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A Case for Addressing Population

Garrett Fisher
September 19, 2020

In my October 5, 2013 article “The Food, Water, Energy, Carbon, and Money Equation,” I laid out the basis that we as a human race are effectively running into the Malthusian Trap, though we do not know it. The Malthusian Trap was postulated centuries ago and stipulates that population growth rates would inevitably face a limit, which is the ability to grow adequate food to sustain the amount of people on the planet. It seems that we have evaded the Trap on the surface, as we have increased crop yields per acre while feeding (at least enough to survive) more billions of humans than we expected. In that article, I pointed out that we are hitting the Trap when one evaluates the long-term sustainability of underlying resources necessary to produce said food. If we are reaching into resource stocks that represent stored (and limited) resources, then we are punting the food problem into a water, energy, carbon, and money equation.

For example, if we extract and deplete aquifers in semi-arid regions to increase food production, we appear to have solved the Malthusian Trap. However, we have merely shifted it to a water problem, itself now in a “Trap” situation in that water stores would eventually deplete, and the Trap would reassert itself, now in a worse situation (with less stored water and more people to feed). Enter desalination and now the problem is punted to using high energy, which likely comes from fossil fuels in one way or another, which becomes a climate change problem (eventually threatening food production in a vicious circle).

One thing I did not do in that article was address population. Sure, I stated it would help to place some sort of agreed upon and sustainable limit on explosive population growth; yet I punted as existing political and global human rights institutions are still fighting against the atrocities of early 20th century Western eugenics and present authoritarian regimes (China’s “one child” rule, for example). At the time, it was almost unmentionable to bring up the idea that we have overpopulated the earth. Now, some seven years later, it can be mentioned, though it is relatively outlying to find popular support to anything other than a philosophical debate.

Seven years has also revealed inadequate progress toward a carbon free society. Total emissions continue to grow while carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, with the most powerful nation on earth taking the position that climate change is a hoax. To whatever extent transitions to carbon neutrality are possible, now they come with significant adjustment and cost, all the while advanced western nations cannot even produce budget surpluses, under a fossil fuel economy and before COVID-19 wrecked their economies. Unless political will increases sufficiently to solve the problem, then the problem will continue with incremental and market-based slow adjustments.

At the same time, these wrecked Western economies are built upon continuous growth models. There is enough pain and dysfunction for a once-in-a-generation dislocation politically resulting from the current economic blow; to expect these enfeebled economies to take on the burden of the future of our environment is a costly proposition. While it is in theory possible that, from the depths of despair, significant change could happen, it is also likely that current systems will double down to rescue the economy.

It is my view that, if one calculated the total energy necessary to operate the world as it is, away from fossil fuels, the electrical demand would be astronomical. Daily barrels of oil pumped prior to COVID-19 was in the range of 100 million barrels per day. To be in a completely carbon free society, we would have to be able to generate, store, and distribute enough electricity to replace that oil. Every car, truck, airplane, ship, building, city, and nation would have to produce the sum total of all energy used from renewable sources and, which is much more, grow with the increasing and developing population of the world. To be fair with carbon accounting, we could produce enough carbon that would be consumed by natural carbon sinks, though I think presumptions that carbon zero is requires make sense in light of having to mitigate expected runaway feedback loops.

Up until the 1960s, the enemy of the development of mankind was the raw and wild wilderness. Our world around us was harsh, and “progress” was considered the subduing of these threats, settling of frontiers, along with extraction of resources that were present, in order to sustain human life. We realized more than a half century ago that we ought not to treat our environment like an enemy. That mentality existed alongside a growth-oriented model.

Economies are built to function on growth. At the same time, it was considered virtuous to offer the increasing wealth of industrial production to society. Heat, food, healthcare, home size….all of these things are the daily struggle for the average person, even in the United States, to provide for. For the developing world, it is a day-to-day cycle of survival for billions of people, where the number one issue is a lack of resources. Couple growth-oriented economies, a battle against the elements of the earth (as mentioned existing before the 1960s), extraction of resources, and increases in technology, and it is no wonder that we see it is virtuous and good to produce more things so that life can improve for billions of people.

The problem is that production of things to lift the tide of quality of life for the developing world, alongside an increase in wealth and consumption in the developed world, is the very recipe that is choking our atmosphere with carbon. The Malthusian Trap, on a mass scale, has devolved from an issue strictly producing food to the game of whack-a-mole that is our global economic order. The mole that is rearing its head is the carbon emissions from our present system, and we seem to be unable or unwilling to whack it. When we try, another mole pops up, exposing that the system is inherently unstable as is.

It is my position that we should normalize discussions around population. I am, in effect, saying that we cannot solve the game of whack-a-mole, but perhaps we can make the moles small enough that we can manage. When aggregating the sum of resource categories for which we struggle: carbon, water, food, energy, poverty, and economic growth, we find that the current system cannot meet the needs of the global human family on even a lower-middle class American standard; the resource consumption would simply be profoundly excessive. To reduce our population or address the factors behind its growth would be an investment in the long-term sustainability in our society. Alongside whatever incremental technological solutions we would devise, changes in our routines and economies, and other adjustments, we would have the added benefit of a smaller society (or one that grew less), which would allow us to get closer to a goal of a planet free of poverty while not destroying our habitat in the process.

