Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thoughts On Overpopulation - Part 1

The April 2009 edition of Free Inquiry magazine has a number of articles addressing the issue of human population numbers and its impact on the environment and ultimately our quality of life. Unfortunately, only one article, by David and Marcia Pimentel, is available online.

The following sentence from the article by the Pimentels jumped out at me:

"To be able to ensure a reasonable standard of living, Americans will have to reduce their population and their consumption of goods and energy by one-half."

Without getting into whether the Pimentels are right or wrong, there is no way, absent genocide or a massive die-off from a lethal pandemic, that the populaton of the United States will ever be reduced to half its present level. Our current population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's population clock, is approximately 306 million. The Census Bureau estimates that as early as 2039 our population will reach 400 million. So, those of us and our descendants who will be alive in 2039 will either have to endure an "unreasonable" standard of living or find a way of maintaining the standard of living that most of us are accustomed to today.

One of the things that makes me, and I suspect many other people, uncomfortable about population control is that it conjures up images of some self-annointed cabal of "experts" deciding how many children can be born and imposing draconian restrictions on us in order to make us live according to what they believe to be the planet's "carrying capacity."

Some environmental activists concerned about the adverse effects of human overpopulation advocate that couples have at best one, and no more than two, children, depending on whether or not the goal is voluntary population reduction or stabilization. Regular readers of this blog know that I am the father of two children. If my wife was the same age as me or younger than me, rather than being six years older than me, we might have tried for a third child and limited ourselves to that. But my wife's biological clock, and the need to maintain our sanity(!), meant that we would have only two children. So, by circumstance, my wife and I are contributing to a replacement level population.

I also happen to be the youngest of three brothers. I was born a year after the publication of Paul Ehrlich's provocative 1968 book The Population Bomb. If my mother and father had heeded the message of Ehrlich's book, I would not be here typing this post right now. Of course, if I didn't exist, 99.999% of humanity wouldn't miss me. But one person who definitely would be negatively impacted by my nonexistence would be my mother. My father died almost three years ago from complications resulting from surgery. As I wrote at the top of this paragraph, I am the youngest of three brothers. Also, as regular readers of this blog will recall, my two older brothers are not, to put it delicately, paragons of responsibility. Therefore, the burden of helping to care for my mother falls pretty much on my shoulders. In fact, my uncle, my mother's brother, contributes more than both of my brothers combined. So, it is safe to say that if I didn't exist, my mom's situation would be much worse than it is. My being alive and responsible makes the difference between my mom being able to live in her own home or living in a nursing home that would rapidly deplete her life savings.

It is a simple fact of life that as most people get older, they expect to be able to rely on at least one of their children to provide them with support and comfort in their later years. I don't doubt that my mom is not the only senior citizen in the United States whose most reliable offspring is the last one who was born. In cases like mine, it is because the other siblings lead troubled lives. In other cases, the first born might have been born retarded or with a serious birth defect, or perhaps might even have died or suffered a crippling injury.

To subordinate the human race to a concept like "carrying capacity" reduces us to just a statistic. Once you do that, then it is not such a big leap to implementing policies to reduce our numbers to fit somebody's calculation of this carrying capacity. If it is so important to reduce our population back down to one billion in the next 50 to 100 years, then why not find a way to introduce some disease into given areas of the world that are perceived as being overpopulated? Why not kill off the elderly? Because the plain, hard truth is that it is not likely that the human race will ever reach a broad consensus across the many nations and ethnicities of which it is comprised to voluntarily reduce its growth by having fewer children, and even if it could, it certainly would not happen within the time frame that the population doomsayers say it needs to be done.

Are there too many people on this planet stressing the Earth's ability to feed us and provide us all with a "reasonable" standard of living? Probably. I will get into that in Part 2. But suffice it to say that even if the answer to that question is yes, we are going to have to find a way to make it work for all of us.


Dave Gardner said...

Great to see folks contemplating this issue, Tommy. But none of the obstacles to reducing our population is truly insurmountable. In fact they are all a good bit more enjoyable than it will be for our grandchildren to be fighting to the death in an effort to protect their supply of food from masses that have outstripped the ability of our planet to provide.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
Join the cause at
See our new Population Solution PSA

Pete Murphy said...

Good post, Tommy. I have a few comments.

1. Although the population of the U.S. is projected to climb to 400 million by 2039 at the current rate of growth, it could actually be halted and sent into decline if our nation's leaders recognized the problem. About half of our growth is due to immigration, which could be halted quickly. Much of the other half is due to the high birth rate among recent immigrants. So, reduce immigration and our population growth would slow quickly and dramatically.

2. Our fertility rate is approximately 2.1 children per female. A rate of about 1.8 is needed to stabilize the population. (It needs to be less than 2.0 because the steady increase in life expectancy.) I believe such a small decrease could be achieved with relative ease, primarily through the use of non-coercive economic incentives. For example, tax policy could be changed from the current system of providing deductions for children to a system of lower base rates and surcharges for each child, or for each above two, perhaps. Who cares how many children any one family chooses to have as long as the overall birth rate target is achieved?

The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded "the dismal science" after Malthus' theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation, and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues. They believe we'll always find technological solutions that allow more growth.

But because they are blind to population growth, there's one obstacle they haven't considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like.

Please forgive the somewhat spammish nature of the previous paragraph, but I don't know how else to inject this new theory into the debate about overpopulation without drawing attention to the book that explains the theory.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Poodles said...

I personally am in favor of population control. I think though, long before we run out of land and food, we will run out of water.

I agree with Pete about using economic means to pursue this. I also think until we get the major religions on board, it will be hard to do also.

I would never advocate for forced population control like China.

I don't really worry too much about someone taking care of me in my old age. Maybe I should. I figure I will be dead by then anyway. :)

Tommykey said...

Hey Poodles! How are ya?

Thanks for your comments Dave and Pete. Hopefully by week's end I will have Part 2 up.

Poodles said...

I'm good Tommy, I hope you and your family are well. The new job keeps me from keeping up with the blogs as much as I want to though. :(

Tommykey said...

Yeah, same here. March was a rather unproductive month for me blog-wise, though I managed a burst of creativity this past weekend.