Why not a world of 690 million?

2011-03-18

in Politics, The environment

As David MacKay’s book describes in detail, producing enough energy for everyone on Earth to live like the average European is possible using renewable forms of energy, though it would require a colossal effort and the conversion of a huge amount of land into renewable energy facilities like wind farms and concentrating solar plants.

Given that, the case for reducing population size within rich economies seems even stronger. Would Canada really be a worse place if it had a population of 50% what it does now? What about 10%? As long as the transition was gradual and done in an appropriate way, it could lead to a world in which there are more resources available per person, where the planet is better suited to dealing with our wastes, and where more of the planet can be left in some kind of a wild state, rather than converted for human purposes. Rather than cities that constantly spill beyond green zones into sprawling suburbs, we could live comfortably in the facilities we already have. With fewer workers around, each would be able to demand higher wages and benefits. There would also be more capital available per person for investment.

With a global population 1/10th of the current size, there would obviously be fewer brains out there, so the absolute pace of innovation would probably slow. At the same time, it would give the planet some welcome relief from the relentless pressure than human beings put on it, and would offer an opportunity for humanity to learn to live in a sustainable way before it destroys itself.

If the average number of children per woman can be reduced to well below the replacement rate, a falling population could result. The means of encouraging that need not be coercive, and many of them are beneficial in themselves. Better sexual education can be provided, particularly for girls. Universal access to contraception can likewise be provided, at the same time as women are given better educational opportunities and better treatment in the workplace. Governments can halt policies intended to promote large families, and instead concentrate on the task of reducing the burden humanity is placing on the Earth to a level that can be borne indefinitely. It would also be nice if improved mechanisms were developed for men to control their fertility, including through the development of drugs akin to hormonal birth control pills, which allow for fertility to be temporarily suspended.

People often assume that population control in poor countries with fast-growing populations is the key issue, when it comes to population and the environment. That view misrepresents the relative impact of different lifestyles, and the level of inequality that exists when it comes to resource use and waste production. The most important thing is probably to have fewer absolute gluttons – like Canadians, Americans, and Australians – and to work on providing the energy needs of the people who remain using safe, renewable sources of energy.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah March 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm

As long as the transition was gradual and done in an appropriate way Do you have a proposal for how smaller cohorts of young people pay for the pensions and healthcare of large cohorts of the elderly? Without having a way to do that it strikes me as clearly disadvantageous for rich societies to seek a falling population through reducing birth rates unless they make up for the difference through immigration. A lot of countries already find themselves in this situation (it’s often referred to as a ‘demographic timebomb’), and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in those societies who thinks that having an ever-falling proportion of working age people and ever-rising proportion of elderly needing expensive care is a good thing. To be honest, if a lot of environmentalists went around arguing this without having a solution to the financial problems we’re already facing then I think you’d just alienate a lot of supporters amongst younger cohorts (which, as you’ve discussed before, are the people who tend to be most concerned about climate change).

Milan March 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm

The pay-as-you-go nature of our pension and health care schemes is definitely a barrier. There would be a big one-off cost to moving to a self-funded model. Specifically, one generation would have to pay twice.

Still, that seems preferable to total global ecological collapse, which the world’s present population seems quite capable if producing by continuing current behaviours.

oleh March 19, 2011 at 1:50 am

Sarah, you have identified a significant challenge. As the number of elderly grow, and I am approaching that number, we may have to significantly lower our expectations> We may have to accept less for a greater good. This is likely to be difficult for us baby boomers and the generations that follow that have been raised with a sense of entitlement.

Sarah March 19, 2011 at 6:59 am

In the abstract it’s easy to argue that one generation paying twice is preferable to ecological collapse, but unless you can meet the political challenge of convincing a cohort that they need to pay twice then you’re just making enemies for the environmentalist cause. I’m a pretty committed environmentalist, but you’d have a very, very tough time convincing me, especially in the midst of an economic slump when the young are disproportionately unemployed. I buy the idea that I should fly less to stop people being flooded in Bangladesh, but I sure as hell don’t buy the idea that I should pay more tax to enable rich baby boomers to live in big houses, take fancy holidays abroad and still receive publicly funded care and a state pension – especially when they got a free university education and I’ll be paying off my university debt for decades. In short, I think you’re proposing a politically counterproductive argument that will make debates over climate change even more heated and public opinion even less sympathetic to CO2 reductions.

Personally, I am deeply skeptical that a truly self-funded model for pensions will ever be introduced – that’s what they claimed to be introducing in the UK decades ago, but didn’t. Politicians face short-term incentives and the old vote at higher rates than the young, so there’s no political incentive to make the old pay for their care. A falling population means the old become a more and more important block of voters, and as Oleh says the baby boomers have an attitude of entitlement that means they demand excellent state-funded healthcare and pensions. I agree that the solution is for baby boomers to lower their expectations, but I have no idea how that could be achieved.

Tristan March 19, 2011 at 9:59 am

This post bears an ominous resemblance to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

Milan March 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I buy the idea that I should fly less to stop people being flooded in Bangladesh, but I sure as hell don’t buy the idea that I should pay more tax to enable rich baby boomers to live in big houses, take fancy holidays abroad and still receive publicly funded care and a state pension – especially when they got a free university education and I’ll be paying off my university debt for decades.

You’re right that there are two ways to deal with an unsustainable pension system. Either you can have a younger generation pay into a system that will give them nothing (as young workers today are quite possibly already doing) or you can cut promised benefits to older generations.

The latter only really seems to happen when countries are dead broke.

Milan March 19, 2011 at 1:51 pm

This post bears an ominous resemblance to Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

In a sense, it is a kind of thought experiment. Is there any fundamental reason why it would be bad to have a dramatically smaller human population?

Or, are the only problems with it practical (pensions, etc) or related to implementation (bringing it about without behaving immorally toward individuals)?

Milan March 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

For the unfamiliar, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a satirical piece of writing intended to demonstrate the cruel way in which people thought about the Irish.

A previous discussion on this site impacts on the question being asked in this post.

Milan June 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Apparently, Australia has dealt with the challenges of pensions and an aging population: “At the same time the state pension system, and therefore the taxpayer, is being progressively relieved of most of the burden of retirement provision, since eligibility for the state pension depends on both assets and income. As supers take over, the provision for old folks’ incomes will be almost entirely based on defined contributions, not defined benefits. So Australia is in the happy position of not having to worry too much about the pension implications of an ageing population, though it may have a problem for six or seven years after 2014 when the post-war baby-boomers stop work with supers only half filled.”

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