Why We Don’t Need Coercive Population Control

Earl, Jake | August 22, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

In his recent post on this blog, “When and How Will Growth Cease?,” Jason G. Brent argues that humanity should immediately begin discussion and debate about the merits of implementing coercive population control policies on a global scale. Although Brent’s position overlaps with one that my co-authors and I have defended elsewhere, his argument fails to support its conclusion.

Brent’s argument begins by noting that economic and population growth will inevitably end due to the fact that Earth has finite resources. Human beings have some control over when and how growth will end, and Brent sees only three policy options: (1) do nothing and allow growth to wind down on its own schedule, (2) implement voluntary population control worldwide, and (3) implement coercive population control worldwide. Brent claims that we should assess growth policies according to how likely they are to allow humanity to survive for the longest time on Earth with a “reasonable” quality of life. Doing nothing fails to live up to this standard, since unabated growth risks a global catastrophe within a few hundred years. Voluntary population control is better than nothing, but Brent contends it is deeply uncertain whether it would be sufficient for preventing a humanity-ending disaster. Since coercive population policies are more likely to be effective than strictly voluntary ones, Brent concludes, we should at least be having a serious public debate about whether to implement coercive population control.

I grant Brent’s claim that economic and population growth cannot continue forever in Earth’s closed system, but there are significant problems with his estimates of how bad continued near-term growth will be. For example, take his assertion that 100 years at 3% growth per year in the United States (and assuming comparable growth in other nations) “would result in the collapse of civilization.” His reasoning ignores the fact that the damage growth does to Earth’s life-supporting systems depends on what drives the growth. Economic expansion driven primarily by improved efficiency and productivity in combination with resource-saving practices and technologies need not destroy civilization, even if we hit the current U.N. projection of 11.2 billion people on Earth by 2100.

Humanity faces real challenges from continued economic and population growth (e.g., they are drivers of dangerous climate change), but I doubt that anyone could show with much certainty that they are steaming us toward a civilization-ending disaster within the next 150 (or 250, or 350…) years. It matters politically and morally that we not give serious consideration to new coercive policies unless we have good reason to believe that such policies are necessary to avoid some terrible state of affairs. One reason we don’t need to consider a global scheme of coercive population control is the lack of substantial evidence for an impending growth-driven cataclysm.

A second reason is that Brent unfairly assesses the alternatives to coercive population control. Even if we assume that the human population should shrink (and not merely stop growing) by 2100, this could be accomplished with non-coercive policies. Demographers have estimated that simply eliminating unintended births would lower Earth’s projected end-of-century population by 2-3 billion people, and this could be accomplished with exclusively voluntary policies. If such a reduction would be inadequate or too unlikely, there are other ways to reduce fertility without coercion. As my co-authors and I have noted, people can be influenced by media and by economic incentives to reduce the number of children they otherwise would have had. It is likely due to similar cultural and economic changes in developed nations that have led to their falling fertility rates in recent decades. Along with improvements in gender equity, healthcare access, and family planning education, non-coercively influencing attitudes and choices about family size could be a powerful tool for reducing population growth.

It seems, then, that we lack credible evidence of an impending growth-driven collapse of civilization, and that even if we had such evidence, we are capable of significantly reducing (or reversing) population growth without coercion. Coercive population control on a global scale does not, at this point, deserve serious public discussion. Indeed, such discussion could even harm people unnecessarily by undermining their sense of security in their bodies or by causing distrust in non-coercive fertility reduction efforts.

I suspect that the problem with Brent’s argument originates in his standard for evaluating policies: “What size of the economy and population would permit humanity to survive on this planet for the longest period of time?” Not only does this standard fail to consider whether a growth policy would violate people’s moral rights, it also fetishizes the survival of the human species as such. Presumably, it would require us to select a policy yielding 1 billion barely happy people on Earth for the next 10,000 years over a policy yielding 10 billion extremely happy people on Earth for the next 9,000 (or 9,999) years. Even if Brent were to fix his empirical premises, there would yet be problems with the moral mathematics of his view.


This post was written in response to Jason G. Brent’s article When and How Will Growth Cease?, which was shared via the MAHB Blog last week.


Jake Earl recently received his doctorate in Philosophy from Georgetown University.


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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  • achmad

    Along with improvements in gender equity, healthcare access, and family
    planning education, non-coercively influencing attitudes and choices
    about family size could be a powerful tool for reducing population
    growth.

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  • Jake Earl

    I want to thank everyone for their comments on my post, and to apologize for taking so long to respond! I intend to address everyone’s individual comments, but I think it would also be helpful to make some clarifications and respond to some concerns several of you have raised.

    1. In this post, I’ve sketched two independent critiques of Jason G. Brent’s argument that humanity ought to be engaging in a certain kind of discussion about coercive population control on a global scale. These critiques are independent of each other in the sense that even if one of them fails, the other might still succeed in showing that Brent’s argument does not support its conclusion. Many of you have said that you disagree with my first critique about the nature and likelihood of the harms threatened by continued population and economic growth. That’s fine! Please note that you’re welcome to disagree with that critique and to agree with the second, which is that Brent has not made a strong case for the necessity of coercive population control for dealing with future problems arising from economic and population growth.

    2. As part of my first critique of Brent, I pointed to “the lack of substantial evidence for an impending growth-driven cataclysm,” and expressed skepticism “that anyone could show with much certainty that [continued economic and population growth] are steaming us toward a civilization-ending disaster within the next 150 (or 250, or 350…) years.” Several commenters have pointed to a great deal of scientific evidence of the dangers of unchecked population and economic growth. Let me be clear that, as I said in the post, I agree that continued economic and population growth (or at least plausible current projections of those kinds of growth) pose significant challenges. I’m on the record acknowledging such challenges, and on recommending that measures be taken to further slow population growth in order to deal with them. That said, my comments above were meant highlight the lack of sufficient evidence for the view that, absent any policy interventions aimed at expressly restricting overall economic growth or further reducing projected fertility rates over time, we are headed for a “civilization-ending disaster” (I use that idea because it seems to be what Brent expects to be the outcome of near-term growth). This is just to say that there is nothing like a consensus among scientists, demographers, economists, or policymakers that under current projections for economic and population growth, humanity would face an unavoidable existential crisis in the near-term future. This is not to say that there are not good reasons to be worried about growth, just that these reasons are not sufficient to make a compelling case that a civilization/species-ending disaster is inevitable within a few hundred years unless growth is stopped in its tracks.

    3. As a final general comment, I believe that there is some confusion about Brent’s substantive conclusion that “humanity must […] immediately discuss, evaluate, debate and consider all the problems and benefits of both coercive and voluntary population control so that a decision is made as to which method of population control is best for humanity.” My initial interpretation of this conclusion was that it was advocating for a public, policy-oriented, global discussion of the various ways we might implement voluntary and coercive population control schemes on a wide scale. I took it that this would include forming policy proposals for global coercive population control schemes, working out numbers and projections, forming groups to discuss and advocate on behalf of some such policies over others, etc. In short, I thought Brent was advocating that we should do for coercive population control what’s been done for various approaches to fighting climate change, e.g., geoengineering or cap-and-trade. It is this sort of discussion, evaluation, and debate about coercive population control that I believe is unwarranted. Theoretical discussion about the ethical, political, and scientific merits of hypothetical global coercive population control schemes seems just fine to me (obviously), but I doubt Brent needed to give such an elaborate argument to show that we have reasons to engage in that kind of discussion.

  • JohnTaves

    Earl and Brent and generally all population scientists don’t know what happens when we average too many babies for too long. Brent thinks that we will have some sort of civilization collapse. Brent argues that to avoid this misery we need to talk about restricting the number of babies we can each have. Earl thinks this discussion is unnecessary because he believes that we won’t average too many babies. He also tells us that discussion would be bad, which smacks of some elite intellectual deciding what concepts the average joe can handle and what they can’t. There is nothing scientific about either position. Both are arguing their own belief system and both belief systems have problems with population fundamentals.

    What must happen when we average too many babies for too long? The answer is
    simple. Children must die. To understand this, pack the world with as many people as you think will exist at whatever level of misery you think is the worst level, and also imagine there is no way to squeeze any more sustenance production from the planet. Sustenance availability is maxed out and stable. The population cannot grow. Now notice what happens if we average say 3 babies. 1/3rd of the children must die.

