Only Population Size Really Matters for the Environment

Here’s a grim thought about the environment.

There is no way of life for humans on Earth that is ecologically sustainable for a global population of more than a billion. Our per capita environmental footprint doesn’t really matter at this stage.

If we retain our current population and return to a Palaeolithic lifestyle, we’re still fucked in the not-too-long run. If we quit having so many children and get back down to a global population in the hundreds of millions, it won’t matter any more how each of us splurges and consumes.

You don’t need to recycle milk cartons. What you really need to do is convince people to have no children. Two good ways to do this is to give all women at least a high school education, and to convince the Catholic Church that contraceptives are a gift from God.

The population will of course come down eventually. We choose whether this will happen by us not having so many children, or by billions of people dying catastrophically.

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68 thoughts on “Only Population Size Really Matters for the Environment

  1. I’ve known that I never want to have kids for over a decade, but I still can’t find a doctor to sterilize me. There are a lot of reasons not to have them – even more for me than most – but there is still so much stigma about it that doctors feel the need to tell me that I’m going to change my mind.

    It’s a bit insane out there.

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  2. Sharon, your girly gonads are hard to get at surgically. Popping a day-after pill now and then is far less painful and dangerous to your health than going through female sterilisation. If you settle down with some guy, have him tie his tubes instead!

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  3. Unfortunately, because of the dominance of liberal-left orthodoxy in world development affairs, to question population growth, which is overwhelmingly in the third world, is now RACIST. So absurdly unsustainable trends like Ethopia’s population DOUBLING SINCE THE 1980’S FAMINE, are ignored, not even mentioned.

    London Mayor Boris Johnson explains how the politically correct left, not the religious right, is the main cause of the crackdown on demographic discussions. (as the former, not the latter, runs world development programmes)

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/10/25/do2501.xml

    “As for the Left, they dislike suggestions of population control because they seem to smack of colonialism and imperialism and telling the Third World what to do; and so we have reached the absurd position in which humanity bleats about the destruction of the environment, and yet there is not a peep in any communiqué from any summit of the EU, G8 or UN about the population growth that is causing that destruction.”

    Here’s another article

    http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/africa-is-giving-nothing-to-anyone–apart-from-aids-1430428.html

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  4. Educate Third World women. In Sweden, women are now so busy having careers that the country’s population would dwindle dramatically if it weren’t for immigration! And I say that as a politically correct lefty liberal.

    Immigration, by the way, rocks. You should see my wife!

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  5. Carry your idea to it’s logical conclusion:

    Rich countries should end immigration. Not only does immigration increase their own population problem, it increases the population problem overall because immigrants tend to have more babies than people from the countries they came from.

    “However, the birth rate among immigrants can be even higher than in their native lands. Mexican-born women who live in the U.S., for example, have a fertility rate of 3.2 children, while the overall rate in Mexico is 2.4. ”
    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=11476

    Instead, you say “immigration rocks.” Really, how can you think this, if thinking is even the right word, if you believe that we’re overpopulated by a factor of 6 already?

    Coercive measures to reduce birthrates would be required. You don’t really think you’re going to convince every church or other religious organization and everybody to limit their fertility, do you? Not everybody wants your “education.” Even if you did, there are people who aren’t playing with a full deck who will have kids because they weren’t thinking about birth control in the heat of the moment. Voluntary population control would only select against people who practice it in the long run.

    If you think the brain is magic and not subject to natural selection, and people who fail to reproduce themselves will not be selected against, then you shouldn’t believe that there’s a long-term problem anyway because birth rates are dropping almost everywhere. Population growth would be negative in most of the developed world without immigration.

    Finally, you’d want to stop preserving human life that is unable to support itself. I’ll just quote Malthus:

    “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour…. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity…. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh corners when her table was already full.”

    Check out Garrett Hardin’s writings if you want to see the results of a serious person thinking seriously about overpopulation and what to do about it.
    http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/articles.html
    The results are not pretty from the point of view of a liberal, but then again, neither is overpopulation. I don’t see any way to escape his conclusions other than to bury your head in the sand and assume that everybody wants to be childfree like you, and that this trait magically fails to select itself out.

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  6. I just noticed that your mini-bio under your picture says that you have two children. Your education didn’t even work on yourself!

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  7. This reminds me of a story.

    A cruise ship full of musicians and their families springs a leak and starts to sink. Everybody heads for the life boats.

    Sting, Phil Collins and Bob Geldof yell “Save the children! Save the children!”.

    Lemmy, Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons snarl angrily in reply, “Oh, shut up. Fuck the children!”

    Michael Jackson squeals excitedly, “But is there time?”

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  8. c23: complex human behaviours, such as reproductive decisions, are not genetically predetermined. How many kids you chose to have is not, strictly speaking, a heritable characteristic.

    The simple empirical fact is that most people, when given the choice and the opportunity, chose to have fewer kids. Maybe not fewer enough to fall below replacement level, but certainly a lot fewer.

