Population Matters

Stopped traffic on I-35 in Austin, Texas.
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

I’ve tried — and ultimately failed — to avoid the conclusion that humanity’s greatest threat is the increasing numbers of humans.

The latest UN report says that global population growth is slowing, but will still approach 10 billion by 2050 (which sounds like a long way off, but is only 33 years away). India’s population is expected to surpass China’s in the next seven years or so. Sixty percent (4.5 billion) of the world’s people live in Asia, while only 6 percent (361 million) live in North America.

Almost all the population growth in the next century is expected to occur in Africa, with most of the remainder to come in Asia, while Europe and the Americas are expected to remain somewhat flat.

Of course, population figures isolated from other information are simply a curiosity with no real meaning. They must be paired with other information for any impact. For example, note that currently nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night — about one of every eight humans. And add the fact that about a third of the world’s food goes to waste each year (just a portion of that waste would be enough to feed the 800 million hungry folk).

It’s easy to say that the hunger issue is one of systems, borders, politics, and/or greed rather than the sheer number of humans on the planet. If only we developed better distribution, eliminated the wars and factions that prevent the food distribution, and so on, then we could easily feed everyone. Of course, that’s true, and some are actually working toward those goals.

At the same time, another, more surefire way to reduce hunger in future generations is to produce fewer humans — especially in the regions where people are more likely to be hungry — the very same regions where population is expected to rise the most.

But hunger isn’t the only threat facing humanity, is it? It’s an isolated example. Just as “no man is an island”, no threat to our species exists alone; all are interwoven with each other. And every one of them can be traced back to population.

A rural highway in Oklahoma under several feet of water.
(Copyright © 2007 by Wil C. Fry.)

Anthropogenic global warming — which is already raising sea levels, causing extinctions, and creating refugees — is caused by several diverse factors. Fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, livestock, industrial fertilizer use, and massive methane leaks from landfills are all known to contribute. Almost all of our efforts to “solve” (or at least delay or decrease) global warming are focused on these contributing factors. It is rare indeed that an expert, advocate, or politicians will mention the very best solution: stop population growth. (The preceding link is a rare example of any place that mentions this.) Every living person requires resources to live; those of us in “developed” nations use vastly more resources per capita than people elsewhere.

The same cause (and solution) can be found underneath nearly every existential threat, whether it is pollution, potable water reserves, war, drought, disease, [can we list a few others here?], etc.

Population growth rates are interesting to study. For example, I find it curious that the individuals who can best afford to raise and support many children typically have fewer, while those who can least afford it typically have more. And the same is true for groups, nations, and regions. Does poverty somehow cause increased rates of childbirth, or do increased rates of childbirth somehow cause poverty? Maybe it’s both. Or are the two rates correlated for other reasons?

What if instead of trying to reduce each person’s resource usage, we reduced the number of future people?

Take single-use plastic shopping bags as an example. It’s clearly a problem. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), U.S. families use an average of 1,500 plastic shopping bags each year — 100 billion bags altogether (requiring 12 million of barrels of oil to produce them). As a country, we’ve taken zero steps to curb this rampant throwaway practice; at most, five percent of them are recycled. The vast majority of them go to landfills or are simply released into the wild. Cities, states, and a few nations have attempted various solutions to this scourge, but all involve either encouraging greater recycling rates, adding a per-use tax on the bags, or outright banning the bags (the latter being the best option, in my opinion). But all of these just shift the issue somewhere else. Now we need canvas bags, paper bags, cloth bags, etc., each of which has its own environmental concern (and have to be used many dozens of times each in order to be more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic bags. They still will eventually tear, rip, crack, or get lost or forgotten. And they too will end up in landfills.

But each of these “solutions” becomes a problem some day, as the global population continues to grow.

An even better solution is what I do when I shop at Sam’s or Costco — don’t use bags at all; just stack the bulk items in the back of your car. But I’m still driving a car, and the items (many of them) are still in non-recyclable containers and packaging. And of course that won’t work for people who use public transportation — a far superior choice to single-family autos when it comes to carbon footprint.

But each of those “solutions” becomes a problem some day, as the global population continues to grow. A billion reusable shopping bags discarded, replaced by 2 billion more. Five billion autos driving thousands of miles of highway. A million buses and thousands of subway trains, running at regular intervals. And more of all of them, every day.

As I follow every route to the end, it all keeps coming back to more people. The more of us there are, the more we need — no matter how responsible all of us are.

