Is reducing the world population without war, disease or famine just a pipedream?

Earlier this week I proposed that by limiting everyone to one child each, in less than a century we could bring the world population down to 500 million, thereby ending both environmental and economic problems.

One reader asked quite aptly how I propose to do it. As the Burt Reynolds’ character says in “Semi-Tough,” Michael Ritchie’s 1980 send-up of the human potential movement, “I didn’t say it wasn’t going to be semi-tough.”

Conceptually, it’s easy: To change the behavior of vast numbers of people, it takes:

  • Changes in attitudes and social mores
  • Social pressure (the extreme form of the first point)
  • Incentives or disincentives, such as taxes and tax credits
  • Laws and regulations

To state the obvious, to get governments to create incentives, disincentives, laws and regulations, first there has to be a groundswell of support from somewhere, either a change of general mores or of the mores or goals of a ruling elite, e.g., a one-party government or a collection of corporations.

In the United States, a negative population growth (NPG) movement would begin with corporations and wealthy individuals using influence and grants to universities, think tanks, lobbying groups and foundations to create research, which would lead to public policy groups, government commissions and then coverage in the news media. The entire process was best described by that leftist professor G. William Domhoff in The Powers That Be, although the most frequent followers of his theories on how to achieve social change or control of public issues have been the right-wing. (And why not? The most ardent followers of the principles of capitalism as set down by Karl Marx in Capital (Das Capital) were Carnegie, Frick, Ford and other American industrialists.)

My history can get a little fuzzy at times, but I believe that prohibition, welfare reform and regulating cigarettes all came about because of this process.

A recent example of what Domhoff calls the “policy-formation” process is the way that Pete Peterson and his cohorts have been investing in research and commissions for the purpose of gutting the Social Security system. So far, his efforts have failed: Congress did not approve forming his proposed commission to investigate ways to address the federal deficit, which, as a number of columnists have pointed out, is a thinly veiled attempt to get at Social Security. But to get the Obama Administration to support the commission, he followed this policy formation process that starts with monied folks commissioning research that proves what they want to do is the right thing.

But can enough people (or enough people with clout) become convinced that we need to shrink our population? Hasn’t the economic well-being of many and the accelerating accumulation of wealth by a few depended too long on continually growing our population? Doesn’t that create a tremendous impediment to change?

I’ll answer that question in two ways:

1.  There are many examples of dramatic changes in attitude and mores of people over time.  Some examples:

  • Slavery was once practiced ubiquitously.  It took millennia, but now it’s forbidden everywhere.  
  • It also took centuries to end the custom of taking more than one wife.
  • The cultural attitude in the United States towards women in the workplace in the U.S. changed dramatically from 1960 to 1975 (see Gail Collins, When Everything Changed).
  • At the beginning of 19th century, infanticide was the preferred form of birth control in France (see Graham Robb, The Discovery of France) and abortion was a common procedure that didn’t bother most people and was often sued for birth control (see Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine).

2.  We are already seeing some countries experiment with NPG.  The Chinese approach had a bad rep; the social control aspects of it don’t bother me because I also see social control in western countries, but I am profoundly disturbed by the fact that the Chinese reacted by not having female children.  The current NPG status of both Germany and Italy and the general slowdown in population throughout western Europe suggests to many observers that as people rise economically and gain personal freedom they tend to have fewer children.  Of course, the recent rise in U.S. birth rates may belie that theory or prove it in the negative, i.e., people in the U.S. are losing ground economically and reacting by having more children.

The big challenge again is that so many people think that their economic well-being depends on growth and NPG will by definition lead to a shrinking economy.  But many people were invested in horse-and-buggies, vinyl records and Florida real estate.  In the part of the world economy that’s a free market, it’s just part of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction of capitalism.”  And in the part of the economy that’s managed, it’s just a social policy objective that requires management.  The hard part will be getting people to think straight about this issue, to understand that environmental pressures and resource shortages will reduce the population by violent and unsavory means unless we do it rationally first.

But I didn’t say it wasn’t going to be semi-tough!


9 comments on “Is reducing the world population without war, disease or famine just a pipedream?
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  6. Stacie says:

    so basically you’re a eugenicist? fuck you man, my husband and I are going to have all kinds of brilliant babies!!

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  9. marcelino says:

    At some point we may move out of room, yes, but at that point we will probably have teraformed another planet. The restrictions on children doe not work, we can look at china as an example.

    Most couples prefer two children approach of a boy and girl in “civilized” nations, so the tax incentives would have to be enormous, ah, like the corporate welfare we are accustomed to in America.

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