Most population growth is in the developing world. The single largest factor in third world societies for having large amounts of children is to ensure that the parents have someone to care for them in old age. Factoring that girls would get married off to other families, some children might die, and remaining males could handle the obligation, the demographic answer is to produce far too many children than otherwise necessary to maintain the species. In effect, the problem is that of old age care and a pension, and in these societies, that is done through large families. These large families, in turn, directly contribute to the problem of more resources that must be consumed, which will eventually translate into a standoff between the climate and poverty, with all roads inevitably pointing to poverty for many (poverty from climate change or poverty from resource austerity trying to mitigate climate change).

Current social and political norms are a result of failed experiments to discourage procreation. Humans have a natural interest in it and will attempt the act countless times for pure pleasure. When governments apply penalties and draconian measures to discourage such outcomes, the result is a human rights disaster. If we try more contemporary measures, such as financial penalties if procreation exceeds a certain number of children, we are effectively burdening the child with the problem. It has long been proven that anything that affects health, nutrition, and education during childhood is something that will last for the lifetime of that person, falling indirectly back on the society in which we live. To impose financial disincentive after having too many children on that parent, at the time of childbirth, is effectively to send a bill to that child, which blows back on society.

That poses the question: what to do about the procreation problem? A friend posited a notion as follows. Wealthy countries could subsidize a program in the third world where a social security system is formed. If procreation exceeds a specified amount then that social security benefit for the parent is reduced, eventually landing at zero. If no children are produced, it would be higher. The reward system would be delayed until old age, when it is needed, and it would directly solve the problem that is driving such high reproduction rates in the developing world. I personally think it ingenious.

However, it does expose a very interesting problem. We would be asking the Western, developed world to subsidize the care of the elderly in other countries. The problem is, our current social security systems are bleeding red and marching toward insolvency, while no political will exists to solve the problem. It is helpful to understand how these systems are set up in order to understand why solving them is unpalatable.

In the case of the United States, it is an illusion that a person pays into the system and the money is saved or reserved for later use. While benefits are calculated based on the person’s working contribution (as are most systems in the Western world), those tax payments during the lifetime of a worker are directed to pay for the retirement pensions of current retirees. When the time comes for the worker who paid in to collect, he or she will be dependent on the next generation of workers to pay for it. That is all well and good, except birth rates have been declining in the United States and Western world, which is leaving these systems soon to be insolvent, requiring significant adjustments that nobody wants to make. While we may sneer at the developing world with its large families to care for old age, our current “developed” systems function the same way.

If the Western world has not devised how to run a pre-COVID, fossil fuel, non-explosive birth rate country without incurring general fund deficits and pension system deficits, how can we expect the developing world to sign on to this model? We haven’t even figured out how to live under our wealthy system which is ostensibly unsustainable when it comes to planetary resources. At the same time, we consider it virtuous to “develop” the developing world, by offering them a better quality of life, which invites them into the fold of a greater crowd of humans that consumes more resources per capita than the planet could possibly produce.

I espouse this notion as yet a further collision in the game of whack-a-mole. Reducing the population over time in a friendly and collaborative fashion is the most guaranteed way to reduce strains on the planet. Yet, a mole appears in our old age pension and care schemes, tacked on to an ever-growing bill for an ailing economy, one we wish to burden with additional transition issues as we navigate toward changed and carbon-free economies.

I contend that technology will likely be a solution, though that technology produces yet another mole, one that has already begun to appear: job redundancy because of automation. Machines can do many things for us and possibly carry some of the burden we wish to place on our society as we collapse birth rates from expansion to slow attrition while simultaneously hoping to lift the quality of life of everyone on the planet. We would have to couple these changes with a significant rethink of our labor and economic model, as the march toward automation continues to tear a wider hole in our existing Western model.

While the game of whack-a-mole seems endless, it is important to recognize where in the position of human history we live in. Roughly 150 years ago, the light bulb was invented, and telecommunications was getting started. Now, I am writing on a machine that is 8 years old and has computing power we would have only dreamt of 25 years ago. In that same period, we have fought the largest wars known to man, developed and detonated nuclear technology, flew the first little airplane, went to space 50 years later, and increased the population seven-fold. We have crossed so many frontiers in such a short period of time that it is almost mind bending if one compares it to the persistent, ignorant, filthy, painful, and miserable problems that lingered for millenniums as we lived in feudal and tribal societies. If we can leap from such simplicity to such immense complexity in relatively short order, then we likely can address population, resource consumption, and rethink of our automation and labor models. It will just require a comprehensive understanding of the entire game of whack-a-mole that we are currently playing.