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Christianity, current events

Population Growth and Poverty

Out of all the topics I discuss here at Life Without a Net, the one I’m most scared of is population growth.  Oh, I’ve tackled it here and there, but it’s a tricky subject even within the scientific community.  While everyone agrees that the population is growing, that it’s mostly in the third world, and that it represents a serious drain on natural resources, there’s little to no consensus about anything else.  When will things get really critical?  What can we do about it?  Is too much meat the problem?  Too much industrialized farming?  Too little?  And those are the easy questions.  What if our growing population is accelerating global warming, and what if some sort of doomsday “synergy” is on the horizon when the two phenomena create a kind of “perfect disaster”?

This year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) featured a series of discussions on these questions.  The United Nations estimates that by 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet.  Said Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000.”

Unfortunately, we have two very big obstacles standing squarely between us and any kind of real solution.  The first is easy for us skeptics to wrap our brains around — the Catholic Church is the dominant social force in much (most?) of the third world, and they are staunchly opposed to the use of birth control.  There’s nothing subtle about this.  Not content with localized suffering, as in the case of Mother Teresa’s little enclave, the Catholic Church is hell bent on a prescriptive course that will literally destroy the entire third world.

But the second obstacle is much tougher, and represents a real crisis for people of conscience.  It stands at the crossroads between human empathy and sacrifice, where the needs of the many cross swords with the sympathies of the few.  (It’s not so unlike the dichotomy between the Christian “culture of life” and the blatant disregard for anything that’s lived past fetal form.)

On one side of the fence, we have a heroic effort to save every single child that comes into the world.  Scientists are still working feverishly to cure every early childhood disease out there.  Save the Children urges us to send just ten or twenty dollars a month to help a starving child in Ethiopia or Indonesia or Haiti.   We’ve all seen the pictures of abject poverty and starvation, and if we have half a heart, we are moved by them.

But there’s another side to the equation, and we who are possessed of conscience don’t like talking about it.  Saving every child isn’t especially good for reducing population growth. We’re at a horrible impasse.  We can’t talk the Catholic Church out of their barking mad opposition to condoms, and we can’t in good conscience let children die.

To make matters worse, in practically every discussion I’ve entertained on the subject, someone has inevitably interjected something like this:  “The problem isn’t lack of food.  It’s lack of food in the right places.  We have enough money and food in the world to feed everybody comfortably.” Within ten minutes, the thing has usually devolved into a tirade about the evils of socialism, communism, or some other -ism, and everybody’s forgotten that back here in the real world, the food is still not in the places where people are starving.

Frankly, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have two answers that will definitely help.  First, we must loudly oppose the Catholic Church.  This isn’t an issue of religion.  Any organization that opposes population control through condoms deserves ridicule, scorn, derision, and total opposition.  Nothing less.

Second, the standard of living in third world communities must be raised across the board.  This is tricky business, though.  Especially in Africa, the deserts are growing.  Arable land is at a premium, and no amount of cash flow can stop the climate changes.  Real sustainable wealth requires resources, and the continent is fresh out.

When resources are limited, wealth increases as the population decreases.  It’s morbid to say it, but the Black Plague was one of the best things to happen to Europe’s standard of living for a thousand years. As people of conscience, we can’t advocate plague.  We are working hard to cure AIDS, and the human body is helping us by creating occasional resistant and immune individuals.  And this is all good.  So we’re right back to controlling the population at the front end.  Fewer babies means fewer people means more resources per person means fewer dying babies means less strain on the earth.

The First World doesn’t have a problem with population.  As affluence and education increase, birth rates drop.  Sometimes, they drop so low that there’s actually a negative population growth.  But you can’t increase affluence when there are too many people.  So the population must be reduced.  But there’s a juggernaut standing in the way, and riding squarely on its shoulders is the Pope in his souped up Mercedes Popemobile.

The only course of action that makes any immediate sense is ending the Church’s tyrannical dictatorship over the human body.  No other choice sits well with a humanitarian.  I will choose the well being of a million humans any day over the “right” of a billion sperm to swim unopposed in a human vagina.  Call me any name you like, but I will also choose the prosperity of a single adult human over a thousand blastocysts.

The Catholic campaign against adults is unconscionable.  It’s killing tens of thousands by starvation, and it’s very likely that it’s dooming your children, gentle First World Reader, to a world with precious few resources for anyone.

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Discussion

14 thoughts on “Population Growth and Poverty

  1. I hate the fact that we in America can not have a rational conversation about seeing to it that the standards of living are raised in Third World Countries without being reviled and denounced as a “Commie.” And you can’t criticize religion and their many foolish unhumanitarian practices without being called an atheist – atheism, of course, is equated with immorality.
    I am a new subscriber, and love the blogs. Thanks.

