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current events, Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, Politics

Population and Morality

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.



5 thoughts on “Population and Morality

  1. 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.

    Yes, but you’re painting a picture that’s a little too pessimistic. One of the important and exciting effects of affluence-related drops in reproductive rates is that the rate actually drops below replacement level – so population numbers do inevitably, eventually decline when citizens in general and women in specific are extended a full suite of positive human rights and enriched opportunities for fulfilling self-chosen goals and ambitions. Thus, population and consumption isn’t a Catch-22 problem with no answer: It may cost more resources per person to extend those positive rights and enriched opportunities to more and more people, but when you do so the result is fewer and fewer people in the long term. The real problem is the medium term – the time-lag between the expansion of social benefits to more people and the resulting population declines – and the consequences of the consumption of limited and environment-damaging resources in the interim. I’m not denying that’s a serious problem, but it isn’t an insoluble paradox like the population problem as you characterized it.

    In fact, many right-leaning economists and politicians in several northern European nations are in a panic about the falling birth rates among their native citizens (read: pale-skinned/US), which are already below population-sustaining level and in many cases are still falling. Of course, the panic isn’t really about falling population per se, but is a racist/xenophobic reaction to the climbing proportion of their nations’ populations that belong to other demographic groups (read: dark-skinned/THEM). The rational response to this situation is not alarmist panic about being out-bred, but deliberate efforts to spread the same social benefits that create falling birth rates among one set of citizens to those other demographic groups. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that tribal us/them thinking, one of the most persistent and pernicious consequences of religion, is a huge obstacle to anyone even seeing that rational solution, never mind actually pursuing it.

    Posted by G Felis | July 29, 2010, 2:50 pm
  2. Great observations, all. Thanks!

    Posted by hambydammit | July 29, 2010, 5:54 pm
  3. I’m coming to believe that concerns about overconsumption / overpopulation (as well as many of the other trends assumed to be problematic) are overwrought. Malthus and Erlich both predicted disaster by overpopulation and though we’ve far surpassed either of their worst estimates, average calorie consumption (worldwide, not just in the developed countries) per capita is much higher than it has ever been, and the trend has been almost uninterruptedly upward. Erlich lost his bet to Julian Simon. Yet Erlich is more well known (and still taught). Of course, you can argue that Malthus couldn’t have predicted Bourlaug (bet most of you haven’t heard of him, either) and the green revolution, or the Haber-Bosch process (heard of them? Know what that is?) but it’s not like invention was an unknown concept when Malthus wrote, and Erlich was around to watch much of the green revolution. On the other hand, when a society (well, a bunch of politicians) attempt to address overpopulation “rationally” you get time bombs like Japanese demographics or the horrors of infanticide of girls in China (and they’re going to have problems with all those boys for decades to come, too). I guess “overconsuming” and “overpopulating” works better than we imagine….

    There seems to be something in human nature that encourages us to freak out needlessly. I wish I understood it better, but then I’m only just learning to notice it. I recommend “The Rational Optimist” for anyone who is interested in this.


    Posted by Larry H | August 2, 2010, 8:40 pm
  4. I, on the other hand, think that pessimism is warranted. We are already overusing our resources to a terrifying degree. Ground water levels are going down in many areas, be it China or Australia. Loss of arable land to desertification, soil erosion or salinization happens all over the planet, only at differing rates. Everybody is aware of peak oil, but there will also be peak whatever for all other mined resources – eventually, even if it may be centuries away in some cases. Peak phosphate means no more chemical fertilizers and additional huge problems with agriculture, just as an example. Barring any singularity-type technological miracle, and I would not know how it could defeat the basic realities of biology and geology, I guess we are already about ten times as many as the planet can sustainably carry.

    As one of my colleagues recently opined, our population will of course end up on a sustainable level anyway. The question is only how we get there: either we as a species make a conscious decision to lower both our rates of consumption and reproduction, or it will happen through mass starvation at the tipping point, and all the wars, genocides, diseases and cannibalism that follow the existential desperation resulting from a society not being able to fulfill its most basic need: sustenance. This has happened again and again throughout history, although so far always on a more local scale. Jared Diamond’s Collapse makes interesting and frightening reading on that topic, but it also lists some societies that made sensible decisions and managed to stave off the event that supplied the book’s title.

    Posted by Alex SL | August 5, 2010, 11:34 pm
  5. Oh, and Larry H: there is simply some point where we cannot grow anymore. Humans already consume or waste an estimated 20-40% of the planet’s net primary production, i.e. of every five sugar molecules plants produce, one or two feeds or clothes humans. How much higher do you think we can go with increasing population and consumption?

    100% is obviously out, as we only get any 100% cake at all if a significant part of it is channeled into plant reproduction and feeding ecosystem services that those plants need, such as soil formation and pollinating. But can we go to 80% before we have pushed to far? Or only 60%? Do you want to try and then see that we have overdone it? It is not as if we have a second planet to do it better next time.

    Posted by Alex SL | August 5, 2010, 11:56 pm

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