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.