You might be population too

I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.

I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.

But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences.

One simple solution then: since all these costs of our population go to the next generation and they don’t actually benefit from being alive – lets not have another generation! Then not only will there be no resource use in future, but the costs of our rapacious lifestyles will have nobody to go to. Coincidentally Peter Singer wrote an article to this effect last week, asking ‘Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?’

At the forum mention was made, and amused looks were exchanged, over the voluntary human extinction movement. Apparently it’s crazy to want our species extinct, but crazy not to want it arbitrarily smaller. Is the main benefit of all this human civilization species diversity then?

The fine line between good  ‘population reduction’ and killing people was accidentally jumped when a speaker spoke approvingly of Frank Fenner’s work on ending smallpox then went on to praise him for joining the population reduction movement after realizing he had contributed to the population problem in eradicating smallpox. Note that in this case the population lowering was in the form of people being killed, not just never being born – the usual barrier to equivalence. As far as I could tell nobody noticed this. Should we praise other groups who have made active contributions to a sustainable population, post birth?

I’m not surprised if people mostly concluded on balance that there’s probably little wrong with stopping people from being born, or that it’s not as bad as killing them. But to not even consider a value on human lives except to property developers, in a population debate, seems incredible. Is it just that once you consider this question you are already alive, so can imagine still being so in all but the total extinction scenario? Is it just an extreme of our usual blatant moral hypocrisy around groups too weak to mold the evolution of our morals?

27 responses to “You might be population too

  1. I love it! The “if they didn’t exist, nobody would notice” applies nicely to the zero populationists. Let’s assume they don’t.

  2. Some thoughts:

    - Is it better to exist than not? Well, I don’t know. I’ve never been anybody else and I haven’t experienced most of my expected life yet. But with my sample size of 1, I think so. It’s not a great metric, but neither is trying to add up the net suffering of others with no revealed preferences to speak of, except…

    - The suffering of life is bounded by the costs of suicide, while there is no theoretical limit to how happy you can be.

    - Many population restrictionists use comparisons to animal overpopulation. However, there is a crucial difference between human and animal population: animals draw from a commons, whereas humans have property rights. The negative externalities of additional population are much larger in the former than in the latter.

    - To the extent that negative externalities exist in a world of property rights, they are mostly a result of the costs of dealing with or coping with criminals and poor people (e.g. welfare or disutility of seeing others starve). This would suggest that if we’re going to have population controls, they should mainly affect the poor.
    I doubt that is a position many environmentalists would agree with.

  3. Last Liberal Standing

    I think you’re being intentionally obtuse about the population question. People who think that the world cannot support perpetual growth in population, and those who think that we would be better off with fewer people than we now have, do not believe we should have NO people. Does that seem inconsistent to you? Really?

    If I have a dinner and invite eight people, based on my preferences for not-very-loud conversation and a seat for each guest, it’s not hard to understand why I would not want twelve, twenty, or fifty people to attend. I’d like eight. Does that mean I’d like it even better if no one came? Of course not. I’m looking for an optimal arrangement, which is often a number between extremes.

    The same principle applies to the world’s population. Those of us who think there aren’t enough “seats” for the guests we have would like a less crowded guest list. Would we solve the problem by killing billions of people? No–any more than I’d start mowing down people who tried to crash my dinner party. But is self-restraint so unimaginable?

  4. This issue is a real bugbear for me. I blame it on shoddy, pervasive Malthusian reasoning, which seems perennially popular despite never having once made an accurate prediction.

  5. Last Liberal Standing

    Convenient to think that, Jordan. Convenient to toss in “Malthusian reasoning” and perennial inaccuracy.

    Question: Can the world support an INFINITE number of people? If you think so, I have no argument to offer. If you agree that there probably is SOME limit to how many people can live on the planet, and even a limit to how many people can live on it without living in squalor, then the question is: What might that limit be?

    Those of us who live under the cloud of “shoddy . . . Malthusian reasoning” believe we’ve reached the limit or soon will. We think that if six and a half billion people were to live like middle-class Americans, we’d have wars, more oil spills, global baking, and other not-so-good consequences.

