Over-population is a very touchy subject. It’s much easier to kind of ignore it and try to just deal with everything else. This post was actually inspired by my doing just that. I was posting all these great ideas about organic farming, recycling, passive solar heating and etc in an earlier post (What Are We Aiming For) and EcoCatLady wisely suggested that finding a decent way to limit our population was really they key thing.
And it is. But how?
The reason it’s such a charged topic is because there aren’t really any obvious and ethically acceptable ways of stopping people having so many babies. Rightly enough, we think this is our business. The creation of new life is a sacred and ridiculously personal thing. Whether you have 2 or 4 kids is something to discuss with your partner, not your government.
Nevertheless, our global population is now roughly 7 billion, and growing. How great it’s likely to get before it plateaus is up for debate because it really depends on how many humans the planet can support. It won’t get beyond that because our natural resources will be spread too thin for us to all survive. We don’t know what that number is because we’ve never before in history pushed Earth to it’s limits in this way. But we can assume from small scale scenarios, like what happens when fish over-breed in a pond, that when it is reached, things won’t be going well for us.
The fertility rate (number of children per woman) that is required to sustain the population is 2.1. In the West the fertility rates are somewhere around or even below that, but in the Developing World, where most of our population growth is happening, it can be as high as 7.
The problem is darkly ironic: any progress with developing countries getting out of poverty and gaining better living conditions is actually worsening the issue of over-population because although the death rates from hunger and disease may go down, the birth rate often does not. This is ridiculous – a situation where curing babies of water-borne diseases is in some way bad for the world is not a situation I’m happy to have.
Clearly, the birth rate of these countries needs to decline along with the death rate, but how this is managed is not at all simple. For example, I’ve never been to Uganda, (fertility rate 6.7) but I can only assume that having large families is deeply engrained in their culture. It’s difficult to change.
As I have already mentioned, there aren’t any clear-cut and ethical ways to make that change. China is famous for it’s one-child policy, and although effective, other countries are not exactly clamouring to copy them because of the brutality of this strategy. Despite being “optional” and not an actual law, Chinese women pregnant with a second child would be forced to abort, risking being fined, jailed or fired from her job if she didn’t.
Happily, there are some positive sounding correlations relating to this issue. Apart from the obvious fact that not everyone in the world has knowledge of and access to contraception, and that birth rates go down a lot when they do, it seems women’s independence correlates smoothly with lower fertility rates. When women have little other purpose in society other than to have children, it would make sense to have a lot of them. But when women are taught to read, they tend to have fewer babies. When they have education and jobs, it lessens still. In the West, where men and women both have rewarding careers as well as family life, the fertility rate is below the replacement rate. Family size is also smaller in urban rather than rural areas, and tends to shrink with affluence.
I will also add that although China has a low fertility rate of about 1.5, it is not the lowest in the world. Other countries that have had no population limiting policies such as Taiwan, Italy, Greece, Japan and some 20 others actually have lower fertility rates. It seems humans appreciate free choice on this matter. I guess education is the only useful tool here. Explaining why it’s a problem, improving literacy and education on the subject of contraception and family planning. Human population is an issue I think is really important, but apart from not having more than 2 children myself, I don’t know there’s much else I can do about it…
The Meaning of the 21st Century – James Martin
The Constant Economy – Zac Goldsmith
Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there is a clear and proven correlation between developed countries and lower birth rates — the problem is that a) people in the developed world consume so much more than those in less developed parts (I think one American child has the impact of six or seven Chinese children?); and b) population growth is exponential, so even though the world birthrate is coming down as a whole, there are so many more of us having 2.5 kids, or whatever the current figure is. As one book put it, it’s like slowing down the speed but doubling the mass of a speeding train. Eep.
I am hugely in favor of increased education for women, increased access to reliable, long term contraception that doesn’t require men to cooperate, and cultures in which women have equal say in family planning. I also think it’s important for the developed world to start seeing that its particular combination of overconsumption and population is pretty lethal. Almost 50% of pregnancies in the US are still unplanned — starting there could make a huge difference since one American child has such a high impact. As someone who has never wanted and will never have children, I would also like to see a culture in which it’s not only OK to talk openly about population, but in which not having children, or stopping at one, is seen as culturally acceptable. I don’t think there should be tax benefits associated with having more than two kids. Women’s reproductive rights, including the right to a safe, legal abortion, should be guaranteed. More radically, I think we should also start talking on a national basis about voluntary euthanasia…but that’s a post I want to tackle myself later!
Talking about overpopulation is a great way to help, but there are lots of others, including championing women’s reproductive rights and education
“contraception that doesn’t require men to cooperate” – Sing it Sister!!!
Everything I have read also points to a correlation between low birthrates and developed countries. But I totally agree it’s a double edged sword. The world simply can’t handle 7 billion people living a first world lifestyle, even if you use Europe instead of the US as the model.
Although I would like to think that we, as a species, are clever enough to realize that limiting our population is in our own self interest, and that we’ll take steps to deal with it before it reaches a crisis, in my heart of hearts I fear this is gonna end up being one of those self-limiting equations. We can only hope that it will take the form of people choosing to limit their family sizes because of scarce economic resources, rather than a world wide version of Darfur.