Sunday, November 1, 2015

On Population Control and Freedom at Any Cost

China has officially ended its one-child policy, and the New York Times argues against any similar policy ever existing again.
The Chinese government’s decision to end its draconian one-child policy is a pragmatic economic move, but it’s hardly sufficient. The government continues to control personal freedom by limiting the number of children a couple can have to two, an abhorrent policy that no nation should have.
The editorial talks about limiting freedoms like it's the worst possible action, but there are far worse consequences if we don't. If no nation should limit their population, then we'll have some bigger problems in our hands. We have to begin to control our population, and asking people nicely isn't going to do squat! I explained the logic behind this a whole other blog ago. Most of us just aren't made to care about the entire world, so the masses have to be forced to do what's right for the greater good.

In my school board, they've implemented a 75/5 paper reduction policy starting a year ago: we're to decrease paper use by 75% within the next five (now four) years. Stats were run, and I tried to convince the keeper of the numbers to accidentally leak them - or, better, openly post them and warn that updated numbers will be posted quarterly.  He already suggested that we limit printing to 600 pages/year, and there was an uproar. With stats in hand, he's clarified that most people are doing that already, but a few - about 10 in 80 teachers - are way, way above those numbers. Unfortunately he's not quite comfortable posting those names yet, but I think it's the only thing that will work.

As I walked out of that paper meeting, another teacher said we'll never get teachers to do this - even with on-line resources in our back pockets - literally. But back in the day when I started teaching, we rarely photocopied anything because we had one mimeograph machine (Remember smelling the paper to get a buzz?), and it took forever to make copies. We got by without copies and without computers. So it's entirely possible to reduce paper use, but the masses won't do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It won't happen until it's forced to happen. People will complain for a couple years because change is hard, but then they'll get used to the new rules, and life will go on with a few more trees in the ground (and more money at the board office).

If we don't create some rules around population, it will be truly disastrous. Suzuki illustrates that here:

After reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, I summarized his research on the reality of not having any pro-active population control:
Diamond moved on to collapse through genocides with a caution that it's not enough to increase food production to feed the world; we must simultaneously rein in population growth (312). Many genocidal studies focus on ethnic hatred as the catalyst that must be prevented, but Diamond points out the real problem is typically over-population of an area. He looks at Rwanda in which, in 1993, 40% of citizens were living below the poverty level, and 100% of 25-year-old men were still living at home unable to live on their own or start their own families. ”It is not rare, even today, to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources" (326). Population pressure, the strain of hunger is the powder in the keg, and the ethnic division was the match. “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs” (328).
It seems pretty clear that either we can choose to allow genocides to reduce populations, or we consciously prevent more children from being born. I think we'd all like to choose that second option... except when it directly affects us, which is much of the time.

The reality is that if we want to have a healthy planet for our grandchildren to live on, we have to stop having so many grandchildren. We have to spread the word to anyone from 15 to 40 to have fewer children, and from 40 up to tell their children to stop having children at all, or maybe to have one among the lot of them. I have three kids, and, so far,  I've convinced two of them not to have any kids. But intelligent friends my age laugh at this suggestion. They just don't believe this is a real problem that they need to actually act on in any real way. So we need something else to get us going.

We could try incentives, and I suggested to my grade 12s that we offer free education in exchange for voluntary permanent sterilization. We'd have to do it when they're 18-20, before they get a strong biological urge to reproduce. It's young for them to make such an important decision, but that's the point. I think it's the only time we could conceivable (ha!) convince people to willingly give up their right to have children. They pointed out that if we tie incentives to university, then we might reduce population in the smartest group of people and potentially end up with an Idiocracy:

So that plan might not work.

We need to change our entire mythology around freedom in order to survive another couple generations. We need to stop thinking that freedom should come at any cost. I said as much after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. In that film, the bad guy rationed water, and our hero opened the valves for all to drink freely. Fast-forward twenty years, and we'd see the fatal short-sightedness of that style of leadership.

