Re-Framing the Population Discussion

I've been gnawing at the question of overpopulation since well before I began this web site.  As time has gone by I've developed a more nuanced understanding of what changes are likely to happen in the next 30 or 40 years, where they will happen, what will cause them, and who will be most affected.  I've also gained a keen appreciation of just how unpalatable such musings are to many people.  Even when the discussion is framed in the gentlest, most humane, non-interventionist terms possible, it takes nothing beyond the use of the phrase "population reduction" for the fur to begin to fly.

Accordingly, I’m starting to wonder whether it is time to stop framing the issues of women’s education and empowerment, family planning and moderate local development in terms of population modification (i.e. using them to slow and ultimately reverse growth rates). Instead, I think advocates should simply be promoting these actions on their social merits, as measures that improve the quality of life wherever they are implemented.

I have two reasons for contemplating taking any mention of population out of the discussion.

The first is that, as I hinted above, the debate always gets sidetracked by obstructionists like Francis Porretto.  As a result, those of us who advocate reducing population growth are continually forced to spend far too much time and energy convincing people that we’re not eugenicists. Of course that fight is worth joining so long as victory will bring some spoils in the form of changing population policies, and such policy changes are to be desired if they will ultimately improve the national, regional and global situation.

That leads to my second reason, a more serious one that makes fighting the good fight, or even winning it, moot. That is the issue of the timeline.  My reading of the global situation is that we have half a generation left (perhaps 15 years) before the converging crises of oil and gas depletion, climate change and food shortages are fully upon us. The people that will be most affected, especially by food problems, are the regions with high population growth. The impact in these regions is likely to be so severe that outright population reductions will be underway within the following decade, 15 to 25 years from now.

What policies could realistically be implemented that would reduce the affected populations before then? The advocates of fertility-driven population reduction haven’t even won the debate yet let alone influenced any significant policies, except perhaps for China's one-child policy. To make matters worse, the regions that most desperately need to address the question of population growth (i.e. Africa and South Asia) have a level of demographic inertia that makes them population supertankers - even if we could turn the wheel today it would take 15 years for the bow to start moving.

It’s a discouraging conclusion, but I think we’ve already lost the race.

If that is true, what do we do? We can’t just sit down and wait for the water to close over our heads. Instead, I propose that we shift our focus slightly. I think we should acknowledge that population growth is going to continue in the places that can least afford it. We should publicize that fact, along with the implications of resource depletion, climate change and a tightening food supply within the context of that population increase. We should then use the picture of growing risk that emerges to support our calls for the kinds of social improvements we have always been proposing, but NOT with the goal of changing anyone's population levels. Instead, we should couch any recommendations strictly in terms of the protection of individuals, communities and nations from the worst effects of the escalating crisis.

Adopting this approach would short-circuit the arguments of the "growthists". We let them maintain their worldview unchallenged, because challenging it, even if we were to win the debate, will not change the population outcome at this point. Taking population reduction out of the discussion would also dramatically improve the chances that our proposals would be accepted, since on their own they are much less vulnerable to growthist challenges.

Two objections to this proposal are that it is fatalistic to simply accept that we’ve lost the population race; and that it removes some pressure on governments to act on population issues. My response to the first objection is that it is not fatalistic to accept reality: my rejoinder is to ask whether it is fatalistic to expect a ball to always fall if you let go of it, and not to retain some faint hope that it might rise instead.  My rebuttal to the second is that highlighting the escalating risks should on its own prompt the adoption of some population-modification policies if that is socially and politically possible.

This is not to say that I will stop talking about population growth as a problem.  Population growth patterns define the regions that will be hit earliest and hardest by the coming crisis, and that knowledge should be invaluable in promoting  mitigation and adaptation policies.  But I just may stop talking about dieoff - given our current situation it's about as helpful as predicting rain when the storm clouds are already visible on the horizon.

November, 2007

© Copyright 2007, Paul Chefurka
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