What Should I Do? The response ‘reduce human population’ demands more reflection.

Prieto, Pedro | May 15, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Painting of Girl Blowing Questions photo by Matthew Paul Argall | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

“What should I do?” It is a question anyone who works in the realm of existential threats has heard. From others and from the internal voice that guides our own actions. Though intended to inform action it is a question that can easily result in inaction –no matter who has asked it– as we spiral into analysis of possible responses and their consequences. While some may see this analysis counter-productive, I think it is crucial. The pre-packaged answers we are handed require deep analysis of their consequences precisely because the stakes for action and inaction are so high. One response that demands serious reflection is: “Find ways to help reduce human population through the promotion of women’s rights and achievement of universally available contraception.” I find that I hold mixed feelings about this response.

I do not hold these mixed feelings because I underestimate the impact of P in the I = P*A*T equation or for any religious belief –I am fully agnostic and in favor of any kind of voluntary contraception. In fact, I am really happy that my country has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (1.4 per woman), has almost free and universal access to contraception, teaches comprehensive sexual and reproductive health in schools, and that through a fierce fight women have claimed many more rights than in most countries in the world.

My reluctance towards the proposal is especially strong when proclaimed, directed or managed by the richest 30% of the world’s population who consumes 80% of the resources, as per the figure below. And when I observe that in some of the most consumerist and rich countries, from which these campaigns are mainly proposed to the whole world, the fertility rates are not necessarily decreasing through the two ways proposed above. Meanwhile, every new child in these countries burdens the world’s resources and sinks more than 50 new children in some rural regions of India.

Global income deciles and associated lifestyle consumption emissions from Oxfam
Global income deciles and associated lifestyle consumption emissions from Oxfam

Further, I believe it is quite cynic to campaign to achieve universal availability of contraceptives, when most of the people (counted in billions) lack access to some other basic needs, which I believe should and must be prioritized before contraception. I sincerely could not face a couple in Nigeria who does not have enough food to feed their family of three kids and give them a set of condoms and a manual in their native language on how to install an IUD, and nothing else. I am referring to the right to have the minimum of food, health, shelter and basic education. Proposing universal contraception to all of them, before solving the other basic problems, is what I see as very cynic.

I do not think we can honestly ask a young couple, anywhere in the world, to restrain their reproduction, “for the good of the future and the environment” (which is theirs, more than ours). I have three children, all of whom have decided to keep with fertility rates lower than my wife and myself, influenced by their personal situations and shifts in societal norms, not by a request or demand from my generation. I do not think we can ask young couples to, for instance, stop at one child per couple like in China, and well below the minimum reproduction rate of mammals (2.2 per female). I worked in China in the 80’s when the one-child-per-couple policy was in force, and I have seen quite a lot of human suffering from its enforcement.

The young couples of today are ABSOLUTELY not responsible for having arrived on a planet with 7.4 billion people. The proposal to reduce population, for the sake of justice, should start with the alive generations that reproduced in the past over the minimum to give space to the coming ones. Sorry if I appear rude.

In reflecting on the proposed response: “Find ways to help reduce human population,” I come to the following questions:

If we are going to deprive young couples of the right to reproduce if they wish to at the minimum rate needed as a species to stand still, what kind of human rights are we respecting? Is there any other essential human right above this one, apart from the right to life, to eat and to drink –which are still not granted for many billions?

Why do we have such a terror in developed countries of reformulating our own way of living that, when faced with a societal or environmental collapse, our championed action is reducing the population of others?

Why do we not consider that if we are going to collapse anyhow, then let the young couple die while having the right to reproduce as they wish to the last minute? Human remains, as far as I know do not represent a pollution problem for the planet. The waste (radioactive, plastic, CO2, NOx, SOx emissions, etc.) of a very peculiar and unique consumerist society, may in fact destroy the future for all living things in a way that returning 7.2 billion corpses back to the earth will not (for you are dust, and to dust you shall return).

In my opinion, the proposed responses of reducing human population and reducing consumption are equally unlikely. My vote is to prioritize reducing consumption, and then reducing population among the 30% of the world’s population who consume 80% of the resources. If we succeed in both, then, and only then, can we proudly go to preach human population control to the Democratic Republic of Congo or to Palestine (after having succeeded in Israel, both with similar exceedingly high reproduction rates). Not before.

Pedro Prieto is a Telecom Engineer who has worked around the world on telecommunications networks. Through this work Prieto developed an interest and concern in energy issues. Prieto is currently president of a solar PV company in Spain and vice president of the non-profit organization, the Asociación para el Estudio de los Recursos Energéticos (AEREN), which manages the web page Crisis Energética. AEREN works as an open space for debate and communications on energy issues and their role in demography, development, economy and ecology and is a reference in the Spanish speaking world for ASPO (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas), an international association of scientists devoted to the analysis and study of global peak oil and gas and its consequences for Mankind.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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  • billdowling

    I think everyone on the planet needs to watch this short 17 minute film :
    They will then better understand why, if they live in a rich high consuming country they need to reduce their individual consumption the most, and why, if they live in a poor high birth rate country, they need to reduce the number of children they have the most; Also to better understand that a long term sustainable future for our descendants is only going to be possible if we collectively drastically reduce both the global average per capita consumption of resources and the global average birth rate. We are all living on an already grossly overpopulated planet that is already consuming resources as if there was 1.7 planets instead of the one we have;

    The widely applauded “human rights”, to consume as much stuff as we can afford and to have as many children as we want; cannot possibly be allowed to trump the “human rights” of all the existing children and grandchildren we already have on the plalnet to expect a decent future – can they?
    If all parents and grandparents truly love their children and grandchildren as they would naturally claim to, they should all be lobbying their governments and world leaders to stop their eternal quest for ever more economic growth.- i.e. effectively, “wanting ever more people to be consuming ever more stuff “..

