How many humans is too many? Is our blue-green planet ‘full’, or is there still room for many more people? Who, in short, has the stronger case – alarmists who register panic when they face the subject of population, or sceptics who downplay the importance of the issue? The topic is inflammatory, because at its heart is reproductive freedom, and thus the ethics of population is also the ethics of procreation.
There are 6.6 billion humans on our planet, and this number
continues to grow exponentially. Before we can begin to discuss the issues, it
is necessarily to fully comprehend the acceleration of population growth we are
currently experiencing. It took the whole of human history for global
population to reach one billion people (roughly around 1830). A century later,
it had doubled to two billion; then thirty years to three billion, fifteen
years to four billion, and twelve years to five billion. The numbers vary
slightly according to whose calculations you use, but at this point in time about a decade is all it takes for the global population to grow by another billion people, and
the time required for each successive billion becomes smaller each time.
There can be no dispute that the world population is growing
extremely rapidly, thus opponents of “population alarmism” rely on other
arguments in order to downplay its importance. One such approach to dismissing concerns about
population is to contend that the planet can support a huge number of people –
commentators who downplay claims of a population crisis sometimes quote figures
as high as 100 billion people (how this figure is derived is less clear), with
the intent that this somehow removes the problem. It does not. At the current
rate of growth, we would reach such a figure in just a couple of centuries.
We will not be able to agree on the “capacity” of the planet to support humans, as there are simply too many factors to take into consideration – on the one hand, there are people who claim the planet will comfortably support just a billion people or so and thus contend we are already overpopulated, and on the other hand are people who claim giant figures that project the problem into the future in a vain hope to brush it under the carpet. Fortunately, the actual number that the planet can support isn’t actually relevant to the discussion: if our species is to survive in the long term, global population growth must come to approximate zero at some point. This is true whether we are thinking about another few thousand years of human history, or millions of years of future history. Only a zero-growth scenario will suffice – even fanciful tales of colonising other planets will not change this situation with respect to the Earth.
Another argument that is used to undermine population
concerns is that the problem is with rampant growth in the poorer nations and
thus that richer countries, such as the United States, don't need to be concerned. It is correct that the
The problem is not, as predicted by the original population whistleblower, Thomas Malthus (1736-1834), food. In fact, food production has continued to outpace population growth. We actually have more than enough food to go around, and will continue to do so for quite some time – the existence of hunger and famine is not a product of lack of food production, but of poor resource distribution. Wealthy elites throughout the planet are always well fed, but the poorer people living in the margins haven’t the economic or political power to ensure they get fed. Rather, the problem resources are oil (primarily as a fuel, but also for the manufacture of plastics and so forth), metals and increasingly drinking water. Less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s water is available for humans to drink, and as population continues to grow we should not be surprised to see water wars following in the wake of oil wars if we do not make a significant change.
A different kind of argument against population concerns is to draw upon faith in progress as a defence: we can’t fix the population problem now, so we will have to hope that developments in technology avert the crisis before its too late. This attitude is almost as recklessly irresponsible as the views of the few crackpot Christians who misinterpret the book of Revelations as mandating global apocalypse as a desirable outcome. While it’s probably the case that advances in technology will have a vital role to play in averting future catastrophe, there’s only so far this contribution will go if we do not first get the population itself under control. Furthermore, no technological advance can truly offset the loss of species diversity currently taking place, predicted to result in the loss of half the species on the planet (or more) in what has been dubbed by some “the sixth extinction event”.
Furthermore, many technological developments can exacerbate
the problem. Consider, for instance, how many comparatively new technologies
lie behind the
Particularly catastrophic would be the biotech grail of immortality. Should it
transpire that it is possible to make immortal humans (and I have severe
doubts, just in terms of the natural age limitations inherent to our neural net
architecture), the implications for population growth are overwhelming. Reducing the global death rate inevitably raises the rate of population growth - bringing it to zero would render sustainable habitation of the Earth impossible. Death is a vital part of life, and it cannot be safely eliminated.