    How is that shoddy reasoning? Even if you don’t agree on what the optimal population might be, what makes my reasoning unacceptable?

  6. Current demographic trends have world population shrinking after 2050, and as this appears to be an effect of increasing wealth as a result of technological progress (wealthy people have fewer kids), it is not clear that that won’t be a permanent trend. Since there are few policies (apart from the obvious unspeakably awful candidates) which are likely to make enough of a difference soon enough to make a noticeable dent in the population peak, and the problem will be taking care of itself after that, I have to admit I think anybody who is treating overpopulation as a serious issue requiring policy responses has to be a little disconnected from reality. So I’m not surprised that there are other ways in which their views don’t seem very carefully thought out.

    I don’t really see the problem with people dying out due to people having inadequate interest in reproducing, should it ever reach that point (I suppose the demographic trends do lead there in the very long term, but when you start projecting thousands of years, it hardly even counts as guesswork any more). Surely there’s no compelling reason for continuing the species beyond the point where the species wants to continue.

  7. Last Liberal Standing

    “an effect of increasing wealth as a result of technological progress”: Does this mean that the vast majority of the world’s people will enjoy a significant improvement in their living standard? That’s a big leap of faith. It assumes that we’ll have sufficient resources to support that improvement.

    The rest of your first paragraph amounts to this: “The problem (if there is one) will start to solve itself in forty years, and there’s no way to do anything about it anyway–so if you insist on raising it as an issue, you’re loony. And I can’t take you seriously on any topic.”

    Neat. Smug. Dismissive. But not as persuasive as you might hope.

  8. Liberal, in response to the sentences in your first paragraph, in order, yes. No it isn’t (which isn’t to say it might not turn out to be wrong, of course; there’s lots of logical space between infallible certainties and leaps of faith). Yes, but the evidence supports that assumption.

    That responds to everything except your criticism of my rhetoric. Since I didn’t have that much hope of being persuasive, I can only say that I’m glad that I at least successfully indicated how dismissive I am of uninformed opinions.

  9. Last Liberal Standing

    Mission Accomplished!

  10. Please forgive me in advance for my poverty of imagination, but I’m not sure your insight — that we prefer population control methods that don’t involve murder to those that do — is especially useful. There is quite a bit more revealed and derived morality proscribing murder than there is requiring us to make babies beyond sustainable levels. Are you suggesting this is wrong?

    This is not to agree with the population control priorities as expressed by your earlier commenters, only to be grateful that the debate is as constrained as it is.

  11. If all these morons want the population lowered and are sooooo concerned about the Earth, then how about you start the depopulation agenda now and just kill yourself and you can give yourself a pat on the back before you bite the bullet. David Rockefeller thinks you’re a “useless eater” anyway so give his family what they want. Oh and let’s not forget the biggest land owner in the world Ted Turner is another depopulation/genocidal maniac that wants you idiots to kill yourselves for the planet so him and his cronies can have control of all the planets resources.

  12. I have an “natural resources management job” and I have to deal once in a while with this kind of people that is horrified of overpopulation.

    I do not have an answer to the riddle, but I got two really good questions:

    a) How much people is “overpopulation”? I prefer the answer from knowledgeable guys like physicists, engineers, medics and those pe0ple that are in charge of our live quality.
    b) In case you think Earth is too crowded, please demonstrate you’re not part of overpopulation.

    People after hearing these questions become more reasonable, and agree contraceptives are good enough to adress the population issue.

    Global population birth rates are slowing down. How a far are we from equilibrium? I don’t know how far, but we’re going that way.

    Why do people love to talk about “worst case scenarios”? It’s only about testosterone and literature. Middle class life now is too boring, men love to daydream about a future where we have to carry a gun to fight for the last remaining resources and signal their strenght and sex appeal. This future is more appealing compared to a political delivered consensus over a sustainable natural resources management program.

