Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Elephant in The Room- Part II

Thank you all for your wonderful, and thoughtful responses to my post on population. Truly, I was so impressed and pleased with the civility and depth everyone showed on the question. In some ways, I feel like I don't even need to weigh in, but, well, given how much time so many of you put into answering my questions, I figure the least I can do is answer them myself! Plus, I'm a loud mouth. Since when do I miss an opportunity to express an opinion? ;)

Okay, so here we go.

To start with, is population a major problem from an environmental point of view? I think it is *a* problem, though I don't know that I would go so far as to say a *major* problem. Birth rates have already steeply declined in many parts of the world, and I generally see no reason to disagree with the UN's assessment that population will stabilize between 9-10 billion in 2050. Now, because a lot of that population growth is built in growth (due to large numbers of teenagers and twenty year olds in many countries), I don't think there's a real way to hold the world population down to 6 billion without instilling serious draconian measures. So, in a sense, I guess I see the neo-Malthusian debate somewhat of a red herring. The question for me isn't, is population an enormous problem, the question is, where do we go from here?

On to the bullet points:

  • Does it make sense to treat population as a quantitative problem (number of people) versus a qualitative problem ( one of lifestyle?) If we had 6.5 billion people on the Earth living lives similarly to farmers in Ghana, would we have a global warming problem?
To me, population is only very minorly a quantitative problem. I don't think the world could sustain any number of people, but I do think 9-10 billion people could live on the Earth in a sustainable fashion. I think population often gets conflated with lifestyle choice which often gets conflated with affluence. No, I do not think that everyone in the world can live like a typical American without a major technological breakthrough (and even then, I'm not 100% certain.) I don't think the average American lifestyle is a particularly sustainable one. But again, and I think this is crucial, this is not to say that the *affluent* lifestyle isn't sustainable. Anyone who has brought their Riot for Austerity numbers down to about 10-20% of the average American's understands that it is possible to live with a high standard of living (from a global perspective) but with much lower output. Similarly, most Londoners and New Yorkers live much more sustainable lives than the majority of people living in the suburbia.
  • Is it fait accompli that more people leads to degradation of renewable resources and/or increases in carbon emissions?
Okay, I'll admit, this was an unfair trick question. Is it fait accompli that more people leads to increases in carbon emissions? Well, it better not be, or why the hell did any country with a rising birth rate agree to the Kyoto Protocol! So my answer to this is an emphatic no. It is not fait accompli that more people leads to the degradation of renewable resources and/or increases in carbon emissions. In fact, if you look at population densities of the first world, it's interesting to note that countries with the higher population densities are often those that have lower carbon emissions. For example, the Netherlands is the 25th most dense country in terms of population and one of the most dense countries in the first world, but ranks 43rd in the world in terms of per capita carbon emissions. Conversely, the United States ranks 180 in terms of density, but comes in 10th at per capita carbon emissions. So higher population densities, far from obviously degrading land or increasing carbon emissions, can many times offer very positive benefits that improve land, and decrease emissions. To come back to New York, the reason New Yorkers have lower per capita emissions than the average American is precisely because density is higher in New York than it is in most parts of the US. As a result, New Yorkers tend to take public transit more often than the average American. 

  • Is disease Nature's way of "controlling" population? If so, is it fair to extrapolate from that that malaria and AIDS are Nature's way of "controlling" population, and that the Western Europe and the United States should not interfere with Nature?
I was really interested to see Hypoglycemiagirl's answer to this since she's an evolutionary biologist, and Cath's answer since she's a virologist. Virologist right? I get confused. They both had better technical answers to this, than I ever could, but I think in the main everyone who commented agreed on the most important part of this question which is that we should be using all the tools at our disposal to stop malaria and AIDS from running rampant in Africa (and other places). I am very relieved that we all were able to agree on this point.

  • What are the solutions? Is China's one-child policy a solution?
Here is where the comments started to get really fascinating and exciting. No one seemed to think China's one-child policy was the best kind of solution. I think Joyce, Cath, and Young Snowbird all eloquently discussed the problems with China's one-child policy. 

