Reader Request Week 2009 #4: Procreation

M asks:

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

I don’t think it’s as bad as that, personally.

For one thing, personally speaking I don’t think an aging population is a civilization killer, if for no other reason than that in a relatively short period of time the problem of an aging population solves itself (think about it for a minute and you’ll figure out how). Nor do I think that in theory an intelligently-handled reduction in population (via natural attrition through old age, to be very clear about that) would be a horrible thing; the problem is I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly well-managed, and indeed in the places where the populations are aging and the birthrates are declining there seems to be bit of confusion on how to handle the issue.

On the other side of the coin, while personally I think seven billion people is more people than the planet actually needs to have on it, there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion — if again the population was managed in a way that we don’t abuse or overtax our planetary resources. This would mean drastically changing how people lived, driving down their overal energy and resource use, vastly improving their reuse and recycling processes, changing how they eat and generally getting them to keep from killing the shit out of each other. But again, the issue isn’t whether it’s theoretically possible but whether people would do what’s required to make it happen.

Or to put it another way: the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living. And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of it overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible — which is a nice way of saying that your average American likes his big house and all his toys and doesn’t want to ditch them all to live a lifestyle resembling that of, oh, your average Kyrgyzstani (additionally, one suspects the average Kyrgyzstani would like to live like the average American, given the choice, which complicates matters).

This is actually something I think about a fair amount. Truth to be told, I personally have far more crap than I need and most of the time even want (thanks to being a packrat), and I live on a house with more space than I or my family use, on land we don’t really do anything with. I suspect strongly we could downsize — in terms of what we have and use — by a rather substantial amount before we felt a real change in our overall quality of life, and we could downsize rather substantially more than that before it became actually uncomfortable. This is relevant to the question at hand because in either case of a declining or rising population, a downsizing in things is likely to be a long-term result. In any event: I think the population issue really is a stalking horse for resource issues; those are what I worry about in the long run.

Nevertheless. As regards procreating, my thought on the matter is that if you are procreatively inclined but are worried about a growing population, have one kid; if you’re worried about a declining population, have two. Here in the US, the “replacement rate” — that is, the number of births required to counteract the number of people the nation loses from death, is 2.1 kids per fertile woman, so having two is doing your part, and you can assume other people having more, combined with the US immigration rate, will keep our overall population from decline. In other countries your replacement mileage may vary, but one or two is a reasonable rule of thumb here.

I wouldn’t worry personally about whether having even the one will send the overall world population spiralling into some sort of Malthusian nightmare, as US/Western world births are an overall drop in the bucket in terms of worldwide population growth, i.e., when the worldwide famine hits, it won’t be your fault for having a kid (it might be your fault for driving an SUV, however, to go back to the resource issue). But if you are worried about that but still want to have kids, well, you know: It’s called adoption, and in general I think it’s a very cool thing, and encourage you to go that route. And if you don’t want any kids at all, then don’t have ‘em, of course. Kids are a good way to have a complete life, but you know what, there are other ways to a complete life that don’t include them, too.

But overall, unless you’re having a dozen or so children, and they’re having a dozen (and so on), however many children you’re having is not really going to make a difference in whether civilization collapses. What will make a difference is how you (and the rest of us) manage the resources we have. The irony is, if civilization collapses, chances are very good the birthrate will go up as well. It’s what would happen after that which would likely constitute the tragedy. So, you know. Let’s work on that resource thing.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)

104 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2009 #4: Procreation

  1. @scalzi: “I don’t think an aging population is a civilization killer, if for no other reason than that in a relatively short period of time the problem of an aging population solves itself (think about it for a minute and you’ll figure it out how).”

    The rest of us get frustrated with them driving slow in the left lane and run them off the… Oh, wait. I get it.

  2. And the angry extremist childfree trolls appear in three, two…

    There is, I feel, a peculiarly self-centered aspect to this kind of question: if I decide to have kids, I’m dooming the world; if I decide to not have kids, I’m dooming the world. Dude. One (or two, or twelve) more or less kids to a citizen of a modern Western civilization really don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

  3. Does it make me a bad person that the problem of world population growth has never once entered into my decision making process about whether or not to procreate?

  4. I’ve been criticized for having three kids even though my three kids were adopted. The theory, as far as I can tell, is that my demand for more than one kid is encouraging women in China and South Korea to be imprudent about ZPG. Or something.

    Anyway, the whole issue is nastily intertwined with nationalism and racism now. Much of the American discourse on the subject is dominated by “OMG white people will be a minority” rhetoric. There’s no present danger, worldwide, of humanity dying out because of lack of births. There’s a good chance that some first-world countries will find that their politically dominant cultural group is no longer demographically dominant, but I’m not entirely clear why I should care about that.

  5. My wife and I had two kids before we brought up the “how many should we have?” discussion. Planned parenthood? Interesting concept. I decided that 2 was a good number, replace us both and be done with it (ZPG). My wife was OK with that. She would have rather had more but it was obvious I’m not a “baby person”. I don’t like ‘em. Kids are great, babies are a PITA. There’s no way to get from sex to kid without a baby in there somewhere.

    I’ve got a friend who’s the opposite. He loves the babies. Well, we don’t know if he’s actually opposite yet as the oldest of his 4 (yes 4!) kids is only 6. My point is, different strokes. Between our two families we’re sitting at 2.5 kids per adult.

    Then there’s the outliers; octo-mom, etc. They’re offset by people like my brother and his wife. No kids, no real plan to have any. All in all it balances out. But explosive population growth (or the inverse) make for great sci-fi (syfy?) foundations…

  6. One (or two, or twelve) more or less kids to a citizen of a modern Western civilization really don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

    12 kids per citizen, 24 kids per couple, won’t create any longterm problems?

  7. Big populations are a self-solving problem, to a remarkable extent, especially in democracies like most of us readers of your blog live in. Big populations are historically well-correlated with invention, including ability to deal with resource problems.

    So, I say, have a kid if you feel up to taking ALL the crying and worry … he might help get a better battery or environmentally responsible fish farms or reasonably cheap solar out the door to the rest of us. Or some part that makes one of those possible.

  8. It should be noted that, in terms of resource use and waste production, one child in a first world country is a much bigger deal than one child in a third world country.

    But of course, in terms of short-term quality of life, more kids in third world countries means more poverty, disease, famine, etc.

    That said, I think the solution to both of these things is simple: Reproductive choice and women’s education.

    When women are educated and have access to contraceptives and no social stigma for using them, populations naturally stabilize. Most women DON’T want to have tons of kids, but do so only because of cultural pressure or lack of comprehensive family planning education and resources.

    Greater education also means a greater overall quality of life.

    If we could just get the Vatican and other sexist institutions to stop treating women as if they are little more than containers to incubate the next generation, we’ll go a long way to fixing all sorts of global population and environmental crises.

  9. Arguably, if you’re in favor of stable population you should have three, since somebody has to make up for the bums having only one or none :). And I wouldn’t count on the immigrants picking up our slack forever, either.

  10. The question doesn’t matter– people of a mind to limit their reproduction will find their descendents outnumbered (vastly) by the descendents of people who didn’t. Assuming that the second group tends to think of larger families as normal or even morally good things, it seems likely they’d vote to overturn any mandatory birth control legislation, anyhow.
    You can probably fiddle with the system for a century or so, but there’s no way to fight the fact that people who breed more will eventually make up the majority of the population unless you start taking some extreme (and arguably immoral) culling measures. Eventually nature supplies the culling measures.
    What you do isn’t going to make an appreciable long-term difference.