    While this “economic growth” may seem to to be making things better for us all, this is an illusion. It is basicaly “promising us more jam today by ensuring that we can only have only dripping tomorrow! “.

    ” Growth is a desease for which it claims to be the cure”

  • Rex Weyler

    With respect, and admiration for you, Pedro, since you are quoting me directly, I have to take exception to some of your notions. I’ll be as specific and brief as possible.

    Although you recognize that the P (Population) in I= PAT (Ecological Impact is proportional to Population X Affluence (average consumption) X Technology, i.e. our types of extraction and production) is significant and real, you object to suggesting action to slow human population growth for these reasons:

    1. No one should mention this, or advocate action, if their income is above the 30-percentile of world income

    2. Women’s rights and available contraception don’t necessarily work to reduce population

    3. We should not advocate for available contraception because people have other basic needs, such as food, and

    4. Young couples today are not responsible, so shouldn’t be asked to take action by having less children

    I’ll address these in order.

    First of all, yes, you are correct that Population has a real and significant ecological impact. Yet, you propose:

    1. No one should mention this, or advocate action, if their income is above the 30-percentile of world income

    I cannot find any valid logic in this prohibition. You appear to be attempting to silence people because they are not poor enough to deserve a voice in world affairs. Where is the cut-off? When are we poor enough to speak? Are you poor enough to speak? I live a modest lifestyle, my family income is actually below the so-called “poverty level” in Canada, but — by virtue of living in Canada — I likely fall well above your suggested 30-percentile. So I am to be silenced? Who gets to set this — somewhat arbitrary — limit? Is it different for every issue? So Paul Ehrlich never should have spoken up? Is everyone in Europe and North America prohibited, in your proposal, from speaking about any ecological issues? Should anyone rich enough to have a computer just shut up? If I take my sleeping bag, and go live in the ghetto for a year, may I speak? Really, Pedro, how does this work?

    You are conflating two valid concerns, and claiming we can only address one of them. Population AND extravagant consumption by the rich are BOTH valid ecological concerns. Caring about one of these does not preclude or diminish the other. Caring about neither of these precludes or diminishes caring about social justice.

    Everyone has an equal right and responsibility to speak about anything they wish, and advocate others to join them in any action they believe might be helpful for others. No exceptions. I don’t accept your proposed prohibition.

    2. Women’s rights and available contraception don’t necessarily work to reduce population

    Don’t know where you get this. The data, as far as I know, confirms that women’s rights and available contraception both help slow population growth. Under the discussion of “Women, girls and population,” the UN specifically advocates womens rights and “Access to voluntary family planning” and points out that doing so “reduces poverty, promotes environmental sustainability,” and provides women with “the ability to time and space their pregnancies.” This almost always results in lower fertility rates.

    Maybe you have some data I’m not aware of, but as far as I know, in the 1970s, fertility rates fell in southern Europe, including Spain and Italy, due to an increase in women’s rights and available contraception. In Columbia, fertility rates dropped from 6 to 3.5 in 15 years after contraception was made widely available.

    Pedro, wherever women have reproductive rights and available contraception, fertility rates decline.

    Perhaps you fear that talk of stabilizing or reducing population invokes totalitarian oppression, the China policy, or worse. However, the best, proven means to stabilize population are simple and offer other humanitarian benefits:

    1. Universal women’s rights, and
    2. Make contraception available.

    3. We should not advocate for available contraception because people have other basic needs, such as food.

    Again, you are suggesting we can only address ONE problem at a time. How does making contraception available steal food from people? If I send a box of condoms to my friend in Saudi Arabia, am I stealing food from someone? Your proposal that we avoid making contraception available until no one is hungry seems self-defeating. You’re children will be trying to feed 12 billion people in 50 years.

    It seems to me, we can realistically address more than one challege simultaneously.

    4. Young couples today are not responsible, so shouldn’t be asked to take action by having less children

    So, if the house is on fire, only those responsible should leap into action? Pedro, evolution and natural instincts are responsible. There are no criminals and innocents in this discussion. By advocating action to slow population growth, no one is prohibiting a young couple from having a child. This is a straw-man attack. No one is saying this. Precisely, when I suggested this I advocated:
    1. Universal women’s rights, and
    2. Make contraception available.

    Where in this did I propose a prohibition against a young couple having a child?

    Furthermore, in a biophysical world, the limit of any species population growth is not determined by me, or Paul Ehrlich, or you, or any human: The limits of population growth are a very real condition of any biophysical habitat. None of the thousands of people advocating population restraint are “telling” young people they can’t have children! Rather, it is nature itself imposing physical limits on any population growth. Observers such as me or you or Dr. Ehrlich are simply pointing this limit out.

    I believe you’re making a huge mistake here, attempting to silence those who mention population growth as a serious human challenge, and who advocate action to slow, stabilize, or reduce that population growth, especially when the proposals made are as simple, non-threatening, and multi-purposed as advocating:

    1. Universal women’s rights, and
    2. Make contraception available.

    With respect, I stand by my suggestion.

    Rex Weyler

  • trilemmaman

    Do the math! Using exiting technologies the earth could support two to three times the current population sustainable….IF we made it our highest priority. We won’t. So debating how to save the planet/environment from over consumption will keep you distracted from addressing the root problem. Global ignorance, apathy, and injustice.

    Below is a question asked on Quora, which I answered using math and current conditions.

    What would the world look like if the population reached 100 billion people?

