I have written about the overpopulation crisis before, but a Population Connection webinar on July 13 by Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director of Population Balance, motivated me to write more. Her presentation, Pronatalism and Rapid Population Growth: Challenging the Social Pressures to Have Children, was excellent and informative. I will post a link to her presentation in a comment as soon as it is available. Even though this article draws upon some of the material Nandita presented, what follows reflects my point of view alone.
The United Nations issued a report this week that announces that the world’s human population will surpass 8 billion people in mid-November 2022. Think about it. Later this year, 8 billion people will be living on this planet. The age of the Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years, so we have nearly two people currently living and consuming resources for every year this planet has existed. That’s a sobering thought.
Powerful forces of ignorance and misinformation are at work today that prevent us from adequately addressing a number of critical issues that—if we don’t act quickly—will result in a serious decline in the quality of life for most of the human race within the next few years. Chief among these is overpopulation, which is the primary driver of most of the other problems we are facing (climate change, environmental degradation, the decline in biological diversity, conflict over resources, and so on). Rather than feel powerless, or resign ourselves to a dystopian future, or take false solace in an afterlife that doesn’t exist, we must act. That is the only moral choice, and it gives our life meaning. What kind of a world do we want for ourselves and future generations? We must work towards building that world, no matter how difficult or protracted the effort.
As it is, we have commodified every possible part of the natural world to meet our insatiable needs. What could possibly go wrong?
The rapid increase in human population during the past couple of centuries is not normal. The Earth’s resources can sustain a world population of around 3 billion indefinitely, but we exceeded that limit in 1960. Since then, we have been living on borrowed time, all of us. And the debt is coming due. Techno-optimism isn’t going to save us.
The only humane way to get us back to 3 billion people is to reduce the birth rate. Having one child or none at all has to become the new normal. But the many facets of pronatalism are getting in the way of that.
Pronatalism is the idea that having children is both expected and a purely personal act.
Having children should never be incentivized . Many of us are ill-suited to be parents, and certainly living a deeply fulfilling life of great value to society does not depend upon bringing children into the world or child-rearing. And for those of us who do want children and are likely to be good parents, why not have one child, and no more?
Every child should be wanted, and born into a nurturing environment. Did you know we spend more money on imprisonment than we do on education in the U.S.? The right to contraception (including permanent contraception) and, yes, abortion are deeply personal human rights that must not be taken away by anyone. The idea that an embryo or fetus is somehow equivalent to a fully-formed human being is the opposite of rational: it is irrational. Many who oppose abortion do so for religious reasons. And such irrational considerations have no place in law or governance. Unfortunately, for many, religion is a “gateway drug” that predisposes one to holding other beliefs and opinions that are not supported by a shred of evidence. This is dangerous in the extreme.
The idea that having children is a purely personal act is also wrong. If you have more than two children, then you are directly contributing to unsustainable population growth and a certain increase in human suffering due to that growth. We talk the big talk about “personal freedoms” in this country, but almost never about “societal responsibilities” that must put limits on those freedoms. Freedom without responsibility is selfishness, plain and simple.
There are a number of pronatalism pressures that must be effectively countered. These include cultural pressures (e.g. “when are you going to get married and have children?”), religious pressures (e.g. more followers, “believers” vs. “non-believers”), economy-driven pressures (e.g. more consumers and workers), and political pressures (e.g. more taxpayers, more soldiers to fight in our endless wars).
“Baby-bust alarmism” is often in the news, and must be countered wherever it occurs.
And then there’s “great replacement theory”, which is the idea that “our” people are soon going to be outnumbered by other, less desirable, people. There’s an inherent racism in this idea. Often, people who sound the “underpopulation alarm” are really talking about underpopulation of white people.
We certainly have our work cut out for us, but we don’t have to change the minds and hearts of everyone to save humanity and our natural world. We only need to reach a critical mass of enlightened individuals to effect real and lasting change. And that may be a lot fewer than you think.
The greatest legacy we can leave our children is fewer children.