    (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies, where x > 2 (x has always been > 2). There are 5 factors that, when changing, will allow fewer children to die, 1) falling adult life expectancy, 2) rising age of the new parent, 3) rising sustenance production, 4) falling
    income differential, and 5) falling average income. All 5 of these factors are bounded. None can be changing forever. Brent assumes that when sustenance production cannot rise, the average income and income differential will fall, and presumably to a level such that civilization collapses (whatever that means). Earl assumes that we regulate our fertility so that we never reach the level where child mortality must happen. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality prove that both assumptions are dead wrong. The necessary consequence of averaging too many babies, dead children, is happening right now. Yes, of course you can explain how we could have behaved better to ensure that we did not suffer any starvation related child mortality in the past X years, but we didn’t. We didn’t do what Brent thinks we will do when we reach the limit. And let’s be clear, X is a finite value. Anyone that argues we can solve child mortality by just being more efficient, more kind, less corruption, etc, is really just arguing that it can be solved for some finite time period, and notice they never specify that time period.

    Earl might not recognize this, but Earl’s argument is that there is some regulator that ensures we will not overbreed. That regulator must foresee pending child mortality caused by averaging too many babies and throttle back how many babies we make to avoid those deaths. Obviously that regulator has never existed. No scientist has every proposed how such a mechanism might work. Sure, we can imagine that fertility will drop to some lower value when everyone is miserable and recognizes that we are too crowded, but that isn’t the regulator anyone is hoping for. In addition, the whole demographic transition theory leads us to believe that when we are all miserable and children are dying like flies, we will average more!

    Earl’s arguments come from a huge body of science. Unfortunately that science is fundamentally flawed. Let’s imagine there is a group of say 1000 people in a developed country, (e.g. Japan where many experts believe they are averaging too few children), that have a belief that is successfully passed on to the next generation to an average of more than 2, and that everyone else on the planet suddenly stops making babies. Population scientists sample and extrapolate, and those techniques will predict human extinction in about 100 years. They won’t notice the group that is going to drive the population to the limit. Their predictions will be 100% dead wrong. On the face of it, this seems like a ludicrous example, but notice that I granted the experts zero fertility, not just the “low fertility” that the demographic transition suggests. And notice that with Earls argument, the demographic transition has to reach every country. He has to assume there will be enough resource wealth for all countries to be developed, everywhere. The notion of a group of people passing along their beliefs to an average of more than 2 is not some goofy nonsense I made up, it is the norm. This example gives these scientists far more than they could ever imagine towards “low fertility” but still the population explodes to the limit.

    Earl’s argument depends on projections of the past few decades into the future forever. These projections are only rational if population scientists prove that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have. They have to prove that no belief can exist that will cause children to average more than 2.

    It makes no sense to discuss whether coercion is or is not necessary if you don’t understand these concepts. I don’t pretend to predict what people will do once they comprehend that averaging too many babies kills children and is killing children right now. I don’t pretend to know what people will do when they know that if their descendants average more than 2, their descendants will cause child mortality. But it is absolutely certain that if we do not know these concepts, we will continue to cause child mortality by averaging too many, and we will continue to be ignorant of that.

  • Perhaps this is a far more complex issue than anyone realizes and here’s why: The human population is distributed over many nations in every continent but Antarctica. Famine, war, disease, and climate catastrophe – the “four horsemen,” as it were, will be unevenly distributed over nations and continents. It is likely that some of these horsemen will be harder at work in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Now let’s factor in poor infrastructure, bad governments, and accelerated population growth in some of these locations. We are already seeing this happen in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. These places generate wars with the potential to spread to other countries (think Syria) disease epidemics (cholera, ebola) and insurrections that further incapacitate governments and infrastructure. But that’s not all, because when things get really bad people up and leave, becoming refugees and putting pressure on other countries, as we can see from the refugee crisis in Europe. Note that the European refugee crisis, and lone wolf terrorism is already causing politicians in relatively safe countries like the U.S. to make truly stupid decisions like “building the wall”.
    My point is that the uneven distribution of the four horsemen makes the global system far more complex and far more likely for regional problems to mutate into global problems. I believe the likelihood of another world war will be increasing over time, simply because the number of triggering crisis and events will be increasing. Also, all these horsemen have a multiplication effect on each other, war can cause famine, movements of people can lead to epidemics, movements of people can lead to wars, etc., etc….This is not something that people can predict using regression analysis and statistics. It’s going to be a mess, maybe a series of dominoes, and no country will be immune.

    To get to the author’s point, which I think is a good one, coercive population control is a non-starter because it will create far greater problems. And in case you don’t get it, let me list them: it will make people more paranoid and less trusting about governments, it could easily exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions, it violates national autonomy. Very few nations would agree to it. Improving education, and bringing more people into the middle class are probably the most effective non-coercive means to slow population growth.

    We probably need to put most of our efforts into stopping the four horsemen, but I’m pessimistic, I think that sometime this century those horsemen will overwhelm our global system, Just look at the rise of Fascism and Authoritarianism around the world – definitely not a good sign.

  • JohnTaves

    Is there something wrong with my posts? I post, and appears for a while, then is gone.

    jt

    • Hi JohnTaves, I am sorry that the commenting system has been eating your comments. I see that you re-posted your comment above. I will keep an eye on it to see what might be happening. Thank you for your patience.

  • JohnTaves

    Earl, Brent and population scientists don’t know what happens when we average too many babies for too long. Brent thinks that we will have some sort of civilization collapse. Others think there is some sort of misery index that increases and when it is above some un-defined level we call that “overpopulation”. Brent argues that to avoid this misery we need to talk about restricting the number of babies we can each have. Earl thinks this discussion is unnecessary because he believes that we won’t average too many babies. He also tells us discussion would be bad, which smacks of some elite intellectual deciding what concepts the average joe can handle and what they can’t. There is nothing scientific about either position. Both are arguing their own belief system and both belief systems have fundamental problems with population fundamentals.

    What must happen when we average too many babies for too long? The answer is
    simple. Children must die. To understand this pick whatever level of misery you think is the worst level, and also imagine there is no way to squeeze any more sustenance production from the planet. Sustenance availability is maxed out and stable. The population cannot grow. Now
    notice what happens if we average say 3 babies. 1/3rd of the children must die. (Notice how basic this is. This is a simple fact of reproduction in a finite space. Notice how population scientists do not teach that (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies.)

    Brent assumes that we will sacrifice our quality of life in order to avoid that child mortality, and if we average too many babies for too long, the average quality of life will get so low that civilization collapses. He and all population experts are failing to recognize that the starvation deaths that have always occurred prove that we don’t make that sacrifice. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is proof that we are suffering the consequences of averaging too many babies for too long right now. We have always suffered those consequences. The view that Earl, Brent, and other population believe is that we make babies and that forces us to find ways to feed them, and since the replacement rate is below how many babies we average, the world is filling up. They agree that at some point the planet will be full and we will fail to find ways to feed them. This view is dead wrong. The planet has essentially always been full of humans (and our ancestors), such that births are attempting a higher population than can be kept alive and thus births are causing child mortality. The population has grown dramatically in the past few hundred years because we have discovered
    countless ways to increase sustenance availability. Notice the difference in causality. They think that because the babies were created, we find ways to feed them. I say that because we fail to find sufficient sustenance and because we relentlessly average too many, the planet is full and we cause child mortality. Because they think that the planet is not full already, they invent dooms day scenarios for when it does reach the limit. Because they think the planet is not full already, they invent magical mechanisms (the demographic transition) that ensures we do not average too many.

    Fact: (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies, where x > 2 (x has always been > 2). There are 5 factors that when changing will allow fewer children to die, 1) falling adult life expectancy, 2) rising age of the new parent, 3) rising sustenance production, 4) falling income differential, and 5) falling average income. All 5 of these factors are bounded. None can be changing forever. If children are dying at a rate lower then (x-2)/x, it is because one or more of these factors is changing. It is not because we have magically regulated our fertility to ensure we do not cause death by averaging too many.

    Earl might not recognize this, but Earl’s argument is that there is some magical regulator that ensures we will not overbreed. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality proves that this regulator does not exist. That regulator must foresee pending child mortality caused by averaging too many babies and throttle back how many babies we make to avoid those deaths. Obviously that regulator has never existed.

    Earl’s arguments come from a huge body of science. Unfortunately that science is fundamentally flawed. Let’s imagine there is a group of say 1000 people in a developed country, say Japan, that have a belief that is successfully passed on to the next generation to an average of more than 2, and that everyone else suddenly stops making babies. Population scientists sample and extrapolate, and those techniques will predict human extinction in about 100 years. They won’t notice the group that is going to drive the population to the limit. Their predictions will be 100% dead wrong.

    Earl not only uses this sampled and extrapolated data, he uses the extrapolations that project into the future to argue we will not average too many. These predictions can only be valuable if population scientists prove that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have. They have to prove that no belief can exist that will cause children to average more than 2.