    (Chuck Woolery Answered May 24, 2016)

    Biosphere 2 is an Earth systems science research facility owned by the University of Arizona at nearly 4,000 feet (1219.2 m) above sea level. It is a 3.14-acre structure originally constructed in Arizona between 1987 and 1991 to be an artificial, materially-closed ecological system .
    It contained representative biomes: a 1,900 square meter rainforest, an 850 square meter ocean with a coral reef, a 450 square meter mangrove wetlands, a 1,300 square meter savannah grassland, a 1,400 square meter fog desert, a 2,500 square meter agricultural system, a human habitat, and a below-ground level technical infrastructure. Heating and cooling water circulated through independent piping systems and passive solar input through the glass space frame panels covering most of the facility, and electrical power was supplied into Biosphere 2 from an onsite natural gas energy center through airtight penetrations.
    It’s mission was to explore the complex web of interactions within life systems in a structure that included five areas based on biomes and an agricultural area and human living/working space to study the interactions between humans, farming and technology with the rest of nature. It also explored the possible use of closed biospheres in space colonization, and allowed the study and manipulation of a biosphere without harming Earth’s. Funding for the project cost $200 million from 1985 to 2007, including land, support research greenhouses, test module and staff facilities. (Approximately $10 million/year.)
    8 people in 3.14 acres = 640 acres per square mile. = 203 Biospheres per square mile = 1,600 people per square mile = $2 billion/yr to operate per square mile.
    Montgomery County, MD = At the 2010 census, there were 971,777 humans residing in the county. The population density was 1,762 per square mile (680 /km). 550 miles² (885.139 kilometers) = ~$1.1 trillion/yr to operate.
    In 2008, Montgomery County was the second richest county interns of per capita income in the state of Maryland and 13th richest in the United States, with a median household income of $92,213. ~ 400,000 housing units = . ~ $35 billion annual income. Area wealth?
    Conclusion: With sufficient economic resources,Montgomery county could conceivably feed itself sustainably with a relatively high standard of living ANDimproved health and vitality of population. The greatest barriers to such a grand experiment would obviously be funding and having everyone get along given all the high minded disagreeable types in any given population.
    The Biosphere 2 project expanded to global level:
    7 billion people would require a land mass of 4.3 million square miles of biosphere management =
    • Asia: 16. 9 million sq miles.
    • Africa: 11.7 million sq. miles.
    • North America: 9.5 million sq. miles.
    • South America: 6.9 million sq. miles.
    • Antarctica: 5.3 million sq. miles.
    • Europe: 3.9 million sq. miles.
    • Australia and Greenland: 4.3 million sq mi.
    • Total land space on Earth: 57,393,000 mi² = 92 billion humans living in Biospheres.
    Alternative future: Cruise ships for 7 billion humans (not using floating cities or underwater cities).
    Royal Caribbean’s Freedom class cruise ships can accommodate 3,634 passengers and 1,300 crew = 5000 people = Construction Cost US $800,000,000 = 1,112 ft length x 127 ft width. =141,000 sq ft. /ship.
    1 square mile = 27, 878 400 foot² = 200 cruise ships.
    200 cruise ships = 1 million people /sq mile of ocean.
    7,000 square miles of ocean = 1.4 million cruise ships.
    =$1,120 trillion total = $160,000 per person. (Current world wealth = $200 trillion)
    100 billion people would require about 20 million cruise ships. They would cover about 100,000 square miles of ocean.
    The experiments above are vague and unrealistically expensive representations of what’s possible under current priorities, and expenses based on small scale, one time construction. Scaling up and mass production of sustainable infrastructure could significantly reduce costs. The much larger barrier is making the political and psychological changes needed to make the well being of our environment and the health and education of our species the highest economic priority. A far better and sustainable world is possible…and such significantly improved living standards would be the most effective measure to effectively reduce birth rates without coercive or forceful measures.
    I am under no illusion that this will happen or that we will even try. But there should belittle doubt, that a more sustainable future IS physically possible. Again, not likely — but possible, with 7 billion, 15 billion, or even 100 billion humans.
    For those who focus on reducing population growth without a far greater emphasis on changing consumption patterns sustainability will not be achieved. Their resignation to the plight of over 2 billion people already living on less than $2 a day is (how do I say this?) selfishly disgusting – as well as contributing to the actual overpopulation/ pollution problem. The best way of reducing births in any population is making sure they have adequate healthcare, education, nutrition, equal rights for rights and political participation for women.
    FOOD Production capacity:
    How to feed 10,000 people from food grown on 3 acres in the city
    Growing Power
    5-2016 Will Allen is proving that city farms work — big time. He’s not conjuring up theories; everything that he is teaching in cities across the country he learned over the course of 20 years with his hands in the dirt, a little money in his pocket and a survivalists smarts for innovating. He grows food in ways that few have seen before — and he grows it sustainably. Allen’s 3-acre farm sits in the poorest part of Milwaukee and now feeds 10,000 people a year. It brought him a MacArthur grant and his neighbors good, healthy eating. The story is in Allen’s book The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities.
    NOTES: FDA recommends roughly a pound a day per person. 40 tons of food is 80,000 pounds…divide by 365 days, you get about 219 people fed per day for a year. I believe they are saying that 10,000 humans EAT their food and drink their water, not that they derive their entire caloric intake from the farm.
    Regarding sustainability and population density: 200 people can live comfortably on about 10 acres. If they lived under the greenhouses, they could grow over 130 tons of food—3x what they need, if they farmed in this way.
    These guys do 6,000 pounds a year on 1/10 acre, for example: http://urbanhomestead.org/ Many of these methods also use far less water than traditional agriculture.
    60,000 lbs per acre = 30 tons per year. = ~200 people/year fed.
    640 acres per square mile = 128,000 humans/year per sq mile of intense agriculture.
    Less than 60,000 miles² (155399 km²) needed to feed 7 billion humans a food.
    A Look at Minnesota Agriculture (Population:5.26 million)
    Nick Name: Land of 10,000 Lakes. Number of Farms: 81,000. Average Farm Size: 332 acres
    Total Farmland: 26.9 million acres. = 42,000 miles² (67592 km²).
    7.7k Views · View Upvoters