Whether the global population crisis is on its way, or
already here, action must be taken to bring the rate of growth to a standstill
at some point in the near future. In some respects, China has been circumspect in
addressing this issue. Recognising that their own population growth was out of
control, the Chinese government instituted a system of incentives from the
1970s onwards intended to slow growth – offering rewards for those who underwent
sterilisation procedures, and enforcing economic penalties on those who had
more than one child (for urban families) or two children (for rural families,
provided the first born was a girl). The measures have apparently been
Surprisingly, it seems that heavy-handed government interventions may not be required to address the problem. Indeed, Europe's mean population growth has stabilised over the last few decades and is now just slightly negative. Many Europeans are choosing to forego raising a family, while others stick closely to the ideal of two children per couple (zero population growth), and those that still choose to raise large families are more than compensated for by those that do not. This achievement has been partly a consequence of the widespread acceptance of contraception in Europe, which has allowed for a more mature attitude towards family planning. In terms of the potential population crisis, Europe represents a success – all achieved through the collective free will of its people, in line with the Kantian ideal of Communal Autonomy, without the imposition of oppressive government measures.
The situation is not yet under control in other parts of the world, although there is every possibility that a desirable state of zero (or temporarily negative) population growth can be achieved everywhere, given time and increasing awareness of the scope of the problem. The poorest nations have the highest population growth rates (Africa’s population curve has the steepest ascent), but largely to offset high infant mortality rates and to compensate for lack of economic opportunities: in poor nations, a large family gives the best hope of ensuring collective survival. As these countries develop, we can reasonably expect the situation to stabilise, and most African nations could support a much larger populations quite comfortably with adequate advances in infrastructure and technology (provided foreign powers do not continue to drain African resources for their own benefit).
The biggest problem, therefore, may not be reaching a global zero population growth – this state of affairs may yet be achievable simply by making it abundantly clear to all why this goal represents the only sustainable option – but in controlling the runaway, resource-hungry lifestyle pioneered by the United States but eagerly adopted by any nation with the influence and resources to support it. A transformation of the way we think about our resource footprint, and relating to this, our environmental footprint, will be required.
In terms of energy, the situation is eminently soluble. The
solar flux in the world’s deserts is more than sufficient to meet our excessive
demands for energy, provided we make the effort to develop the relevant
technology (a fact foreseen by R. Buckminster Fuller in the middle of the last
century) – and fortunately, the recent fashion for environmental issues has
created an unprecedented investment in just the technologies required to make
Bucky’s dreams come true. New Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) technologies use mirrors to focus sunlight on
a column of water to make steam – an ideal source of energy. It seems ever more
likely that we can solve this problem just in the nick of time, although in the
interim we will continue to lose species as long as our pollution and other forms
of environmental damage are inadequately restrained.
In terms of other resources, including oil (as a raw material), metals and especially potable water, we will have to somehow learn to share if we are to avoid more resource-driven wars, such as the oil wars that first began in World War II. In many respects, population and war are inextricably linked: when population outstrips resources, war of some kind must almost inevitably result, and many of the more powerful nations (including the United States and China) have a tendency to pursue pro-active policies when it comes to securing their resource supply, irrespective of the ethics of war. Avoiding these kinds of scenarios involves a substantial change in how we think about international relations – a “winner takes all” mentality towards resources can only lead to further war and terrorism.
Ultimately, and surprisingly, the population problem might not be the unavoidable global crisis it is usually claimed, although to be sure the environmental damage caused as we bring this problem under control is both serious and in many cases irreversible (even advanced cloning techniques may not be able to restore lost species, given the extent to which epigenetic information influences an organism’s development). There are still problems to be solved, of course, including but not restricted to widespread Christian opposition to contraception, but most of these are at least theoretically soluble. However, that the catastrophe could be avoided means nothing if we do not take the steps necessary to prevent it.
Shouldn't sustainability be the ultimate value in any viable ethics of population? Wouldn't it be wise to aim collectively for zero population growth, by adhering to (without enforcement of any kind) the ideal case of two children per family, while allowing larger families to offset those who choose not to procreate? We are already developing and implementing viable renewable sources of energy, with power production from solar-thermal “light farms” in deserts representing the most attainable option to date. Perhaps now is the time to consider more carefully our use of resources, and develop sustainable lifestyles to accompany the coming renewable energy supplies. All these goals are achievable – all we need do is agree to make these objectives our aim, and work together to accomplish them as rapidly as is humanly possible.
What do you think about population? Share your views in the comments.