    Posted by Tim Dobbins | February 21, 2011, 5:12 pm
  2. Thanks very much Tim, and welcome! I agree. It’s a war of emotional words, not rational arguments. As long as we’re atheists and commies for wanting other people to be happier and healthier, our opponents can blissfully ignore the fact that people are dying.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
  3. One of the best ways to reduce population is to reduce poverty. Many in the third world have kids to help with the work at the farm, or shoe factory or whatever. As you mentioned, first world countries have lower birth rates regardless of what his popeiness says.

    I think this stems from the evolutionary orgin where we didn’t have machines or tractors to help as, so the woman would have to pop out as many kids as possible to help with the chores.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 21, 2011, 5:58 pm
  4. I think there’s probably a dual connection. High religiosity is strongly correlated with poverty and under-education. It stands to reason that in very poor communities, the pull of religion would be doubly strong. First, these are the people who really, really want things to be better, and magic seems like the best option in a lot of cases. Second, because of a lack of basic science education and critical thinking skills, the arguments for religion will seem that much stronger. Thus, the Christian doctrine against contraception carries significant weight.

    I’m not sure I agree that our evolutionary origins encourage significant population growth. There’s a great deal of evidence that for hundreds of thousands of years, our population did not grow significantly. This is consistent with the hypothesis that we were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers, since there would have been limited resources in any area, and there would have been a simple and immediate choice between starving or reducing the population. (Infanticide is a sticky issue, but there’s a good chance we engaged in it.)

    If this is the case, then having lots of children to man the tractors is a very recent development, and may not represent an ingrained evolutionary model so much as an intellectual solution.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 21, 2011, 6:32 pm
  5. I think there’s probably a dual connection. High religiosity is strongly correlated with poverty and under-education. It stands to reason that in very poor communities, the pull of religion would be doubly strong. First, these are the people who really, really want things to be better, and magic seems like the best option in a lot of cases. Second, because of a lack of basic science education and critical thinking skills, the arguments for religion will seem that much stronger. Thus, the Christian doctrine against contraception carries significant weight.

    Most of the charities out there in Africa are Christian charities, in America and elsewhere, the community required to go and help people comes from religion. I think we need to replace it if we hope to compete with religious influence in that area.

    So we have two areas:

    1] Ending poverty

    2] Replacing religion

    But then again, where the community goes, religion follows.

    I also think this is a fight against our nature. We want to pass on our genes. We can’t just get rid of poverty and religion and hope this goes away.

    I’m not sure I agree that our evolutionary origins encourage significant population growth. There’s a great deal of evidence that for hundreds of thousands of years, our population did not grow significantly. This is consistent with the hypothesis that we were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers, since there would have been limited resources in any area, and there would have been a simple and immediate choice between starving or reducing the population. (Infanticide is a sticky issue, but there’s a good chance we engaged in it.)

    If this is the case, then having lots of children to man the tractors is a very recent development, and may not represent an ingrained evolutionary model so much as an intellectual solution.

    I only put YOUR views to scientific scrutiny, not mine.

    Posted by cptpineapple | February 21, 2011, 7:00 pm
  6. Most of the charities out there in Africa are Christian charities, in America and elsewhere, the community required to go and help people comes from religion. I think we need to replace it if we hope to compete with religious influence in that area.

    I agree. Doctors Without Borders is a great organization, and I highly recommend supporting them. There are plenty more secular charities out there, but they just don’t tend to get the publicity that some of the Christian organizations do. I’m not sure if that’s because of a lack of marketing money or what. But it’s definitely a problem.

    Another often overlooked aspect of this problem is the difference in percentages of charitable contributions actually go towards ending poverty. Many Christian mission organizations spend hefty chunks of their budgets distributing Bibles, paying preachers, and proselytizing in general. To the general public, they portray their efforts as humanitarian, but they’re largely self-serving. By contrast, organizations like DWB and the Peace Corps spend the lion’s share of their resources on actual aid to the poor.

    So yeah, we need more face time in the public eye, and we need to start ponying up the tax deductible charitable donations.

    I only put YOUR views to scientific scrutiny, not mine.

    Heh… I think I might like this “new you” a bit more than the “old you.” You might just be developing a sense of humor 😉

    Posted by hambydammit | February 21, 2011, 7:16 pm
  7. “Fewer babies means fewer people means more resources per person means fewer dying babies means less strain on the earth.”

    Hi Hamby. I firmly believe we should be focusing on reducing poverty and preventing disease etc in poor countries. However, as the West consumes the vast majoirty of resources, making people richer, despite a decrease in population, is going to increase total consumption of resources. As consumption rises exponentially when people have more money.