  • Max Kummerow

    Pretending that limiting numbers of children is an alternative to limiting consumption or promoting social justice is wrong. These are three separate, but interrelated issues. The answer is not one of these to the exclusion of the other two, but all three as mutually reinforcing. In fact, since high fertility countries are almost all poor (oil states the only temporary exceptions), and low fertility countries mostly rich (and high consumption, exception Cuba), clearly the salient policies for the rich/low fertility are to reduce consumption (and maybe also fertility) and for the poor to reduce fertility (while striving to increase incomes to acceptable levels without damaging ecosystems). High fertility has played and will play a big role in keeping these countries poor. Yes reproduction is a fundamental human right, but the habitat to support humans determines, ultimately, how many can survive. Right now we are busy wrecking our habitat. There need to be fewer of us, consuming less (especially the rich) and more just distribution to reduce suffering. And, not or.

  • Querido Pedro:

    You know that even if consumption (global and per capita) could be reduced to the minimum necessary to sustain human life, +7,000 million people are just too many for a world without the extra carrying capacity of oil (and fossil energy in general). People can take a look to the quantities of human beings that a post-oil world could carry at http://www.detritivoros.com where I’ve been gathering previsions from various authors.

    Anyway, your thoughts show a necessary point frequently missed, when talking population-reduction matter: the consumption variable and its uneven distribution around the World and the generations. Thanks for showing it!

  • Jim Boyer

    I admire the ‘solutions’ to overpopulation here in but as in other transcripts on the subject we forget that we SHARE this planet with the primary producers, pollinators and habitats that we rely on to feed the increasing numbers of people. When the afore mentioned are gone our life on this planet is hopeless.
    The sheer numbers of people in various countries has, to me, created a atmosphere of insensitivity toward the loss of human life. Such as school children being gunned down in America or famine in some other country. The news cycle responds for about a week, nothing is done and we remain on hold till the next mass murder, war, famine or natural disaster. Another 2 billion people in the future and a 100K people dying in some event will hardly be noticeable. We humans don’t change course in addressing the tragedy don’t resolve that we are the problem and simply cross our fingers. Denial, as they say, isn’t just river in Egypt.
    My point is that when we are living in a congested society people dying will mean nothing and be seen as a necessary evil. China is on that path, 2K children die in a school collapse in an earthquake and the government refuses to acknowledge the number and arrests the parents who complain. That’s not a world where we want to add more children not me at least.
    We as a species need to ‘grow up’ and move toward making our planet habitable but I doubt that will happen. Note: I apologize for the lack of academic writing skills and I hope I’m clear as to meaning.

  • Joanna Wilkie

    Paul Ehrlich was in the midst of all the battles to create an ecologically literate society. That
    battle has been lost. I am from Australia,and a recent current affairs program (Four Corners)
    on the current horrendous population growth trend for this country made me realise how abysmally low the level of ecological literacy among the ‘experts’ being interviewed was. The
    property developers and short-term gainers have won in the short term. We have a truck load of
    unsolvable ecological predicaments coming at us in the coming decades. We can reflect all we
    like now,but the outcome is plain to see. Nature will be teaching us the lessons that we were
    incapable of collectively learning otherwise. A lecture on population by someone who has three
    kids? Is this a comedy site?
    comment by david higham

  • Don Chisholm

    Pedro has brought up an important subject. I have some agreement with af the
    response comments that offer a different ways of looking at the problem of ‘who should decide to limit their reproduction, and based on what?’ It seems to me that those who are in their productive
    years should have, but do not have, guidance on the issue from their government leaders. Today’s leaders may or may not be aware of limits to growth, but even those who are aware of the human predicament cannot do anything about it. It’s a paradigm problem rooted an economic/monetary system of ‘growth’ that has no feedback from the stresses on our biophysical world that result from excess human-activity (both population and resource throughput). Members of the relatively new http://blueplanetclub.ca have some insight on the complexity of the issue, and some hope that a better system of governance
    could emerge.

  • my response to pedro is this plan for
    Unwinding the Human Predicament

  • melharte

    I wholeheartedly agree that in the nation of highest consumers, the US, we should be striving to go to the lowest fertility via the most humane way, which, according to Pedro, his own country already enjoys: easy and FREE access to contraceptives for all; additionally, outreach on the most highly effective ones now available.
    Re China: Large significant changes within human societies almost always involve pain — but how much? China’s 20th century mandatory 1-child policy can easily be seen as inhumane or unjust to outside eyes, but not in the context of the inhumane disasters of mass starvation that were already occurring there earlier in that century. Which was more inhumane? In that context, the mandated policy might easily be judged as the lesser evil, vs. the mass starvation.

    The results of that policy were impressive: a culture that judged prosperity much by the number of children a family could support, morphed into a culture that recognized the prosperity of the family depended on not having many children, but rather focusing resources on bringing up fewer children more likely to succeed and prosper. More than one young urban Chinese couple have told me that they are happy to have one child, because it is too expensive to raise more than that in the city, the living environment of choice for Chinese growing middle class.
    It is actually a lesson yet to be learned in the US, where most are unaware that demographic data show that having more than 1-2 children is correlated to a family’s probability of falling into poverty.

    • Pedro Prieto

      Dear Mel,

      It is certainly hard to see the human suffering of Chinese people during the one child policy times, and before and also after from outside eyes. It may perhaps be the lesser evil, I am not sure.

      The women with whom I talked during my visits to China in 1984-1986 period (and wanted to talk on the subject) had a variety of opinions. What they all agreed upon was in what you mention that it was too expensive to raise more than one in a city. But I am not sure they said that so happy.

