Perhaps I am biased as all people are and often don't even realize it. Most people form their opinions on what our problems are using their subconscious and basic human nature reactions. That explains most people regardless of how wealthy they are or where they are from. People everywhere are pretty much all alike. BTW I did not take offense with the above but felt I should respond anyway.
I certainly wasn't accusing you of approaching it from the knee jerk simplistic blame "someone else" attitude that is popular amongst a certain segment of the comfortable western population - after all - population is a very rational problem. Where it becomes irrational is - as wili says - when people take the viewpoint it is the only problem (or even the biggest problem, more on this later) and that they can continue to live as usual deferring all the blame onto exploding populations in (for example) Africa.
But tell me how the arguments about population don't stand on their own rational foundation. What is the carrying capacity of the earth for any given level of per capita consumption. We are well past any reasonable number. Perhaps 5 times. And we are planning on adding a couple more times. The world cannot support 5 billion much less 9 billion. So we better fix it. Right?
I can certainly agree they do stand on a rational foundation but the truth is more nuanced. The world could arguably support 10 billion+ if we all live with a low enough resource footprint, stop wasting food, mostly eat plants, etc. - I'm pretty sure that's scientifically possible to predicate a population on that level on this planet for at least some time (enough time to get population down with less dramatic measures than trying to totally stop reproduction).
The problem here is that said affluent people who jump on this single issue overlook the consumption side of the equation. The overconsuming westerners in the equation would need to live more like people in poorer African nations to make this population viable for any period of time. The world faces many problems due to the large number of people present but most of those problems are regionally specific - habitat destruction (leading to loss of species), deforestation (does have some global impact I grant) and so on. The biggest and most immediate problem we face, as far as I can see, is abrupt climate change - mostly caused by the prolific spewing into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. The responsibility for that lies (in historical terms) very strongly with a minority of the global population. Had they not done this, we would have had more time to resolve the population issue - if the population boom had even occurred in the first place without this grossly stupid exploitation of fossil fuels (which I question, as the short term burst of cheap energy from fossil fuels and agrochemicals is arguably what enabled the current ridiculous population boom).
So by two measures - the abuse of fossil fuels to exceed long term carrying capacity, and the direct damage to the earth system through alteration of atmospheric chemistry - the most immediate problem is arguably not a result of gross population numbers but of the behaviours of a minority (albeit significant) section of the population. Worse - their selfish and destructive behaviour has become an infectious meme, an aspiration for the massive numbers of people who do not enjoy the short term benefits of their abuse.
So can the world support 10 billion people? I would argue that anyone prepared to argue that the collapse of civilisation can be deferred by decades on account of "slack" in the agricultural system (ie, you
) - is also arguing that it can - as there is already sufficient capacity to feed them, if only it were managed properly (not withstanding that technical ability and actual outcomes are very different things, on this I think we agree).
In this vein - if we were to prune billions from the global population and leave perhaps only 1 billion people living in the western lifestyle - we would still be nowhere near sustainable, and still ultimately be facing a planetary crisis. How many people can the planet sustainably support with a carbon footprint of 17.2 tonnes/year/capita (recent US figure) and associated other resource footprints?
My contention is that the answer is considerably less than even just the populations directly causing the immediate problem today and accordingly anyone taking that viewpoint is therefore also living in an overpopulated society (yes, I mean the western nations). Thus a logical pursuit of the argument brings the chickens home to roost anyway.
I'd like to stress I do not think you are selling population as the sole problem, I am not responding to that imagined argument - merely detailing why I think the population problem is capable of being emphasised too strongly and why one must take care to avoid the risk of it distracting from other critically immediate problems (a planet undergoing abrupt climate change).So what could one do?
Your suggestion (while admittedly impractical and highly unlikely, as unfortunately any suggestions may well be) is a total cessation of reproduction for a couple of decades. Mathematically it works - but look at the issues raised in China even where people are permitted 1-2 children?
I would argue strongly against this solution. It may be palatable to those who already had the chance to raise a family - but by what basis does anyone have a right to deny reproduction (a fundamental tenet of life) to another? For me, as a relatively younger person, it falls in the same category of being preached at to eat less meat. For anyone affluent to tell me I should sacrifice (having had a fairly austere life on the whole, extremely austere by the standards of the UK) reeks of hypocrisy.
Mathematically this problem has been provable for decades now, and hence as with eating meat - I should want to see some penalty for those who did it anyway, before I could agree to it being reasonable for me to comply with a solution.