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  9. So true c23. Like most on the liberal left, Martin is incapable of taking what he says to its logical conclusion.

    So he’s for lower population growth but pro-immigration.

    He believes in evolution, except when it comes to things like IQ, sex, behavoural or race differences, when something magical called ‘culture’ displaces millions of years of selection.

    And I do wonder if he even believes that fertility is being selected for, which is a fact http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/10/britney_jamie_lynn_falsify_ste.php#more

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  10. It doesn’t defy logic. Humans can’t have an infinitely low calorie consumption, and calorie production can’t have an infinitely low environmental footprint.

    Where is the proof? I offer none. Have you any proof for the opposite assertion?

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  11. Why on earth do you postulate that it is impossible to have a low enough per capita environmental foot print to support the current number of people.

    You missed the most important word out – sustainably. Given that our current agricultural systems are almost totally dependent on fossil fuels and phosphates (neither of which are renewable), are rapidly degrading soils and aquifers, and are destroying habitats essential for biodiversity and ecosystem stability, I’d say that the burden of proof rest with anyone claiming that we can support the current population sustainably. We certainly can’t the way we’re doing it now.

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  12. Actually, it may interest you to know that most women don’t need much education as long as they have access to birth control and protection from men in their lives who’ll beat the snot out of them for using it. At least, my experience as a nurse suggests that’s the way it works. I never met a woman with more than 2 kids at home who really wanted to go right on having wagonloads more. It was her hubby in the waiting room who insisted on that (keep ’em barefoot and pregnant, you know). He was the one who had to be convinced, or he’d beat her brains in, educated or not. The women tended to think it was more important that the ones that were born be loved and tended properly. So even the Catholics used birth control when it was available and figured Jesus understood. Even if He didn’t, they were sure, Mary knew their hearts were pure.

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  13. Some years ago I advocated a total earth population of 100 million. My thinking was that everyone would live at an American middle-class level in terms of consumption. At the time the USA population was 200 million, and we were consuming a large percentage (80%, maybe?) of the world’s non-food resources. I figured that, with some ingenuity, recycling, etc., humanity could run forever on half the resources used by the USA at the time.

    I pictured maybe 10 cities of a million each; some smaller population concentrations, and a fair number of people living a rural life. Some sort of mixed means transportation system to link everyone to goods and services. No internet at the time, of course. It was interesting to think about how such a society might be structured.

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  14. (c23 wrote)

    “Instead, you say “immigration rocks.” Really, how can you think this, if thinking is even the right word, if you believe that we’re overpopulated by a factor of 6 already?”

    That was a tribute to his wife 🙂 If you had been thinking you would have understood. Immigration is very good from that point of view. A friend of mine once met a girl in the same class as me. She is 1/4 Morrocan or something, and his words were simply, “future looks bright for Sweden”.

    (Dunc wrote)

    “The simple empirical fact is that most people, when given the choice and the opportunity, chose to have fewer kids. Maybe not fewer enough to fall below replacement level, but certainly a lot fewer.”

    What opportunity and choice is this? I find it more correct to say that people make their choices as to maximize reproduction times quality. Sometimes it is right to have few kids with better prospects, and sometimes it is better to just try to make as many as possible. The point here is to highlight that we have to create the right conditions for the few kids choice.

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  15. > when something magical called ‘culture’ displaces millions of years of selection.
    > And I do wonder if he even believes that fertility is being
    > selected for, which is a fact
    > http://scienceblogs.com /gnxp/2008 /10/britney_jamie_lynn_falsify_ste.php#more

    But in the case of the Spears sisters, culture (= the idea that a girl has a moral obligation to take a lower middle class loser as a partner, spread by thousands of movies, Titanic being the prime example) has obviously defeated natural selection – wich would select for alpha males rather than Kevin Federline :-).

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  16. yay, i actually Found this post again! now that i know it is in aardvarchaeology, i can come back at my leisure. the problem of sustaining the old seems to be a big problem in countries like japan, and if you think this isn’t the case in america as well, then you’re an idiot. Baby Boomers will possibly take the economy with them when they go, a scary thought. After all, in the Great depression, what were the stats on the eldarly? I assume far less, both because of the time and also because there wasn’t a big boom in population 50 some-od years previous. that will be a big strain…
    It is interesting to note where the quiet dignity of cutting one’s culture off from caring for you when you get inescusable old seems to have vanished. Many primitive cultures had this in practice, and the lack of this selfless social conditioning leads us to the current delema.
    You may point out that there was deep reverance for the old in some cultures, nut the eldarly were very often rare due to conditions. They had wisdom and knowledge to impart, but even so, there was likely a point where they in sisted on putting their tribe above themselves. Feel free to correct me

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  17. Martin R: Didn´t you write a blogpost on a similar topic not too long ago? I know I have left on comment on this subject on your blog, but I couldn´t find it here among the comments..

    I think you happen to be wrong, but I´m too lazy to flesh out the arguments again, since I know they are somewhere here on aardvarchaeology already.

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