      What they conveyed to me is that their meager salary of that time gave them just for a very humble living. The state and state companies they worked for (all of them state owned; there was not private enterprises then), were providing most of the complements. i.e. transport in buses or minibuses from home to the factory and back, subsidized electricity (I saw homes with one single 20 watts incandescent lamp and usually most of them had coal stoves and kitchen), subsidized and free kindergarten and school for the one child, etc. etc.

      When inadvertently (or intentionally) pregnant of a second one, the couple was “socially” invited to abortion and given all the means to proceed. If insisting in the second, then the hell, effectively fell on the couple in the form of retiring them all their subsidized life, making their life almost impossible.

      One of the important aspects I am noticing here in my own, let’s say, affluent country, where most of the women have already 1.4 children per woman in average (fortunately, in a totally voluntary form), is not on the couple, at least until now, but also and mainly that most of the couples having one, will breed a child that will never know what a brother or sister is. In two generations, they will not know what a cousin is. They will have four grandparents per one child to socially sustain. What I observe here is that they do not properly learn to share or negotiate or play or train with them to test and error games with their brothers/sisters and they hang too much on their parents as the only proximity link and get accustomed to have everything in a consumerist society.

      In fact, I do not know if mass starvation and global collapse would have arrived first in China if no one child policy had been enforced for so many years, but a strict and humble life in communes had been maintained (with probably more infant and adult mortality but also more than one child per couple and similar population growth levels). Or if the collapse and final starvation will come much stronger and precipitously, having implemented the one child policy, but also and almost in parallel, with the change to one country-two systems policy imposed by Deng Xiaoping, being ferocious capitalism the second system that erupted a consumerist wave and multiplied drastically the use and abuse of natural resources. I witnessed in Beijing in 1985, the Deng message to Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez (it is not important if the cat is white or black; the important is that he hunts mice, referring to the efficiency of capitalism in producing many goods and services (so, exploding at the maximum the A of the I = P*A*T equation). The higher the Chinese consumption, the harder will be the fall. Of China and also the whole world.

      • melharte

        Dear Pedro,

        Yes, poverty is not a very happy state – it is painful, but starvation is even more so.
        The fact that there has not been a social collapse in China from its decades-long 1 child policy indicates that lack of siblings has not severely damaged the family units or community ties that comprise a society.
        Examples abound on how people thrive without siblings. For example, families in the US are often dispersive, which often means that individuals have few “functional” siblings. Given that all my siblings live about 3,000 miles away from me and I rarely see them, for example, I have learned to reach out and “adopt” friends as my functioning siblings, as I’m sure many have done in the US. I suspect the same is true in China.
        Learning to share is an important ability that falls on parents to teach, not siblings: many selfish people exist, irrespective of their siblings, or lack thereof. In raising my one child, for example, I was well aware that she had to be taught to share, and she does so. Because she is an only child, I see that she has put much more effort to develop an emotional network of friends than I ever did. In that sense, one could argue that single children are more likely than those with siblings to reach out and form the social bonds of friendship that support the functioning of societies — a definite plus!

        • Pedro Prieto

          Dear Mel,

          I have traveled throughout the world during decades. I do not share the idea that poverty necessarily implies a not happy state or even that is a painful one. Agree that starvation is more painful, of course and always undesirable. But I have seen people in low income countries, where I lived or visited, more happy than many others in consumerist ones. In fact, I do not see a direct relation between income and happiness, provided that people have the minimum to live with dignity, which is not much.

          Of course, I will never imply that a couple with one child or even that decided not to have any (I have several friends that voluntarily decided so and I respect them) and that this decision represents a problem in their lifes. Just that they miss a good relation with somebody very close and they refrain from a biological mandate or a natural pulse. If I look mammals and how they thrive, play, even fight and dispute, etc. not only with parents, but also with their siblings and I consider myself and my family within this species, perhaps I can make myself understand better. Parents have a lot of responsibility always for the education of children, but I would never discard the importance of training and education between/among their own siblings, precisely without the parental permanent intervention.

          Of course mammals have sometimes also “functional siblings” apart from those of the offspring, when gathering into bigger groups, which is also a very good and desirable relationship, but I would not discard or minimize the advantages of playing with brothers/sisters with whom they share DNA. Nor the training that represents a child seeing the mother evolving with a womb to bring another brother or sister. At least, as I have mentioned and if voluntarily decided, up to reaching, if they so wish, the minimum sustainable species reproduction rate (2.1 per woman in advanced societies or perhaps even more in higher mortality rates societies to just stand still, not to exponentially multiply).

          The example you put on the US, not to mention your personal case of siblings living thousands of miles from each other, and getting none or only one child per woman is somehow paradigmatic to me. When trying to move towards a more ecological living, having siblings living +3,000 miles away tells us much about the unsustainable way of living. It shows, in my humble opinion, a unique way of living that never existed before, with ultra high mobility, which very likely implies, a huge ecological footprint and a lot of consumerism, that is supposed to be, in a big proportion, the concern we are trying to avoid.

          I will conclude having some doubts that a definite type of one-childed society will form better than a more than one child society the social bonds of friendship that support the functioning of societies. I do not think the offspring accountability has much to do with this.

          Perhaps the social bonds that create a society worth living have more to do with the “culture of the agora” (Greek and Roman, now Mediterranean culture, but also the culture of many other societies, from Latin America to Africa, Middle East, and big part of Asia, whose way of living consists mainly in meeting, gathering and socializing in open, public sites), versus the “culture of the hut”, much more individualized, isolated, privatized and fortified, looking at all other as potential enemies; this, irrespective of the number of children per woman.

          This is what I see when I look, for instance, at the US society, and its social fabric and bonds, while we assist, incredulous, to the recent claims on the mental health and opioids epidemics in that country, this said with all respects. And specially, after having seen that recent notice I link below in an US tabloid, on how things are evolving in the US. I do not see that as an example to follow of a grotesque and frightening forced friendship for a desirable functioning society

          I comment that because I see my country navigating fast into that direction and this is not what I would wish for it, as an example of a coherent society with desirable social bonds to make a society functioning well.