  11. I was a big ZPG proponent, and I had definitely decided to have no children. It was a moral imperative not to contribute to the overpopulation problem. My two sons laugh at me regularly about that……

  12. Jon@8: Big populations are a self-solving problem, to a remarkable extent,

    Except, Earth’s population of humans have consistently gone up. Thus far, the only natural “solving” has been localized and temporary. There is nothing that indicates that the Earth has any sort of “self-correcting” means to compensate for human overpopulation such that it settles at a healthy value. That’s essentially arguing that Free Market capitalism, without any sort of restrictions whatsoever, will find the best solution via the Invisible Hand of Capitalism.

    No. It won’t. It will run open loop until it implodes, and then it’s too late to avoid the implosion.

    There is no Invisible Hand of Capitalism any more than there is some Invisible Hand of Population Control.

  13. @12: I’ve thought about that. I notice that birthrates are declining in educated, liberal areas, while they’re skyrocketing in areas that are heavy with cultural conservatives. All those Quiverfulls in Oklahoma are certainly making up for all the adamantly child-free intellectuals in Seattle.

    ..But are they really? I’m not so sure.

    The U.S. birthrate is fairly high right now, but that’s mostly a function of Gen Y (The Boom Echo) coming of age at the same time as Gen Xers are finally getting around to breeding (Interestingly, it seems that Gen Y is having kids in their 20s whereas Gen X has largely waited until after 30. Not sure what that means.) In other words, we’re having a small population boom, but it has to do with current population demographics more than an actual increase in breeding.

    Add to that the fact that religious adherence, and conservative religion in particular, actually IS declining. True that the Duggars and folks like them are trying very hard to breed their own armies, but without retention and recruitment in the adult population, they’re honestly not going to get very far.

    That said, I do think there’s some value in encouraging at least replacement rate breeding among educated folks.

  14. Thanks for answering my question, John! It’s something that’s been on my mind kind of a lot lately- not necessarily in such stark moral terms as I phrased it, but I think it’s interesting that doom and gloom seem to come from both sides frequently without anyone ever suggesting a reasonable middle path.

    I’m a young mom that likes the idea of having a big family, but I want to do it responsibly. Lately I’ve been kinda obsessed with the idea of a small farm- the sort where everything that is used, to the greatest degree possible, is made on the premises. That way, there’s no need to worry about formaldehyde shampoo, or growth hormone milk, or pesticide laced vegetables, etc. Of course, it also requires far more land and knowledge than I currently possess. . .

  15. It seems to me the population issue cannot be discussed without wading into the shark-infested waters surrounding Abortion; a topic that is perennial flamewar fodder.

    Suffice to say that I think China is an excellent example of what’s wrong with overt, government-run population control. Some of the tales of abuse and outright child murder that come out of China… Unspeakable.

    Which is not to say that the other extreme — recently exemplified by the so-called OctoMom — are any better. Runaway childbirth — especially when the parent(s) don’t have the financial means to support their brood — are a whole brand of Fail™ all their own.

    But introducing a Big Government solution seems like the greater of the two “evils” and I grow not just a little nervous when I hear or see Zero Population Growth zealots talking about how we need to ‘drastically’ cut our world population, “Or else…!”

  16. SO:

    “It seems to me the population issue cannot be discussed without wading into the shark-infested waters surrounding Abortion…”

    He said, dragging the self-same shark-infested waters into the discussion, before diving into them.

    I think you can discuss it without making it about abortion, actually, in no small part because that’s what I did in the entry. Let’s indeed avoid making them the issue here.

  17. Tal,
    For what it’s worth, gen-Y, college educated, liberal Christian here. I simply like being a mom, and feel like we have a great life to share with kids- not sure how much it does/doesn’t have to do with demographics. We do live in a fairly conservative area, though, just north of Austin, which is Texas’s big blue spot in the sea of red. Perhaps I’ll blame any statistical oddness on the mixture of the two influences.

  18. That said, I do think there’s some value in encouraging at least replacement rate breeding among educated folks.

    Or, you know, we could educate all those undereducated folks. I realize that’s not as exciting as positing the Elite Us needing to pass on our inherently desirable characteristics, lest we be swamped by the Teeming, Ignorant Unwashed Hordes who are breeding like bunnies. But education is a much better long-term solution than “Please, smart geeks, have babies! There are stereotypical lowbrow people in Arkansas breeding faster than you!”

  19. Nice, thought-provoking entry. What thoughts were provoked included the following quoted passage from Neal Stephenson, about one possible future.

    This is America. People do whatever the fuck the feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. And when it gets down to it—talking trade balances here—once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have all evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here—once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel—once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity—y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else ….

    Friggin’ prescient, that guy is.

  20. There’s only four things we do better than anyone else ….

    Man, you’re harsh. You decide to end the cut-and-paste there? without the four things we do better? I’m guessing they’re bad things, or maybe two good things and two bad things, but now you got me curious.

  21. JS,

    With due respect, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss the population issue without at least mentioning birth control and/or abortion. Others above me have already hit on education, contracpetion, planned parenthood… I think yah gotta at least admit that abortion is rolled into all of that, whether it’s named By Name or not.

    But if you’re saying abortion is “off limits” for this thread, I am OK with that.

    =^)

  22. SO:

    “With due respect, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss the population issue without at least mentioning birth control and/or abortion.”

    Leaving aside your “and/or” conflation there, there’s a difference between discussion these topics in a general sense and dragging abortion front and center, as you did, and going OH LOOK ZOMG WE’RE TALKING ABOUT ABORTION NOW AND WE TOTALLY CAN’T AVOID IT. Which in fact is not necessary to do. So let’s not.

  23. @10 Tal

    Perhaps we could have this discussion both without entering the shark-infested water of abortion, and without the misrepresentation of Catholicism and the Vatican as a “sexist organization.” I would venture to guess that you are not a Catholic, nor do you know much about the Faith and the reasoning behind its positions on contraception, abortion, women priests, etc. Since this isn’t really a forum for theological discussion, can we leave that out of it?

    That said, the above no doubt makes it clear that I am a conservative Catholic, I’m also the proud mom to 5 beautiful kids. I think Scalzi made a good point when he stated that what’s at issue is not really the numbers, but more how we manage the resources. That’s true at a family level as well as at a population level.

    Is it weird that a conservative, Catholic, woman also loves science fiction?

    P.S. College-educated, well-traveled, multi-lingual people can be conservative with big families too.

  24. My mum is one of 10 – 5 surviving to her mother, 5 surviving to her stepmother. My dad has a half-sister (maybe more but we don’t know). I have a twin sister, an older half-sister and 3 older half-brothers. My twin and I are the youngest, at 33. One of my half-brothers has two step-daughters and a step-grandson. My twin’s trying for babies of her own, but no luck now. And that’s it. We’ve gone, as a family, from 6 parents to 12 children, to 6 grandchildren, to 2 step-great-grandchildren, to 2 step-great-great-grandchildren. Our branch of the family? Not so big on the procreation. Given our family history, I find this whole topic fascinating.

  25. Here’s an additional thought:

    If population issues are a stalking horse for resource issues, I believe they’re also a stalking horse for cultural survival issues.

    For years there has been growing concern in Western Europe that unassimilated immigrant populations will eventually overtake native, less-fecund populations, thus many nations will see a cultural flip-flop and suddenly it’s the native population that’s in the cultural minority.

