The world is a busy place. And, according to the latest UN projections, it's only going to get busier. The world population is set to hit 7.2 billion by next month and estimated to reach nearly 11 billion by 2100, which will clearly put a strain on the already limited amount of natural resources the planet has left. That, and increased pollution, more intense global warming and the fact that there will generally be more people around getting up in your personal space, breathing heavily into your eyes on public transport and making street carnivals much less enjoyable than they have to be.
However, regardless of the risks it presents, overpopulation is a tricky one to deal with. The phrase "population control" instantly brings up thoughts of autocratic regimes disregarding their people's basic human right to procreate. Which isn't a very good look, even for an autocratic regime. But as possibly the only animals on the planet who can make a conscious decision whether to have busloads of children (and understand the potential ramifications of doing so), is it time to look at options that will help curb population growth, therefore protecting the environment and the human species as a whole?
I spoke to Michael E Arth – an urban designer, environmental activist and ex-politician who has written on the subject of overpopulation – about the options we have.
Michael E Arth shaking hands with supporters while running for governor of Florida in 2010. (Photo via)
VICE: What do you think of the projections? Are we looking at a grim future?
Michael E Arth: The projections don’t mention two things – firstly, the horrendous effect population growth is having on the environment; and secondly, they don't take into account the probability of radical life extension.
You mean research into making people live longer?
Yes. Many researchers, including Aubrey de Grey at SENS, are studying how to extend life indefinitely. Probably within the next several decades we’ll figure out how to solve the related problems of ageing and dying. But the problem is that it will be even harder to stop population growth.
So if people live longer and longer, how do you deal with overpopulation?
That’s why we have to get started now – waiting just compounds the problem. World population increases by 220,000 every day, after accounting for the 155,000 who die. It's truly a hydra-headed problem, because for every person that is cut down by death, more than two are born. This is like adding the combined populations of England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand to the world every year. Politicians don't address overpopulation because they focus on issues that will get them re-elected in the short term, while the business interests that influence them want to see more and more consumers.
A sign in Nanchang, China, that reads, "Please for the sake of your country, use birth control." (Photo via)
They don't address it unless they're China.
China would have two billion people today if not for their population policies. Nevertheless, China still added 350 million more Chinese since they implemented strict family planning measures in 1978, because of what's called population momentum. Because of the burst in population growth under Chairman Mao, the average age of the population had dropped. Until these excess young people had their own children, the population increased faster than if you had an evenly distributed demographic. So even limiting families to one child per couple was not low enough to stop population growth.
Now, thanks to the one-child policy – to which there are many exceptions, by the way – China’s ageing population will probably not grow much more from now on, as long as they don't remove the restrictions.
China, and the rest of the world, would be better served by a choice-based marketable birth license plan, or "birth credits", that could stop or reverse population growth on a dime. Birth credits allow people to have as many children as they desire and can manage, and rewards people who are willing to give up that right.
Yes – the market would determine the price of a birth credit. In all cases, the cost of the birth credit would be a tiny fraction of the real cost of raising a child. The birth credits would work very well because it’s a very small price to pay for solving the problem, and it leaves choice firmly in place. Each person would be issued half of a birth credit, which he or she can combine with a partner to have one child, or a person can sell his or her (half) credit at the going market rate. Each additional child costs one more credit. Noncompliance would bring a fine greater than the cost of the credit, and there would be sanctions for non-compliant countries (such as migration restrictions).
Historically, in the US, we have policies that encourage larger families, even with people who can’t afford it or who often don't even care about children. To get more welfare, all you have to do is have more children, and that encourages overbreeding.
Mathematician Bertrand Russell, writing about overpopulation at a time when the world’s population was half of what it is now, said, “Mankind would rather commit suicide than learn arithmetic." Humans have evolved to pay attention to local disasters, like tornadoes or earthquakes, but a slow-moving, global disaster like overpopulation gets overlooked. We're beginning to talk about the consequences of overpopulation – global warming, pollution, depletion of resources, wars and immigration – but we need to address the root cause.
But is it not unethical to dictate how many children people can have?
The limit to individual freedom is where the exercise of an individual right begins to infringe on the rights we hold in common. One aspect of the tragedy of the commons is the belief that people should be able to breed without any regard for others. For 99.9 percent of human history, family planning was unnecessary. Most children died in childbirth and nature cruelly culled the herd through disease, famine and war. Now that we're extending the quality and length of our lives, we have to respect the changing realities. Implementation of birth credits is the best compromise to the individual rights versus collective rights dilemma, because choice is preserved and the commons has a vastly greater chance of being saved.
And you mentioned immigration. What role does that have to play in this?
The solution to immigration pressure isn't securing the borders, it's addressing overpopulation in developing countries where economic and environmental problems are causing people to migrate. Low-consuming people who move to rich countries not only begin consuming at a much higher rate, they also tend to bring their high birth-rate patterns with them.
Educating women, raising the standard of living and providing contraception all contribute to lowering the birth rate. Implementing birth credits would help provide those improvements. If we had addressed these issues in 1985, two billion people in the world now living on less than two dollars a day would never have been born.
Is there an optimum amount of population growth? This all sounds a little fascistic.
We exceeded seven billion in 2012, adding two billion people since 1987. Zero population growth is the minimum we should aim for, but negative population growth would help prepare for the time in the near future when people will live indefinitely long. We shouldn't take chances with the only habitable planet we know of, especially when the solution is simple and doesn't require any new technology.
Do you think there's a chance that, if these policies aren't implemented, famine and war will increase, curbing the population in much more aggressive ways?
We already see the effects of overpopulation in poverty, war, pestilence, the strain on resources and mass starvation. In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, 220,000 people died, mostly because of conditions set up by overpopulation. Overpopulation deforested and laid waste to a country once known as "The Pearl of the Antilles". Those 220,000 people were replaced the same day by new births in the world. Counting on disasters caused by overpopulation to cure overpopulation is cruel and stupid. At some point we have to wise up.
If we have compassion for one another, and we want a certain quality of life for everyone, then we need to ground ourselves in reality and get to work.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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