Sustainability and Population Control

For the time being, the world population is approaching the level of 7 billion people (it probably will reach it this year). According to UN estimates, by the middle of the century there will be 9 billion people out there. Since we are already heavily pressing against the Earth’s carrying capacity limits, it is obvious that 2 billion more of us won’t alleviate the pressure – quite the opposite is to be expected. Thus it seems clear that a sustainable world economy require a constraint of the population growth (and, indeed, its reversal). Thus a group of scientists calling for a sustainable (or steady-state) economy – notably the economist Herman Daly – is calling for a form of population control to achieve this.

First of all, when we hear “population control”, most of us must think on China. And this is not a positive thought, since the country is known for both its “one-child-policy” and repeated violations of human rights.

These two stand in a tight interrelation, since reproductive freedom is often considered a human right (though it is not mentioned explicitly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). For this reason most proposals by Daly and others are soon rejected in an emotional way – for their alleged “immorality” or whatsoever. Meanwhile, they are really worth deeper consideration.

On of those proposals is the so called Transferable Birth Licenses concept by Kenneth Boulding (the author of the “Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”). It is a kind of a cap-and-trade scheme, in which every woman is endowed with licenses for, say, 2 living children (the so called “replacement level”). These are permitted to be traded or otherwise transferred, e.g. as a gift. Since no one is free to have more than 2 children (in average), the population is not growing.

I must admit that I have very ambivalent feelings toward the idea of population control. I recognize in some way its ethical foundation, impressively stated by John Stuart Mill:

The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility – to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing – unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being. And in a country either over-peopled, or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labor by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the renumeration of their labor.

Furthermore, such a scheme could only be implemented after a kind of a democratic process – for if not at least the majority of the population agrees on it in the first place, there will be no compliance, and therefore no effect (at least under a democratic regime – China found ways to inforce its one-child-policy in a more coercive way, but this is case I would like to prescind from).

Nevertheless, I see at least three problems with this approach. First, what to do with people/couples who don’t want to comply? Shall they be punished in one way or another? And if so: how to do it? Second, especially women must have the possibility to decide what number of children to bear in the first place – what is not given in most “fertile” countries of the world, due to educational, cultural, socio-economic and women’s-rights related obstacles. And thirdly: as we have observed for some time already, in rich countries the problem is not that much overpopulation, but rather the opposite – a decline in the number of people. Does this not possibly imply that once people have reached a certain level of wealth, there is no need for population control any more? And, if yes: is this level consistent with the sustainable/steady-state economy?

These are important questions, I think. As I already have written, I am rather ambivalent toward population control – but I don’t know whether it is because of cultural preoccupation or, rather, because of some intuitive feeling that this is (objectively) wrong. It would be good if concepts of population control would be discussed more openly.


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