Sunday, November 17, 2019

There is no crisis in reproduction

This is a solid, if longwinded, NYT piece about how there are many countries that have fertility rates below replacement levels. While I'd like to see our species reduce its fertility rates (which I’ll get to in a second), I am also a critic of systems that make it difficult for parents (and unappealing for would-be parents) to have a child. I'd rather we borrow from the Danish model, in which parents are given generous maternity/paternity leave, free health care, free daycare, and affordable college education. So I guess you could say I’m pro-parent and pro-child, but also pro-depopulation.

A discussion on reduced fertility rates is typically framed as a bad thing (as a “crisis in reproduction,” which is a phrase I've plucked from the article). It's seldom framed as a "crisis in overpopulation." In my 36 years, the world population has grown from about 4.5 billion in 1983 to 7.7 billion in 2019. Who knows what it'll be by the time I'm 80. These billions of people over-consume, pollute, change our climate, cause species to go extinct, remove habitat, and generally make the world less beautiful and sustainable. We've done amazing things, too, as a burgeoning species, but our growing numbers threaten the very soils, waters, ecosystems, and climates on which our existence depends.

The earth’s health is affected most by two things: overconsumption and overpopulation. We sometimes acknowledge the first, but it seems almost taboo to criticize the second.

Why are these articles framed as crises: crises for economies and crises for old folks who won’t have enough taxpayers or caregivers to support them? (As harsh as it may sound, I see this as faulty prioritization, as well as infantilization of an age group who might do better to adapt to trying circumstances than we may think.)

In articles such as this one, I’m struck by one consistent and amazing omission: a reduction in the fertility rate is actually good! Why don’t we acknowledge how reduced fertility rates may be a beneficial change our species is in the process of making, or how reduced rates are opportunities that ought to be encouraged and replicated? We seldom hear about the benefits of fewer people on this planet: more resources for each individual; more space to roam; more enchantment in the form of undisturbed natural features and replenished animal populations; a more sustainable planet; a longer habitation on earth for us; not to mention fewer crowds, less smog, replenished fisheries, and less traffic.

Before I die, I hope to see the human population begin to proactively dwindle (and my vision features neither death camps nor forced sterilizations) to a more sustainable level of, say, 1 billion. I don’t know what an appropriate U.S. population would be, but certainly less than 100 million. (It’s 329 million today.)

So, yeah, I don't see a "crisis in reproduction." I see a crisis in how the modern economy and neoliberal governing policies makes life a living hell for parents. And I see a crisis in common sense: in terms of the human population, less ought to be considered more.


Owen said...

Hi Ken,

This is an interesting take. You call for a global population of 1BN is a radical vision, and there are many questions I think this leaves unanswered. I think one thing you don't take into account here is the fact that overpop. and consumerism are related issues. I would tend to say that these are both results of the historic and economic structure we have. Namely, it seems to me that the problems we are facing in the global north, say in the US, are different issues than those in the global south; some aspects of an increasing population I see in the US are things like land privatizaion, aspects of wealth inequality, and resource distribution issues. But, the issues in the global south seem to be more direct issues like being able to provide resources to everyone and so on.

In the former case, these issues (I believe) are entirely a result of our economic structure: living in denser cities could solve most of these problems (Example: Paris and many cities outside the 1st world are more dense than NY...). In the second case, many of the isses have been directly linked to former colonization, and neocolonialism in some cases rather than simply too many people. Linking these issues to capitalism and neoliberalism may be useful since these are also the processes by which over-consumerism have emerged.

In general I am wary of saying that we simply have too many people when we haven't yet been able to see how these things play out if we have fair resource distribution and non-exploitative economic structure.

Although I do like the desire for seeing the population dwindle, since historically this has been a result of development. So it seems like a population plateau would coincide with advancing the status of underdeveloped countries.


Scott said...

I'm glad you're picking up your blogging pace; your posts make me see everyday culture with new eyes.

If my use of the continuous, exponential decay equation* is right, 7.7 billion people to 1 billion in 44 years (assuming you die at 80) is a decline of about 4.64% of the world population per year. I don't know if you've read about population degrowth / control--I have not--but that seems more like a die-off than a peaceful slide into equilibrium. If you have any thoughts on designed population "decline", I'd love to hear some solutions that pass your parent-friendly filter.