    It makes no sense to discuss whether coercion is or is not necessary if you don’t understand these concepts. I don’t pretend to predict what people will do once they comprehend that averaging too many babies kills children and is killing children right now. I don’t pretend to know what people will do when they know that if their descendants average more than 2, their descendants will cause child mortality. But it is absolutely certain that if we do not know these concepts, we will continue to cause child mortality by averaging too many, and we will continue to be ignorant of that.

  • JohnTaves

    Earl and Brent and population scientists don’t know what happens when we average too many babies for too long. Brent thinks that we will have some sort of civilization collapse. Others think there is some sort of misery index that increases and when it is above some un-defined level we call that “overpopulation”. Brent argues that to avoid this misery we need to talk about restricting the number of babies we can each have. Earl thinks this discussion is unnecessary because he believes that we won’t average too many babies. He also tells us discussion would be bad, which smacks of some elite intellectual deciding what concepts the average joe can handle and what they can’t. There is nothing scientific about either position. Both are arguing their own belief system and both belief systems have fundamental problems with population fundamentals.

    What must happen when we average too many babies for too long? The answer is
    simple. Children must die. To understand this pick whatever level of misery you think is the worst level, and also imagine there is no way to squeeze any more sustenance production from the planet. Sustenance availability is maxed out and stable. The population cannot grow. Now
    notice what happens if we average say 3 babies. 1/3rd of the children must die. (Notice how basic this is. This is a simple fact of reproduction in a finite space. Notice how population scientists do not teach that (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies.)

    Brent assumes that we will sacrifice our quality of life in order to avoid that child mortality, and if we average too many babies for too long, the average quality of life will get so low that civilization collapses. He and all population experts are failing to recognize that the starvation deaths that have always occurred prove that we don’t make that sacrifice. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is proof that we are suffering the consequences of averaging too many babies for too long right now. We have always suffered those consequences. The view that Earl, Brent, and other population believe that the world is filling up with humans and because those babies are created, we find ways to feed them, and at some point we will fail to find ways to feed them. This view is dead wrong. The planet has
    essentially always been full of humans (and our ancestors), such that births are attempting a higher population than can be kept alive and thus births are causing child mortality. The population has grown dramatically in the past few hundred years because we have discovered
    countless ways to increase sustenance availability. We didn’t find ways to feed them because they were created, they survived because we found ways to feed them.

    (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies, where x > 2 (x has always been > 2). There are 5 factors that when changing will allow fewer children to die, 1) falling adult life expectancy, 2) rising age of the new parent, 3) rising sustenance production, 4) falling income differential, and 5) falling average income. All 5 of these factors are bounded. None can be changing forever. If children are dying at a rate lower then (x-2)/x, it is because one or more of these factors is changing. It is not because we have magically regulated our fertility to ensure we do not cause death by averaging too many.

    Earl might not recognize this, but Earl’s argument is that there is some magical regulator that ensures we will not overbreed. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality proves that this regulator does not exist. That regulator must foresee pending child mortality caused by averaging too many babies and throttle back how many babies we make to avoid those deaths. Obviously that regulator has never existed.

    Earl’s arguments come from a huge body of science. Unfortunately that science is fundamentally flawed. Let’s imagine there is a group of say 1000 people in a developed country, say Japan, that have a belief that is successfully passed on to the next generation to an average of more than 2, and that everyone else suddenly stops making babies. Population scientists sample and extrapolate, and those techniques will predict human extinction in about 100 years. They won’t notice the group that is going to drive the population to the limit. Their predictions will be 100% dead wrong.

    Earl not only uses this sampled and extrapolated data, he uses the extrapolations that project into the future to argue we will not average too many. This is lousy science. These predictions can only be valuable if population scientists prove that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have. They have to prove that no belief can exist that will cause children to average more than 2.

    It makes no sense to discuss whether coercion is or is not necessary if you don’t understand these concepts. I don’t pretend to predict what people will do once they comprehend that averaging too many babies kills children and is killing children right now. I don’t pretend to know what people will do when they know that if their descendants average more than 2, their descendants will cause child mortality. But it is absolutely certain that if we do not know these concepts, we will continue to cause child mortality by averaging too many, and we will continue to be ignorant of that.

  • JohnTaves

    Earl and Brent and population scientists don’t know what happens when we average too many babies for too long. Brent thinks that we will have some sort of civilization collapse. Others think there is some sort of misery index that increases and when it is above some un-defined level we call that “overpopulation”. Brent argues that to avoid this misery we need to talk about restricting the number of babies we can each have. Earl thinks this discussion is unnecessary because he believes that we won’t average too many babies. He also tells us discussion would be bad, which smacks of some elite intellectual deciding what concepts the average joe can handle and what they can’t. There is nothing scientific about either position. Both are arguing their own belief system and both belief systems have fundamental problems with population fundamentals.

    What must happen when we average too many babies for too long? The answer is simple. Children must die. To understand this pick whatever level of misery you think is the worst level, and also imagine there is no way to squeeze any more sustenance production from the planet. Sustenance availability is maxed out and stable. The population cannot grow. Now notice what happens if we average say 3 babies. 1/3rd of the children must die. (Notice how basic this is. This is a simple fact of reproduction in a finite space. Notice how population scientists do not teach that (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies.)

    Brent assumes that we will sacrifice our quality of life in order to avoid that child mortality, and if we average too many babies for too long, the average quality of life will get so low that civilization collapses. He and all population experts are failing to recognize that the starvation deaths that have always occurred prove that we don’t make that sacrifice. Groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is proof that we are suffering the consequences of averaging too many babies for too long right now. We have always suffered those consequences. The view that Earl, Brent, and other population believe that the world is filling up with humans and because those babies are created, we find ways to feed them, and at some point we will fail to find ways to feed them. This view is dead wrong. The planet has essentially always been full of humans (and our ancestors), such that births are attempting a higher population than can be kept alive and thus births are causing child mortality. The population has grown dramatically in the past few hundred years because we have discovered countless ways to increase sustenance availability. We didn’t find ways to feed them because they were created, they survived because we found ways to feed them.

    (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies, where x > 2 (x has always been > 2). There are 5 factors that when changing will allow fewer children to die, 1) falling adult life expectancy, 2) rising age of the new parent, 3) rising sustenance production, 4) falling income differential, and 5) falling average income. All 5 of these factors are bounded. None can be changing forever. If children are dying at a rate lower then (x-2)/x, it is because one or more of these factors is changing. It is not because we have magically regulated our fertility to ensure we do not cause death by averaging too many.

    Earl might not recognize this, but Earl’s argument is that there is some magical regulator that ensures we will not overbreed. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality proves that this regulator does not exist. That regulator must foresee pending child mortality caused by averaging too many babies and throttle back how many babies we make to avoid those deaths. Obviously that regulator has never existed.

    Earl’s arguments come from a huge body of science. Unfortunately that science is fundamentally flawed. Let’s imagine there is a group of say 1000 people in a developed country, say Japan, that have a belief that is successfully passed on to the next generation to an average of more than 2, and that everyone else suddenly stops making babies. Population scientists sample and extrapolate, and those techniques will predict human extinction in about 100 years. They won’t notice the group that is going to drive the population to the limit. Their predictions will be 100% dead wrong.

    Earl not only uses this sampled and extrapolated data, he uses the extrapolations that project into the future to argue we will not average too many. This is lousy science. These predictions can only be valuable if population scientists prove that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have. They have to prove that no belief can exist that will cause children to average more than 2.

    It makes no sense to discuss whether coercion is or is not necessary if you don’t understand these concepts. I don’t pretend to predict what people will do once they comprehend that averaging too many babies kills children and is killing children right now. I don’t pretend to know what people will do when they know that if their descendants average more than 2, their descendants will cause child mortality. But it is absolutely certain that if we do not know these concepts, we will continue to cause child mortality by averaging too many, and we will continue to be ignorant of that.

  • JohnTaves

    ,

    Both Brent, Earl and generally all population experts do not understand the fundamental principles of population properly. They do not know what happens when we average too many babies for too long. Brent assumes that growth results in a reduced average quality of life and that too much growth “would result in the collapse of civilization.” Earl makes arguments that depend upon estimations, which are selected extrapolations of past trends. The selections are lousy.

    For example, population scientists do not select to extrapolate the overall fertility rate trend of the past several decades into the future. That extrapolation goes to 0 fertility. I’m not sure why they don’t like that extrapolation. If we all choose to have no babies, nobody is harmed. Maybe that extrapolation is too simple and won’t impress anyone. Instead they select something else to extrapolate, something more complex that I suspect satisfies their emotions. They observe “low fertility” in developed countries and assume this will be stable and separate that from the falling fertility found in undeveloped but developing countries. Because they have this concept of a “low fertility” that is good and that somehow magically is maintained by market forces, they assume that the falling fertility will turn into that good “low fertility”. Unfortunately population scientists must prove that parents cannot affect how many babies their children have in order for their assumption that “low fertility” will continue to be correct. Let me provide an example.