    When I was in Italy recently, this seemed to be a pretty active topic. At least up North, where there was a lot of concern about not only immigration from North Africa, but immigration from the former Soviet satellites. And yes, Italians of the north are somewhat known for being cultural and racial snobs, even with other Italians — (cough) Southern Italians (cough) — but I think the basic concern is valid: at what stage does Italy stop being Italian, and is there any problem with seeing Italy become a culturally different place than it is now?

    So when I look at the population issue, I see not only a resources dilemma, I also see a cultural dilemma. Because it’s not just how many people we have on the planet, and how much they consume, it’s what kind of culture(s) dominate the global population, and whether or not these culture(s) have value(s) that we might consider productive or destructive?

    Food for thought.

  26. @14 Mythago- There’s no implication of which course of action is “moronic” or “smart”, merely that population control is a variant on the tragedy of the commons, with living space as the common.

  27. @29 Sub-Odeon: To a certain extent population and culture _are_ entertwined issues, though, no matter which population we’re talking about. Lower population density tends to produce environments where personal freedom is greater and the need for coordination (and subsequent regulation of that coordination) is less.

    That being said, it still takes people to make stuff, so more people can mean richer, too. Manhattan’s richer than Wyoming…

  28. GL @#7: “12 kids per citizen, 24 kids per couple, won’t create any longterm problems?”

    I did not say that. I said that a citizen deciding to have one, two, or twelve more or less kids won’t make a difference. You then made the leap to everyone having twelve (or 24) kids.

    The 35.7 million households in the US with minor children have a mean of 1.90 children (per the US Census 2008 CPS). One person or couple deciding to have 12 children instead of 2 won’t appreciably change the distribution.

    “But what if everyone did,” you ask? But they won’t. That’s the point. The only way you get into a “tragedy of the commons” situation is if there are clear benefits for households to have a large number of children. A hundred years ago when the US was overwhelmingly rural and more children meant more unpaid farmhands, there was more incentive for families to have more children. Now, there isn’t – and the average US household size has declined by two in the last 100 years.

    So if you and your partner want to have 24 kids, and you have the wherewithal to provide for them financially and emotionally, go ahead. Rest assured that you are in a very small minority.

  29. @32- DG Lewis- You’re assuming that all reproduction is intended. Indifferent attention to birth control probably works as well as a desire to have a large family.

  30. i come at this from a global perspective, seen through the lens of an ecologist/environmentalist who has seen the world’s population DOUBLE just within his lifetime. i think we need to broaden the discussion to include a less anthropocentric set of assumptions. what is at issue is not simply what’s necessary or comfortable for the human species (resources, sustainable “harvests”, etc.), but what is required to act as responsible stewards for the planet. bucky fuller had it right in his analysis showing the overlap between exponential growth rates of human populations, and the exponential extinctions of other life forms and entire habitats. the wildlife and wilderness that existed in my childhood, half a century ago, have been decimated beyond recognition. that, my friends, is as important a loss as any you can name. try this on for size — in my opinion the planet can reasonably sustain roughly one tenth the human population that exists today. that’s right, 600 MILLION, not 6 BILLION. there are no easy answers to getting there. i made the choice out of conscience to have only one child, then got a vasectomy. that’s a start. but given the multiple interacting global degradations that we’ve set in motion, it will take war or famine or plague to reduce our numbers quickly enough. as to morality, where is the morality of fouling our own planetary nest, the only garden of eden that we know of in the universe????

  31. Cicada @30 – you can take out the ‘moron’ (some commenters here didn’t bother) and it’s the same old argument: certain groups have more children and will eventually swamp those that don’t. Yet it doesn’t really seem to work that way, due to the fact that human populations aren’t simply dropping balls in a bucket and tallying up who has more.

    Sub-Odeon @29: no, it’s not really ‘food for thought’ unless you have a weird, mutated brain that subsists only on paranoid cultural fantasies. The old They’re Outbreeding Us argument has been applied to every immigrant culture – yes, here in the US, and yes, to your own Mormon community – and yet, it keeps not happening. Population growth slows. People assimilate. They pick up some of Our culture and become more like Us, rather than overwhelming us with their sheer fecundity. They find that They have the same limits on childbearing (like, time, money, apartment space) that affects Us and don’t have quite as many.

  32. Cicada @# 33: I doubt it. I have no data, but I am skeptical that very many parents of 12 children would legitimately say, “We didn’t really want that many kids, but it just kind of happened.”

  33. DG @36 – not everybody lives in a country where there is affordable, safe access to contraceptives, and where women are allowed to use them as they see fit.

    rys @34 – You think the world population should be reduced by a factor of ten, but you were happy to add to it by a whole nuther human being? How is that responsible? And please, don’t tell me about replacement rate. If you think the world’s population should drop to 600 million, then you should not have added to the existing 6 billion at all. Bearing children in an overpopulated world is a selfish choice, period.

  34. rys @ 34,

    I’m confused. I know that the Holocene extinctions have been correlated with the rise of homo sapiens, but is it not true that the vast majority of extinctions took place prior to the onset of the Holocene? I’m struggling to understand why species extinction is considered a such a threat to humankind.

    Thanks for the education.

  35. Oh, have all the kids you please. Or not. It isn’t going to make any difference.

    Because of the robots. The horrible, horrible robots.

  36. If you choose to have children (assuming you live in a country where women have access to contraception), keep your family small (1-2 children is ideal and manageable, in my view). People who choose to have large families should be taxed or otherwise penalized for the extra children. Seems fair to me. (I’m childfree, incidentally.)

  37. Suzanne @40, other than a distaste for people so gauche as to pop out more than a discreet one or two, what’s the basis of lecturing about “keep your family small”? So that the chance of your running into them at a restaurant is lessened? Because only the lower classes have more? It can’t be a concern for overpopulation, because that would lead to “have none”.

  38. mythago,

    I realize it’s considered un-PC to suggest that immigrants can pose a problem in any Western liberal democracy, but the truth is, too much of the Islamic population coming into places like France and Spain and Italy, as well as other parts of Western Europe, wants nothing to do with becoming European. Even when exposed to all the lucrative benefits of a Western liberal economy, job opportunities, etc. This is a culture that — while bifurcated along various lines — still retains a great deal of aggregate hostility towards modern liberal concepts.

    Time will tell, but to blow the issue off as ‘paranoia’ strikes me as deliberately naive. There is no force that will magically protect Western European cultures from demise if a) Western Europeans can’t reproduce enough to at least make up their yearly losses and b) the increasing non-Euro populace actively works to fight assimilation.

    Cultures can and do disappear. Sometimes because of war. Sometimes because of disease. Sometimes because of colonization. Sometimes because they simply stop trying to defend their values and beliefs against a persistent or corrosive competing paradigm.

    This is why the kind of cultures that dominate our global populace are at least as important as the raw numbers of population itself.

    The resource management discussion becomes moot if the dominant culture(s) of the globe can’t or don’t have the introspective capacity for such discussion.

    We see that very battle taking place in the U.S. at this very moment. Those who believe in a Reduced lifestyle that consumes less, versus those who reject moderation and rely on a purely consumerist paradigm. Who will win this battle? It’s far from certain. Who is having more kids, and who is having more influence on the descendents of whom, and which culture more actively combats the other?

    Again, food for thought.

  39. @ mythago, if family sizes worldwide could be kept to that number from now on, the population increase would not blow out so much from the current ~7 billion to a predicted 8 or 9 billion in the near-future. Also I just don’t understand why some women want to pop out lots of kids (those who have a choice) :-)

  40. John, I would say that the problem with aging population isn’t that the people are older. Healthy old people are by and large just as productive as healthy young people. I think the problem is that medical science is currently in a bad place where we’re a lot better at keeping people alive than we are at keeping them healthy and/or productive. Hopefully the healthy and productive side will catch up with the alive side.