After all, what confused me about your post was the part about making it easier for would-be parents to have children. I can see pouring lots of resources (and policy changes) into raising already-born children to be the smartest, most well-behaved citizens of the world, but to incentivize the creation of more kids just works against your 1-billion goal.

I hope you're writing a book on all this because I have a lot of questions.

Scott said...

I'm farther down the rabbit hole now, and a 4.64% decline in the world population indeed seems likes a die-off, the more I look at the data.

As of 2016, the worldwide death rate was 833 per 100,000 people per year (1). That's a mere 0.833%. That's not a fluke either; it has been under 1% since 1984 (2). And these rates don't even take into account births.

So, if zero children were born between now and Ken's death 44 years from now (RIP), people would still have to die at a rate 5.57 times greater each year (!) than they're currently dying in order to reach 1 billion. I don't know if Mosquito Thanos could even do that.

1. CIA World Factbook

Ken said...

Scott-There are some people who believe the ideal human population should be closer to 500 million, so my 1 billion is generous. :) Mostly it's an arbitrary number, informed a bit by estimated population levels of when we lived as hunter-gatherers. I say I merely hope to see the population *begin* to dwindle to 1 billion, which means I don't expect to see us reach the end goal in my lifetime. I only wish to see the beginning of a decline that'll hit 1 billion long after I'm dead. I'm not sure what policies will help get us down to that number and keep it there, but it seems the developed world's fertility rate would get us there eventually, assuming the rest of the world gets developed. The continuation of programs that educate women and make contraception free and accessible will help us get there. I've heard others suggest pregnancy licenses and tax incentives/penalties, none of which seem like they'd have to be overly draconian or inhumane.

As for my pro-kid/parent position... The gov't policies I call for are more to make life more livable for parents and kids, and less to incentivize the creation of more kids. (The example of Denmark, and other developed countries, show how you can have a lot of family-friendly policies and still see fewer births.) That's the best of both worlds, in my view. If we're going to have kids, let's invest a ton into those kids. And let's not make parents miserable by making them pay tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars for day care, health care, and education. Here in Scotland we have sensible programs like free healthcare, a year of maternity leave, and free college education. These policies make things easier, but they aren't giving everyone baby fever.

Owen - Interesting thoughts. Part of the 1 billion number comes from my aversion to living in one of those big mega dense cities. Perhaps you're right: perhaps we can find a way, with technology, to maintain a much larger population (10 billion?) indefinitely. I'm skeptical and I'd rather we aim for Eden over Blade Runner. That's just not my idea of an ideal world, and feeding those 10 billion, even with enhanced technologies, will still probably require an unreasonably large demand on land outside of the city for timber, food, and everything else.

Scott said...

Georgia Guidestones! But even 500 million is far above what the population was in prehistory (1). Imagine the roaming you could do with just 5 million people!

I'm with you on the pro-kid policies. However, there's not a prayer of enacting them in the US, nor would the outcome likely be the same because of our Catholics, Mormons, poverty, and baby culture.

I'm encouraged by the fertility rates in the West (~1.8 per woman), but it's too little, too late for the natural world, and developed countries are huge polluters per capita. Ultimately, we need significant catalysts to accelerate depopulation.

My favorite idea so far is male (2) and female contraception implanted before puberty. Pregnancy should not be the default consequence of sex. It seems more ethically and politically palatable than a lot of other great ideas, too.

2. clinical trials are soon starting on injecting hydrogel into the vas deferens [adults only . . . for now]

Kate said...

"more space to roam ... more enchantment in the form of undisturbed natural features and replenished animal populations ... fewer crowds ..."

YES!!! I wish that these benefits were mentioned more often in the conversation about population ethics. It is not, for me, an issue as to whether the Earth *can* support a growing human population; it is why the hell this would even be desirable *for us as humans* (even not taking into account the rights of wild creatures themselves...). Even if technological advancements someone made it possible to support or 9 or 11 billion people on Earth, that does not address the issue that not all humans can tolerate cities and density. Undeveloped spaces, wild flora and fauna, starry skies, and the freedom to roam are our birthright as Earthlings.

Yet, alas, as someone presently employed in the ethics industry (with colleagues who study population ethics from artificially-illuminated, climate-controlled urban homes), I do have a good sense of why these facets are not mentioned: hardly anyone cares. Hardly anyone recognizes enchantment or space to roam as a fundamental human need... :(