    Imagine if there is a group of say 1000 people in a developed country that have all the attributes that correlate to low fertility and have a belief that is successfully passed on to an average of more than 2 children, and everyone else on the planet has zero, yes zero babies from now on. Population scientists will predict that humans will be extinct in about 100 years. Their techniques of sampling and extrapolating will result in the conclusion of zero fertility forever, and thus no humans after we all die. Their estimates will be dead wrong. Their techniques are the wrong techniques for estimating future fertility rates and therefore the arguments that Earl provides are useless.

    Nobody seems to understand the simple math of what must happen when we average too many babies for too long. Dead children must happen. There’s a formula for the death rate of children. (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies where x > 2. Notice how fundamental this formula is to population science, yet it is never taught, never written, never explained. I’ll explain. We are in a finite environment. Everyone agrees with that. Both Earl and Brent state that growth cannot happen forever. So what must happen when growth cannot happen yet we average say 3 babies? 1/3rd of the children must die. There are 5 factors that while changing can allow more children to live: 1) if the average age that the babies are created is increasing, 2) if the adult life expectancy is falling, 3) if subsistence production is increasing, 4) if subsistence distribution is evening out (falling income differential), and 5) average consumption is decreasing. None of those factors can be changing forever. They are all bounded. For the past few hundred years we have seen subsistence production grow dramatically and that has allowed much confusion. Increasing subsistence production allows a lower child mortality rate, even while the income differential is increasing and average income is increasing. This is basic math. I don’t mean to be rude, but seriously our population scientists need to know this cold and teach it.

    Brent assumes that when we attempt to grow the population by averaging more than 2, the population will grow and that if subsistence production does not increase, then the average income will fall and fall to the point that he imagines we won’t be civil. Nobody seems to be willing to recognize that child mortality is the one and only way to stop/slow attempted population growth and that assuming we will sacrifice the other parameters to temporarily avoid that child mortality is just wishful thinking. Sorry, I should be more clear. It is wishful assuming.

    We have existed for a very long time relative to our attempted exponential growth. Either there is a mechanism that regulates our fertility, or we have always been at the limit. What do we expect the child mortality will appear as when we are causing child mortality by averaging too many babies? Any proximate cause of the child mortality satisfies the finite nature of the environment, so you can argue that the type of death cannot be a symptom. However, we expect that if the other forms of death are not killing children fast enough, that starvation related causes will be the swing producer to ensure that (x-2)/x are dying. Further, we are the unique species on this planet such that no other species can compete with us for the sustenance that just grows on Earth. Only other humans can cause humans to starve. Other humans are exactly what is created when we average more than 2. Do we expect the starvation related child mortality to be randomly distributed throughout the world? No, we form economic groups that allow one groups to command more resources relative to other groups. Therefore we expect to find starvation related child mortality suffered by groups of people when we are averaging too many babies. I hope it is obvious that we have always had those symptoms. The existence of groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality proves we are averaging too many babies.

    Demographers seem to have concluded that a mechanism exists that regulates our fertility because they produce population estimates that are not based on the finite nature of the planet, but are based on a sub 2 fertility rate persisting forever. They don’t estimate a maximum of X billion because we won’t be able to keep more than X alive, they estimate this maximum by assuming that the long term fertility rate will be replacement. That mechanism would have to sense pending child mortality caused by averaging too many babies and it would then react by lowering the average number of babies we create. Obviously this is nonsense. Nobody can propose how such a mechanism might work. In addition, they would have to go back to the drawing board to explain how natural selection works. Obviously that mechanism does not work, since the very thing it must respond to, has always been happening.

    Averaging too many babies has always been going on. It is fundamental to evolution. Every species has evolved in the environment where too many babies are being created such that some number of children must die. Every mobile species forms groups to avoid that death. The death is exported to the weakest groups. Every species has loser groups. We do too.

    Brent’s assumption that continued growth will result in a lower quality of life is correct. However it assumes that averaging more than 2 will result in growth. This is a bad assumption. The attempted growth will result in dead children. There might be no significant change in the average quality of life when growth is no longer possible. Civilization, whatever that is, does not need to collapse. It might simply result in a higher rate of child mortality. (Just to be clear. “civilization” and the “collapse of civilization” is so ill-defined that it makes no sense to include these concepts in any technical paper)

    Earl’s assumption that somehow magically we will not average too many babies, is fundamentally flawed. He must prove that parents cannot pass along their beliefs to an average of more than 2 children for this assumption to be correct. Our population scientists show absolutely no comprehension of this concept, and Earl’s estimates are from those very scientists.

    If your descendants average more than 2 they will drive the population to the limit even if everyone else has zero. You must understand this fundamental fact of nature cold, before you go pontificating about whether coercion is or is not necessary. That fact does not prove that it is necessary, but it does prove that we must know what I just wrote here.

  • José Manuel Paredes Asencio

    With respect of comparing human spices (and not only economy) with cancer cell, let me insist a bit more on this question.

    What we call civilized societies tend to have ruling elites. It has being like that since the beginning of cultural history. Elites behave to keep status quo. Otherwise they risk loosing their privileges.

    I think this behaviour goes against normal evolution as a spices. We share with the rest of animals a genetic aversion to situations where a reward is not evenly distributed between the members of a community. Which is not against having different roles within the community. This process happens through mirror neurons, through empathy. Some individuals seems to be able to block this empathy pathway and prefer looking at it’s own interest.
    Some others do not have empathy, we call them psychopaths.

    Evolution cares about spices and not about individuals.

    Back to the cancer metaphor, our body cells, with different roles, do share nourishment, information, they even kill themselves if needed for the health of the rest of the body (apoptosis). Albeit cancer cells brake this rule. They have no communication with the rest of body cells, they do not have empathy. Cancer cells look like an evolutionary cull de sac.

    ‘Human civilized cultures’ have something very wrong in their souls, they push their individuals not to behave in an empathic way. Since Reagan and Thatcher this push has increase hugely (technological revolution).

    And with the same metaphor, us as a spices, as part of the Biosphere, have decided not to listen to Nature, not to look at it as our body, our culture gives us the notion that we are The Elite in this world. Our enormous engineering capacity only cares about extracting all physical and biological resources from Nature to full file our eccentrics needs that are driving the world to collapse as we know it.

    Been obvious, we avoid thinking in something like this: “Murderous Humans Are Not “Acting Like Animals””
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201609/murderous-humans-are-not-acting-animals

    So, my impression when thinking about how to cope with what is coming, is that Human spices MUST evolve. Human elites behave like psychopaths pushing the rest of humanity to a cul the sac, like cancer cells.

    Wishful thinking is not going to solve this situation. My idea would be to get rid of all elites. It is a war. Like a war against cancer. Gandhi showed the way how to fight. We could start taking all our money out from normal banks (banksters) and use only ethical banks. We have tried with Democracy but it hasn’t worked. Maybe this is also wishful thinking and we can only hope for Nature to do her job with independence of our decisions.

    Who knows?

  • billdowling

    Sorry – wrong copy. Deleted.

  • billdowling

    You said :” It matters politically and morally that we not give serious
    consideration to new coercive policies unless we have good reason to believe
    that such policies are necessary to avoid some terrible state of affairs. One
    reason we don’t need to consider a global scheme of coercive population control
    is the lack of substantial evidence for an impending growth-driven cataclysm.”

    This is a most important observation.
    I have seen plenty of substantial evidence..
    With the greatest respect, I must ask –

    Have you ever seriously looked at and considered any of the evidence?

    Or, like most people, have you chosen to ignore it because it is all bad news?

    If you have read my comments on Jason Brent’s argument you would realise that I do not believe there will be enough natural resources to support more than about 3 billion people in reasonable comfort by around 2100. I also believe that a global one child agreement is now the only way to get the population down to that number.in time. This would best be voluntary, of course – but coercive has to be considered, as Jason Brent suggests if the risk demands it and if that is the only way to get sufficient compliance. The risk certaiinly demand it, and I have seriious doubts about voluntry agreement working, judging by the poor results governments ever get out of voluntary agreement it negotiates!

