Elon Musk, Shanna Swan and Jordan Peterson have been talking about population, saying not just that humans can continue to grow in numbers, but that we have to. Musk says that plummeting birth rates are “the single greatest threat to civilisation”, and that we could have twice as many humans and the environment would still be fine. Shanna Swan’s main argument seems to be that we need a high birth rate to keep driving the economy. Jordan Peterson believes that suggesting there are already more than enough humans is akin to genocide.
Watching the video linked above, and with this year marking the 50th anniversary of Limits to Growth, plus the destruction and removal of the Georgia Guidestones last week, along with the SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, have got me thinking about whether we are too many, or too few, or just too consumerist. What are we optimising for?
Discussions around population always get thorny. Even by writing this blog post, I’m wondering what storm of argument and counter-argument I’m going to provoke – but I’m going to write it anyway. Those who argue for a larger population are sometimes seen as hubristic technocrats who believe in the supremacy of the human species. Those who argue for a smaller population are sometimes accused of being eco-fascists and eugenicists.
When we stop hurling names at those who hold a different view, I’m interested in finding out where we agree, and whether there is a way to reconcile apparently opposing points of view in service of shared goals.
I would guess that what we all want is a good life that can be achieved without destroying the planet. We just have differing ideas about how to get there.
Arguments in favour of less population growth
The Club of Rome’s 1972 publication, Limits to Growth, provoked controversy as soon as it came out, and not much has changed. The LTG team made some assumptions, ran some simulations, and concluded:
- If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
- It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
- If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.
50 years later, we’re still arguing about whether there are indeed limits to growth, or whether we can always technologise our way out of trouble. I’ve written often before about the IPAT equation: Impact (environmental) = Population x Affluence x Technology (see here and here and here).
Doughnut Economics is based on calculations that we are in overshoot on several critical planetary boundaries. A lower population would help bring us back within sustainable levels.
Where this gets tricky is how we get to lower population levels. Opponents of population reduction sometimes talk as if there is going to be some evil scheme to target particular demographics, i.e. eugenics. I haven’t personally heard anybody advocating for this. Population growth is plateauing anyway, largely through the education of girls, the availability of contraception, and the rise in living standards. This, on the whole, would seem to me to be a good thing. No evil murderous schemes required.
Arguments in favour of more population growth
The argument of Musk et al seems to be primarily based on economics, and the concerns that if we don’t have enough people of working age then we won’t have enough money to support the elderly.
I’m not one of these environmentalists who thinks that people are a plague upon the Earth. I believe that we have a purpose, there’s a reason that we are here, and for some reason the world needs us at this stage of its evolution. However, I do think there are more than enough of us, and if the demographics are shifting, then surely we can summon up the intelligence to adapt to a new reality.
If the current economic model doesn’t work under conditions of declining fertility, then wouldn’t it make more sense to redesign the economy, rather than produce more children purely to prop up a system that is failing anyway?
It is slippery slope to say that we need to have more young people than old people for economic reasons. If you can’t persuade young people to have more children (and with the world as it is it’s understandable why many young people are hesitant about having babies), then do you start looking for ways to get rid of old people? That seems like exceedingly dangerous territory.
If Musk and Peterson’s main reason for wanting more humans is that they want economic growth to continue indefinitely, then maybe infinite economic growth is the assumption we should be questioning, rather than focusing on an ageing population as being the problem. In my view, If the assumptions underlying our economic model don’t hold true anymore, and we have to re-design the economic model, not redesign the world to fit obsolete assumptions.
Rather than focusing on the number of children, shouldn’t we be focusing on the kind of world we are creating for them to live in? The quantity of human lives is less important than the quality. And doesn’t that quality also depend on the thriving of our Earth?
But these are just my thoughts. What do you think? Can we really have it all, forever? (How) is the current economic model serving us? Are there assumptions about what constitutes a good life that are due for a rethink?