Coal is a big enemy of “green” advocates. It’s a major contributor to global warming, right? Of course. We can do better with wind, with solar, with nuclear, with geothermal. Maybe other solutions will present themselves someday. Both solar and wind power are growing quickly in the U.S. and Europe. But they require resources too — mineral extraction, factory processing and assembly, vehicular transport to location, replacement parts, connection apparatus, control units, etc. They too will break down over time, from natural wear-and-tear and exposure to the elements. And when it comes time to replace them, there will be even more people demanding even more power.

More of us means even the lessened impacts are multiplied.

We can reduce consumption by replacing old appliances and devices with newer, more efficient ones, and we do exactly that. But those devices also have environmental impact, from resource extraction to disposal, and everything in between. And more of us means even the lessened impacts are multiplied.

While many of us strive for the “American dream” of owning a single-family home, and while building them is more stimulating to the economy than building apartments, single-family homes are vastly more harmful to the environment (per capita) than are multi-family buildings — especially large apartment high-rises or condominiums. Whether we look at square footage of real estate required, square footage of necessary sidewalks and driveways and streets, air conditioning and heating costs, miles of utility pipes and cables, destruction of ecosystems, or any other factor, anyone who’s thought about protecting the environment knows that multi-family buildings are better for this than sprawling McMansions. But even if we all went that route, we would still need increasingly more of those buildings and resources, because there are going to be more of us. And then more than that. And a few years later, another billion of us. We just keep conceiving and birthing, and the resulting new humans live longer than the old ones did.

Governments of nations, states, and cities continue to try various approaches to solving more localized problems like homelessness, crime, and poverty (and by many accounts we’re slowly succeeding), but almost none of them take the approach that producing fewer people will (eventually) result in fewer people who can fall through the cracks of the safety net, fewer people who need jobs, and fewer people willing to commit crimes. Almost none of them fund birth control or family planning efforts, and a great many of them still look on abortion as a moral failing (and in many cases as an outright crime). Places like Texas even look at miscarriages (spontaneous abortions) as something requiring punishment. Tax systems in many nations reward people who have extra children and punish taxpayers who have none. (One of the obvious reasons for this is that a great majority of children will grow up to become consumers and taxpayers in their own right, feeding more into the eventual tax base than the tax breaks they originally caused, and feeding more money into the wealthy corporations that run our governments.)

They all miss the point that without a healthy environment, an economy couldn’t exist anyway.

Elected officials look upon regulations as kind of a balance between protecting workers, consumers, and the environment on one hand, and “restricting free enterprise” on the other — as if there is some moral equivalence between the two hands. “Sure, we’d like to protect the environment that we all call home, but we also have to take into account business owners…” No. No we don’t have to take into account the very perpetrators that we need protection from. Regressives complain that excessive regulations bankrupt small businesses or stifle job creation, as if these are the ultimate goals of society. Some even predict the entire economy would collapse if we began truly protecting the environment. They all miss the point that without a healthy environment, an economy couldn’t exist anyway.

In the overheated, overpolluted, and overpopulated world that we’re all heading toward, I am certain that fewer of us will worry about the needs of struggling rich people, and more of us will wish we in 2017 had done more to stem the tide.

• Why Don’t We Talk About This?

Before it looks like I’m constructing a strawman here, I freely admit that some people and organizations are talking about this. I couldn’t have obtained some of the links I found above if no one was paying attention. Some adults have decided on their own to not bring children into our world; others have severely limited their reproductive capacity by using numerous means of birth control. Some groups are known to advocate for lower population growth rates, or zero growth, and some even advocate for decreasing the population over time.

Also, before I go on, I want to make clear that I’m talking about global population growth, except where specific regions are mentioned. I’m not talking about closing the borders of particular nations, which really just amounts to outdated nationalism and arbitrary lines drawn on maps. It’s increasingly obvious that all of humanity is in this together, and increasingly likely that what affects one part of the world will affect the rest too.

Regardless, there is still an overwhelming negative connotation associated with talking about reducing population growth. Politicians avoid the topic like it’s a disease, as do business leaders.

Our economy is designed to need more people continuously added at the bottom.

In a consumer-driven economy, it’s obvious why the wealthiest capitalists don’t want the population to shrink. Our economy is basically a pyramid scheme (or a Ponzi scheme, depending on how you look at it), with the best way for those at the top to keep getting richer is to increase the numbers of those at the bottom. It doesn’t even really matter how poor the base of the pyramid is, as long as it’s wide enough to send enough money to the top. If population growth levels off, or begins to shrink, especially among the poor and middle class, the rich lose out — because there are less people sending money to the top.

