The Earth’s population ticks up every few seconds, as children are born at a faster rate than people are dying. The United Nations projects a leveling out of the global population at around eleven billion people in 2100.i In many of the industrialized nations, such as Japan, Italy, and Germany, populations are already in decline. In much of the global south and east, however, populations continue to grow. The number of people drawing on Earth’s resources has become a favorite topic among those contemplating the most effective strategies to survive in a rapidly changing ecosystem.
Just before the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) published his Essay on the Principle of Population,ii which states that organisms reproduce faster than their resources and thus populations are kept in check through miserable outcomes: famine, war, and disease. This fate can only be mitigated by lowering the birthrate through celibacy, delaying marriage, and moral restraint. In Malthus’s view, runaway populations doomed themselves to misery—it was their own moral failing. This idea might have remained harmless if it had not been adopted by the administrators of British colonies, who refused to provide aid when their policies created famines in Ireland and India. In Ireland, for example, the colonial administrators were exporting meat and grain from a poverty-stricken land while stating publicly that it was the profligate Irish who were reproducing beyond their capacity to feed themselves. This faulty you-get-what-you-deserve mentality pervades many of the arguments for population controls.
Today, books like Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bombiii spur influential groups to advocate for population control. The Club of Rome states:
If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.iv
They call for a population of around four billion people, realized through freely available birth control and an average of two children per couple. Their book, Limits to Growth, published in 1972, examines the interplay of population, agriculture, natural resources, industry, and pollution in great technical, if outdated, detail. A more simplistic way to think of the interplay of these variables is with Ehrlich’s I = PAT equation, where the human impact (I) is equal to the size of the population (P) times the affluence of the population (A) times technology (T). While it is not safe to quantify such qualitative traits such as affluence and technology, it is a heuristic device used to show that the more affluent and technologically advanced communities can have a greater impact on the environment.
An obvious step towards curbing our strain on finite natural resources would be to limit populations, but this can approach dangerous territory, namely eugenics and state-defined family planning. We are emphatically against the draconian enforcement of population levels. It is undeniable that a small population will have less impact on its surroundings than a large one, if per-capita use is held constant. On the other hand, if per-capita use is reduced, a larger population can exist safely. It is not for a few people to make this decision, but rather it is something that must be decided by each community: do you choose to spread finite resources equally among more people or fewer?
We would advocate for a stable-state population, but not by creating harsh enforcement mechanisms. Instead, we would rely upon a well-educated population to decide that having a modest number of offspring is the right thing for themselves and their community. Across the world, we see a strong negative correlation between female educational standards and family size: the more educated women are in a given society, the fewer children the average family tends to have. The Blueprint for Survivalv has a well-thought-out approach, which includes a public education campaign about the relationship between population size, resource availability, and the quality of life, as well as complete and open access to family planing information and contraception.
i United Nations. 2015. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision: Key Findings and Advance Tables. New York: United Nations. Accessed June 1. http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf.
ii Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1998. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J. Johnson, 1798. Reprint, Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project. Accessed July 1, 2016. http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.
iii Ehrlich, Paul. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
iv Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.
v Goldsmith, Edward, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence. 1971. “A Blueprint for Survival.” The Ecologist 2 (1).