This gets down to one of my strongly held beliefs that a lot of the population problem arises from social injustice - the inability of humanity to protect the weaker and poorer members and ensure through force of international law a basic minimum living standard as a solid human right.
The most effective way to cut fertility rate is to alter the incentives that drive peoples actions. In poorer nations families are numerous for a number of relatively easily influenced factors:
- deficient or absent education systems, maximising time females spend in reproduction and minimising their knowledge and choices
- lack of family planning options and female empowerment
- high child mortality rates
- lack of retirement provision (ie children are your pension)
- labour value of children (ie working in agriculture, to help earn money to support the family)
- career opportunities for women, to reduce dependence on a male partner and provide other options for support than family raising
And one key difficult to influence factor:
- religious dictats, roman catholicism being particularly guilty!
Demographic transition is an effective way to lower fertility rate for at least some time (and I don't think the upper limit is really known - as too many countries start to provide incentives for having children once they're concerned their population is falling)
Additionally by prolonging the amount of time in education and increasing the difficulty of starting a family financially you can also reduce fertility further. I don't like this myself - young people of my age or younger suffer a great deal compared to their parents in western societies thanks to the adverse economic conditions - but it is nonetheless effective at postponing families.
Finally there is one other aspect - and it's going to sound rather cold and heartless - but we shouldn't underwrite other peoples reproductive choices too heavily. There is a class of people in the richer societies who have children in the expectation everyone else will pay to support them. They are the people who usually have the most numerous families and they are why I am skeptical about the long term prospects of the demographic transition.
This is a subtly different argument from saying we shouldn't support people in adversity - in that I am strongly in favour of the idea of a welfare state, but provided that people are behaving in a reasonably responsible and ethical way.
I realise it is very politically incorrect to say that there is a class of people willing to live and reproduce spending their whole lives underwritten by the taxpayer - but I have met (and got to know) some people who fall into exactly this category in the UK in the past. They really do exist, and they represent dead weight on a society (in fact, my father essentially falls into this category, although it isn't he I was referring to having known).
By the same token, if we are sending international food aid on a regular or permanent basis to other nations - something is wrong. We are then establishing a larger problem than we are solving. In some cases, of course - this is not due to the nation in question being above carrying capacity - I think serious questions ought to be asked about the rush for African farmland, for example.
I would summarise this down very simply though - is there any good reason any region on the planet should be operating far above it's own local carrying capacity? Is it not then becoming a drain on other regions and distributing vulnerability beyond it's own borders? This definition would include my home nation - the UK - that uses it's wealth to import a significant portion of the food it consumes. It is above carrying capacity - and hence overpopulated.
Finally, this respect to the welfare argument (while again emphasising that I am in favour of supporting people through hardship) I should note I am the oldest of 8 children. We grew up in poverty in rural Scotland. My family was heavily subsidised by the UK taxpayer. In a sense, the UK taxpayer fed, clothed and sheltered me (albeit in a rather meagre way on all counts) as a child.
Am I grateful? I am not sure. If my family had not been underwritten by the taxpayer, there are several outcomes:
- Parents would have still managed to have so many children, and to still avoid Social Services (this was a near run thing a few times anyway, and we moved around frequently and likely fell through the cracks somewhat
- Parents might have made more effort to seek proper employment outcomes, in order to support children themselves (they worked in a sense - but far less effectively than they could have)
- Parents might have utilised available family planning more rigorously (I'm not so sure given one of my parents is a qualified doctor of medicine(!))
- Family would have disintegrated sooner, with less overall reproduction involved
In our case, it would've been likely been the last option - earlier disintegration. My mother left my father to return to England and to re-establish a career in medicine - with 8 children. By considerable hard work on her part and a very difficult uphill climb from her position quality of life for the youngest few children was raised to more normal levels for the UK. Had this happened sooner, less children would have been produced and the life outcome would have been better (ironically the trashed economy has slightly inverted ultimate life outcomes to date as adults).
While it is equally possible that by withdrawing the support from the taxpayer for this set of arrangements - or somehow enforcing some responsibility - that we would have known even greater hardship, I am not sure that is a given. There is a very real possibility that by facilitating this irresponsible behaviour by these two adults that not only were more children produced - but the relative hardship of their lives was prolonged by the minimal support of the state.
Of course, I don't believe anybody should have having 8 children. 2 ought to be plenty.
Apologies for rambling.