Some time ago I mentioned the concept of tradeable birth licences proposed by Kenneth Boulding in the 60’s. One must recognize that population growth, especially in the developing world, is a serious problem. We are facing a kind of a Malthusian situation – there are ever more people in the world without us having the possibility to extend agricultural production meaningfully. Furthermore, this time (unlike in the beginning of the 19th century, when Thomas Malthus lived), agriculture is not the only limiting factor. The stresses we impose over the Earth’s ecosystems generally become ever larger und more severe. And this despite the fact that there are millions of people living in such poverty that their influence on the environment is almost negligible! So maybe the time is ripe to think about population control.
I already frequently wrote about the impossibility to preserve ecosystems stability by virtue of technology only (see, e.g., here). But I fear that even sufficiency will not be enough. Humanity has almost reached the level of 7 billion heads and is still growing at a fast rate. With every additional newborn the sustainable level of resource use (measured, e.g., as the Ecological Footprint of a person) decreases. Already by now it is rather low when compared with the standards of living in the developed world. I am skeptical about our ability to lower our wants that much that we were able to live sustainably without keeping the poor in their poverty. Especially while their numbers are increasing.
Most people think of China when they hear “population control”. The associations are negative. This is right to some extent, since the Chinese one-child-policy is quite oppressive (think on forced sterilizations). But one shouldn’t generalize. The way to control population proposed by Boulding and advocated by many ecological economists is probably the most efficient and least coercive means to achieve population stability at a sustainable level* – just as cap and trade in emissions stabilizing. Indeed, a tradeable birth licences scheme is a type of a cap-and-trade scheme.
But before starting the analysis of its implications, we have to clarify one more point: what about the so called “reproductive rights”, viewed by many as a basic right? In modern world, in democracy, it is common to assume that the freedom of an individual is limited by the freedom of others. As John Stuart Mill once wrote:
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.
This remark makes clear that in a “full world” (and I would argue that ours is full) our reproductive rights are constrained by the rights of others (especially of future generations who would compete for labour, food, and space with our descendants) to live decent lives.
So, the idea is to create a demographic cap-and-trade scheme. After deciding about a limiting “cap” (e.g., the replacement level or slightly below if we recognize that we already are too many), birth licences would be issued equally to every woman. This woman would be free to use them herself or to sell/grant them to others who want to have more than the average number of children. The “cap” could be adjusted to demographic and other developments that would influence (our understanding of) the optimal number of people living on Earth.
This is the rough idea. There would be many issues to be cleared (should the caps be defined nationally – according to the replacement level in the concrete country – or globally?; should there be a possibility for interboundary trade? and so on). But the first step would not even be to to agree on this idea, but just to allow a reasonable discussion. Sadly, population control is a very delicate area where emotions seem to have more weight than reasonable arguments.
By now the birth licences scheme or a similar institution seems unthinkable. But so was democracy a few centuries ago. One of the greatest virtues of humanity is its ability to recognize the need for change and to adjust to changing conditions. It may well be that there is a need for change again.
* There is a theory in economics that affluence acts as a limiting factor against population growth. This may be right (look at Europe and Japan). The problem of this approach is that the level of affluence needed is not sustainable. We cannot wait until all Indians reach the consumption levels of, say, Germans. That would be disastrous.