With politicians, there are multiple reasons for avoiding the subject. One is similar to the above reason: governments depend on new citizens — taxpayers — continuing to enter at ground level, so they can grow up and pay taxes. In most developed nations, the bulk of the aged citizenry has ceased to pay into the system and is now withdrawing (Social Security, MediCare, and similar programs in other countries). Governments that intend to be fiscally sound a generation in the future regularly check the totals of the youngest generations, and it’s typically hoped that enough new taxpayers are being born to support those at the end of the stream.

Another reason is that no one wants to be labelled a “Chicken Little”, always crying that “the sky is falling!” People get tired of that pretty quickly. If you claim a disaster is looming, and then nothing bad happens in a month or too, your constituents will start to remember you as a joke — especially if you keep harping on it. (This is similar to what happened with climate change — Al Gore famously warned of rising sea levels, superstorms, climate refugees, etc., and a bunch of folks didn’t notice the timeline in his movies and speeches was a very long timeline. Nothing terribly bad happened immediately, so he’s now a running joke among climate deniers.)

Average Citizen doesn’t always hear the nuance or read the footnotes. So when someone talks about population growth over the next century or two, and warns of dire consequences, Average Citizen looks out her window and doesn’t see hordes of overpopulated people, and decides it’s all bunk. Average Citizen has also heard that overpopulation warnings have been raised before — a long time ago, and “we’re all still fine”, so those warnings must have been bunk too.

But politicians also don’t mention it for fear of backlash from voters. It’s not popular with the people — even in developed nations where population growth is already leveling off.

It raises fear of government population controls — we’ve all heard of the one child policy in China. We’ve heard of forced sterilization among “unwanted” demographics. Most of us have heard of eugenics. All of this sounds ominous and scary, so we react viscerally and oppose any talk at all about stemming the tide of new people on the planet.

The biggest religions vigorously oppose birth control and family planning, or at best insist that it’s up to the man to decide.

Add into the mix religious fanaticism — I’m speaking here specifically of the religions that vigorously oppose any sort of birth control or family planning — in a world where religious people greatly outnumber the non-religious, and it becomes almost impossible to have even a conversation about it.

There are also hurt feelings to contend with — and there’s really no reason to dismiss people’s hurt feelings; we must deal with them. For example, if I bring up the topic of our world becoming overcrowded, and suggest that fewer people in the future should birth as many children as we do now, invariably there will be someone nearby who has more children than average, and they will take my statement as a personal insult to their choices (even if I was very clear that I’m talking about the future).

It’s no secret that I am close to someone who personally bore nine children. That same person is also religious and believes that only God decides when conception occurs, that birth control is an affront to Him. If I say to her “I think that from now on, people should bear no more than two children — just enough to replace the current population”, it would be quite expected for her to see my statement as a judgment against her choices and her (already-born) children, despite my statement clearly talking about the future.

It’s just the way we humans are. Quite a lot of us have trouble discussing any topic in the abstract.

Once you add all these factors together, there’s almost a moratorium on the subject.

Even if you find someone who agrees with the general idea, they’ll ask: “But HOW?” How, exactly, do we go about reducing population growth, if we’re NOT going the route of eugenics, forced sterilization, etc.? Some people have already considered the idea and decided it’s a hopeless, lost cause.

• But It’s Not A Lost Cause

I insist that it is not a lost cause mostly because I need to believe that. If there really is no viable path to stemming population growth, then we are doomed as a species, and millions of other species are doomed with us (and because of us). If we can’t shut off the valves of child production, we are dooming our descendants to misery. And I can’t bear the thought of that, so I look for signs that we might actually get a handle on this someday.

One sign is the UN report mentioned above, which agrees that the growth rate is not only slowing but will continue to slow in the future. No one actually knows the specific number of humans that Earth is able to safely support indefinitely, though many have guessed. Some scientists say it’s around 2 billion — less than a third of the current total. Others say it’s closer to 10 billion — they got that figure by measuring the Earth’s capacity to produce food for us. Of course, food isn’t the only variable; at present, our societies also consume vast amounts of water, petroleum, and other resources (like lithium) — all of which exist in limited amounts. We not only use these resources, but almost always dispose of them in unsustainable ways. Regardless, there is an exact number; we just don’t know what it is. The hope is that — even if we’ve already passed the threshold — that slowing population growth will eventually reach zero growth — and maybe the total will even be reduced at some point.

