Is curbing population growth necessary?

Following up to my previous post proposing a cap and trade system to curb population growth, I've now been convinced by the people at Reason.com that there's a good chance we don't actually need to impose a limit.

If we assume that we have the political strength to impose a global population growth curb, then we can probably also assume that we have the political strength to protect the Earth's ecosystems from people, regardless of how many people there are.

If that is the case, then the remaining issue at stake - in deciding whether to impose a curb or not - is whether everyone's quality of life is likely to increase more with a curb or without one.

In the past, people have always been able to stave off a Malthusian catastrophe through increases in technological efficiency and breakthroughs in science. In the early 20th century, famines were averted by the advent of tractors. The most recent threat of catastrophe in India was averted by the introduction of high-yield varieties of wheat and rice and other grains, genetically engineered using hybrid techniques. It appears that a large portion of India wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for genetic engineering.

To draw a parallel with IT, computers were big and unwieldy in the 1950s. They were horribly expensive, they were made of vacuum tubes and were very difficult to maintain. At that cost, some of the people who dealt with computers back then perceived that the world's total market was maybe for 5 or so computers.

Fifty-five years of technological advances later, OLPC are giving away laptops to children that cost $199 a piece. Silicon chips vastly superior to any computer in 1950 can be found in the cheapest cell phone.

Essentially, the optimists are saying that we are underutilizing our resources, and that there are magnitudes of improvement that can be made simply through advances in technology, i.e. by learning to use what we have more effectively. In this light, the more people we have, the more talented engineers we will have that will help to advance the world technologically. Hence, everyone's standard of living will improve even though the number of people is increasing.

Conversely, the pessimists are saying that the possibilities for major advance in some of the most crucial resources, say food or water, are limited. If this is so, then in fact increasing the population will lead to a Malthusian catastrophe, and the standard of living will drop considerably compared to keeping the population at current levels or reducing it.

Going with the optimists and allowing unchecked growth means risking a Malthusian catastrophe in the event that the expected and necessary breakthroughs don't materialize, and the world ends up short in one or more crucial resources.

On the other hand, curbing population growth when this is not necessary deprives the world of people who would otherwise contribute many new discoveries, creativity and technological advancement.

It all depends on whether we do or do not have vast unrealized efficiency reserves in our most crucial resources.

Comments

markbahner said…
"It all depends on whether we do or do not have vast unrealized efficiency reserves in our most crucial resources."

"Unrealized" by whom?

And what are the "most crucial resources?"
denis bider said…
Mark: "Unrealized" by whom?

Everyone. This is to be understood in the sense that, before people developed hybrid grains with higher yields, there were "unrealized efficiency reserves" with respect to our ability to get food calories.


Mark: And what are the "most crucial resources?"

Food, water, air, and those that needed to facilitate shelter, communication, and transportation.
verbatim said…
I think curbing population is neccessary. And your cap and trade proposal is very good.

Real or revolutionary advances in technology can't be expected anytime soon... because a real limitation factor is human and its senses. Simplified example ...you can easily make better picture TV but our eyes just wouldn't see it.
Kolenkišta said…
I think that world population will eventually reach a steady state. The main requirement for this to happen is development of the more undeveloped regions of the world. It is known that large families with lots of children (5,7,10+) are quite common in undeveloped societies and on the other hand an uncommon sight in Europe or the States. Quite a few countries of EU (Slovenia being one of them) face demographic problems because of this.
I believe reasons for higher population growth rate of the undeveloped societies lie in:
- lack of sexual education, contraceptives
- children used as labour force (a phenomenon still present in the agricultural areas of Europe)
- status of women in the society
- traaditional lifestyle and especially lack of the variety lifestyles
- etc.

With the development of these societies their impact on global population growth and population growth as a whole will decrease - either to a more reserved pace or to a state of equilibrium.

Add scientific advances to the equation as you have pointed out and I sincerely dont think we have a lot to worry about.
denis bider said…
kolenkišta: "It is known that large families with lots of children (5,7,10+) are quite common in undeveloped societies and on the other hand an uncommon sight in Europe or the States."

In U.S., the average hispanic family size is 3.87, compared to a national average of 3.19. In Georgia, the average hispanic family size is 4.14.

In France, the fertility gap between French and immigrant Muslim women is 0.46. This means that if the average French female has 1.9 children, the average immigrant Muslim female has 2.36.

