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Population Growth

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The New York Times has a article out about environmentalists who are now looking at population control again, after shying away from it. This is probably prompted by the hullabaloo over “7 billion.” This comes in the wake of a long piece, The Last Taboo, in the Lefty periodical Mother Jones.

The rationale for why environmentalists have moved away from population control is alluded to only elliptically in The New York Times piece. They make a big deal about abortion, but I don’t think this is the most terrifying issue in principle. Environmentalists tend to be on the pro-choice side of the Culture Wars anyway. To cut to the chase it is the fear of being called racist (and to be fair, racial nationalists from Madison Grant to John Tanton have synthesized ethnic concerns with genuine conservationist impulses). Only environmentalists with rock-solid credentials or a lean toward anti-humanistic Deep Ecology philosophies remained vocal about their opposition to mass immigration over the past few decades. David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, was one such individual. And it’s no surprise that the founder of the radical Earth First movement is also an immigration restrictionist.

The logic behind environmentalist skepticism of immigration is pretty clear. Citizens of the developed world have a huge impact in comparisons to citizens of the developing world. Without immigration since 1965 the population of the United States would have already stabilized a generation ago, while today it will likely approach 400 million in the mid-21st century.

I’m much more optimistic about the medium term future than most environmentalists. Though I’m not a Panglossian, I think that science and technology will probably be able to manage to keep civilization creaking along. And when it comes to population control sometimes I wonder if the ultimate reason why we care about population control isn’t being muddled. Those who espouse a full-throated Deep Ecology ethos which is basically anti-humanistic in orientation are at least honest. People who are militant about not having children, and attempt to convert others to the cause, sometimes strike me as curious. Who exactly are they saving the world for? The people who they claim should not reproduce?

But I’m a biologist enough to understand that Malthusian conditions aren’t made up out of whole cloth. I understand the fixation upon controlling the numbers of middle class Westerners in the medium term, but observe in the plot above that the crappiest countries in the world have the highest fertilities! One thing that seems true is that a demographic transition results in a positive shift in the dependency ratio, so that economic growth and higher quality of life ensues. Nations which aren’t proceeding through the demographic transition don’t benefit from this dividend. To not put a too fine a point on it they remain shitholes for their residents, and require the resources and energy of societies which actually function to prop up. The “carbon footprint” of a Somali really isn’t a big deal. 5 million Somalis vs. 10 million Somalis makes no real difference to the planet. But it makes a huge difference to the probability of a given Somali starving or not! If you want to go Julian Simon on me I have a bet I could make with you about the relationship between Somalia’s population and its stability and per capita prosperity (at least normalized for world levels of prosperity).

The game of understanding, and shaping, human population seems to be forced into two artificial extremes. On the one hand there are absolutists for reproductive freedom who believe that to have children is a right, who also believe that food, healthcare, and housing are rights. What are rights without responsibilities? There is no honor is starving to death because your nation is too dangerous for CNN camera crews to come film large numbers of children and infants with bloated bellies, which might prompt those societies with surplus to divert it so you can live to breathe and breed another day. As for environmentalists who scold others for daring to produce more humans, often in the zeal of their proselytization they can confuse others into wondering if a world extirpated of humanity wouldn’t be their ideal. This is not the truth of the matter, after all ZPG activists aim for stabilization in large part so that the affluence and security which we take for granted might become sustainable, extending human well being and flourishing out indefinitely. Instead of one-size-fits-all maxims, what we need are case-by-case solutions for a complex world.

• Category: Science • Tags: Demographics, Population Growth 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"