    Remember those dreams next time you hear something like: “if we don’t do something RADICAL today, we’ll have to fight over….bla, bla, bla”

  13. Last Liberal Standing

    Why is it so hard to understand the concept of “having fewer children”? Are there only two choices–be fruitful and multiply without restraint, vs. kill everyone you consider “over the allowable population limit”?

    I believe we’re capable of SOME nuance. My argument is that endless growth in population will eventually result in catastrophe. That does not mean we should kill off a few billion people to “solve the problem.”

    Just not hard to understand, is it?

  14. Nope, it is not hard to understand. But we’re not talking about us. It’s about the ideas expressed by the folks with whom katja had dinner.

    Unluckly, I have to work with people like that: doomsday prophets =(

  15. LLS: Yeah, that is malthusian thinking, and wrong.

    6 billion people with a western middle-class level of life makes for a vastly wealthier world than the one we have now – one that can afford a cleaner environment.

    Ever notice that it’s the first world that cares about pollution, and has less of it, despite greater production?

    There’s a reason for that, and population reduction isn’t related to it.

    “Endless growth in population” also isn’t a problem in that scenario, because rich populations, by all available data, naturally level off – lots of children aren’t needed to ensure the survival of some, nor for economic reasons.

  16. Last Liberal Standing

    Okay. Thanks.

  17. Pingback: You Might Be Population Too | Bastiat Institute

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  19. Pingback: You Might Be Population Too | Strike-The-Root: A Journal Of Liberty

  20. Here’s a way out of the debate:

    1) Develop a TIFIC (Take It and Forget It Contraceptive)

    and deliver it to everyone in the world. The basic idea is to make everyone’s fertility default to OFF, but easily and cheaply, but temporarily, turned back to ON. This makes it so anyone can still have children if they like, but no one has them by accident.

    2) As part of the same research effort to develop the TIFIC, improve our state of the art of human health knowledge and skills “to conquer the blight of involuntary death”, as it says at:

    Since none of us is separate from our environment, removing this blight also entails making the rest of our living world ever healthier, thus also giving us a beautiful world in which to live out our very very long lives!

    These two steps don’t reduce our population, which is good since who wants to die? But they also stop the growth, which is also a good thing since the world is finite in size and at some point of population growth it’s impossible not to get in trouble.

    3) To help with steps 1) and 2), use the health of the world as money, so that making more money means all of us living beings getting healthier. This could be done by measuring, say, oxygen production, health of the individual animals (including human) living on any given plot of land, ecological diversity, etc. Make the money completely free, as in speech not beer, so that competition improves the breed.

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  22. Quote from “Last Liberal Standing”:

    “We think that if six and a half billion people were to live like middle-class Americans, we’d have wars, more oil spills, global baking, and other not-so-good consequences.”

    Assuming you are correct, then wouldn’t those wars, oil spills, etc. . . reduce the population just like you’d prefer?

    Are you willing to force people to stop having children? Forced sterilization?

    If so, woe be unto you.

    If not, then what’s your point?

    If you want to personally try and reason with people and attempt to convince them not to have children, that is your perogative.

    Don’t expect it to work, though – especially in the third world countries where birth rates far exceed 1st world countries.

    One of the many things that annoys me about liberals (and I’m a libertarian, NOT a republican or conservative) is that their venom is aimed at “middle class” or “upper class” americans.

    Yet, the problem we’re talking about here – population – has NOTHING to do with americans.

    Further, I’m guessing that “Last Liberal Standing” resides in a big city. And to him or her I direct the following questions.

    Did you know that the population density of India is significantly lower than the population density of New Jersey? That India’s population density is almost identical to the population density of Massachusetts?

    India – 814 persons per square mile

    See here:

    New Jersey – 1134.5 persons per square mile

    See here:

    Massachusetts – 809.8 persons per square mile

    See here:

    Have you ever been to New Jersey? Parts of it are rather densely populated and parts of it are not. New Jersey is referred to as the “Garden State” for a reason – there are some gardens there.

    How about Massachusetts? Don’t think it’s significantly over populated there.