    That is, assuming we would all like to achieve long term sustainability for at least that number of humans on a finite planet with finite ever-declining resources?
    If, however, we merely want to be sustainable for a while longer, I will grant you that e.g. stop at two globally would help of course, but that would take about 4 centuries to get back to where we are now even if we implemented it globally and obeyed it 100% starting immediately.
    Bearing in mind we are at a global average of 2.5 now and the present rate of voluntary reduction in the birth rate is about 0.1 every ten years, this not going to achieve a sustainable population. Due to the birth momentum, he population still grows while the birth rate comes down, so stopping at two immediately would peak at 9.5 billion.
    Clearly, If we since we must now expect upwards of 10 billlon by 20150 to still want to carry on consuming as if there is no tommorrow until 2100, the growth driven cataclysm you write about is assured well before then!

    To believe and think like I do, of course I have to have seen some strong evidence to convince me. I seriously doubt you can possibly be are aware of much, if any, of it. But please dont take my word for what any of it says. You must study it and think about it.yourself.

    Firstly, the biennial 2016 lWWF Living Planet report.shows we are overconsuming the planet’s biocapacity at the rate of 1.6 planets when we only have one planet. This report gets worse every time it comes out. The last time we were living at the one planet level was in circa1970 when there was only 3.5 billion people on it. It also says we have lost 58% of vertibrate species between 1970 and 2012, and gives a lot more bad news about the natural world…

    10,000 years ago there were 99% wild animals 1% humans. Today there are 1% wild animals, 32% humans and 67 % livestock. Species extinctions are about 1000 times the natural level.

    A recently published UNEP report shows that while the population has doubled since 1970 non -renewable resource extraction has trebled since then, and it shows no sign letting up on outpacing population growth

    The overshoot index published by Population Matters in the UK (www.populationmatters.org) shows the levels of overpopulation and overconsumption of biocapacity for every country in the world, based on Global Footprirnt Network Data (www.globalfootprintnetwork.org)

    China is at number 1 primarily because of its high population, The USA is at no.2 primarily because of its extremely high per capita consumption. The UK is at no.7. If our country had to be self sufficient in biocapacity it could only support 17 million instead of 65 million as now. The most highly developed countries are all at the top of the list, and population growth in those countries whether by birth or immigration causers far more damage than it does in the poorest countries because of the high level of per capita consumtion in richer countries

    Please note that the overshoot index & GFN data only considers biocapacity – i.e. natural renewable resources – it does not consider non-renewable resources as covered by the UNEP report I refer to above. These make our modern high- tech civilisation possible.

    Apart from our increasingly depleting non-renewable reasources, the huge problem is that we are using renewable resources faster than they can be renewed! This is why Earth Overshoot day gets earlier every year, It was on August 2nd this year – reflecting the 60% 0vershoot on biocapacity.

    Then we have the problem of rapidly dwindling fresh water supplies, worst of all is overconsumption of huge aquifers, these are fossil water supplies that took may thousands of years to form and fill and they never ever will be replenished now. They are running very low in the USA, Africa and India and many other places. The mighty Colorado river in the USA no longer reaches the sea, all the water is used before it gets there. The Nile and other rivers are going the same way. There is lots more evidence like this if you look for it..

    Then we have ever increasing soil erosion to consider.Then there is ever- increasing pollution and ever increasing amounts of waste we produce to deal with.Then we must consider the increasing decline in fish stocks, and deforestation , and the bleaching of coral reefs etc. .

    Then, possibly the most serious problem of them of all, we must consider the decline in TOTAL energy, including fossil fuels ( which we should not burn more than 1/5th of anyway because of climate change!) Short of Nuclear fusion being successful, I can show you a report that there will be about half as much TOTAL energy from all sources available by 2050 and about one fifth as much by 2100.
    Even assuming they all reduce their per capita consumpion of both renewable and non -renewable resources considerably -, How can any more than 3 billion people hope for a tolerable standard of living in 2100 with 1/5th of the amount of total energy we have now?

    The evidence you seek to justify considering coercion is readily available .
    People just dont want to read it, see it or hear it. because It is all very bad news.
    The ONLY effective solution there is even worse bad news.

    Somehow, we need to severely restrict the right to have as many children as people want –
    for the good of all people in the future

    • Jake Earl

      I think we agree on a great deal here, and I don’t want to focus excessively on our disagreements. Yes, current consumption patterns are damaging the environment, and yes, it will take a coordinated policy response to adequately resolve that damage and the threats it poses (i.e., things will not just fix themselves). That said, I should make two points:

      1. A great deal of information we have about overshoot (including many of the sources you mention) is based on the Ecological Footprint (EF) methodology. However, there are serious problems with using EF to calculate vital resource depletion on Earth, as it is largely a proxy for GHG emissions (arguably the biggest environmental problem we face right now), and the numbers it yields for how many “planets” we’re consuming is somewhat arbitrary (sources: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001700 , http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001702). This isn’t to say that we’re not in overshoot, but we really don’t know how much or what, exactly, it will take to come out of it. By that I just mean that there is no consensus (even among fair-minded scientists, policymakers, economists, etc.) of what needs to be done by when (though everyone agrees that seriously addressing climate change will help).

      2. Why focus on an infeasible global scheme of coercive population control
      when there’s a slew of other policy mechanisms for dealing with the issues you mention? I haven’t seen anything that shows by seriously tackling climate change, instituting proper environmental costing in economic regulations, encouraging personal sustainability behaviors, educating and empowering women, improving access to health care and family planning, etc., that we couldn’t switch to a more efficient global economy to sustain a larger population beyond 2100 (or 2150). That’s the alternative to coercive population control, and its an attractive one, since it wouldn’t require the violation of people’s moral and political rights. Further, if trends continue, then as we see greater development we will see continued declines in fertility rates. From what we can see, economic growth itself spurs fertility decline. That’s an important data point that isn’t reflected in your recommendation of restricting the population to 3 billion people by 2100 (which, according to Bradshaw and Brook 2014, would require full, global compliance of an extremely strict 1-child population policy prior to year 2045).

  • Max Kummerow

    The terms “coercion” or “involuntary” conjure up far more negative connotations than should be the case with respect to family planning. Taking a deep breath and calming down, it seems to me the key question is: do other people’s children affect my children? That is, are there positive or negative externalities (in economics jargon, meaning effects on others) of other people. Clearly the answer is yes: Other people might include a doctor to save my life, a farmer to grow my food (positive effects on me) or a murderer or terrorist or competitor who puts me out of business or person who outbids me for the house I want (negative effects). Where people have impacts on each other, society regulates through customs, laws, taxes, education, etc. So we don’t approve of kids having babies at age 13 or abandoning children or violating child support orders and so on. There are plenty of existing “coercive” policies and laws. Try not paying your property taxes to support other people’s kids in schools. And, basically, all this is ok. We regulate even fundamental rights–example, property rights through zoning, etc.–in order to protect and perfect those rights. So, first point, regulation of fertility by public laws or policies, democratically enacted, is entirely reasonable to discuss and to do. Europeans, for example, have enacted a bunch of pro-natal family leave laws and other incentives to have kids. China, Korean, India, Singapore and many other countries (recently Ethiopia and Botswana and Iran) have implemented policies to make it easier to control fertility. Two of the most important turn out to be educating kids about sex and family planning (assuming modern contraception is affordable and available) and legal and affordable abortion, because all contraception methods have failure rates. So point one is that government policies to reduce fertility should be on the table.

    A second point is that we may be much closer to collapse than this post indicates in suggesting “no problem within 150 years or more.” Actually, Jim Hansen and colleagues published a paper recently saying 8 meter sea level rise is possible within 150 years. Rome sailed along, growing for 1000 years then fell from over a million to less than 50,000 is less than a century. Similarly, within a decade or two of its peak of prosperity and culture, the Tang Dynasty collapsed, possibly reducing (according to before and after censuses) population from 52 million to 17 million. It’s a sawtooth pattern with collapses faster than growth. Ready Ugo Bardi’s posts on the “Seneca effect.” Also have a look at Albert Bartlett’s classic lecture on the exponential function.