Another sign is the known correlation between poverty and birth rates — even if the reasons aren’t fully understood. It’s just a fact that as a population’s average income increases, its fertility rate declines. And it’s a fact that — overall — incomes around the world are rising. Yes, the rich are getting richer, but so are the poor. Although it happens too slowly for the most idealistic of us — and despite many setbacks — the longterm trend is improvement in economic status for everyone, which is almost certain to reduce birth rates. India is getting wealthier. China’s poor are moving into the middle class. It’s not happening in Africa yet, but part of that is because Africa’s population is still booming — any increase in overall wealth is spread further as more new people burst into existence.

A third sign is the increase in women’s rights and opportunities around the world — and our insistence on it. Just as with poverty, there is a strong correlation between women’s rights and the number of children they bear. For example, the more educated a woman is, the fewer children she will have. (Most of us can see this in anecdotal examples in our own lives; the women we know with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates tend to have 0-3 children, while the women we know without a college education tend to have more than that — of course there will be exceptions.) There also tends to be a strong correlation between labor force participation and birth rates — women who birth many children tend to not look for work, while women who work tend to not birth many children — though many other factors can throw off this correlation. Currently, more women in the world are being educated than ever before, and more women are in the workforce than ever before. More nations have women leaders than ever before, and most nations have seen improvements in women’s rights over the past several generations — for example, the right to own property without a male co-owner, the right to a bank account, the right to bodily autonomy, etc. Though many of these categories clearly need lots of improvement, progress is being made, and it almost always results in a lower birth rate.

Correlation between religious affiliation and birth rate

A fourth positive sign is the shift in religious affiliations around the world. This one might seem counter-intuitive at first. There is a known correlation (and likely causation) between religious affiliation and birth rate (possibly related to the known correlation between religion and poverty). Muslims and Christians consistently birth more children than people of other faiths, with the non-religious and Buddhists at the opposite end. In the U.S., especially, the correlation is striking. At first glance, this looks like a negative prediction for overpopulation; some have interpreted the data to mean that Muslims and Christians (and those in other religions) will “outbreed” non-believers, contributing to overall global population growth, as well as growth of these religions. However, this is based on the faulty (absurd, really) assumption that specific religions are genetic traits — and we know that’s not true. Christians don’t give birth to Christians; they give birth to babies, the same as the rest of us. The same is true of Muslims. And, while people generally “choose” the religion they were indoctrinated into as children, typically by a combination of family, community, and the wider culture, it is not always the case. We have already seen broad trends in western developed nations of younger generations leaving religion altogether — in the U.S., in England and Wales, in most of Europe, and elsewhere. It looks a lot like the nations with the most developed economies and the best education systems are the ones that least cling to religion — especially the religions that vigorously promote unbridled child-bearing. So, despite scaremongering predictions that Islam and Christianity will continue growing unchecked, I think these predictions are mired in pessimism and based on faulty assumptions. As each nation/region continues to develop economically, and continues to progress socially, I think each could see the next generation give up religion more than its parents did.

Another religion-related optimistic note is that religions tend to modernize and mellow over time. Christianity is the example with which I’m most familiar. While underlying doctrines tend to change very slowly over centuries, some attitudes and rules can change within a generation — including attitudes related to birth control and family planning, and to women’s rights and place in society. Very often, a new generation of parishioners is less restrictive and dogmatic than the previous generation. They might still call themselves “Christian” or “Muslim”, but they’re different in ways that matter. By the time I was born, Christians in the U.S. were vehemently and overwhelmingly anti-slavery, but just over a hundred years earlier our forebears were fighting wars about whether it was okay. Today’s generation of Christians are accepting of the LBGTQ community though their parents weren’t, for example. They’re willing to have smaller families when their parents weren’t — which is relevant to the topic here.

We must hope for either (1) loss of adherence to Abrahamic religions or (2) changes in adherents’ beliefs — or both.

With religion (mostly Islam and Christianity) being the primary driver of birth rates in underdeveloped regions — due to strong doctrines against birth control, abortion, women’s education, allowing women into positions of power, etc. — in order to hope for slower population growth, we must hope for either (1) loss of adherence to Abrahamic religions or (2) changes in adherents’ beliefs — or both.

Perhaps the best sign is that attitudes are finally changing. When the Washington Post publishes a scaremongering article like this one, worrying about “economic and cultural turmoil” due to the U.S.’s historically low birth rate, a large portion of the comments are reprimanding the writers, pointing out that having fewer children is a good thing. They said things like “the population is too high and we need to tread more lightly on the planet” and “the human population passed the sustainable point years ago”. Another said: “Lower birth rates can eventually save the planet. Far to many people on this earth.” Still another: “We need to lower birth rates worldwide yet further.” In fact, of the nearly 2,000 comments on the article, I randomly sampled and found that about a third of them directly refuted the article’s premise that a lower birth rate is a bad thing. The same is true on other sites and on social media. In the past, I only saw condemnation for poor people having too many children “because they can’t support them”; now I’m seeing questioning of people of any income level having extra children, and the reason is that the planet can’t support us all.