  • And more generally, where do we go from here? Given that we have population increases built-in, so to speak, what are the steps we can take?
Here again, I think people brought up excellent ideas. In general, education of women was mentioned as key. I agree, though I believe education of women has to be done holistically and should not be simply education of contraceptive options. That is, women need to be empowered, they need to be given opportunities, and the general health and security of women and their family needs to be of primary concern. For example, as Joyce pointed out, many women have more children because infant mortality rates are so high. So in order to bring down birth rates, it is not enough to hand women contraceptives, one must also work to bring infant mortality rates down. One of my professors discussed how having many children is a form of social security in countries where the states don't offer much in terms of old age provision. If the state is able to offer parents more financial security, they may well see birth rates decline as parents realize they don't have to have several children to ensure their well-being in old age. 

Beyond education and health, Cath and Melinda made some very interesting points that I think are very important to this discussion as well. Cath pointed out that several first world countries with declining birth rates are now reversing, and are thus encouraging women to have more children. Cath's point was, instead of trying to increase the birth rate, let's open up immigration in these countries! I completely agree with Cath in this regard. As the child of immigrants, and as someone who is now living in my non-native country, I think countries with stagnating birth rates should be encouraging immigration.

Melinda pointed to some of the discrimination/social alienation that childless or child-free couples suffer, and wrote as a possible solution, "Making it socially acceptable to not have children." I think this is an incredibly important point. Too many couples without children must deal with all kinds of social pressure to have children. I believe wholeheartedly that having children should be a personal decision. Just as I don't believe it's right to cast aspersions on parents who choose to have larger families, I do not believe it's right to cast aspersions on couples who choose not to have children. 

All in all, I think this was a fabulous discussion, and I want to thank each and every one of you who took the time to share your views. I think the civility of the discussion allowed people from a variety of perspectives to share their opinions. We had several moms of four children express their views, as well as several childless people share theirs, and we all managed to do so without personal attacks, and with everyone's feelings intact. So thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. You guys are seriously awesome.


Joyce said...

Thank YOU for hosting the discussion! It's important to talk about these things if there is to be a chance of reaching solutions.
I'd like to add that I agree with Melinda that it needs to be acceptable to remain childless. Pressuring people to reproduce when they don't wish to is just as intrusive as pressuring people to have only one child when they would like to have more.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

I missed out on the original discussion, but I liked Melinda's comments. (Kudos again to everyone on civility - I caught this discussion over at Crunchy's blog a few months ago and it was so angry!!)

Overpopulation AND overconsumption are both huge problems. Humanity is appropriating an enormous amount of biomass and landmass for our own use and not leaving much else for the rest of the species on the planet. And that's at 6.7 billion. What will be left for the rest of the species at 9 billion?

I think we should encourage an average of somewhere between 1 and 2 children per family (1 if you start early, 2 if you start in your early 30's), the way Sharon Astyk suggests in Depletion and Abundance. I think it is all the more brave of her (NOT hypocritical) to do so considering that she has 4 children!

How to do that? In the developing world - putting women in charge of their fertility and giving them more education, opportunities and security. Also, incentivizing smaller families or starting families later in life. Whoever suggested the tax system (a break for 1, none for 2, and penalties for more than 2), I think that sounds like a good idea. And as Melinda suggested, ditto for supporting childless people.

For the already "developed" world, we need to focus on decreasing our consumption and keeping our own average below 2 children per family.

I don't know that any of this will actually help us. As Ruchi says, the population increase is somewhat built in. Personally, I believe we are already in overshoot and what happens to all populations in overshoot - including human civilizations of the past - is unfortunately going to happen to us. We are not exempt from the laws of physics, biology or any other science, the way we seem to think that we are. It's just that our cleverness has allowed us to push the limits of the world far enough to take almost all the land and the food in the world for ourselves.

But only time will tell. In the meantime, we have to get to work. :)

Anonymous said...

I have fairly strong opinions when it comes to population, but I will refrain from dumping them all out :) For the most part I think it is not necessarily constructive because there is little we as individuals can do about the built in population growth.

hausfrau provided a great comment, IMHO. Well thought out, rational and balanced.