    I’ve always struggled with this. It seems there is not a positive solution to it. If we want to wipe out poverty, we would need to drastically reduce consumption in the West and that’s not going to happen. 9 billion people consuming what a Westerner does – we’d need hundreds of earths to survive!!!

    I’d been interested to hear your thoughts on this Hamby.

    Posted by Jeremy | February 22, 2011, 7:58 am
  8. However, as the West consumes the vast majoirty of resources, making people richer, despite a decrease in population, is going to increase total consumption of resources. As consumption rises exponentially when people have more money.

    Yeah. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of a situation, isn’t it? However, it’s worth noting that the U.S. is an extreme outlier on the consumption graph. We consume far more per capita than any other Western nation. When we consider how many Americans live one or two people to a 2000 square foot home with a half an acre of land, and how much energy expenditure goes into shipping 19 ingredients from 19 countries for our express breakfast at the swanky cafe down the street, it’s pretty appalling.

    So while I think you have a point, I also think there’s a lot that could be done to severely limit the extent to which we consume. Yes, it would be very, very hard to pass the kinds of legislative changes we’d need, but it can happen. I don’t know how old you are, but there have been a few times in the past fifty years when it was cool to save energy. During the oil embargo in the 70s, people’s attitudes about car size and carpools changed drastically.

    But overall, I’d say my thought is this: We can’t eliminate the trend you’ve observed, but we can work to minimize it while maximizing real infrastructural aid to underdeveloped countries.

    Here’s an example: With all the talk about “good gas mileage” in new cars today, we seem to have developed mass amnesia. My first car was a 1978 Honda Civic. I got over 40 miles to the gallon with no trouble. On regular unleaded. All this hype over cars that are getting 30 mpg is bullshit. They’re getting good gas mileage for souped up cars with lots of energy hog bells and whistles. Most people who have big cars don’t need them. With a sufficient “luxury tax” on gas hog cars, we could effectively force them out of the market so that only the very rich could afford them. And car companies would still make a fine profit. Maybe the price of gas would go up, but we could certainly structure things so that even at $6 or $7 a gallon, the difference in gas mileage meant we would pay the same amount per 500 miles driven.

    So yeah… there are ways to legislate energy conservation. But you have to sell it first. Which means a totally different outlook in the public. Which is not likely anytime soon.

    But rest assured, the U.S. is uniquely stupid when it comes to overconsumption. We aren’t going to have 9 billion people consuming at U.S. standards. We’ll still be the assholes.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 22, 2011, 3:00 pm
  9. India has over 1 billion population and there is no cultural stigma regarding condoms.

    Posted by Meme | February 22, 2011, 5:45 pm
  10. Meme, I’m not sure what your point is. Are you suggesting that I’m suggesting nobody will reproduce if there’s no cultural stigma on condoms?

    Because that’s not what I said. I also clearly stated: “As affluence and education increase, birth rates drop.” And India is decidedly NOT affluent in most rural areas. I also clearly stated that BOTH cultural stigma AND poverty have to be addressed before birth rates drop.

    So again… I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 22, 2011, 5:52 pm
  11. My point is there is no religious figure in India telling people to not use birth control and still, people are having tons of kids. And not only the poor who can’t afford them. There are middle class families in small towns throughout India who have 5,6,7,8 kids. They are seen as a joy and a blessing to the family and community.

    Posted by Meme | February 22, 2011, 6:26 pm
  12. There are middle class families in small towns throughout India who have 5,6,7,8 kids. They are seen as a joy and a blessing to the family and community.

    So you’re suggesting that there’s a cultural meme (perhaps at least partially religiously inspired?) which encourages childbearing? And the middle to lower classes tend to abide by it? I have no problem with this observation. I don’t recall saying that ONLY religion and poverty can encourage childbearing.

    However, that being said…

    India’s average per capita income is roughly $1000USD. It ranks 142nd in nominal GDP per capita in the world. In 2008, the median income of a “middle class” Indian was between $7000 and 9000USD. I’d hardly say that India has risen to the same level of affluence as say… Sweden, where the average is 1.67 children per woman, and the median DISPOSABLE income is approximately $20,000USD.

    So again, I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

    Posted by hambydammit | February 22, 2011, 7:29 pm
  13. Dear all, I also was thinking of the consequences of a , declining, low birth rate, panorama: aging population. Some countries are fighting this! Since the only solution would be to kill retired people to get back the ratio (working class:retirees), they are trying to promote immigration and conception of more children. YES, they are fighting their own success. This is sad, honestly bleak….how do we get smaller populations
    with a good working to retiree ratio? I’d love to see read any answers……….

    Posted by sapitron | June 24, 2011, 8:15 pm
  14. So much truth in this piece.

    Posted by k | February 26, 2014, 2:18 am

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