t want people to die young but having fewer children alone won’t solve all problems, unless we can find a way to adjust to a world where there are relatively many old people and few young people.
Some details of the future are harder to predict than others though (e.g. the extent and success of suspended animation technologies, life-extending medicines and other such technologies). But as more people live longer, there’ll be a pensions and elderly care problem due to the imbalance between working age people and post-retirement age people. Indeed the ratio between post-retirement age people and working age people won’t increase indefinitely and should eventually stabilise (depending on those unforeseeable life-extending technologies) but even right now there’s a major pensions problem in many countries. Thus this needs to be addressed too even if populations manage to stabilise.
Left to carry on as usual, global population growth will naturally self-correct and stabilise in one way or another because it simply cannot sustainably continue to grow indefinitely in a finite resource world (with mass space colonisation being extremely difficult and many decades away at the very least, and space mining not solving the level of pollution on Earth even if consumption can be increased on Earth) – but the question is self-correct to what state and how? For example, via wars contesting for those limited resources and a world of suffering, or via harmony and collaboration? Will it self-correct catastrophically or smoothly? Will it self-correct to a state that has an abundance of complex life or to a state with little for a while? Will it even self-correct to a state with humans still in it or to a state without?
If the planet Mars, for instance, used to be full of life then it eventually self-corrected to the state it is now, which is a state closer to about all of the planets and moons we’ve observed so far i.e. nature will more likely settle to a long-term stable state of relative lifelessness than abundance – Earth is currently the exception rather than the norm, with lots of highly-ordered life and low entropy. It is unique/rare, precious, but fragile. The state of vibrant complex organism life on Earth right now should not be myopically taken for granted and it should not be assumed that nature self-correcting will mean to how it’s generally been for the last few million years rather than how it’s generally been for the last few billion years. Mars is also in a sustainable state right now – a state that’s sustainable for what life it has now. Maybe this is a bit alarmist but is that the kind of thing we want on Earth?!
So we should arguably directly and intentionally intervene to improve the odds that it’ll stabilise to a better sustainable state and in a better way – not least because we collectively sleepwalked into these environmental problems in the first place, and we generally still aren’t sufficiently changing our own lifestyles on our own accords either. Blaming politicians also shows that we’re not going to self-regulate – we keep on saying politicians should do something rather than each individual person saying, “I should do something.” It’s not self-regulation if we defer our personal responsibilities and blame others for our free choices, or expect or need laws to change before we adequately change our own behaviours. That’s asking for and requiring external regulation.
And even with current population levels (heading towards 8 billion people as of writing), humans are living too much at unsustainable rates of consumption (i.e. consuming important resources faster than they’re being replenished, or using more than ‘one Earths’ rate of resources, which is like spending more than one’s income and the savings are depleting); and this is with millions across the world still living in poverty too – never mind trying to get an entire global population of the current size living with a decent standard of living. So gross levels of inequality, and ever-widening inequality, is a major problem that needs to be addressed too.
We could manage population numbers somehow and/or reduce consumption per head. Here, the consumptive greed of a few people can have more impact than the collective consumption of many other people (e.g. a single average person in the ‘developed’ world uses more than dozens of average people in the ‘developing’ world in terms of the consumption of energy and other resources, and this is correlated with the level of wealth inequality in the world). Hence really the major responsibility is on those in the ‘developed’ world rather than those in the ‘developing’ world, to change lifestyles. Of course, we don’t think we’re being particularly greedy because we look at our immediate neighbours and they’re doing about the same things.
Now if you complain to others about over-population then understand that you being alive is part of that problem – it’s as hypocritical as driving on the road and complaining to other road users that there are too many vehicles on the road and they’re causing the congestion(!) Or going to a tourist hotspot on holiday and complaining that the experience was ruined because there were too many other tourists(!)
Or if you want to go as far as to think there should be an active and aggressive global population cull then understand that you should therefore equally likely be a part of the culled. Most readers of this blog probably live in the ‘developed’ world, but why should people from the ‘developing’ world be culled when it’s generally people in the ‘developed’ world who consume the most global resources per head? That means, person-for-person, if we want to rationally cull the least number of people possible to solve the resource consumption/waste problem, it’d be more effective to cull the number of ‘developed’ world people.
Well more precisely – person-for-person, wealthier people (wherever they live) who live luxurious lives are in general the greater problem. One such person can use/waste thousands of times more resources and contribute thousands of times more pollution than one poor person (e.g. consuming food and wine that has travelled from afar, the greater total consumption of goods each with their own product life cycles, driving, using central heating, air conditioning, travelling thousands of air miles, the hogging of under-utilised land/property, etc.). So best work on reducing our own levels of consumption to be closer to the level of an average poor person’s instead. Problem is, most people aspire to do the complete opposite – to live the most luxurious life possible. We aspire to be the most inefficient of organisms in terms of energy per life. That’s a core market problem and nature will have something to say about that.
Okay, no one chooses to be born and to whom or where or when, just like any other person. But if some people want to draw arbitrary lines like ‘there are too many people from a certain country or of a certain ethnicity’ then how about ‘there are too many rich people’? Some countries are much geographically larger than others anyway to only look at their raw population sizes so why not look at population densities as a fairer measure? (The UK is about twice as densely populated as China, for example.) We therefore cannot pick on people based on their apparent group – we must see individuals as individuals.
So if you are using more resources than the global average per head then you as an individual must reduce your consumption before you can preach to anyone who uses less.
Even though I use energy-saving light bulbs, devices and settings where possible, I know I’d personally like to work less late into the nights so I’m not getting on some high horse against anyone personally today.
Sorry, it’s hard not to end on a serious tone for something so serious. This has not been the most enjoyable post to write and I cannot put a spin on it to make it so, even though I want to say that travelling, adventurous foods from afar and central heating in winter, for instance, are part of what makes life more interesting or comfortable. But please tell us what you think, using the Twitter comment button below, about people living in economically-developed countries needing to really be the ones to, in both a moral and practical-effectiveness sense, generally reduce our consumptions and waste?
Woof! Let’s all do something about it now.