One of the major themes of the news over the past week has been the public recognition that the population of humans is now hitting the 7 billion mark. That’s a scary number, that has many worried, and with reason. Overpopulation is implicated in our environmental and our economic problems. Every one of us, from poorest to richest, has some carbon footprint and uses resources, leading to more global warming and greater resource shortages (which eventually leads to economic and often political tensions).
There is more to addressing environmental and resource problems than reducing the population, to be sure. Those in the wealthiest nations use more resources to create more pollution, while people in the developing nations are clamoring for a higher standard of living that will entail using more resources and creating more pollution. We will therefore have to learn how to use fewer resources and those in the wealthiest society may have to lower their living standards; for example, by giving up second cars, using mass transit and car-pooling.
But reducing the number of people in the world should nevertheless take a central place in any discussion of how to address global warming and resource shortages.
Most economists and politicians don’t like to think of a shrinking population, because growth in population is the easiest way to achieve growth in an economy, and both economists and politicians set economic growth as a primary goal. What economists and politicians like about economic growth is that it’s an easy way to deal with the inherent inequalities of a free market economy. As long as there’s growth, the unemployment and economic dislocation that ensues from money-saving technologies such as computerization and the Internet is hidden from view because growth creates new markets to soak up the newly unemployed. Growth, too, can conceal an active program to draw more of the wealth created by the economy to the wealthy. For example, it is only since we have entered the greatest economic contraction since the Great Depression that the mainstream news media is talking about the growing inequality of wealth that has occurred over the past 30 years. Before, economic growth hid the transfer of wealth upwards.
When a population shrinks, it’s very hard to maintain economic growth. But just because an economy shrinks does not mean that it cannot provide jobs and an adequate standard of living for the people which it comprises. The belief that only a growing economy can thrive is just a myth, but one that’s accepted by the many economists in the pay of those benefiting most from growth.
In the past, famine, war and disease were the main ways that populations decreased, and if we do not act to stem the population rise, it’s almost certain that famine and perhaps war and disease as well will do the job for us.
I believe that the key to reducing the population without a great deal of suffering is eliminate the most wretched among us, the approximately 1.7 billion humans who live in absolute poverty, which is roughly defined as living on the equivalent of $1.25 a day or less. What if there were a painless way to totally wipe out this 24% of the population? Wouldn’t getting rid of one quarter of the world’s population reduce our carbon footprint, even if it were the one quarter that uses the fewest resources? And wouldn’t we also be removing a lot of human suffering by extinguishing the ultra poor?
Now I’m not suggesting a mass genocide against populations living in absolute poverty. Rather I propose four simple policy steps to ease into population reduction. What I propose is to keep the populations of the richer economies at about their current size by migrating the poor into wealthier societies:
- Promote negative population growth in all countries by making birth control easily accessible and rewarding people for having one child. For example, governments could agree to pay the complete costs for four years of college or career training of the first child of every citizen, while raising taxes on each child beyond one for any family. To those who say that this policy will negatively impact the poor since the wealthy will be able to afford the additional cost of having more children, I have two arguments: 1) we’re trying to avoid famine, war and disease, which usually kill more of the poor than of other groups; 2) whatever the rules of a society, the wealthy always have an edge.
- Create an open border for immigration from poor countries to rich countries. If rich countries replace the hole in their economies created by a lower population with people from poorer economies, the world will gradually get wealthier. We can already see this process of replacing populations of wealthy nations with immigrants happening to a certain degree in Europe and the United States. In both cases, unfortunately, local populations are resisting the newcomers, a short-sighted mistake that will make everyone suffer. Instead, the industrialized nations should open their arms to immigrants.
- Develop a strong social safety net to alleviate the human suffering that population dislocations cause. At every step of the process of population decline, some people will be forced out of a job or profession, which is what always happens during all social change, for example, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society at the end of the 19th century. Those out of a job or career, be it temporarily or permanently, are in a sense sacrificing for the public good resulting from a declining population. It only makes sense that they be compensated with generous and long-lasting unemployment benefits. Additionally, the new immigrants will need social services to get acclimated to the new society and economy. Moreover, a strong social safety net will generally help minimize suffering during any social and economic transitions.
- Keep working on reducing everyone’s carbon footprint. That includes developing alternative forms of energy; making current industrial processes more energy efficient; spending more to clean up current industrial and electrical processes; and increasing use of mass transit, bicycles and other energy-efficient forms of transportation.
I see as the greatest impediment to pursuing this 4-step program, or one like it, is that every one of these steps leads to more of the two things that the rich who control our resources and government officials despise:
- These steps almost by definition lead to a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth, which means the rich will have less.
- These steps lead to more government interference in the marketplace, e.g., to encourage people to have one child only, to bring in immigrants or to make it easier for companies developing alternative energy.
It’s not a coincidence that in those countries in which there is a more equitable distribution of wealth such as China, France, Spain and Germany, the governments have put addressing global warming higher on the “to-do” list, while the United States with its growing inequality seems determined to act in the short-term best interests of major polluters and its car-crazed population. The rich folk have a greater say in the United States than in Europe, and so far, they have cast all their votes in favor of continuing to pursue a growing economy fueled by irresponsible energy use and a rising population. Hey, at least they’ll get to keep their low taxes and great profit-making opportunities—at least in the short term.