  • Luis Gutierrez

    I share the same concerns. Demographic issues cannot be reduced to numbers and cannot be resolved by artificial fixes alone. To suggest that the poor countries are the most responsible is like adding insult to injury. Let the nations of the first world reduce consumption and open their borders to migration. Then we can have a sensible dialogue about other voluntary options.

  • Excellent arguments from the author Prieto. Let’s think about what perspective are concerns are coming from. There are two kinds of problems depending on the perspective. From the perspective of individuals or families the question of how many is a question of how many children to have. In complex industrial societies with good government and good social safety nets, a lot of the reasons for having many children drop away, and so people have less children. In simpler agrarian societies, children are needed as extra hands or as caregivers for elderly parents; access to good healthcare is poor and more children die, hence the perceived need to have more children. Addressing inequality and fair and representative government could lead to people wanting less children in these cases.

    Thinking about issues from the perspective of the entire human race, or the earth’s biosphere’s long term survival can be useful, but is far more problematic. There is no actual conscious entity that corresponds to these larger perspectives. We are simply imagining them from our perspective. Ultimately, if there are too many of us, nature will take care of the situation for us, no matter what we do. It is far more important to reduce inequality, and make our political and economic institutions more fair and representative, than to try and coordinate action on a global and long-term scale. We don’t really understand this enormous scale, we have no proper means of acting on this scale, and we would be far more effective by improving our own social institutions in our own societies.

    • trilemmaman

      Thank you Charles! Wise words…and great last name!

  • davefinnigan

    Pedro Prieto, I think you have the reduction of human population and the reduction of the population growth rate confused. What almost every organization proposes is to cut the growth rate to a point where it is at or below replacement level, and economic development does that in an established feedback loop, however history in “successful” countries shows you that you need to kick start the process by getting young couples to agree to have two children or fewer.

    When my friends and I were sent from The Population Council and the University of Michigan to South Korea in the mid 1960’s at the invitation of the Korean government, we went with the intention to help that country cut their average family size from about 6 kids with absolute son preference to two or less, obliterating son preference. Our slogan for the program was “Two are enough, Girls and Boys are equal.” This was a huge shock to the Korean psyche, but we trained over 2400 field workers to go door to door in every myun (village) in Korea to help young couples understand the message, rewarding the field worker, the doctor and the clinic per adopter for IUDs, pills or sterilization. The people acted on it and several measures advanced hand in hand with reduced fertility in a continuous feedback loop. Education went up, especially for girls, health care improved, particularly for women and children, the death rate from early childhood diseases plummeted, and the economy soared as the dependency burden dropped.

    In 1966, when I got there, the average per capita income was around $800 per year and the total population was about 30,000,000. Nobody said we were racists or wealthy people trying to reduce the ranks of the poor, or foreigners working counter to the rights and aspirations of the Korean people. We were just team members who came to help and who provided access to grant money and intellectual property from major universities.

    Fast forward to 2018. Average per capita income in South Korea is $38,000 per year, the average married couple has less than two children, and population size is just over 50,000,000 and going down. So Korea needs to go outside to find workers. In fact, if the two Koreas unite the labor shortage in the south will be solved for a generation at least.

    I was fortunate to do the same in Taiwan in the late 60s and early 70’s with the same results. None of my Chinese colleagues accused me of “economic and cultural imperialism.” We were too busy working together to solve the problem, with the same formula. Extensive networks of local village women trained as family planning workers went from door to door in EVERY community. Again fertility plummeted, family size dropped from over 5 kids to under 2, and all the other social and economic indicators soared.

    Across the straits of Formosa the Chinese saw what we had accomplished voluntarily in Korea and Taiwan and they instituted the one-child policy, using the command economy model in place of voluntary compliance. But it worked. China’s economy soared as it’s population growth and average family size dropped. All their other social and economic indicators went up.

    Demography is destiny, my friend, and if the rapidly reproducing nations of Africa and South Asia and Central and South America really want to develop economically they can choose the Korean and Taiwanese model and move forward to a stable population size and high economic growth voluntarily, or their death rates will continue to rise and they will achieve stability involuntarily through mass famines, wars, and plagues.

    Please look at the history of the successful countries and you will see that it is a false dichotomy that you have proposed. There is no need to reduce consumption in order to justify reduction in fertility, although reducing consumption has its own merits with regard to pollution and climate change. It is in the absolute best interest of the remaining fast-growing impoverished countries to consider what really happened in South Korea, Taiwan and China and apply one of these effective models to their own situation. Certainly I prefer the model I helped design and implement, voluntary family planning spurred on by a cadre of female field workers who go door to door and are paid per adopter.

    Unfortunately nobody has ever written the definitive book on the history of these programs from the point of view of those of us who designed and implemented them. The hard work of organizing and training field staff to go door to door with messages and easy start methods of contraception has not been transferred to the remaining poor, overpopulated and rapidly growing countries. Nostrums such as “educate girls” or “provide public health” have been suggested as means for reducing fertility, and it is true that these changes go hand in hand, but correlation is not causality, and I believe the door to door model of fieldworkers we developed and tested in South Korea and Taiwan and then replicated in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere that family size has fallen needs to be looked at as an essential component of efforts to reduce family size to the replacement level in poor countries.

  • stevenearlsalmony
    • stevenearlsalmony

      “Disaster comes when elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources.”

  • “Unwinding the Human Predicament”
    in the below comment
    was the URL

  • Mike Hanauer

    There are so so many “reasons” to avoid asking people to reduce their reproduction; so many related in some way to some connotation on social justice. Yet, I see no way to ever get to authentic sustainability without doing so.