Now, I'm not saying that hispanics are going to overrun the world. It does look like population growth is falling everywhere. But it is not falling everywhere equally fast. Who says that African birth rates are going to slow down enough for global population growth to stop? Who says that Indian birth rates are? If they grow prosperous enough, then yes, it seems likely they will. But will they grow prosperous fast enough? Will the Africans grow prosperous fast enough?

The Indians probably will. The Chinese probably will. Even the Muslims, they might.

Africans though - so far, they haven't.

These things aren't certain. That's why the UN population growth predictions have a high variant, a medium variant, and a low variant. You're arguing that the low variant might come true. But the high variant might come true, too. We need to consider both possibilities, at least until we can eliminate one of them.


kolenkišta: "Quite a few countries of EU (Slovenia being one of them) face demographic problems because of this."

That is incorrect! No country faces demographic problems because of low fertility. That's a tiny bit like saying that a pyramid scheme faces problems because you eventually run out of people.

Countries that face "demographic problems" face them because the changing demographics make it more difficult to support socialist transfer mechanisms, including social security and pensions. The natural solution to this problem is to increase the retirement age, which makes perfect sense - when the pension system was invented, it was intended as an insurance in the event that one might live to an old age, not as a privilege of painless work-free living once a certain retirement age is reached. An even better solution to this problem would be to disband the system of social transfers altogether, and just give everyone bonds reflecting the amount they have invested in the system until that date.

Once you do that, there is no more "demographic problem".

Saying that there's a "demographic problem" is akin to saying: "Damn! There are too few suckers to work in my place when I reach old age!" But why should anyone work in your place? If you don't have enough investment to finance your retirement, that's your problem. If you're afraid you'll be too frail to be able to continue to work, then buy insurance. And if you gave your salary to people who retired and were able to live work-free while you worked for them, well then, you were the sucker! Who ever promised that the next generation will be large enough for you to do the same? Don't blame your wishful thinking on others.


kolenkišta: "Add scientific advances to the equation as you have pointed out and I sincerely dont think we have a lot to worry about."

Probably. More so than people not having enough food to live, I'm concerned that the open tragedy-of-the-commons problems that we still have with the environment (CO2 emissions, endangered species, the well-being of our ecosystems in general) will not be addressed soon enough given the population growth and everyone's increasing prosperity. People will probably live and prosper. The question is whether we can restrain our environmental trampling before we've trampled everything.
Kolenkišta said…
I completely agree with you. Pension schemes have to be reformed, because of their current concept and because of their financial impact in the future.
I was trying to point out that one reason for the so called demographic problems (declining population of a certain nation poses a problem) is low birth rate, which for example this year in Slovenia exceeded annual death rate for the first time in a decade. The French had the same problem.

"In U.S., the average hispanic family size is 3.87, compared to a national average of 3.19. In Georgia, the average hispanic family size is 4.14."
I dont have much insight but as far as i can tell I believe this has a lot to do with traditional lifestyle an microcommunities that preserve it.

"The question is whether we can restrain our environmental trampling before we've trampled everything."

The clock is ticking, indeed, but im optimistic. Although the grim predictions of the consequences of global warming shouldnt be taken too seriously. I believe one thing Gore has achieved is shift global focus from cutting rainforests, ozone layer, waste, quality of water and air to abstract and controversial C02 emissions. Which is not good at all.

The main problem is that importance of environment preservation isnt very high on the prioritiy list even in developed countries. I like to think of it as a luxury item to an average citizen. One buys it only when all his basic needs are fulfilled.
In this sense I believe we have a long way to go to a point where environment will have its rightful place among values. But again, Im optimistic.
denis bider said…
kolenkišta: "The main problem is that importance of environment preservation isnt very high on the prioritiy list even in developed countries. I like to think of it as a luxury item to an average citizen. One buys it only when all his basic needs are fulfilled."

Yes!

Precisely this sentiment is why I originally floated the idea of limiting population growth in the first place.

It's hard to see that preservation of the environment will ever be elevated to anything more important than a luxury. If you don't have anything else to eat, then you'll eat a rhinocerous, or an eagle, or a dolphin, or whatever it is even if it's the last one of its species.

Prosperous people who have enough of most things may care about the environment, but people hardly scraping by, they won't. They'll slash and burn to feed themselves until the only thing remaining is the people.

