I wrote recently on the topic of moral behaviors as a function of environment more so than character, and today I’d like to apply the same kind of thinking to the topic of population. To begin with, let’s remember that human behavior (whether we judge it as morally good or not) is largely determined by the environment. Birth rates are one of the best examples of this. Well educated, financially secure people have fewer children, and have them later in life. Conversely, poorly educated, financially insecure people have more children, and start having them earlier.
Logically, this is the exact opposite of the way things ought to be, right? The poor are the least able to support children, so they should stop having them. But humans are not rational animals. We are following a very ancient evolutionary strategy. When life expectancy goes down, it makes sense to have more offspring sooner. True, each of them will have fewer resources, but in terms of individual genes, it’s the only way to go. Wait too long and the genetic line dies forever. By the same token, individuals with long life expectancy can afford to build up resources and then funnel as many of them as possible into one or two children, giving the an extreme advantage over their competition.
Our evolutionary programming is really very logical. The strategy of reproducing early and often in lean environments has stuck with us because it works. Evolution doesn’t care if we’re happy. It doesn’t care about anything at all. Organisms either reproduce successfully or they don’t. And we humans reproduce very, very successfully. So successfully that we’ve created a big problem for ourselves.
Logically, we can look at the problem and see the solution. The problem is that evolution has programmed us to use up all our resources. Depressing, isn’t it? Like every other species, we reproduce as much as the environment will allow. And the way we figure out the tipping point is the same as other animals. When we start starving, there are too many of us.
The solution is to stop reproducing so much. End of story. Because regardless of how many resources the earth has, we will eventually get to the end of them. And when we do, that will suck. A lot. So logically, we should regulate our own reproduction such that our population stays at a manageable level.
But selling that solution is a problem on two levels:
- All the preaching in the world won’t stop us from acting in accordance with our environment. Until we eliminate poverty, improve education, and facilitate emotional confidence in a stable, long life, we will still see overpopulation in the places that can least afford it.
- Of all our emotions (which are, after all, the centerpiece of our moral instinct), perhaps the strongest is our desire to reproduce. It is a monumental task to think of nonexistent people hundreds or even thousands of years from now and make the conscious decision to sacrifice the fulfillment of our strongest drive for their comfort.
And there’s yet another problem. Consumption is far from equal across the globe, even in affluent nations. Americans are the worst over-consumers, running away. But the ability to over-consume is the hallmark indicator of wealth, which is one of the main predictors of low reproductive rates. So the problem becomes compounded. If we manage to raise everyone on the planet to a stable, healthy, wealthy level, we will be faced with increased per capita consumption, and will have to reduce our population even further.
It’s a mess, and it throws a monkey wrench in some of our most deeply held ideas about moral societies. To most of us, infringing on reproductive rights is the pinnacle of tyranny. We want the right to have as many or few children as we want. But this is thinking of morality on an individual level, and our reproductive drive is designed to produce a macro effect.
In the same way that we must begin thinking of risky sexual behavior as a function of highly uncertain environments, we must acknowledge that our reproductive behavior is also a function of the environment, not of individual character. Likewise, consumption need not always be runaway. Unrestrained capitalism leads to runaway consumerism, while unrestrained communism leads to near complete stagnation. There is a middle ground environment in which individuals can expect long, comfortable lives, and can feel self-actualized with a reasonable amount of consumption.
In the FOX News Post-Bush era, we’re still bombarded with talk about individual responsibility, core values, and internal strength of will. But perhaps it’s time to start looking at this pitch as a hedge against making the truly meaningful moral decisions. In focusing all our ire at those damnable, immoral people who keep making babies, perhaps we are ignoring the real moral failing — hanging onto an economic model which creates the problem in the first place. In a nation where runaway income gaps, runaway consumerism, and declining health are being swept under the rug in order to hold onto CEO salaries 300 times that of entry level workers, it’s hard for me to work up any sort of indignation towards the poor, who are just doing what nature has told them to do.
Or, to put it simply, who is worse? The person who does what they can with what little they have, or the person who blames them instead of helping them? Science has shown us clearly that all the indignant morality bluster is misguided. It’s time to stop thinking in terms of individual morality and start thinking of broader patterns aimed at accomplishing bigger goals.