  41. A society of mostly old(er) (and preferably healthy) people isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it would probably be less violent (fewer angry young men around!).

  42. Wow…I couldn’t disagree with Scalzi more. On top of that, what happened to your usual good logic Scalzi?

    “On the other side of the coin, while personally I think seven billion people is more people than the planet actually needs to have on it, there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion — if again the population was managed in a way that we don’t abuse or overtax our planetary resources.”

    You really think the 1st world will lower their standard of living by half or more to do this? No way. And, no way, the 3rd world won’t try to become 1st world, so this isn’t possible. We will just blindly stumble along, like we always do, until we have to go to war to get enough natural resources. Of course, the war would help with population growth.

    On top of that you seem more confident that we could manage 25 billion well, but not manage a decent program to stabilize our population? I don’t think we would do a decent job of managing either (we haven’t thus far), but I think we should at least try to stabilize the population.

    “however many children you’re having is not really going to make a difference in whether civilization collapses.”

    This was what the mortgage brokers were all saying about the sub-prime loans they were making with false records. If I just do a few it won’t be a big deal. Of course, if everyone takes that attitude it adds up.

    “The irony is, if civilization collapses, chances are very good the birthrate will go up as well.”

    And, our life expectancy would smash through the floor.

    Obviously, I’m for ZPG, but we all know that isn’t happening. Thus, make sure you at least have some of your 401k in commodities for the future to take advantage of population growth.

  43. @35 Mythago- You might want to explain that theory to the Aborigines in Australia, American Indians, the Pygmies and Khoi-san and everyone on the receiving end of the Bantu expansion, the Ainu, and I’d throw in the Neanderthals but there aren’t any more of ‘em around. Why do you think there are people of European descent spread all over the world, but that for the last few centuries Europeans were breeding like bunnies on viagra and had the excess population to colonize?
    Human history is a history of mass migrations as one group gets well-fed, has bunches of kids, and starts to spread. We see the results any time we see anything that could be called a nationality or ethnic group.

  44. Chad:

    “You really think the 1st world will lower their standard of living by half or more to do this? No way. And, no way, the 3rd world won’t try to become 1st world, so this isn’t possible.”

    It’s possible. It’s not at all probable. Which, incidentally, I do say in the entry.

  45. The discussion of problems with an aging population or effective population control are fun but there are much bigger fish to fry before those problems are a factor.

    I can’t imagine giant corporations being at all willing to reduce their customer base. I’ve also heard economists say capitalism has to expand to survive. I suspect its crap but you can just imagine the predictions of total destruction they’ll be selling. Atlas will shrug eventually, and big business will be announcing everything’s fine all the way down.

    That sounds kinda left, but the middle seems to have moved over the years. Might just be perception tho.

  46. Suzanne @ 43.

    You haven’t even “popped out” one child, so how can you possibly speak intelligently on the reasons that some people decide to have large families?

    Why is it that “reproductive freedoms” only apply to women wanting fewer children? (Trying to lightly tread lightly around those shark-infested waters here.) Perhaps you loudly applaud China’s one-child policy, disregarding the human rights violations of forced sterilizations, forced abortions, and infanticide.

    There are many reasons that some women choose to “pop out” more than our allotted 1.8 children. Maybe I don’t understand why anyone would choose to have none. That doesn’t mean I go on the internet insulting those women.

    mythago: You’ve been getting some flak. As someone who has lived in a European country suffering from exactly some of the concerns you mention, I think you make some very valid points.

  47. mythago @# 37: Granted; however, I would note that the context has now progressed from “is it responsible for me to have children,” to “indifferent attention to birth control can result in large families,” to unavailability of contraception or restrictions on its use in some or much of the world, and I would posit that if the best argument people can come up with for a citizen of a 21st-century western culture to have few or no children is “there are people in the world without access to contraception,” well, game over.

    Suzanne @# 40, 43: If you’re going to use statistics to make your case, get the math right. If the population replacement rate is 2.1 children per family, then worldwide family sizes of 1 or 2 won’t keep the worldwide population to 8 or 9 billion, it’ll shrink it.

    And if you’re going to use the statement, “I just don’t understand why some women want to pop out lots of kids” to justify why families that choose to have more than one or two children should be “taxed or otherwise penalized”, even with a smiley face, people just aren’t going to take you seriously.

    Chad @# 46: “This was what the mortgage brokers were all saying about the sub-prime loans they were making with false records. If I just do a few it won’t be a big deal. Of course, if everyone takes that attitude it adds up.”

    Bzzzt. Logical fallacy, false analogy, fifteen yard penalty. All mortgage brokers had an incentive to falsify or ignore data in order to issue more loans (that they got paid for, whether the loan ever got paid back or not). Thus, it’s reasonable to expect that a large number would, and the “what if everyone did it” argument holds. However, very few people in a 21st-century western civilization have an incentive to have a very large family – unlike agricultural societies, in a modern industrial or post-industrial society, a large number of children is an economic cost, not an economic benefit. Different incentives; the analogy falls apart.

    That’s the basis of the overall induction fallacy as well – the “What if everyone decided to have twelve kids?” They won’t. There are strong economic disincentives in a 21st-century western culture to having a lot of kids. It’s expensive raising kids. It’s time-consuming. It restricts your freedom of movement. And when you reach your dotage, it’s not like they’ll provide for you – you’ve got a 401(k), right?

    Nonetheless, some of us actually like the little beasts enough to have them, and a few like them so much that they choose to have a lot. But only a few. And saying, “What if everyone did” is like your mother saying, “What if everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge?”

  48. Gosh, I don’t know that having kids is what you’d call a thought out and rational decision. I distinctly recall that during and after my wife’s pregnancy we both thought something along the lines of:

    “Well there goes all our free time and spending money. Why did we do this again?”

    We were going to have one kid, but ended up with twins. That might factor into my generally grim attitude about parenting too.

    They’re fun and all now that we’re past the pooping in the pants stage, the kids, but what a pain. If people went into the decision with their eyes all the way open the human race would be something like population 500,000. If that.

  49. On resource use and population, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind the process by which wealth is created: people create it. It’s the core economic observation that Julian Simon articulated so well: innovation drives wealth creation and only people innovate.

    The earth’s natural resources are finite, which means that if we use them continuously, we will eventually exhaust them. This basic observation is undeniable. But another way of looking at the issue is far more relevant to assessing people’s well-being. Our exhaustible and unreproducible natural resources, if measured in terms of their prospective contribution to human welfare, can actually increase year after year, perhaps never coming anywhere near exhaustion. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the effective stocks of natural resources are continually expanded by the same technological developments that have fueled the extraordinary growth in living standards since the industrial revolution. — The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

  50. Lewis: That’s the basis of the overall induction fallacy as well – the “What if everyone decided to have twelve kids?” They won’t. There are strong economic disincentives in a 21st-century western culture to having a lot of kids. It’s expensive raising kids. (snip) Nonetheless, some of us actually like the little beasts enough to have them, and a few like them so much that they choose to have a lot.

    First of all, I asked a question for clarification. You said “citizen”, and you weren’t really clear if you were talking about everyone or just one.

    Second of all, you say population cannot become a “tragedy of the commons” because there is strong economic disencentive to having a lot of kids. And in the same post, you say you like the little beasts, and some like them so much that they have a lot.