A possible (and hopeful) outcome would be that most people on Earth - at least 50% or so - become prosperous soon enough that there will be a majority that can impose environmental preservation rules despite the immediate cravings of the remaining undeveloped population.
E.A. said…
"To draw a parallel with IT, computers were big and unwieldy in the 1950s. They were horribly expensive, they were made of vacuum tubes and were very difficult to maintain. At that cost, some of the people who dealt with computers back then perceived that the world's total market was maybe for 5 or so computers."

That's a poor analogy, constantly used by techies who won't admit that the planet is actually FINITE. It's just a way of staving of the inevitable growth-wall with denial.

You CANNOT shrink the impact of people by orders of magnitude, as you can with electronic circuits. More people take up more space and demand more infrastructure, no matter how densely they may appear to be living.

The common claim that Man only physically occupies 2% of the land is a huge lie. It ignores the vast acreage needed for crops, grazing logging, drilling and mining. Put a wall around a big city and it will choke in days.

No island of any size can support endless growth in material consumption. The Earth is long past the point where people are reducing and obliterating the viability other species' habitat. Just look at satellite photos around the world.

If one respects nature, there stopped being room for more people at least 50 years ago. Limits are real and must be heeded.
E.A. said…
Those who claim that Earth can support an undefined, indefinitely high population, have these things in common:

1) They don't really care what happens to nature. It's being chipped away every second and species keep losing ground, literally. Anyone who advocates increasing an already huge human population (75 MILLION annual growth) mustn't be concerned about the fate of natural landscapes and the species therein.

2) They apparently thrive on crowds, traffic jams, high-tech artificial landscapes and increasingly noisier conditions. The whole planet is seen as a series of banks and theme parks. What's the point of this twisted "progress" in the first place? It's a Ponzi scheme by any sane definition.

Growth-addicts are a soulless, immoral bunch. No matter how brain-smart they may be, they aren't wise. Manifest Destiny had its day and it's past time to live in balance with nature.

Population growth is the ultimate threat to balance. It's no longer needed for economies of scale and is eroding the quality of life. This global recession is the result of the monetary economy outstripping the natural one, but people still aren't heeding the signs.
denis bider said…
E.A., you make reasonable points, but:

"Growth-addicts are a soulless, immoral bunch."

I read someone wise recently write that, whenever he finds himself thinking that his adversary in a debate must be either evil or astonishingly stupid, he's probably missing something.

With this statement, you are showing that you are definitely missing something.

This is probably a conflict between people having different values.

For some people, human lives might be worth vastly more than an untouched natural environment. Such people might prefer a continued growth in the number of people, and see the planet as something to use, rather than as something to preserve - because human lives are what matters, not the planet.

Others, like you, might see life as not worth living in the absence of a natural environment. This does not make you more moral, or more soulful, it just makes you a person with different preferences, who perceives himself to be losing out against people whose preferences are different from yours.

I'll be sad to see nature disappear, but at this point, there are so many problems we have, that we're not going to solve, unless we have a world government. We don't have a world government right now. In fact, we have huge resistance against the very concept of world government. But we're not going to solve our problems this way. We're heading into the tragedy of the commons. We will probably continue on this way for a while yet until everyone realizes, by golly, maybe these problems could indeed have been solved, if only we had a world government.

Indeed, the concept of a world government brings its own considerable threats and problems... which is probably why we're waiting until we won't have any choice.
James said…
It is a Fraud on humanity, this fat man wants everybody to pay him and the State for air, water, industry and life itself, every person, will come into this world with 2000 dollars that they owe the state, and they skim off the top off everything thing that can be possibly considered have used carbon in their production, it's the first tax of the new world order and no, it's not a great new utopia, where corporations are kept in check by a responsible global government, it's global "our leader",.. we'll all be stripped of everything that we've become so accustomed to like rights, liberty, security, and freedom. the world health organization is going to take the nutrients out of our food, and give us only monsanto hormone-treated Beef, Chicken, Pork, Fish, Rice, and Grains.
James said…
Check out the Lincoln Quote, - the one you probably haven't heard "The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace, and conspire against it in times of adversity, it is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autoctracy, more selfish than beuracracy. I see in the near future a crises approaching, that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption will follow, and the money power of the country will undoubtedly prolong it's reign, by working upon the prejudices of the people, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the republic is destroyed." - Abraham Lincoln, in reference to the instigators of the central bank

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