    Could overpop be the ultimate impediment to social justice? Can avoiding the “elephant in the living room” ever get us to saving the planet and quality of life for living beings? How?

    • trilemmaman

      Social and economic justice is the ONLY sane path to reduced birth rates.

  • Dear Pedro and MAHB colleagues

    Our view of reality seems to have some gaps.

    Closing these gaps might depend on answering this question:
    How many people will the earth support in 2100.

    If there is a good chance that the available energy deliveries will be

    less than 5% of what they are today.
    (fossil and uranium supplies will be unavailable )
    (wind and solar energy production systems
    cannot by themselves support developed civilizations)
    If mining new resources will take more energy than recycling them
    from our waste stream.

    If the energy that supports each individuals is half what an American now consumes
    (50,000 KWH per year)


    the number of supportable people (using the output of existing hydro)
    might be less than 1% of the current global population?

    If these assumptions are true,
    on our current path most of our children and grandchildren
    will die of starvation and conflict.

    Can you think of another path that will contraction
    the world’s population 99% in 84 years

    Here is my plan:

    Unwinding the Human Predicament

    I would be very happy to hear from this group
    another plan that reflects in its computations
    “who gets injured and when.”

    Jack Alpert PhD Director:
    Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory http://www.skil.org
    (C) 913 708 2554 alpert@skil.org skype: SKILdog
    13617 W. 48th Street Shawnee, KS 66216

  • Esther Phillips

    Hi Pedro

    Why please should those of us who are here already die well before their time in conflicts to allow those who aren’t here yet to join us in the kind general conflicts that we will have for resources, territory, water, food etc? The poor sods who are being put here indeed have no choice in the matter. As far as I’m concerned it is amoral to haul creatures out of happy oblivion and make them suffer on what is now a Titanic in the first place so I have passed on having children. Plenty of teenagers are taking a long hard look at their future and are committing suicide in this country.

    You say you saw the hardship that was caused by the one child policy in China but had you been there a few decades earlier you would have seen famines that killed millions and allegedly people eating their own children. Read that somewhere no idea if it is indeed true, it was before my time and I wasn’t there.

    People like me are not cynical when we say food aid should only be given in combination with contraception but hard nosed. We’ve learnt that if you help with no conditions attached you just get millions more people to help a few decades down the line. Not only that but now they are migrating in large numbers causing frictions where they go.

    And what do you mean by that? “The young couples of today are ABSOLUTELY not responsible for having arrived on a planet with 7.4 billion people. The proposal to reduce population, for the sake of justice, should start with the alive generations that reproduced in the past over the minimum to give space to the coming ones. Sorry if I appear rude.”

    Sorry to appear silly but how can one undo the three children that you had? Not by pressing CTRL Z unfortunately. Thank goodness, not everyone behaved like that either, my parents had one child and I have none, as I said to spare them the utter mess to come. People having three children or even more is an imposition on people like me who happen to value clean air, clean waters, living soils, nature, wildlife, space, peace and tranquillity so that is where they are very rude indeed. But of course you will say its none of my business, even though I ended up with cancer due to pollution. Other than wishing I had my own planet I will also continue campaigning for people to stop at one child if they must inflict suffering at all.

    As to Palestine, these poor people live in an open air prison. Why on Earth should it be a good thing that said prison gets even more crowded? It will just lead to violence. Steve Pinkers’ little theory can only be true for so long before the dark angels of our nature will come to the surface.

  • Rob Harding

    Dear Pedro,

    It comes across as quite arrogant to suggest that, since some form of collapse is imminent, we should consider allowing everyone to have a “right to reproduce as they wish to the last minute” while our single species continues to decimate populations of other species around the world. As Bill Rees recently shared in an article about our current overshoot predicament, “On a finite planet where millions of species share the same space and depend on the same finite products of photosynthesis, the continuous expansion of one species necessarily drives the contraction and extinction of others.”


    Do you see no room for interspecies justice in the making of this decision? Why is the thought of a limitless human right to reproduce being considered as superior to other species’ mere existence on Earth?

    Of course this concerns both population and consumption, but our sheer numbers surely matter — everywhere. How can we expect everyone to achieve a high quality of life (whatever that means to them) when there are so many of us? Just as you witnessed a lot of human suffering from the enforcement of China’s one-child policy, we all continue to witness an alarming amount of suffering across many species, including our own, in part driven by unbridled human population growth. We are clearly a dominant animal, and as it concerns both population and consumption I believe we have a responsibility to act with humility. The earliest this can start happening is today so placing blame on past generations is pointless.


    • Sailesh Rao

      Indeed, while the affluent are unwilling to give up their consumption and the not-so-affluent are unwilling to give up their reproduction, other species are dying at an exponentially accelerated pace. As the Fishing industry deploys Big Data software technologies to find and kill the last remaining fish in the ocean, the Animal Agriculture industry deploys helicopter gunships to find and kill the last remaining “predators” and “competitors” on land to protect its ever-growing herds of domestic animals – which, by the way, eat FIVE times as much food as all humans – and the Chemical industry relentlessly pours toxins into the environment to kill off “pests” and birds to protect monocultures, all wild vertebrates are scheduled to die off by YEAR ZERO : 2026, at current rates of decline. You can check the references at climatehealers.org/facts.

