The Population Debate Continues: When Economics and Environmentalism Collide

Image credit: The Guardian
To Breed or Not - Economic Versus Environmental Concerns
Almost nothing stirs up as heated debate among environmentalists as the subject of over-population and whether or not to have kids. Even limiting your children to below the replacement rate is seen by many as inadequate, even selfish. Many environmentalists I meet argue that we must stop breeding all together until the population stabilizes. As an expecting first-time father myself, I've always felt that encouraging folks to limit the number of kids they have, and stopping the social stigmatization of those who choose to not have children, has much more chance of success than simply demonizing those of us who do want kids of our own. That's why I was delighted to read Zoe Williams' blog post over at The Guardian, which takes the population debate way beyond environmentalism - looking at the contradictions between short-term societal and economic needs for a 'healthy' birthrate, versus environmental pressures for a drastically reduced human population. Maybe this is another argument for pragmatism when it comes to population?

"Like so many areas of green debate, this is an interesting question whose terms and parameters depend on the context in which it is discussed. In a conversation about the environment, it is taken as a self-evident truth that population has to slow. James Lovelock has been saying it for years. Jonathon Porritt made a brilliant case for family planning as a key weapon against global warming earlier this year, and the main dissenters were people who accused him of being a communist.

And yet, all debate about population policy outside an environmental context centres on very traditional concerns about what happens when the birthrate is low: dependency ratios scupper the welfare system; pensions have crises; longevity can't be paid for. When the UN publishes on the subject, it is with a worried eye on Italy and Japan, with their very low population growth and looming welfare disasters. When the EU published projections for 2050, in September last year, it was predicting rather sunnily that the UK would be in a good position thanks to its high immigration. This breezy notion brooked no caveat that the climate might have changed greatly by 2050, and we will possibly not be offering even the lukewarm welcome to migrants in the UK that we do today.

It seems to me this is yet another argument for a slow decent from the over-population cliff. If the shrill cries for 'zero population growth' were replaced by sensible and pragmatic advocacy for a gradually reducing birth rate, we could navigate a path towards a more environmentally AND socially sustainable population level.

All economics aside, short of nightmarish scenarios of sterilization programs (or worse) - it is hard to imagine a world where anything but a gradual decline in birth rate is politically feasible. And if it is not politically feasible, it's not practical. And if it's not practical, then it's not morally justifiable, given our urgent need to reduce our global impact.

But who knows - maybe I'm just trying to justify my own 'selfish' decision to breed. And let's not forget Michael Braungart's assertion that over-population is not the concern, design is. Feel free, as always, to continue the debate below.

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