Just want to say that I enjoy the discussion. Thanks for posting about this difficult topic.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Another great post and discussion -thanks Ruchi!

I will post at some point about the pressure on voluntarily childless couples to have kids - yikes, Thanksgiving was tough this year!

Oh, and I'm not really a proper virologist. I would class myself as a molecular biologist who somehow ended up working on the co-evolution of humans and one class of human viruses!

EJ said...

I wonder about this: "if you look at population densities of the first world, it's interesting to note that countries with the higher population densities are often those that have lower carbon emissions.". I did some comparisons between Netherlands, Canada, Sweden and its not that easy to correlate population density, urbanization, carbon emissions and consumption.

I think that looking at population density and energy use doesn’t address a key issue - total consumption including energy used in imported, manufactured goods and food. It’s too easy/cheap for “developed” countries to import virtual/embedded energy and water (= resources). The imported energy used is then counted in the manufacturing countries statistics but consumed elsewhere.

My final point is that only lower consumption/local production (of most things) will lead to lower emissions of carbon and other pollutants.

Lots of interesting things revealed here:

End rant.

ruchi said...

Joyce, you're welcome, and yes, I agree with Melinda, and I would be interested to see Melinda or Cath write more about this issue as I think it's very important

Hausfrau, thanks for adding to the discussion!

Cindy W, you're welcome. Glad you enjoyed the debate.

Cath, molecular biologist, got it.

EJ, thanks for the website! It looks awesome. You're right. I don't think density CAUSES or necessitates decrease in per capita emissions, just as I don't think population necessitates an increase in per capita emissions. What I was trying to get at more was that density can facilitate decrease in emissions for a variety of reasons, including good access to public transit, and walkability. So increases in population can actually enable people to make good changes, rather than desecrate land. So, no, it's not going to correlate perfectly of course. France, for example, is less dense than the Netherlands, but also has less per capita carbon emissions because they use a lot of nuclear power. And you're right, that this doesn't even factor in urbanization into the equation. My point, again, was not to establish a causality that higher density leads to lower emissions but just to show that it's not a given that higher populations lead to increases in carbon emissions. Sometimes they can lead to decreases.

You're also correct that there are hidden costs ... how much of China's carbon emissions is for manufacturing that ends up in the US? But again, that would suggest that the issues here are not necessarily ones of quantitative population, but of lifestyle choice. As to lowered consumption, well, again, I'd agree with you. Again, I think the problem here is one mainly of lifestyle, ie too much consumption, and not necessarily one of quantitative population. We do need to be concerned with consumption and where products are produced, I agree. So I think we basically agree on everything!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I don't agree with a couple of the comments on these two posts about using taxes to encourage people to have fewer children. My husband is one of five children, all of whom were accidents conceived on various forms of birth control. You could argue (and I have thought many times myself) that they must not be very good at using birth control and their case is extremem, but accidental pregnancies are still very common. So say I get pregnant while using a faulty condom, I don't believe in abortion, and now I'm stuck paying higher taxes because I have a healthy relationship with my spouse? That doesn't sound fair.

Tax penalties for more children probably wouldn't have kept me from having the three I have, but it would have made me hate my government.

That said, I think sex education is a huge factor in population control, so that more pregnancies are wanted pregnancies. And how about making adoption a more reasonable option. I have three boys and am pining for a girl but I don't want to bring another baby into the world (population issues aside, I just hate being pregnant!). I would much rather adopt, but when I think about the $30,000+ it would cost to adopt versus the free through my health care for a pregnancy, the pregnancy option starts to look a little brighter.

Anonymous said...

One thing to mention is that many first world countries are suffering a population decline. Japan and much of Europe are facing serious economical problems due to a decreasing birth rate. My homeland (Canada) is on the brink of populatin decline with our immigration policies acting as stopgap. The texts I've read on the subject all equate a decreasing population with economic recession. Is there an economist in the house to explain why? Does a decrease in population have to equate to poverty?

Personally, I don't care how many children someone in the developed world chooses to (or not to) have. More children "Made in Canada" means fewer immigrants, that's all. I agree with previous statements made here to the effect that women's rights, education and equality are paramount in developing nations, and not just because of the possible demographic repercussions.