      Please join us for the Vegan World 2026 Conference in Tempe, AZ, USA, later this year, as we create a concerted pull in the opposite direction, to create a new model that guarantees dignity and equality to all of humanity, while we steward life as we know it to thrive on this planet: climatehealers.org/vegan-world-2026-conference. We will be working out strategic plans to achieve the following transitions during the conference:

      Spiritual Principles:

      1. Domination of Other Species -> Liberation of Other Species
      2. Deliberate Cruelty -> Compassion for all Life
      3. Religious Divisions -> Acceptance of all faiths and non-belief traditions
      4. Ego-centric -> Eco-centric
      5. Fear of Death -> Love of Life

      Ecological Principles:

      6. Monocultures -> Biodiversity (Food Forests)
      7. Climate Destruction -> Climate Healing
      8. Ecological Overshoot -> Ecological Thrivability
      9. Artificial Scarcity -> Natural Abundance
      10. Death-dealing -> Life-enriching

      Social Principles:

      11. Carnism and Speciesism -> Veganism
      12. Colonialism -> Decolonization
      13. Sexism and Heterosexism -> Gender Equality and Justice
      14. Racism -> Racial Equality
      15. Rising Inequity -> Economic Equality
      16. Individualistic -> Community Oriented
      17. Competition -> Collaboration and Coherence
      18. Hierarchical -> Cooperative and Consensual
      19. Secrecy and Lies -> Openness and Truth
      20. Endless War -> Durable Peace
      21. Selfishness and Greed -> Selflessness and Contentment
      22. Exclusivity -> Radical Inclusion
      23. Domination/Control relating -> Partnership/Respect relating
      24. Individual Transparency / Institutional Privacy -> Individual Privacy / Institutional Transparency
      25. Normalized Violence -> Normalized Nonviolence
      26. Education for Literacy -> Education for Creativity

      Economic Principles:

      27. Transaction Economy -> Gift Economy
      28. Unfettered Growth -> Development
      29. Debt Currency -> Ecological Currency
      30. Fossil Fuels -> Distributed Renewable Energy
      31. AC Grid -> DC Grid with Energy Storage
      32. Planned Obsolescence -> Robust Durability
      33. Labor based on Compulsion -> Labor based on Volunteerism
      34. Commodification of Life -> Decommodification
      35. Conspicuous Consumption -> Conscious Simplicity
      36. Toxic Products and Processes -> Non-toxic Products and Processes
      37. Reactive Medicine -> Preventive/Lifestyle Medicine

      Political Principles:

      38. Governance for Economic Growth -> Governance for Ecological Thrivability
      39. Concentration of Power -> Distribution of Power
      40. Representative Democracy -> Participatory Democracy

    • Pedro Prieto

      Dear Rob,

      Perhaps I did not explained well myself. At the present human pace, we will very likely collapse sooner than later, I am afraid, but I was not proposing as a consequence that as we are all going to die anyhow (something which at the end is the only truth), that young couple should reproduce “as they wish”, but simply, the right to reproduce at the level of minimum survival rate as a mammal species; that is, at about 2.2 per couple (not per woman if we attend to the artificial reproductive mechanisms) and only, if this is their will.

      I certainly see quite sensible the Bill Rees article and believe in the respect for all other living beings. I only consider humans different from other species in the fact that we are the sharpest predators, not much superior to the rest of living beings

      Precisely because I do not consider myself anything special with respect to the rest of living beings, with mammals the more proximal to us, I do not think our main aim in this life will be to “achieve a high quality of life” (whatever this means, and it means a lot), but a life with a minimum dignity, that can be achieved in very minimum levels of per capita average consumption of resources. I’ve seen societies living with enough human dignity at the level of 500 watts of average power per capita, while in my country, we are living with about 4.8 kW of average power per capita and in the US close to 10 kW of average power per capita.

      We have been living 200 k years as more or less humans, without any contraception methods (non restricted P, in the I= P*A*T equation) and however, without having overshoot ourselves and our environment, nor having extincted almost any of the species we lived from. The Lotka/Volterra cycles of prey and predator were essential to keep the balances and all species alive, with just temporary ups and downs in prey/predator populations.

      It has been precisely when we have exploded with the industrial and technological society (A and T terms of the I= P*A*T equation), when we went at the speed of light in overshoot, both of natural resources and our accompanying species. This should move people to think in the deep reasons of our present overshoot.

      So, my conclusion is that we should not be obsessed in maintaining at every cost our so dear “high quality of life”, while trying to cut our reproduction rates by enforced law below the species sustainability level, but give a priority to a change to forms of life that allow humans to live with dignity at much lower levels of A and T. And if talking to reproduction right limits, start in the most consumerist countries and when achieved, then and only then go to the rest that have got the minimum level of human decency to live, not before.

      My country has one of the lowest reproduction rate (1.4 per woman) voluntarily accepted, but also ranks fourth of the highest world life expectancies with 82.8 years both sexes (85.5 for women and 80.1 for men). All my life I have thought we were doing quite well, extremely well.

      Now, as I grow old, I sometimes wonder why on Earth we have imposed a culture that automatically see that extremely long life as an advance or an improvement in the “quality of life”. Isn’t this high life expectancy also a big P impact in the equation I= P*A*T?

      The attendance to elderly is free and universal here, but I have observed frequently that the services’ industry around the elderly in residences treats many of them like flower pots that represent a recurrent input in their monthly and yearly budgets. In many cases, they undergo a vegetative life, completely isolated from their relatives and known friends if alive. But of course, with all the possible material comfort (five meals a day, medicines, social security, geriatric doctors and nurses at their disposal, central heating and air conditioning, TV gymnasiums, etc.) They “repair” them, even with 94 years old and install them a titanium hip when they break it, even if they move in a wheelchair or make complex surgeries when needed. So they “irrigate” and fertilize these flower pots carefully, dispense all the medicines and keep them in animated suspension, because ultimate, this is a business, rather than felt human care. In fact a costly and high consumerist business.

      Is that really a “high quality of living” what we are looking for here, while we put the pressure on Nigerians to have only only child there?

      • Charo Gutierrez

        I am only approaching my 50’s, I lost my 90 years old father not long ago, who went to doctor almost never and, luckily, died at home and I am also starting to think about this. Is it really a great improvement to have 5 or 10 years more of flower’s pot life? Isn’t it better to use all these ressources in something else?