    A quick summary of why I expect growth to reverse before the end of the 21st century would include (as part of a longer list): a) Likely logistic, political, financial and technical difficulties in the transition from fossil fuel energy, which now runs 85% of the world economy and accounts for over half of world food supplies, to solar renewable energy sources. With current technology, output would be perhaps 25 times less without fossil fuels (based on “energy slaves” calculations of the work done by fossil fuels). b) Growing population, from 1 billion in 1800 to 10 billion by 2050, with rate of growth per year 86 million (a billion more every 12 years) and currently with annual growth increasing. This inexorably means less resources—land, energy, everything—per capita. c) Soil losses, a major cause of demise of at least 2 dozen past civilizations (Illinois soils have lost 2/3rds of their carbon, which means less water holding capacity, more vulnerability to the weird weather we are already experiencing. African soils are in holocaust with productivity falling fast on most of the continent.), d) Climate change, with the possibility of positive feedbacks creating a runaway “Venus Syndrome.” Last week there were 27 wildfires burning in Montana, an example of a positive feedback loop where more carbon leads to more carbon. e) Behavioral limits, “the march of folly” as Barbara Tuchman put it, that is limits to human wisdom an intelligence. And our species evolution by group selection. When growth brings scarcity we choose up sides and fight. Technically feasible nuclear winter could add another dimension to climate change.
    For all these reasons and more, I think we are “with high likelihood” on the last or second to last doubling of the world economy. We use about 25% of NPP (net primary productivity—the solar energy captured in plant growth—the basis of the food chain). Over 97% of terrestrial vertebrate biomass is humans and our domestic animals.
    World economy doubling time currently is about a quarter century. So if (optimistically) 75% of capacity to support humans remains unused, that is, the flows of energy and materials that support human economies could be quadrupled (25%, 50%, 100%, two doublings), then we hit the wall by about 2070. But I suspect long before then, local collapses (think Somalia or Yemen or Afghanistan) will be dragging down the world economy. Retreating into fantasies—“Make America Great Again” or “colonize Mars” or “fusion power” or “information technology”—will not be able to prevent the laws of physics from constraining further growth. As we are seeing with information technology, relying on technological fixes ignores the fact that these tools can often be used for good (move on) or evil (Putin, Fox News) and often have unintended side effects (e.g. climate change). The improvements in efficiency that are happening are offset by economic and population growth so environmental impact remains too big. Especially carbon emissions where the cumulative total is what matters.
    In system dynamics, lags in adjustment of supply and demand (my PhD dissertation topic) generate endogenous cycles. In thinking about why Cahokia or Athens or Babylon did not rise again, time lags to renew the key resources—fossil fuels, soil, species diversity—are generally too long, from decades to tens of millions of years. So once the bank account runs down, the party stops. And, human lives involve long periods to adjust demand, both individually (a baby born today will want to eat for 80 years) and collectively—demographic momentum keeps populations rising for 50 years even after fertility falls below replacement levels. And, fertility transitions are not automatic and often do not occur even when shortages start to appear (e.g. Nigeria and most of Sub-Saharan Africa where fertility still averages five children per woman and population natural increase (births minus deaths) 2.6% per year, doubling time less than 30 years.
    So the key set of institutional innovations needed at this point, the contextual overarching challenge for social entrepreneurs, is to reverse growth. This does not make people worse off, it makes them better off, by the way. In rich countries people would have less stress, less debt, less obesity, longer lives, happier lives if they would consume less, divert effort from work to leisure, from acquiring to nurturing each other and the community of life, re-attaching to nature. In poor countries, people would be far better off, longer lived, lower infant mortality, more land per capita, if they could convince themselves to reduce fertility and complete the fertility transitions that helped rich countries prosper.
    But what a daunting task. I think I can say that almost every source of information about the world that we pay attention to in America, at least, is trying to sell us something, that is, pushing a message of “increase consumption.” In poor countries, children are valued by cultures and women regarded as property to be bought and dominated. And we all want more stuff. Consumer culture is in our bones or DNA our DNA from the time we were bacteria billions of years ago. It is how we acquire wherewithal to live, status, pleasure and meaning. It’s our religion. And therefore, so is growth.
    All of biology is designed around “balancing” or “negative” self-regulating feedback loops. For living systems, usually too much is as bad as too little, so feedbacks adjust insulin, body temperature, breathing, food consumption and population towards optimum levels. But, human economies, so far, adopt the ideology of a cancer cell, growth until death.

    • José Manuel Paredes Asencio

      Absolutely agree! I have been using your last sentence for years. And I reckon that we should not forget that cancer cells to be able to growth that way, first they must stop communicating with the rest of body cells, and second they have to build, at the expenses of the rest of the body, huge ‘motorways’ to accumulate all the extra nutrients they need for that exponential growth.

      Joining that knowledge with this:

      “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”

      http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1537592714001595

      This is also Global, with differences in how is applied, not only American. Apart from being so obvious that needs no scientific paper.
      So, any good ideas about how to avoid doom without going through a doom WW3?

    • Jake Earl

      You raise a great deal of excellent points, Max. The main one I want to emphasize is your claim that there is a great deal that governments and other actors can do to reverse fertility without coercing anyone or violating their rights, and that there are good reasons tied to environmental and human well-being to do so. I agree with you 100% on this! I believe that this claim is different from Brent’s position that the current risks to the long-term survival of the human species justify serious public policy discussion and advocacy on behalf of coercive population control on a global scale, which I assume would include forced sterilizations, or something to that effect. That’s a step further than I think we need or ought to go, given what we know about our current situation.

  • Meditor

    This article completely ignores or actively denies the reality of our planet. No, we can’t live a thousand years with ten billion people, that is completely unsupported by the data which describes our remaining fresh and potable water, the state of our soil, the state of the ocean, the migration of species and diseases, and above all the terrifyingly fragile and complex global economy, which drives exploitation of even the most meager resources. It is unproven that a different “motivation” for growth will result in less damage, and it is dubious that this is so. Globally, money and power still steer the economy, as they have historically. Keeping people not just poor but laced in to the system with bills and taxes, that is what the “demographic transition” actually is.
    However mistake his logic is, I agree with his conclusion: coercive population control isn’t called for. First, it will have unintended consequences, as with China’s One Child policy. Next, it simply won’t work, unless people are sterilized, they will reproduce. If urban people comply and don’t have children, rural people will, and will eventually increase in population.
    It is doubtful population will reach 11 bn; too many survival systems are already failing. It will happen sooner than 2100.

    • Jake Earl

      I’m glad you agree with my conclusion that we should be skeptical about coercive population control on a global scale! However, there is good evidence that economic growth driven by increases in efficiency can lower environmental damage. As just a small example, while the US economy has grown in the past 10 years, energy consumption has remained flat, primarily due to policies aimed at increasing energy efficiency (Source: https://thinkprogress.org/u-s-economic-growth-decouples-from-both-energy-and-electricity-use-16ae78732e59/).

      • Meditor

        You are picking one very small moment in time, and one that is a best case scenario. Here are my objections to it: 1. We went from conspicuous consumption to a green zeitgeist, coupled with technologies which, contrary to earlier times, sought to save energy. 2. Economic Growth is not an empirical number, it is a political number which is doctored in a number of ways; to be a bench mark we would need to know much more about how those vague figures are arrived at. 3. As the population increases, and as developing nations seek to increase the standard of living for the new humans, the over all load on the environment will continue. The “demographic transition” which is imagined to curb birth rates, also drives consumerism, and relies on keeping women in school, hooked to the system, and now too poor to have more children. That is a dramatic load on the environment.
        There is no reason at all to expect more people to result in an over all decreased environmental degradation. More people means the crash comes sooner.
        Urban environments are growth drivers; they concentrate wealth and power and they suck resources including humans from rural areas. There is no way urban places can be “green” and there is no way “food towers” will feed urban dwellers, or to believe that “algae towers” are going to produce the energy we need. All “green” technology still requires a huge carbon load to produce, so the demand slows, but is far, far from quenched. The planet everywhere is in decline, from the seas which are heating and have huge hypoxic zones, and toothed fishes are in decline. Arable soil continues to be degraded with industrial ag, as we struggle to grow and transport enough grains. Fresh and potable water is in decline everywhere. Our oxygen producers are in decline from trees to plankton.
        We don’t need coercive population measures because the entire over grown, over complex system will collapse, and within a few years, the problem will take care of itself.
        There is no real objective evidence for optimism, particularly if you are an urban dweller.

        • Jake Earl

          I suppose I’m glad we agree on the lack of a need for coercive population measures! I suspect, however, that the evidence base for your claim of total societal collapse within a few years isn’t particularly strong. Why, for instance, has the scientific, policymaking, and economic community not noticed this? Why have powerful military and political institutions not predicted it? It seems like you’d have to know something that people whose jobs it is to know these sorts of things don’t. I’m not saying that institutions never fall short, just that I’m skeptical that there’s such an incredible shortfall as you’re suggesting here.