    And I will point out that the tragedy of the commons problem as it relates to, say, rhinocerous horn, has nothing to do with logic per se, people want rhino horn because the falsely believe it to be an aphrodisiac and are willing to pay to get that benefit, even though they don’t actually get that benefit. Which means you have a tragedy of the commons, that takes place through the medium of money, but is at its base an irrationally driven motivation.

    Just because there is no money to be had in having kids, doesn’t mean a tragedy of the commons problem isn’t possible. You can have a tragedy of the commons situation as long as there is something that the individuals see as beneficial to them, even if it isn’t something you can barter or trade.

    In the case of population versus resources, the benefit is generally the emotional desire to have children, which I don’t have a problem with, but which can become a drive that creates a tragedy of the commons issue regarding commonly shared resources on the planet.

    To think the process has to boil down to money for it to generate a problem is gross oversimplification.

    And finally, there are a lot of people who are handwaving this whole thing away with nothing more than the Invisible Hand of Population Control. That it will somehow magically work out. That the system is inherently stable. And yet, history shows absolutely nothing but steadily increasing population numbers. The planet has not seen a stable population for any length of time. And yet, folks insist that it will all just work out.

    It is little different than people worshiping the invisible hand of capitalism, insisting that the market will find the proper balance on its own. At the very least, some level of awareness is needed so that people don’t put their faith in some invisible hand of population control that doesn’t exist. It’s like the oil companies saying there’s no such thing as global warming and it’ll all just work out on its own naturally, when what is needed is an awareness that our actions today is what creates our future.

    And it isn’t like I think we need population control laws or anything. But I don’t think we need people walking around saying “it’ll all just work out on its own” as if there is some natural system that will tend to find the proper balance for world population. We’re all we’ve got.

  51. @54 “The planet has not seen a stable population for any length of time. And yet, folks insist that it will all just work out.”

    You seem to be saying that there’s no historical evidence to support the benefits of a stable population size, so we should have a stable population size.

    The only “natural system” in place to check population size would be natural selection (which is a brutal, utterly unforgiving system), but otherwise there’s no system seeking a proper balance because, well, because there is no way of defining a “proper” balance.

    As far I know, there’s no ecological equivalent of Pareto equilibrium. I’m professing simple ignorance here, not implying that there definitely isn’t. But even if there is, that would just be an equilibrium state, and wouldn’t imply anything about whether that state is proper or just.

  52. Greg London @# 54: I tried to tie my response back to the original question, which was posed as “what’s a person to do,” not “what’s everyone to do.” And I thought that my original statement – basically, that any one individual’s decision (or any individual couple’s decision) is lost in the noise – made it pretty clear that I was talking about “just one”.

    I grant that the “benefits” that can lead to a tragedy of the commons situation can be emotional, perceived, illusory, or illogical, not just purely economic. If the individual benefits – of any sort – are high and the individual costs – of any sort – are low, but the collective and non-allocatable costs are high, you can get a tragedy of the commons. So if there was something in our emotional wiring that increased the joy factor exponentially with the number of kids in a household, enough to make the quarter-million bucks fade to nothing by comparison, well, we’d have a problem, because once everyone had one or two kids, they’d all be having six or seven.

    But the empirical evidence is that this is not a general mark of human behavior. With no artificial restriction on the number of kids in a household in the US, the mean is 1.9. The mode is likely one (might be two, I can’t find the data right now); the “typical” household with kids has one or two kids, and the number of kids per household with minor children is some form of a power law distribution.

    Sure, there are some people who like kids so much that they’ll have six or seven or twelve or eighteen. There are many more people who like kids enough to have one or two or three. There are some people who like kids enough to enjoy the company of other people’s kids without having any of their own. There are some who really want nothing to do with kids at all.

    And worrying about the impact on the planet if you fall into the first category instead of the second, third, or fourth strikes me as remarkably egotistic.

  53. An interesting side note to population control; historically, any country with substantially more young men than young women, usually goes to war. China being in this situation right now. Obviously, it’s not the ONLY factor.

    Also, say we could support 15-25 billion people, what would our quality of life be? I can’t imagine it would be that high no matter how well we managed our resources. Some resources would be very scarce, like land. I doubt anyone who wasn’t rich could afford a house with 50 acres “in the middle of no where,” as there would be very few places “in the middle of no where.” Basically, we would be forcing everyone to be urban.

    @ DG Lewis
    I will grant you that my comparison was weak. I knew that going in, but it was recent and big, so I used it.

    My only point is you can’t say that 1 kid won’t impact the amount of resources we use, as this argument could just be used for every additinal kid we have. “What’s one more?” I just didn’t think that arguement was strong. Of course, my comparison wasn’t either.

    I do have a 401k and it is doing nicely, thanks.

    @ Scalzi
    I agree your entire post does imply it isn’t likely we all agree to cut our standard of living a lot. However, this one statement, “there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion”, is kind of what I got hung up on. Probably too picky.

  54. patrick: You seem to be saying that there’s no historical evidence to support the benefits of a stable population size, so we should have a stable population size.

    I was trying to say that there is meme to the effect of “It’ll all just work out naturally” yet there isn’t any evidence that any natural stabilizing effect actually exists. Which is sort of analogous the the meme that worships the existence of the Invisible Hand of Capitalism, when no such Invisible Hand exists.

    Lewis: So if there was something in our emotional wiring that increased the joy factor exponentially with the number of kids in a household, enough to make the quarter-million bucks fade to nothing by comparison, well, we’d have a problem, because once everyone had one or two kids, they’d all be having six or seven.

    If you insist on turning every argument into a Slippery Slope argument, then lemme know and we’ll stop now. The emotional drive doesn’t have to be “exponential” per kid and it doesn’t have to be six or seven kids. If every two parents had three kids, that would be enough to lead to a population problem. Yes? Stop turning everything I say into some moronic Slippery Slope argument.

    All I’m saying is that the drive to have children is not simply a monetary decision or we wouldn’t be having teen pregnancies and single moms raising kids. It seems to be vitally important to you that the individual decision to have N number of children should be removed of any responsibility of what the effect N number of children would be. And while I’m not looking to blame OctoMom for ruining the planet’s population, you seem insistent on absolving her of any contribution she might make.

    Do you recycle? Do you prefer to buy cars with decent MPG? Do you vaccinate your kids? Certainly, any single individual could NOT recycle and the impact on the world wouldn’t be measurable, so long as everyone else continued to recylcle. Certainly any single person could drive a hummer and leave the engine running all the time, and the ecological impact on the world would not be measurable, so long as everyone else drove 30mpg+ cars. Certainly, any single person could keep their child out of the vaccination program and the medical impact on the world population wouldn’t be measurable, so long as everyone else got vaccinated.

    And certainly, Octomom could have another 12 kids, and the impact on the world population wouldn’t be measurable, so long as everyone else continues having their normal numbers.

    But that doesn’t mean that Octomom didn’t have some impact or that the guy driving the SUV has some impact or the parent who thinks vaccines will give their kids autism doesn’t have some impact.

    The individual is not wholly responsible for the problems of the system. But an individual can contribute to making a systemic problem better or worse, and they are responsible for that.

  55. @58 Chad- I admit I’d personally be miserable with urban living (grew up rural, so having lots of people everywhere seems unnatural), but they don’t seem to be in constant horror in Manhattan with seventy thousand people per square mile. They even managed to have some green space at that density.
    Lots of land on the planet’s simply unused, but not unusable to support those high-density urban conglomerations.
    Mainly, the limiting factor is food…but who knows what hydroponics could do– more expensive and less varied perhaps than the current US diet is, but after a generation no one’d notice that, either.
    At that density, twenty billion people only occupy a square less than 550 miles to a side.