Scientists are talking more about it too, even doing studies to show why it’s important. A “new study in which researchers looked at 39 peer-reviewed papers, government reports, and web-based programs that assess how an individual’s lifestyle choices might shrink their personal share of emissions” found that “many commonly promoted options… have only a moderate impact”, while “four lifestyle choices had a major impact: Become a vegetarian, forego air travel, ditch your car, and—most significantly—have fewer children.” That sentence doesn’t make as much impact as it should. The second-place method (going car-free) saves about 2.5 tons of “carbon dioxide equivalents”, while having one fewer children saves 60 tons. It’s not even close.

Manhattan, New York
As seen from across the harbor
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

• Final Thoughts

Chances are, you and I will all be dead by the time this planet reaches the 10 billion mark. Our children might live to see it. Chances are, you and I will all be dead before Manhattanites are slushing around in a foot of water that will someday cover their precious island. But our children might live to see it. Certainly our grandchildren will.

Global warming will be made worse by adding extra humans to the planet. Pollution, overconsumption, and lack of resources will be worsened by adding extra humans to the planet. War, starvation, natural disasters — all become worse when we add more humans to the equation. Also, the Holocene extinction moves faster as we add more humans to the planet.

Like most other species, we have a drive to breed — it evolved as a survival trait. Unlike any other species, we have the capacity to destroy our own ecosystem and we’re currently doing it. Also unlike any other species, we can recognize that we’re doing it and figure out ways to stop.

Note: I wrote about this topic five years ago: Why Mrs. Duggar Is Right. But Mostly Wrong.

  1. I have a co-worker who feels certain that we are about three mistakes away from a global super-pandemic that will kill off two-thirds of us. As grim as that seems, it also seems plausible as we pack in another hundred million.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      It wouldn’t surprise me. But on the other hand, our medical professionals have gotten fairly good at ID’ing and stopping global pandemics lately. If only Emperor Felonius doesn’t defund them…

  2. Anderson Connors says:

    Excellent writing, once again. Brave too, considering our location in the middle of the Child-bearing Belt.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thank you, Anderson.

      Indeed, folks around here are proud of their large broods: six, seven, eight, and more. I imagine many of them would be offended if they read any of this. Or — and this happens more than I’d like — they will agree with my premise and never realize the cognitive dissonance.

      Personally, I didn’t come to this conclusion until after I fathered children, so the number of my offspring is unrelated to my position on this topic. (We only had two because that’s what my wife wanted, and I am man enough to not have a problem with my wife making all kinds of excellent decisions.)

  3. Dana says:

    A very comprehensive and thought-provoking article. I love your opening sentence.

    I have long been a proponent of zero population growth (honestly, I think we need negative growth but that’s a much harder sell). When people ask why I don’t have children (yep, I get asked that all the time) I say it’s to make up for all of my friends who have more than two kids. People think I’m joking, but I’m not.

    What I find more puzzling is that my husband and I make a more concerted effort than most parents we know to minimize our footprint while we’re here so future generations aren’t saddled with our excesses. When I am feeling less than charitable, I often wonder why we bother.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “I often wonder why we bother.”

      You’re not the only one. In moments of great despair (pretty much any time Baby Donny is in the news), I start to choke on my hope. But I can’t live like that — not for long. I MUST believe we can turn it around.

      “I think we need negative growth but that’s a much harder sell.”

      Indeed. *Especially* from the economic angle. How indeed will smaller generational cohorts support larger aging populations? Japan is dealing with it already; hopefully they will make it through without deciding suddenly to being baby-making again, and hopefully we will observe whatever they did to stay afloat so the rest of us can try it.

      “my husband and I make a more concerted effort than most parents we know to minimize our footprint while we’re here so future generations aren’t saddled with our excesses.”

      And our children will appreciate you for it, when they’re old enough to understand. Rebecca has already announced her intention to not have children (which I think is unusual in girls at this age), “because they just make messes”, she said.

      I constantly evaluate my life for things I could be doing better. But just having children creates a lot of waste (I have already repressed the memories of thousands of diapers). It will not be an easy road.

  4. Wil C. Fry says:

    “I love your opening sentence.”

    Thank you! :-)

    It’s actually something I’ve been working on — the lede — and I’ve been researching “the best opening lines”, trying to make my own better. My favorite is still “The last camel collapsed at noon” — because of how much *information* is in those six words.

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