          • Meditor

            A few years? Let’s say 70-100.
            Nuclear war is likely during that period, too, I forgot that.
            You imagine that, first of all, there is any consensus on something that would involve so many agencies, and require so much political will. The Pentagon has actually sounded the alarm, but nobody, even if they knew, would be so clear. It is a political thing, such a pronouncement would disrupt the economy, wouldn’t it? No one would be willing to do that. They are willing to alarm us on things that aren’t very serious, like terrorism (kills relatively few people) and heart disease (kills many but is an acceptable death) but not societal collapse.
            As always, if you want the real information, you have to seek it out yourself.
            This is very easy to do. I was fairly specific about the problems, use google scholar and look them up: the state of the oceans, the amount of arable land, fresh and potable water, these are all thing you can find out about on your own, no government spin doctors necessary.
            You might also want to go here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/abruptclimatechange/
            I’m happy to discuss further, once you’ve informed yourself on the situation.

          • Jake Earl

            I think our disagreement isn’t about the established facts, but about how to interpret those facts. I think it’s fair to interpret the lack of consensus among numerous institutions (including, significantly, the academic community of environmental scientists, demographers, and economists, who would publish the truth even if it would hurt the economy or cause panic) that we are steaming toward a population/economic-growth driven disaster in 70-100 years as genuine, rather than some form of deception coordinated among the thousands and thousands of people who make up those institutions. Relatedly, I agree with all of the substantive claims about what our current economic activity is doing to the environment, but I don’t see how that can be rigorously extrapolated to predict with any real certainty that there will be a civilization-ending disaster within 100 years. I’m happy to be moved on either of these points, but I need additional credible premises to get there.

          • Meditor

            I have passed through many stages on this. I began with “it’s just a matter of resource distribution and technology” but then I understood more about the physical facts of our situation. Then I was like “this will be tough, but this is our chance to unify as one humankind and find a new, more sustainable social structure”. Then, I learned more about the nature of social structure, and the nature of complex systems and I joined Stephen Hawking in his concern that, before a very long time, machines simply won’t need us. There are already computer arrays that speak in a language of their design which we can’t understand. At some point, if nothing else kills us off first, technology will kill us off as expedient. After all, we would serve no useful purpose, and we’re filthy, using resources and emitting waste for what?
            Empires have fallen many times in the last 14,000 years, but this time the empire is truly global; if you look at your desk or your breakfast plate, at least four continents are represented in your view. Dozens of hands from Asia, South America and likely Europe touched or were necessary for you to get your goods.
            We are generally farther from our food, and farther from the land, of any time in history. Most of us are totally unnecessary, as Yuval Harari has noted (by all means become familiar with him if you are not).
            Add all the environmental data; let’s assume the data is off to the negative by 20%. Things are still very bad. They are now occasionally catching tuna in the Gulf of Alaska. Ticks have moved northward and are now killing moose calves in Canada; moose don’t clean themselves like other mammals, they’ve never needed to before.
            It comes down to this, I think, Jake, we have to do triage. I’ve been an EMT and I have seen people at the scene of an accident who were dying, but still walking around. Only if you do triage will you detect that tear in the aorta, or other non-obvious source of impending collapse.
            There is really no reason to believe that what we do will matter at all; it is possible the system is just on a trajectory and we can’t make any meaningful changes. It is hugely likely that, if we could discern the correct path, that it would be corrupted by the simple political processes necessary to achieve it. You won’t harm the wealthy with your plan, I can assure you.
            What do you do when collapse is near (a century is the blink of an eye) and unavoidable? I think you assume the crash position. You readjust your expectations. In a harsh world, as humans have lived in for such a long time, racism and xenophobia are survival tactics. We don’t really need the old, or lame, or sick, or people who write poetry.
            That harsh and ugly reality wouldn’t be forever. Almost right away we would be taking care of the sick and waiting for the old again. Immediately we would need songs and story tellers to keep our mythology strong and give us purpose and direction.
            But, for a long time it would “Mad Max” or Ellison’s wonderful “A Boy and His Dog”.
            I don’t like it, is don’t fully believe it, but if you look with a cold eye both at our current state, and at the nature of empirical collapse, it can seem a great hopeless void.
            However, you have to put things in to perspective: it is very likely that at one point all of our human ancestors were killed off except for 1000-10000 breeding pairs. It only took a few tens of thousands of years before we were crawling all over Asia and Europe again.
            No one knows how soon, or how bad. At one time in the planet’s history the temperature rose 1 degree C a year for five years, took a couple of decades off, and rose another 5 in a few years, at which point a great deal of life on the planet was gone. Obviously, if the system tipped, and there were huge methane releases from clathrates, we would likely mostly die in a few years or decades at most. That is the worst case scenario. Or, very likely, nuclear war would break out, and that would actually cool the planet, though of course there are other significant disadvantages, like wide spread starvation and common genetic mutations.
            A steady-state, sustainable global social structure is very, very unlikely. It requires an equilibrium of the system which takes careful control of the resources used by each person. The complexity of the system would be enormous. It likely would be unstable.
            Those are my thoughts. I have kids, too. I worry. But I don’t encourage them to waste effort on doomed strategies.
            God bless us, everyone.

  • Didem Aydurmus

    Though it would be desirable that we all start living within the planetary boundaries voluntary, evidence shows, it is highly unlikely. One only needs to look at the ecological footprint of well-informed Westerner or maybe even our own. We can always hope for a surprise, but we only have one Earth and it is not ours to gamble with. There is one side which stubbornly sticks to not weighing all options and at the same time ignores or plays down tradeoffs (free procreation might also mean starvation etc.). Then there is another side who wants to have an approach informed by science instead of an idealist vision only (that then may as well deny that contagious hospital patients can be held against their will for the common good of all).

    • JohnTaves

      How could we live outside the planetary boundaries? We are blatantly consuming resources faster than they renew, so if you mean “within the renewable boundaries”, then yes, we are obviously outside those boundaries. If you mean both non-renewables and renewables, it is impossible to live outside the boundaries.

      The consequence of averaging too many babies which attempts to grow our numbers past that impassable boundary is child mortality. If you hold the boundary steady, and average say 3 babies, then 1/3rd of the children must die. How many babies we average determines the child mortality rate.

      This means that free procreation does mean starvation and that starvation is obvious. There are hundreds of millions of starvation deaths every year. There are millions of starvation related childhood deaths. Every single excuse we have for these deaths involve the behavior of other humans. In other words, the only cause of human starvation is other humans. We have relentlessly attempted to grow our numbers by averaging more than 2 which ensures that the planet is full of humans forcing starvation to occur.

      The groups of people could simple pick food off the ground, and eat any other animals that attempt to get that food, if the other animal trying to get that sustenance wasn’t another human.

      • Jake Earl

        The number of people who die of hunger every year is closer to 9 million, not hundreds of millions. Hundreds of millions of people are undernourished, but not all of them die of that each year. Also, anti-poverty efforts have successfully reduced hunger rates (and hunger deaths) over the past few decades, despite our increasing population. Child mortality rates are also falling worldwide. I think you might need to check your data again.

        • JohnTaves

          Thanks for pointing out the error. I corrected it.

          Falling child mortality rates are excellent, but not relevant. Falling child mortality rates proves nothing. That fact provides no information about the future and your article is about how we should behave with respect to the future.

          The one and only thing that can cause human starvation, is other humans. Other humans is the very thing that is created when we average too many babies. The premise of your argument, that we can mindlessly ignore how many babies we average, fails this sniff test. There is no magical regulator that ensures we don’t overbreed. It never existed and won’t exist without this knowledge.

          See my main post for more info.

    • Jake Earl

      Didem, this is a great comment. I think we agree that governments and other bodies should be taking steps to make human behavior (including human reproductive behavior) more sustainable. This almost certainly requires more than just telling people what they should do and asking them to do it of their own free will. But policies can be “voluntary,” in that they do not threaten people with violence, imprisonment, or destitution if they fail to comply, while still being highly influential and motivating.

  • Rebecca kukla

    This is almost certainly not the author’s fault or choice, but it bothers me enormously that photos representing ‘overpopulation’ and the need to stem the tide of babies nearly invariably show black and brown women and children, not men or anyone of other races.

    • Harry Cowan

      I agree completely that patriarchal societies are the drivers behind population being seen as a benefit to that society and in the past it was. However, a quick browse of U.N. birthrate statistic will show that it is predominantly black or brown countries (if you include the Indian sub-continent, the Phillipenes and Brazil) that have the highest birthrate.

      • Jake Earl

        I agree with Rebecca’s criticism of the sorts of images used to communicate the population problem. We usually see black or brown women, very rarely do we see white women or men of any color. One defensible reason for this is that many efforts to promote reproductive rights and expand family planning services is focused on the global south, where women genuinely do have a greater unmet need for the resources needed to build families according to their own desires.

        Harry, while it is true that generally black or brown countries have the highest fertility rates, they also tend to have the lowest per capita and even overall harmful environmental impacts. An average white baby is much more harmful for the environment than an average black or brown baby, so perhaps that gives us greater reason to rethink our imagery around population growth.

