While researching for a paper he had to write, student Justin T. Dobson contacted me on May 2, 2007 with a handful of questions about overpopulation. Presumably, he found me via my essay “Is World Population a Concern?“. While his questions (and my answers) are by no means anything Earth-shattering or unusual, I am presenting them here for the sake of preservation. Also, I think this makes a nice contrast with the essay since this presents my viewpoints in more of a conversational and less of a professional style.
Let the questions begin…
JD: Please do me the honor of describing a moral way to lower the world’s population.
GS: Lowering the population in a moral way is a very difficult thing to do. I do not feel it is right to force people into not having children, and it is never right to kill someone to lower the population (such as in a war). I think there are probably only two ways to lower the population morally: allow people to decide that they do not wish to have more than two children or offer some incentive (such as a tax break) to encourage people to have fewer kids. Many European countries are now having fewer kids without any incentives at all, so it’s very possible that in the future having one or two children will be the norm and the population will lower on its own.
JD: I have heard that China has/had an effective way to solve the problem at hand through a series of laws passed. Is this true? If it is please describe the way that they accomplished this.
GS: China’s method of population control is effective, but probably very immoral. They did pass a law allowing a couple to have only one child, as you said. This raises the question: does the government have the right to tell a person how many children they can have? Most people would say no. Also, you might have heard that in China males are more powerful than females, so sometimes female babies are killed by their parents so they can have another child. Obviously, any law that pushes people to kill their own children is not a good idea, even if it is effective.
JD: Realistically, is overpopulation an issue that many people think about today? If not, when was it an issue and in how many years do you believe it will be an issue?
GS: I don’t think people consider overpopulation a serious issue. I’m also not sure if they ever did. People will consider it a serious issue when the population reaches a breaking point. However, I think many people are concerned with the byproducts of overpopulation: pollution, global warming, the cost of gasoline, available living space (housing in New York is much smaller and more expensive than in the Midwest). So overpopulation is important to many people who don’t know that it is.
JD: How many people can the planet support?
GS: I am not the best person to ask on how many people the planet can support. I have heard many different numbers. The answer will depend on science’s ability to keep up with the human population. We have modified plants to produce more food and less waste, for example. If we had not done that, it is likely the planet would already be greatly overpopulated. Can we continue to improve science so we don’t run out of food or pollute the air/water to a point it’s unusable? Our diets, in general, do not support a large population: eating animals rather than plants requires far more farm land and waste. We get only a fraction of the raw energy from a cow that we would from the grains that a cow eats. I am not a vegetarian, by the way.
JD: What are a few radical methods to solve overpopulation?
GS: I think anything besides allowing people to make their own choices is a radical method to reduce the population. Encouraging war is radical, letting famines go unchecked is radical, allowing pollution to get out of hand is radical. I think any radical method is probably immoral. Even the Chinese law is probably radical because it goes completely against human nature and the biological urge of humanity. For extremely radical methods, you might consider putting people to sleep at a certain age (see the film “Logan’s Run”) or drawing names from a lottery to be killed. Perhaps make game shows more violent where the contestants might die (such as in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man”). Lastly, maybe a push to have more fetuses aborted. These methods are obviously not going to be very popular and have many moral questions.
JD: What are some realistic methods to solve overpopulation? For example: war, although I understand that going to war for the reason of eliminating overpopulation is not a justified reason, nor is it moral.
GS: For me, a “realistic” method to lower the population would not be any different from a “moral” one (from your first question). If it is moral, it is probably realistic. And if it’s realistic, it is probably moral. I don’t think people would have objections to choosing on their own to have fewer children or accepting a tax credit for holding off a few years to have children. These are both very sane and acceptable choices. Others probably exist, but offhand I cannot think of any — it is not a problem I’ve ever put much thought into.
Further Questions (May 7-8, 2007)
My friend and colleague James Skemp submitted two more questions on the issue of overpopulation in response to this piece. While they could have been placed in a comment at the bottom, I feel they are best addressed as an addendum to the original article. If further questions are submitted by others, I have no objections to adding them on to here, as well.
JS: You don’t think the Earth is overpopulated already?
GS: No. I think at the present time certain parts of the Earth may be overpopulated, but the Earth as a whole is not. There may be more people on Earth than I’d like, but that’s a subjective rather than a scientific issue. As I understand it, enough food currently exists for everyone to be fed if distribution could be perfected. And also, many of the countries with starvation problem could also have improved agriculture if the proper funds and education were provided. As for simple living space, more room no doubt exists. In America, we have congested cities (such as New York and Los Angeles) but we also have entire states (Montana and Wyoming) where if the population were spread out evenly, they would have to walk a mile to see another human being. China and India probably do not have such regions, but as I said as a whole the Earth is probably not at full capacity just yet.
JS: So, what would you consider to be overpopulation? Does the definition include some sort of standard of living?