  56. mythago: to clarify, my having a single child preceeded my reaching the conclusion of 600 million being a sustainable human population on the planet, by about a decade. there was an evolution in thought involved. also, it is not useful to the discussion to start assigning mental states (happy to add to it) to the other person, much less placing the other person in convenient but inaccurate cubbyholes (selfish). a little more respect, please. it doesn’t hurt to ask before jumping the gun. my original statement remains.

  57. Here’s a website with a mission statement germane to this particular discussion:

    http://www.vhemt.org

    The VHEMT stands for “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”; I’m not sure I agree with its main thrust, but it certainly raises some interesting questions.

  58. Greg London @#59:

    Hmm. The original question was “what’s a person to do,” to which I responded, basically, “Do what’s best for your individual situation and don’t be so self-centered as to assume that your individual decision will doom the world to a malthusian downfall.” Numerous other people headed down the path of, “But if everyone had twelve kids, horrible things would happen.” And I’m turning everything into a slippery slope argument?

    The drive to have children is clearly not monetary. By the same token, there is no evidence of an overwhelming drive among the majority of the population to have a lot of children, be it monetary, emotional, religious, or otherwise. There will be some people who choose to have a lot of children. There will be others who don’t. At this point in the US, the average is 1.9 children per household with minor children, and this number has steadily declined over the past 100 years. People may be thinking that kids are expensive. People may be thinking that they’d rather devote their time to raising one or two kids well. People may think that they wouldn’t be good parents, or may simply not want to be parents. And, yes, people may be thinking that they shouldn’t contribute to population growth. Unlike the tragedy of the commons, where the overuse of common resources is the only downside to unconstrained growth, there are a lot of reasons why people may choose to have two or fewer children that are based strictly on personal “costs and benefits” – economic, social, emotional, whatever – and that, in my opinion, provide an intrinsic constraint on large family sizes at this point in western culture.

    I do not insist on absolving anyone of their “contribution to ruining the planet’s population” or of blaming them for it. I don’t feel it’s my place to blame or absolve.

    You use childhood vaccination as an example. Well, I got my kids vaccinated. One neighbor didn’t. Their son has Fragile X syndrome, and after doing a lot of research, they felt that there was some evidence that the vaccinations that were being given at that time could exacerbate his condition. They were willing to take the risk of his developing various potentially-fatal illnesses in addition to the societal impact of not having him vaccinated. I don’t necessarily agree with that decision – I personally feel that the evidence of vaccinations contributing to or exacerbating any kind of autism-spectrum disorders is tenuous and, where shown, very narrow – but it’s not my kid.

    Likewise, when someone chooses to have one, two, three, or twelve children, it’s not my life. And it’s not my place to tell them that their decision is right, or wrong, or is going to ruin the planet, or is going to contribute to the dying off of western civilization.

  59. Lewis: when someone chooses to have one, two, three, or twelve children, it’s not my life.

    I think you don’t quite understand what the word “Common” means in “Tragedy of the Common”.

    And it’s not my place to tell them that their decision is right, or wrong, or is going to ruin the planet,

    Except you’re telling people, go ahead have 12 kids, it’ll all work out. You even support it with math. Most people have 1.9 kids, so if you have more than that, it’ll all be fine. No worries. Personal responsibility absolved.

    you @32: The only way you get into a “tragedy of the commons” situation is if people get paid to have kids. Which means you’re saying you cannot POSSIBLY have a tragedy of the commons due to overpopulation. There can’t possibly be a problem because people aren’t getting paid to have kids. That’s the basis for you to say “Go ahead, have as many kids as you want, there cannot possibly be a resource problem due to population.”

    or is going to contribute to the dying off of western civilization.

    Yeah, slippery slope. I’m saying if you drive an SUV, you are not solely responsible for melting the ice caps, but you, as an individual, did make a contribution to that end. You can’t hear that without turning it into “Oh my God! Three Kids! You’ve killed the planet!”

    Either we’re having a serious communication problem, or you have a dog in this fight that you’re not mentioning.

    Given that you jumped in at post #3 with a boogeyman about childfree “extremists”, an attempt to frame a discussion of world population as “self-centered”, and an attempt to downplay that individual contributions to world population don’t amount to “a hill of beans”, I’m guessing it’s not a communication problem between you and me.

    How many kids do you have or plan to have?

    And do you think if you have “too many” that you personally are to blame for the entire world population problem?

  60. rys @61, respect would involve not characterizing anyone who has more children than you as “irresponsible” and making mother Gaea weep. Don’t take a swing at others and then cry no tagbacks.

    Suzanne @43, “I don’t understand why anyone would….” is not really a sound approach to global policy on any subject. That aside, if the world is overpopulated, everyone who can should have NO kids and should adopt. Saying one or two is OK is not a reasonable approach to overpopulation; it’s imposing a middle-class American norm and pretending that sensibilities are a substitute for reason.

    Sub-Odeon @42, “un-PC” is just the politically correct term for “bigoted and stupid”. If you were expecting the cry of “PC!” to be a magical talisman against criticism, think again. The same concerns about Those People you raise have been raised repeatedly, here in America, about every group from Italians to Chinese to Jews, and miraculously the same thing happens; there is friction, then those groups assimilate as they get a stake in their society.

  61. mythago: If you think the world’s population should drop to 600 million, then you should not have added to the existing 6 billion at all. Bearing children in an overpopulated world is a selfish choice, period

    slippery slope.

    mythago: respect would involve not characterizing anyone who has more children than you as “irresponsible” and making mother Gaea weep. Don’t take a swing at others and then cry no tagbacks.

    Responsibility means you acknowledge the effect of your actions on others. I didn’t see anything from rys about making “Gaea weep”, so I’ll consider that a strawman.

    As far as responsibility goes, telling someone their action has some effect on the world isn’t the same as “taking a swing at them”. You don’t recycle? That has an effect. And slippery-slopping that into some strawman boohooing about how I’m telling you that you’re making Gaea weep is trying to avoid the fact that your action had some effect, which means you’re being irresponsible.

    What the world should do on a systemic level is a different thing entirely. But individuals either are responsible for the effects of their actions, or they’re irresponsible and try to avoid acknowledging the effects of their actions, and strawman attempts to assign responsibility, slippery slope it when people point out the effects of their actions, and then equate it with “taking a swing”.

    If you have N number of children, you have some effect on world population for various values of N. The effect for any individual is small, but that’s how it always is for an individual in part of a larger system, and that’s how Tragedy of the Commons can occur.

  62. mythago: Saying one or two is OK is not a reasonable approach to overpopulation; it’s imposing a middle-class American norm

    It’s fricken math. 1 parent has 1 child => population remains flat. 2 parents have 1 child => population goes down. You want to turn basic math into some sort of american conspiracy???

  63. The math is a little more complicated than that, really. You would have to factor in changes in the death rate, age of parents, probability of child dying before reproducing, etc. etc. Reducing it to 1 + 1 = 2 doesn’t solve that kind of problem.

  64. Greg: Actually, my statement was “angry extremist childfree trolls”, with the noun in the sentence being “trolls”. There are also angry extremist liberal trolls, angry extremist conservative trolls, angry extremist green trolls, angry extremist industrialist trolls, and for all I know, angry extremist bacon trolls. I did not characterize all people who describe themselves as “childfree” as “extremists”; I predicted that John’s reply was likely to bring out the trolls who fit into the angry extremist wing of the self-described “childfree” community.

