I’ve talked about population demographics before since I see this as a key factor in so many issues facing the world: food, water, wages/jobs, climate impacts, international migration, inequality, and general standards of living.
What would the world be like if there were 2.7B people (as when I was born) instead of 8 or 10B? Is there really any doubt that they would, on average, be a lot better off? Is there any doubt that the planet would be better off? We wouldn’t be in so dire a climate crisis, for starters. Average living standards would be higher, reducing the principal pressure on political unrest. To be sure, such a different socio-economic configuration of humanity would present other problems, but it’s hard to see them as dire and deep as our current situation.
This is perhaps the ultimate example of the “tragedy of the commons,” a phenomenon articulated in the 19C (although probably known de facto by ordinary folks for much longer) which gained currency in the mid 20C as the expression of the economic practice of the overuse of a free shared resource. It turns out, that use of fresh air and water are part of the “commons” and most modern societies at least aspire to include access to energy and a “good” standard of living in the list, as well. For each parent/family, there are, of course real costs to raising a child. But the expectation that each new person has a “human right” to air/water/power/subsistence effectively places a tax on the society’s supply of those resources over which the society has no direct control. Thus, we now understand that the scope and complexity of the “commons” is much greater than we accounted for so far. This tension is then expanded on a global basis.
The combination of a sense of global “equal rights” with the realization that there are limits to what the planet can support, means that we each share a responsibility for achieving a sustainable level of human population. Another way of looking at this is to recognize that the benefits of children are presumed to be predominantly private (i.e., they accrue to the individual child/person and its family), but there are significant public/shared costs (i.e. economic externalities).
On the other hand, attempts by governments to manage their populations date to the 19C, as well. French anxiety over being overtaken by Germany in the late 19C is perhaps the best-known example, leading to wide-spread debate and a range of government pro-growth policies. In the 20C, many countries provide tax or other benefits to subsidize children. More recently, China imposed a 1-child limit for decades beginning in the late 20C (now reversed). There is no sense that these governmental policies considered the global resource implications. Indeed, in an increasingly democratic age, procreation is usually seen as an essential component of personal freedom (certain portions of the US notwithstanding). I suspect there is also an unspoken assumption that countries with the most people will have a bigger voice in global affairs; an incentive for growth to be sure.
So, this presents a real and significant quandary. How to balance overarching issues of global inequality/justice, national economic growth/opportunity, and the impact of additional people on the planet? Western countries (which have already generally stopped growing) are in no moral position to demand less developed countries to reduce their population. Indeed, those less developed countries generally don’t have strong enough states to implement such a policy in any event. Overall, we face the conundrum that everyone would be better off with fewer people but there are no means to get there.
In saying this, I am rejecting the approach of some who think we are better off with more people. William Macaskill, noted Oxford philosophy don, takes this stance in his recent book “What We Owe the Future.” He makes a pretty good case for explicitly expanding the scope of our moral responsibility to include the many billions of people yet to come. He is well-attuned to the climate problem, but argues that more people means more brains means better solutions to our problems. I guess that this is true in the abstract, but not in the middle of a long-term resource crisis. Nor am I enamored with the faith in techno-solutions this seems to imply. Most broad human problems arise not because of lack of ideas, but due to a lack of will to implement the perfectly sensible solutions already on offer.
Of course, in the real world, the issue is not merely comparing where we are now with some lower level of population, but how we are going to get from A to B. In the Book of Exodus, God smites down the first-born of each Egyptian family. That’s one approach. The Bible also refers to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as heralding the “End Times.” That’s another. I think some version of this—war, plague, or famine caused by direct human action or climatic effects—is actually the most likely. Finally, unforced attrition is certainly possible. Even the lowest UN projection of population by 2100 sees the planetary total peaking at 8+B by 2060 and then dropping to 6+B by the end of the century. One way or another, the next 100 years is likely to see dramatic changes in population levels with profound implications for economics/capitalism/climate/geopolitics. Sitting here early in the 21C, we can only guess at how that future world will approach the tensions described here. All sorts of SciFi scenarios come to mind; ranging from the “Hunger Games” to “Logan’s Run” to various birth licensing schemes.
Humans have freely reproduced for millennia without consideration of the planet or their fellows. This is likely to change—one way or another—in the future; but social inertia will likely push that future out to a point that we can’t quite see yet.