Basic Stances — Social Organization: Education and Population (Part 4)

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.


Throughout human history, educational systems have been a reflection of their age. In feudal times, education was the purview of the wealthy and religious ascetics. With the invention of the printing press (first in China and then Europe), knowledge became more widespread as the barrier to access was now literacy, although monetary or spiritual wealth were still important predictors of education. Following the Enlightenment came the Industrial Revolution and the need for a uniform workforce of moderately educated people. Just as the assembly line and specialization streamlined the production of automobiles, our education system became a factory to produce good assembly line workers. Students learned from specialized teachers who taught the same class all day to different cohorts. Instead of encouraging creative thinking, the education system rewarded those who could most closely approximate an ideal: the most memorized facts, the most accurate math answers, the most reliable attendees. Schools trained students to perform repetitive tasks devoid of real-world applications, a necessary skill for the assembly line worker. Even the bells that signaled the day’s periods foreshadowed factory whistles.

For millions of years, humans and our ancestors have learned from the previous generation, but only in the last century have we had to suffer through an industrial education system. Hunter-gatherers learn by observation, trial-and-error, and one-on-one or small-group instruction. As agriculture took hold and feudal systems grew, most of the population continued to learn in these ways. Even the social elites, who were literate in math, science, and literature, were taught by tutors. This model of education continued into the Enlightenment, where individuals and small groups continued to learn from teachers in a two-way exchange of ideas. Industrial education is a one-way affair: knowledge flows from teacher to student through a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Humans have evolved to learn, however, in two-way interaction on an individualized basis. We are not cogs that need to be shaped to fit into an industrial machine.

Of course it cannot be denied that industrialized education has resulted in the highest level of literacy and great advances in every scientific field, however we contend that this correlation is not a causal relationship. Advanced education has always been the purview of the wealthy few. Even in the mid-1900s, the wealthy distinguished their status by having their children study subjects that cannot be of inherent use in an industrialized economy, such as ancient Greek and Latin. With a more broadly educated populace, however, those with a propensity to study were able to rise and realize their potential. It is not the type of education that is meted out in the industrial system that gave rise to our well-educated populace today, but the fact that it was open to everybody. Imagine, then if we were all given a chance to learn in a way that better approximated how humans evolved to learn.

As with the small-scale, local, autonomous communities discussed in a previous post, education might be reformed to provide an enriching experience without the industrial structure. Learning can be accomplished in small peer-groups, with students helping one another tackle the lessons taught by a dedicated teacher, one who is well versed in a variety of subjects. As students age and their interests become more focused, they might elect to study with a mentor with specific expertise in a more narrow subject. This is not unlike a master-apprentice system, but as education would be open to everybody, not just the social elites, it would not engender the stark divisions of the feudal age. Of course, each community should experiment with education so long as everyone is able and encouraged to gain basic competency before moving on to further study or training in a chosen area.


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 (United Nations 2015). 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 (1998 [1798]), 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. During the Irish Potato Famine, 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.

Spurred by books like Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968), many influential groups advocate for population control. The Club of Rome (Meadows et al. 1972, 23) 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.

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 [Editor’s Note: A new edition is coming out this summer]. 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 shorthand to see 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 Survival (Goldsmith et al. 1972, 257) 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. Additionally, social pressure has a large influence on the size of families and championing smaller families in communities and media would have an outsized impact.


Works Cited

Ehrlich, Paul. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.

Goldsmith, Edward, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence. 1971. “A Blueprint for Survival.” The Ecologist 2 (1).

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1998. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J. Johnson, 1798. Reprint, Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project. Accessed July 1, 2016.

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.

United Nations. 2015. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision: Key Findings and Advance Tables. New York: United Nations. Accessed June 1.


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