    Whether or not this has occurred is left as an exercise to the reader.

    Not that I owe you an answer, but I have two kids. And I must confess my wife’s and my decision to have two kids was based not on our desire to contribute to the management of the global population, but rather on our own self-centered, egotistical beliefs about what was best for us and our children.

    My point, which I seem to be failing to communicate, is that those sort of self-centered, egotistical beliefs have apparently managed to keep the mean number of children in US households dropping over the past 100 years, to where it’s now 1.9. If population growth is truly modeled by the tragedy of the commons, why has average household size been decreasing for the last 100 years?

    In Hardin’s model of the tragedy of the commons, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…” So if this model is accurate, the rational family would conclude that the only sensible course to pursue would be to add another child. And another… Alas, the observed facts do not conform to the model.

  65. Mythago,

    If you think I am bigoted and stupid, just say so. It would really help me figure out if this conversation with you is even worth continuing, or if you’re just being snarky and couldn’t care less about what’s being discussed.

  66. I’m glad CJ finally brought up the fact that “replacement” isn’t as simple as one parent having one child. That model assumes that you die the instant your child is born, which is obviously wrong. Instead, population continues to grow until and unless the number of people who die in an average year equals or exceeds the number born. And all your surviving descendants are a local net increase in the population for the duration of your life.

    For example, my parents had six children. Simplifying to only our family stream, that means there were eight people instead of two, for a net increase of six (not four as the “replacement” formula would suggest). One of my brothers died in 1988, bringing the total down to five. Then my sister had a child, who is (happily) still alive; net +6. My father died in January, but the population is still up by +5 from my family’s procreation.

    This means that people having their kids later would help the population problem, if practiced on a wide enough scale. My personal fantasy about this is an airborne virus that alters the genetic structure of the human race so that fertility commences at the end of biological adolescence (roughly mid-twenties), rather than at the beginning. (The bioengineering aspects of this put it firmly in the fantasy column.) I’m not sure if that by itself would cause the world population to stabilize or decline, but the social good of it is breathtaking.

  67. I am forced to agree with Xopher. If human beings were biologically unable to reproduce until their late 20’s — at the earliest — the net good that might possibly result is difficult to calculate.

    I got married at 19. My wife and I waited to have a child until I was 29. Was I ready or able to be a father at age 19? Hell. No. Was I far better prepared emotionally and financially to tackle the fatherhood thing ten years later? Hell. Yes.

    I know there are loads of parents who had kids early and embarked upon child-rearing via the ‘oops’ method, but I think most of these people agree: while they’d never want to NOT have that child, it might have worked out better overall for the family if that child came a little later in the plan.

    I also wonder how such a ‘fantastic’ change in human breeding would impact divorce rates, as I believe a lot of mid-life divorce results from people getting married young and having kids right off the bat — before they’ve had time to solidify the foundations of their couple relationship — and then by the time they’re approaching middle age they look at each other and go OMG who are you and why are we together, besides kids, again??

  68. Sub-Odeon @70 – when you throw around terms like “un-PC”, the kindest interpretation is that what you are doing is snark: specifically, saying that the people who disagree with you (e.g., me) have beliefs that are based in a hand-waving adherence to Liberal Received Orthodoxy wherein one must never, ever say anything bad about other cultures; and further, that you are courageously refusing to be sucked in by this “political correctness”. The unkind interpretation is that you’re using “PC” in the foaming-radio-talk-show-host sense of the word; namely, characterizing bigotry, xenophobia and nastiness as “political incorrectness” – ironically, itself a euphemistic whitewashing.

    I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were playing rhetorical games rather than spewing racism. But you seem completely unaware that the arguments you are making – We need to outbreed Them lest They overwhelm us with their furrin ways – are classic arguments used by xenophobes throughout history.

    Greg @66, if we need to reduce the population by a factor of ten, then having even one child is irresponsible. Period. You have one child, you have increased the world’s population by one (1). Even I can do that math. And Xopher is quite right; you’re likely, in the end, to add to the world’s population by more than one (because your children will have children), and you don’t subtract from the population until you die.

    rys initially portrayed his choice to have only one child as some kind of “responsible” act. In the face of his claim that we should have 1/10 the people on the planet that we do, that makes no sense at all. It’s like saying the planet needs less greenhouse gases, so I only own ONE SUV instead of two like you wastrels.

  69. @73- Mythago- Population reduction’s a matter of timescale here. If you need to reduce the population by a factor of ten right now…well, start spraying pesticide on the crops and wait a couple years. If you can stand to wait a couple of centuries, just lower the replacement rate to that one kid per couple.
    Remember, you don’t have to have a kid and die, you can have one kid every time two people anywhere die.
    Oh, and figure out how to power all those Japanese-style elder-assisting robots, because otherwise that one middle-aged adult is going to have a hell of a rough time taking care of his two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents, assuming increasingly good medical technology.

  70. Mythago,

    Your ‘kinder’ interpretation is closer to my intent, though if you picked up personal snark in that, I apologize. Because it wasn’t meant to be personal at you. Rather, I was acknowledging broadly that this subject is one of those “minefield” topics many progressives simply won’t touch candidly, because it’s too dirty and the conversation too often mimics the racist, jingoist language that many progressives detest.

    Perhaps “un-PC” was not the best way to acknowledge this discomfort, but I wasn’t sure how else to put it in so succinctly a fashion.

    Now, to address the “We must outbreed Them” stance. I am not sure I advocated outbreeding, where native Western Euros and unassimilated Muslims was concerned. What concerns me is that Western Europe will slowly find itself de-liberalized by a growing and sometimes aggressive unassimilated Muslim population whose spiritual and political leadership often vocally supports the “Islamification” of Europe.

    I don’t know about you, but when I think “Islamification” I think gradual melding of secular and Islamic religious law, the gradual stripping of women of all but their must basic rights, increased and sanctioned violence against non-Muslims, homosexuals, intellectuals, bohemians, and others who don’t conform to the conservative Muslim orthodoxy.

    And no, I am not gleefully predicting this. I hope very much that I am 100% wrong and that none of this comes to pass and that the Muslims of Europe become European in their political and social sensibilities. But the modern acts of terrorism and violence on the Continent — often by young Muslims who ought to already be assimilated — gives me pause. And with native Euro birth rates still teetering, it makes me wonder if this time the “racist, bigoted” fear is not a well-grounded fear. Because I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like what’s going on in Western Europe right now. It’s the first experiment of its kind in our Western history.

    If Western Europe is to remain European — politically and culturally — I think the native Euros will need to reverse the birth decline and at least work towards a decent replacement rate. Nothing will better preserve the Western Euro liberal culture better than native Western Euros having and raising kids. Children all over the world are the receptacles of their culture. Combatting the conservative Islamic influence in Europe ought to be an active fight, not a passive one where Westerners lean back and assume that the comforts and ‘leisure time’ boons of their society will automatically penetrate and woo the conservative Muslim populace.

  71. Cicada @74: The birth rate takes everyone into account. If the birth rate is 2.1 births per woman, that doesn’t mean that every family is having two children plus a forearm; it means that when you take into account everyone from the childfree Suzannes to the Quiverfulls, the average number of births per woman is 2.1.

    So if I want to lower the birth rate, what I should be doing (and encouraging others to do) is to have zero children. The more Suzannes, the more the average number of births per woman is dragged down below replacement rate. “One kid per couple” does not mean that if you have one kid, you’re an eco-breeder; it just means that if you add up all the births and divide by the number of women, you get 1.0. (Meaning you have a lot more people toward the ‘none’ end of the scale than the ‘Quiverfull’ end.)