GS: As with anything, I think the definition of a term is probably the most important aspect of any discussion. So I’m glad you asked this. I was working with the very tight definition of overpopulation: the point at which the Earth can no longer sustain the lives of the people. Basically, the point when it is simply not possible for all humans to survive under the current conditions.
Any good definition of overpopulation should probably rely on some idea of a standard of living. I am using the most minimal standard — what is Earth’s threshold? If there is a particular standard that is used, I am unaware of it. And I think most standards would probably be arbitrary. I am just saying if all humans on Earth can, in theory, intake what they need to maintain homeostasis (2000 calories a day, clean air and water) the Earth is supporting them and I could not say the Earth is overpopulated. I could say it is poorly distributed or mismanaged, but probably not overpopulated under the strictest of definitions.
JS: Should we allow the population to reach the overpopulation point? Should we really be packed in like sardines, or does the very fact that cities like New York and L.A. exist suggest that we should be looking at this problem now?
GS: I absolutely think we should look at this problem now. But as I suggested above and in my earlier essay on on overpopulation, the problem confronting us is not overpopulation directly but rather the byproducts of overpopulation — unclean water, unclean air, living space, urban sprawl, crop yields. These are the issues to deal with.
Whether we “should” allow the population to grow or not I think is a moot point. I don’t control the population, and as I’ve stated I don’t believe it’s morally right to tell people what they can or cannot do with their reproductive desires (generally speaking — a court order to limit children for families who cannot support their own kids may be reasonable). So whether we should or not, I think morally we have to allow the population to grow at the pace Providence allows it to grow. Do keep in mind, I think any decrease in human population is a good thing, so I’m not by any means encouraging people to cover every last inch…
JS: Do you think we’ll resort to moral needs, or radical ones, when the time comes?
GS: With most things, I’m overly optimistic about the human condition. I tend to think things will always get better, even if they temporarily get worse. War will decrease, global warming will be a nightmare of the past. I feel the same way about population control. As I believe I stated above, a number of European countries are actually losing their population. And look at America: as education increases (particularly in women) the age of marriage is pushed back, which reduces the number of children. Couples in general prefer one or two kids today over the large farming families of the past. There’s also the interesting phenomenon of single mothers: young single mothers tend to have only one child, and if they get involved with a man who is not the father, they often will not have a second child. This effectively makes the rate of childbirth 1 child to 3 parents, even lower than married couples.
In short, I have no reason to believe at this point we’ll ever have to resort to radical or moral means to lower the population. In a strictly “what if” situation where such a thing would occur (which I doubt), I suspect we would not resort to moral or radical means: I think it would come down to the simple case of those who can afford food and housing will and those who can’t will suffer. As much as I’m optimistic and would like to think we’re becoming a society where the poor are aided when necessary, I still think they’ll be the first to be left behind if a crisis comes. But I stress a third time, I don’t anticipate any such crisis.
JS: You’re not mentioning “third-world” countries. I can only speak from the small amount that I’ve read, but while it’s true that many countries are seeing a decrease in population, like the U.S. and European countries, that’s not the case worldwide.
GS: That’s a valid observation, and you’re right: the population is exploding in pre-industrialized countries such as those found in the Middle East and Africa. The CIA World Factbook for 2007 (available from their website or they’ll be happy to mail you one upon request) shows that almost every one of the top twenty-five countries as far as birth rates are concerned is in Africa (with the notable exception of Afghanistan in fourth). The countries least capable of supporting their own people are the ones having the most children. And the population worldwide does continue to increase. Note also, that while Europe (particularly Scandinavia) and the United States have low birth rates, the lowest are actually in Hong Kong and Japan. Draw your own conclusions.
The population explosion in the third world is a real concern, and it becomes a global concern because while it’s easy to blame the people of these countries for having children they cannot support, it is also a moral obligation in my mind to assist those less fortunate than us regardless of how they became less fortunate (children do not choose to be born into poor families). Africa does not exist in the minds of most people; the entire continent is more or less useless to the civilized world (with South America not far behind). And this is not good, from a moral perspective.
Once more I’d like to stress my optimism on the overpopulation issue — while these countries are having too many children, the Earth as a whole could support them. And over time these birth rates will decrease, as well. But I should point out that while in the industrialized world there is little to do to lower the population morally, in the third world there is much more we can do: encourage education, push for fair trade (not “free” trade) and other things to help end the third world mentality. Education’s prominence in Europe is the key reason the population decreases in my opinion, and I have no reason to suspect it would affect other places any differently.
In the meantime, reducing the burden of starvation should be something we consciously think about. In America, we have the government buying up surplus crops that go to waste each year while other countries starve. I’m not an agricultural expert by any means, but I think if Ethiopia and Somalia, for example, had better (more “modern”) farming techniques, they could greatly reduce their droughts and famines. I might be expecting too much, but I don’t think so.
So I guess the point I want to make is: third world overpopulation is temporary. Once education increases and global awareness and cooperation increases (which is bound to happen soon with the world shrinking) they will start having comparable birth rates. It would not be unrealistic to say the world’s population will reach it’s peak (and start declining) by 2050.