Wednesday, 17 February 2010

"The ever-expanding elephant in the room."

Over the past week, I discovered that it is now socially acceptable to discuss population control as a means of improving quality of life and mitigating climate change. In the same week, an article in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and a somewhat less serious report on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe (contains strong language) both raised the notion that overpopulation is the source of most of the world’s ills. This is a good thing: discussion is the beginning.
The current state of overpopulation is something that academics and scientists have known for some time. The act of bringing a child into the world ultimately results in a drain on the planet’s resources: billions of people having multiple children causes a massive drain. Most of the world’s ills can be traced back to overpopulation: famine, First and Third World inequality, widespread poverty, increased industrialisation leading to environmental change, rapid depletion of fossil fuels. In his excellent book, Consilience, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson uses the case of Rwanda as a microcosm of the planet – an extract of which can be read here. Philosophers such as Derek Parfit and Louis Pascal (‘Judgment Day’, 1980) have written interesting discussions of overpopulation, the ethical issues, and the solutions.
The problem is that telling people how many children they should have is seen as dictatorial. People decry any form of population control as ‘Social Darwinism; they point to China and its horrific human rights abuses; they confuse the concept of ‘population control’ with ‘eugenics’; they cite Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” I know from personal experience that advocating a one-child policy at a dinner party or equivalent social function leads to dispute and heated emotions.
Population control is a thorny issue and it is a drastic solution to the planet’s problems. Human beings like to have children – both the physical process and the end result. They want the cosy 2.5 children typical nuclear family unit that they’ve seen on sitcoms. They don’t like to be told that they should have a maximum of one child. It infringes on long-held social freedoms and the liberal idea of complete personal autonomy.
But the logical solution is not always the one that is emotionally palpable. Our planet simply cannot support the amount of people that would result from continued exponential population growth – an estimated 9 billion by 2050. Action needs to be taken and so it’s encouraging to see that the issue is no longer as taboo as it once was.
Discussion is always the beginning.


infonexus said...

definitely still the elephant in the room. I saw the Doug Stanhope monologue and it is good that people are reminded.

One thing people forget is that western society are having less children (now about 1.9 instead of 2.5 these days) but we are continuing to use a huge amount of resources - far more than "undeveloped" nations. Many of these undeveloped nations are aspiring to our unsustainable use of resources.

I am used to the idea of overpopulation, my father said for many years that it trumps most of the other problems we have, the problem is getting nations together to act globally to reduce population.

I am glad people are talking about overpopulation but is still taboo for many, particularly those of "faith", especially the fundamentalists.

Cheers, Archie

Mike Butler said...

Hi Simon,

I read this article in the Guardian the other day that makes some interesting points about population trends - not as funny as Doug Stanhope though.


Simon XIX said...

Thanks Mike, that's really interesting. Especially this idea: "Overpopulation is not the problem, he argues, but over-consumption: more specifically, over-consumption in the west."

How do you cut consumption without cutting population? The kind of extreme self-discipline that the West isn't known for...