    For comparison’s sake, bear in mind that Manhattan has about 67,000 persons per square mile. Now THAT is densely populated – yet many liberals seem to LOVE IT there.

    See here:

    In point of fact, the states with lower population densities often seem to tend towards being more conservative (strong supporters of gun rights, freedom from government interference, etc. . .).

    That’s strange since it’s the liberals that are always whining about overpopulation. If it’s such a problem, why don’t you move to Alaska where there’s ONE person per square mile? Or Wyoming where there are 5.4 people per square mile?

    How about just visiting a region that doesn’t have a high population density AND not treating the middle class working folk who live there like they’re unsophisticated hillbillies (even if they are).

    Again for comparison’s sake. The EXTREMELY LIBERAL Washington, DC (where I lived for 3 years) has 9581.3 persons per square mile – almost 12 TIMES THE DENSITY OF INDIA.

    Yet, people (mostly liberals) CHOOSE to live there. Hmmm…

    Somehow, in spite of all that population density in D.C., people seem to be eating and there are parks to play in, etc. . . Weird. How’s that happen?


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  24. Katja, several possible responses to your argument:

    1. Yes, there’s nothing wrong per se with reducing human population all the way to zero. But there’s also no benefit to reducing population below some sustainable level. And since population reduction involves costs to the current generation (such as depriving people of the pleasures of having children) it will make sense to stop reduction at some point.

    2. The continued existence of human civilization is a good thing in itself, not just for the benefit of the people who will comprise it. Therefore it makes sense to stop population reduction before the existence of human civilization is threatened.

    3. Yes, the crude “potential people are irrelevant” argument leads to the problems you suggest. But even if we accept that potential people have value, there must be some point at which the value of extra people is outweighed by the harm done by overpopulation. Otherwise we are lead to the conclusion that we should increase population to the absolute maximum the Earth can possibly sustain, no matter how miserable those lives may be as a result of environmental damage and resource shortages. Population reducers think that point has already been passed. (And bear in mind that although quality of life may be decent for extra people now, the damage we are currently doing to the environment could already be condemning future generations to a miserable life.)

    Personally I would subscribe mostly to the first of these, but with a little of the others thrown in too. I would also argue that our most basic values are always non-rational. So there’s nothing irrational about you attributing a different value to potential lives than I do. We may describe as “crazy” any basic values which seem quite out of keeping with the human norm. But I certainly don’t think yours fall into that category.

  25. have these people considered the short to medium term impact of a lowering of birth rates?

    the old have to be cared for in their frail dotage to a large degree, and it’s the young that have to do the caring.

    if we continue on the current path of population decline (as it is in some european nations) there won’t be enough young to care for the old and keep a viable society running.

    i think this demographic shift is largely the cause of the current assisted-suicide debate going on in the UK at the moment, you hear debates about it on the radio rather often these days

    advances in health care may have prolonged human life, but a significant proportion of people still need constant medical attention and some lose all memory and sense of self. the only thing that’ll solve this i think would be a truly paradigm-shifting medical development and it seems unwise to place too much hope in that kind of thing

    it’s a bit of a catch-22 if you ask me. there will probably be a long drawn-out correction to our population levels at some point.

    i read an interesting article once (god knows where) about famine amongst pre-colonial Australian Aborigines. Apparently there were very few cases of famine in their history, and these only in certain unusually fertile river valleys. Apparently when faced with an abundance of natural resources people become over-optimistic and have more babies than the place can support, whereas those in more barren areas are constantly aware that every mouth needs feeding

  26. What in the world is a potential person and what sort of claim could it have on me in terms of insuring its emergence into reality? Not a fetus or an embryo or even a pair of gametes, but a hypothetical future person whose parents have not yet been born — what sense does it make to talk about deprivations to this “potential person”? To speak of an actually existing person’s reproductive rights is one thing, but I have trouble understanding how we can worry about prolonging or making permanent the non-existence of one of these thought-experiment people.

  27. Pingback: If ‘birth’ is worth nothing, births are worth anything | Meteuphoric

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