John McAndrew

We Must Grapple with the Problem of Human Population

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2015 at 6:03 PM

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On a planet with 7.3 Billion people we have produced 100 Million more babies. So far. This year. (58 Million net, 100 Million gross.)

Perhaps some comparisons will help us understand this number. It is the equivalent of a new Philippines (102 Million. Don’t quibble: we’ll make it).

Or 1.25 Germanies.

Mehr Flammkuchen!

More than TWO Spains!

You can't have enough Spain! Rioja!

FOUR times the population of Australia!

Think of all the cuddly koalas . . . we no longer have room for.

Actually, I lied. Wikipedia says Australia has only 23.9 Million people. Multiplied by 4, that’s only about 96 Million – meaning we still have room for another . . .

Oh, look – a tree! How old-fashioned!

More cedars would be nice.

Lebanon! In addition to four more Australias.

But this may be difficult for some Americans to grasp. So let’s illustrate this with examples closer to home.

100 Million people is the equivalent of slightly more than 2.5 Californias.

That's a lot of drought-burdened hippies and celebrities!

It’s almost as big (just wait a week or so) as four Lone Star States.

Who doesn't need more oil wells? We don't! Yee-haww!

In 1974, when the Zero Population Growth people came to speak at my high school, we were just about to break 4 Billion. It was in the last 40 years that we have lost roughly 50% of our wildlife. In some cases, those losses have led to extinctions.

This is basic math. We can’t keep reproducing like this, especially at our current rate of consumption, and expect there to be no dire consequences with unpredictable follow-on consequences.

Every way in which we are damaging the planet is made worse by the number of us doing the damage.

Every solution to climate change is made less effective by the fact that we are adding millions of people to an already-stressed planet every single month.

There is no solution to climate change that does not require us to intentionally and dramatically reduce our population.

This kind of statement often elicits hysterical responses. “You’re talking in favor of genocide! Mass murder! Racial cleansing! Untold suffering! Soylent Green!” No, that’s what YOU’RE talking about if we let the laissez-faire approach to human population continue. What I’m talking about is rather mundane: have one baby, and no more. I’m certainly not against family. I am against suffering. The inevitable long-term effects of having policies that reward large families is hard to imagine. We’re already in the midst of a mass extinction resulting from our population plus our consumption. If we were reducing population by the amount that we are raising it every year, that would be progress.

Every solution to climate change would be made more effective by the reduction of our population. 

“Yeah? Well who’s going to decide? YOU?”

No: you, and you and you. Because this is simple math and elementary reasoning. It’s really hardly worth discussing. But I’m happy to suggest some possible policies, just as a conversation-starter: universal sex ed; free birth control; free vasectomies and tubal ligations; for the first child, free pre- and post-natal care and free job training and/or education – with an emphasis on educating girls; no freebies for subsequent children. You want a second child, you have to be able to afford it. Stop giving people like the Duggars tax breaks for being baby mills. It’s like subsidizing fossil fuel companies: why are we incentivizing those things that are not only not necessary, but which have a bad effect on our environment?

If you wish to argue any of those proposals based on the current economic system, don’t bother: I am assuming that a deliberate, persistent reduction in population would cause various kinds of disaster for our current capitalistic system. It’s time for a system that depends on cancerous population growth, that leaves the great majority of people behind, that has yet to result in happiness or contentment along with prosperity of a few, and that rewards those who waste massive resources and human capital, to be removed from life support.

Who has done population control well? China had mixed success with its one child policy, and the policy is often cited as the kind of draconian setting aside of personal liberty that must be avoided at all costs. And sure, I’d just as soon not legislate this, but depend on people to do the sane and responsible thing, look at the rapidly worsening state of the planet and say to themselves, “One is enough. I can help parent my friends’ kids, or adopt an orphan.” Iran had great success with their family planning program, dropping from an average of 7 births per woman to two. We can build on Iran’s program, and learn cautionary tales from China’s.

Some say that our population will stabilize as quality of life improves, topping out at a mere 9 or 11 Billion. They say this as if we have no worries, no need to be more deliberate and informed about our decisions. Let things take their natural course. This is delusional.

At some point – when the populations of other species have recovered and stabilized, and CO2 levels are dropping back to a normal range, we could return to having two babies. But because of the grotesque excesses of my generation, about which we were given adequate warning, we now have to dial back our population dramatically. We have to. Or, we will drive ourselves to extinction, ironically, by denuding the planet with too many people.

  1. I am SO glad you brought that up. Even Naomi Klein seems to think that talk about population is secretly talk about poor or dark-skinned people needing to limit their procreation so we richer, less melanin-rich folks, have more lebensraum.

    There are two things to consider here. Well, three.

    1) given the deep cuts in population I’d recommend, we’d be cutting population – not just birth rates – dramatically, as in 50% or more, in the affluent West as well as in developing countries.
    2) more affluent people have much larger carbon footprints overall. So limiting the population in America will, person for person, help the environment more. In other words, every affluent American whose birth is prevented is the environmental equivalent of dozens, if not hundreds, of births in the developing world.
    3) large birth rates in any given area can tax those areas beyond their capacity to support human and other life. The appropriate population and birth rate will vary from region to region, watershed to watershed. But we should begin by setting a goal of reducing human population by 2 to 4 billion in the next few decades, rather than letting it run on.

    So it isn’t as simple as applying one birth rate to every part of the world. Consumption levels matter just as much, if not more.

  2. Preach this to the countries in Africa and the Middle East, which have the highest population growth rates in the world. The US is #145, which is way down the list.

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