  • Dana Visalli

    I appreciate the essay, and the comments. So many perspectives, so little time. I don’t really grasp the closing paragraph: ‘1 billion barely happy people.’ Are they barely happy because they could not have lots of children? Are children the source of happiness? Is happiness the ultimate goal of human existence?
    In my view the essay would be enhanced by taking in the larger ‘big history’ view of the journey of Life on Earth. It’s not all about humanity.

    • Jake Earl

      Thanks for your questions, Dana. I agree that this issue is not all about humanity, though it was the focus of the original post to which I was responding. In the last paragraph, I was using a hypothetical example to show that there was something wrong with Brent’s normative principle, that we should do whatever it takes to have humanity survive as long as possible under minimally acceptable conditions. On his principle, we should pursue a set of policies that would lead to a smaller population of people living at or just slightly above this level of acceptability just as long as it would allow humanity to survive even a little bit longer than any other policy (even one that leads to way more people who are way happier but in which humanity would survive for, say, a hundred fewer years). That seems to be an implausible consequence, so we should reject the principle that generates it.

  • HaydnWashington

    Yes I would have to agree with some other comments that the author has no real understanding of the impact of endless growth on the biosphere. Claims that there is little evidence of impending collapse are not born out by environmental indicators, to wit:
    ·
    The Global Ecological Footprint now stands at 1.6 Earths (GFN, 2017).
    The Living Planet Index has declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF,
    2016)
    The species extinction rate is at least 1000 times normal (MEA, 2005)
    At least 60% of ecosystem services are degrading or being used unsustainably (MEA, 2005)
    Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been exceeded as a result of human activity (Steffen et al., 2015).

    To suggst that humanity can keep growing for several hundred years is thus in denial of ecological reality. If one reads the environmental science (as I have) the evidence we are heading for collapse is overwhelming, as Jared Diamond explains in the book of that name.

    Having said that however, I am not sure that there is a need for coercive strategies or that these would work. Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute State of the world 2012 http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/SOW12%20Summary%20%28Chapter%209%29.pdf has shown that nine non-coercive strategies could stabilise then reduce population. The key among these is ensuring that all children, especially girls, receive education, as where this happens they have children later and have less children. However, this means that we have to face the taboo in society and discuss the need to limit population and then we need to strongly implement and support the non-coercive strategies that Engelman lists.
    Haydn Washington, h.washington@unsw.edu.au

  • Alexander Lautensach

    Jake Earl’s objections exemplify the prevailing optimism about future population dynamics. Especially the statements in his last paragraph have long been refuted by authors such as Garrett Hardin and VR Potter. Between the lines I read concerns about what scientific conclusions are generally viewed as inconvenient or threatening, and what scientific near-certainties must not be allowed to be true. In my view, Jason Brent’s argument still stands.
    Alex Lautensach, UNBC Canada; alexl@unbc.ca

    • Jake Earl

      Could you explain further how the statements in my last paragraph have been refuted by others? I take it I was making a conceptual point about a normative principle, one that would be difficult to decisively prove or disprove.

  • jaosn G. Brent

    There was a typo in my essay below–the correct sentence should read– Mr. Earl does not indicate why having a DISCUSSION of the entire problem would be more harmful than not have a DISCUSSION—not having a DISCUSSION could, most probably would, result in the extinction of humanity

    • Connie-Jo Bell

      The second word is also a typo. I’m guessing you meant ‘an annual growth rate…’.

      • Thank you for noting this typo, both changes have been incorporated into the original comment from Jason G. Brent.

  • Jason G. Brent

    At and annual growth rate of 3% (the number set forth by Mr Earl) the economy would be over 1,000 times as large as the current economy in about 233 years and over one million times as large in about 466 years. I do not care if that growth was achieved “by improved efficiency and production in combination with resources saving”, it cannot and will not be achieved. Assume that by increased efficiency every unit of economic production used only 1/5 the resources presently used ( that would represent an efficiency beyond anyone’s imagination and will never be achieved and I am using it only to make a point) that would mean with an economy 1,000 times as large as the current economy humanity would be using 200 times the amount of resources it currently uses. The point is very simple–economic growth requires the use of physical resources and compound growth is so powerful that humanity will run out of resources in the very near future.

    In addition there is something known as the Jevons paradox that indicates increased efficiency results not in savings, but in increased usage. I urge the reader to Google that concept.

    Mr. Earl does not indicate why having a DISCUSSION of entire problem would be more harmful than not having a DISCUSSION. He indicated that if unintended births were eliminated the population by the end of the century would be lower by 2-3 billion. Lets have a realistic discussion of the chance that will occur and also have a realistic discussion that instead of the
    TFR (Total Fertility Rate) going down that it could increase.Lets also have a discussion that the UN’s projection/prediction/estimate that the population of Africa will increase by over 3.0 billion before the end of the century would result in the possible starvation of over one billion in Africa and the collapse of civilization in Europe due to 500 million starving Africans attempting to get into Europe. Lets have a discussion that the projected increase in the population will cause every attempt to control global warming to fail and that will cause a collapse in food production resulting in 2 billion starving to death before 2100. Lets have discussion about when (and not if) the aquifer under the central plains of the USA runs dry and how that will affect food production around the world. Lets have a realistic discussion about the entire fossil fuel situation and when and how the fact that all fossil fuels are finite will affect humanity. Lets have a realistic discussion of what is the chance that voluntary population will fail. I have written an essay on that subject and will be happy to send it to anyone who wants to read it. Jbrent6179@aol.com

    • Harry Cowan

      The exodus to Europe has already started and I’d say has NOT brought any benefit to Europe.

    • Jake Earl

      Thanks for your response, Mr. Brent. A few points:

      1. I don’t think we have good reason to be confident about the amount of growth or the drivers of growth we might see in the distant future. I’m sure the level of technology and productivity we have now would have been unimaginable (“impossible,” even) to someone living in 1784, let alone in 1551! Aside from the appeal to inconceivability, what’s the argument that growth could not continue to compound at some rate or other for that period of time (even if we assume that compounded growth can’t continue indefinitely)?

      2. Let’s assume that 3% growth in the US (and comparable growth elsewhere) for 100 or 233 years is impossible due to resource constraints. If it’s impossible, then why should we worry about it? Wouldn’t economic growth just gradually slow as we run out of the required resources? Sure, we need policies in place to protect Earth’s life sustaining systems, but that could be done without either reversing economic growth or coercive population control. At best, this line of argument seems to support the idea that economic growth will end with a groan and a whimper, but not with a bang. Would the former be so very bad to justify implementing coercive population control now?

      3. Why might global fertility increase? As in, what would cause that, given the long-term decline due to continued economic development and changes in lifestyles? It seems that you’re assuming certain trends will hold indefinitely (e.g., current rates of productive efficiency from resource inputs, our present inadequate environmental protection policies, invariate rates of overall economic growth), but not declining fertility trends.

      4. I might be confused about the conclusion of your original post. As I mentioned in a recent comment, I thought you were advocating for serious political discussion and debate involving real policy proposals and plans for their implementation, all with respect to coercive (and noncoercive) population control policies. If, indeed, we are steaming toward global disaster and our only chance to avert it is to actively reduce economic and population growth and there are good reasons to think coercive population control is necessary, then that makes sense as a conclusion. It seems to be a lot of work, however, if your point is just that we should be talking about these matters because they are interesting and might be necessary at some point and we should have the theory worked out before then. Aren’t there easier ways to argue for that second version of your claim?

      5. I’m flabbergasted by your claim that eliminating unwanted births is less realistic/feasible as a policy goal than implementing a global, coercive one-child policy. Granted, you might not think it would be effective enough in reducing human population growth to avoid a purported civilization-ending disaster, but certainly you’d admit that people pursuing the “no unwanted births!” policy have a much better shot at succeeding (or getting close to success) than people pursuing the “no more than one child OR ELSE!” policy.

      6. I admit, worst-case scenarios are very frightening. But describing them in lurid detail doesn’t show that they are especially likely absent the specific intervention you’re recommending. Why should we think that all the other policies or technologies we might throw at environmental resource depletion are so unlikely to succeed that we must seriously consider coercive population control? That is, why should we expect competing policies to fail?

  • José Manuel Paredes Asencio

    Coercive measures always bring undesirables side effects. But obviously Joan doesn’t undestand the exponencial damage by overshooting needs that our civilization is infringing to the Biosphere.

    • Jake Earl

      I haven’t denied that overshoot is a problem. I’ve only claimed that there isn’t decisive evidence that it’s a problem that will lead to the collapse of civilization within 150 years unless we stop and/or reverse both economic and population growth.