We're back to Plato's Republic where control = freedom, except it doesn't have to turn out like 1984 or a Nazi regime. Quite the opposite. We can have a very transparent government explain the consequences of our actions and suggest a series of reforms that limit our reproductive freedoms. We can be asked to vote on the best method of limitation, but we have to limit it in some way. In Canada, we're happy to limit the freedom to buy automatic weapons and the freedom to elicit others towards hatred of an identifiable group of people. We force teenagers to go to school against their will if necessary. We've banned the sale of sugary foods in schools, and some cities have successfully banned water bottles. Now can we learn to recognize the wisdom of limiting our freedom to reproduce even though it fights against a significant biological instinct? That's the question this generation must answer. Immediately.

But what about our pensions and jobs and the economy? We can't have an economy without a tolerable planet to put it on. It's too late to look on this as a 50/50 choice. Environmental legislation has to win or else we all lose.


  1. Marie, we just don't get it. We fail to understand how powerfully interwoven are the major and existential challenges that confront Earth today. Climate change, the freshwater crisis, overpopulation, over-consumption of the Earth's resources, the devastation of our marine and terrestrial biodiversity and ocean acidification are the most significant of these threats. To the extent we address these at all, it's invariably in isolation. We think we can respond to climate change without addressing overpopulation and over-consumption. Can't be done. Won't work.

    It took me some time to realize that we're slavishly bound to a number of models of organization that are inherently suicidal: 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics. Those all lost their utility in the early 70s when our population reached around 3.5 billion and began exceeding the Earth's environmental carrying capacity. Before long these organizational modes transformed into the seeds of our destruction.

    There is a way out. Paul Craig Roberts discusses it in "The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism." Another is Herman Daly's economic treatise, "Beyond Growth." They both argue for a rapid change to 'steady state' economics. Even Adam Smith in his 1776 "The Wealth of Nations" warned that exponential growth would cease to benefit mankind and that its shelf life was about two centuries. Neoliberals always ignore that part.

    We're all hoping for great things at the December climate summit in Paris but it's hard to imagine a meaningful result that can operate in a vacuum of responses to these other, equally dangerous challenges.

    1. I'm dragging my daughter to the march in Ottawa for this one. I'm not convinced marches do any good in solidifying political will, but they help me feel like I've done more than sitting at home fretting.

  2. This is one of the most disturbing well-meaning posts I've ever read. It's one thing to be an advocate for affordable and accessible birth control, it's a whole other thing to talk about population control and sterilizing people. Did you know that in the 50s and 60s in the US North Carolina had a "Eugenics Board"? I can't find images of the brochures anymore but on them were phrases like "North Carolina offers its citizens protection in the form of selective sterilization" and "The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women". How would you chooses what incentives to offer? Shave some years off a prison sentence? Offer a lump sum payment? Free education? No matter what you do it's going to mean the poor and disportionately minorities will get sterilized. It's not a good idea to even entertain. The truth is progress is a form of birth control. As a country becomes more developed and it's population more educated it's birth rate declines. In fact in Japan where old people never die (slight exaggeration) it's a big problem. They have massive debts and massive entitlements and not enough workers in the pipeline (ie the extremely low birth rate) to get the production they need to sustain everything. Every developed nation with massive entitlements and a low birth rate is going to go through the same thing.

    I do have a suggestion for you. Donate to Vasalgel. It's a male birth control shot that is reversible and last for what they hope is 10+ years. Because it's a one time shot that will be incredibly cheap (the say the doctor visit will probably cost more) no big pharmaceutical company can make much money from it. In fact it might eat in to their lucrative birth control pill or IUD market. That is why the research is being done mostly on donations. That's much more realistic and ethical (IMHO) than trying to convince teenagers to permanently sterilize themselves.

    1. I wrote off the university cash idea right off the bat. I have no idea what will work, but I think we do have to consider some limitations in some way. If the alternative is genocide, then limiting our freedom to have no more than one or two kids is the lesser of two evils. It would be handy if we could self-regulate, but that's not really our style.


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