    And you are correct that this is a timescale issue. That’s precisely why having even one is a selfish act; because over time, you have likely added not just one person, but a new line of (i.e. several) humans to the pool.

  72. Sub-Odeon @75 – apologies for the crosspost. But this isn’t a thread about Islam and cultural changes in Europe; it’s about the effects of global overpopulation. This is the second time you’ve tried to veer the conversation onto a different subject of interest to you – first abortion, now Euro-Islamization. If you want to talk about those things, then how about putting them in a Reader Request, instead of trying to throw gasoline on a tangent?

  73. @76 Mythago- Oddly enough you made my first point right there– even if the average is one, if some couples have 2 kids and other have zero, it’s still one child per couple on average…but the breeders are going to make up the entirety of the next generation. Those darn selfish genes win again.

    As for adding one kid equating to adding several, it would admittedly have to involve the child having its parents’ tendencies to small family, but look at how it plays out over time– if each couple has one child on average, the total population drops by half each generation, and since the elders can’t live forever, eventually drops to one, who then dies of old age. Continually averaging less than 2 offspring per couple leads to the end of the human species. This is not a long-term increase.

  74. Cicada, continually losing weight leads to death by starvation. So let’s not diet, because that would be fatal.

  75. @#80- Xopher. That’s not quite the right analogy. It’s more like, “We have a hundred people and enough food for ten– I’ll eat nothing while the guy over there has my share.”

  76. A few relevant points:

    1. The human population is not currently growing exponentially. Sure, it’s still growing rapidly, but the growth rate is actually decelerating, and has decelerated not just percentage-wise but in people per year since about 1989. The UN thinks population will peak around 9 billion in the middle of the century and decline thereafter.

    This doesn’t necessarily have a large effect on the arguments being made here. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are progressing naturally toward any kind of ideal optimum. But it’s something that few people seem to know–the population-bomb rhetoric on this often seems forty years or more out of date.

    2. The Eurabian Demographic Tidal Wave is often horribly exaggerated, and warnings of an Islamicized Europe need to be taken skeptically.

    3. In general, I don’t buy the claim from oversimplified Darwinian models that, because high breeders will outnumber low- or non-breeders in the long run, anything we do will still lead to a high-breeder world in the long run.

    For one thing, it’s empirically falsified. It implies that the human birthrate should be increasing, and it’s actually declining, for reasons that are acting on shorter time scales than a human generation. While childrens’ behavior follows that of their parents to some degree, it’s simply not true in the modern world that family size is mostly heritable and set in stone.

    Speaking more personally, my grandparents all came from fast-breeding conservative families and had large numbers of siblings by modern standards. My mother was one of five kids, my father one of four; I’m one of two, and my daughter is an only child. Some of my cousins have more children than I do, but the trend is clear. I suspect many of us here could tell a similar story.

    4. In terms of minimizing the resource consumption of the rich world, it seems to me that adoption, especially foreign adoption, is almost as bad as reproduction–you’re taking a kid who would have been benignly poor and turning her into another profligate consumer.

    This doesn’t usually strike us as a bad thing because there are other moral considerations in play. But those same moral considerations are in play when we think about raising the living standards of people living in their native countries.

    I personally don’t regard the Garrett Hardin-ish “the lifeboat is full–let the excess people die off” solution as acceptable. If it’s really the choice of “fouling our nest” vs. mass murder of billions or mass death of same by neglect, I’ll take the foul nest. But I think we have a responsibility to figure out ways to reduce our footprint on the planet without eliminating or immiserating people.

  77. Matt @82 – “benignly poor” is one of the best euphemisms I’ve heard in months.

    Cicada @79 – your genes are not intelligent. In a world of six billion people, the contribution lost by you or I failing to immediately pass on our genes is negligible. I’m not really following the “OMG BREEDER RACE” argument.

  78. @82: I agree with most of what you’re saying except for the foreign adoption thing.

    There may be such a thing as “benignly poor,” but it’s disingenuous to assume that every Westerner who adopts a child from another country is automatically going to turn it into a heavy consumer, or that the living conditions the child was in in the first place were environmentally neutral. Environmental conditions in China aren’t exactly the same as they are in Guatemala or Russia (to name a few popular countries for adoption.)

    Also, the equation just doesn’t make sense anyway, unless you’re going to argue that Western adoptive parents are somehow creating demand for foreign children such that the birthrates there will increase to keep up with it.

    Adoption isn’t like putting in a special order for a new product to be created for you. It’s more like buying secondhand instead of buying new.

    Think of it like being in the market for a new TV. Even if the TV you buy off Craigslist will be consuming more resources being used in your home than sitting at the bottom of a landfill, your purchase of it is still chipping away at demand for new TVs, which would, in their creation, consume more resources overall than simply re-using ones that already exist.

    Chances are pretty good that those “throwaway” children languishing in overseas orphanages are consuming quite a bit of resources and pumping out quite a bit of waste even where they are. Chinese children, for instance, are undoubtedly participating in the creation of vast amounts of pollution, given that country’s abysmal track record on that issue.

    Thus, if a Westerner adopts a Chinese child, it’s overall kind of a wash in terms of resource consumption and waste production.

    Besides, let’s face it: The issue of environmental protection has to do with protecting US. It’s about making sure our planet’s resources are healthy enough to continue to sustain a human population. And if that’s the ultimate goal of environmental action, then doing it on a micro scale–sustaining the life and quality of living for a poor child–shouldn’t be contrary to that goal.

    Even if the only benefit to upgrading the standard of living for these children is to give them a better education, the long-term effects will overall be better for the planet. After all, a considerable amount of environmental damage being done is being done out of ignorance and lack of other options instead of malice.

    Also, to address a few things upthread:

    1. I stand by my assertion that the Vatican is sexist. I don’t mean to imply that all Catholics are, but church leadership most definitely is. And its insistence on banning contraception is part of the reason that Catholic heavy countries, such as most of Latin America, have such enormous problems with poverty and lack of education. When your country’s age of consent is 12 because that’s when a lot of girls start getting pregnant, and they thus need to get married off to make them honest, something is seriously wrong.

    2. Mythago @21: Or, you know, we could educate all those undereducated folks.

    Why can’t we do both? I’m 100% in favor of mandatory public education, but getting that sort of thing passed to the point at which it will do any good is a well-out-of-reach goal right now. It’s far easier to raise the overall percentage of educated, non-superstitious people by breeding more of them at the same time we’re working on educating the chldren of the superstitious.

  79. #60 Cicada
    My point isn’t that people can’t live an urban life, it’s that an enormous population (15-25 billion) probably doesn’t give you a choice.

    Secondly, a few city green spaces is not in anyway equivalent to living ruraly, with virtually no neighbors.

    No way everyone gets corralled into one spot. And, I would be highly skeptical about the 550 square mile hypothesis.

  80. I’m very much in favor of delayed parenting as well. If I could be in control of the world, I would follow one of those old SF tropes. Mandatory birth control until prospective parents could demonstrate the ability to take care of their children well. That should probably drastically lower the population growth rate, at least for the short term as well.

    Not all young people are incapable of being good parents of course, but I doubt that many of them are. I’m personally very glad that I didn’t have a child until I was 34. By then, I had a much better control of my temper, and could be much more patient.

  81. CJ: The math is a little more complicated than that, really. You would have to factor in changes in the death rate, age of parents, probability of child dying before reproducing, etc. etc. Reducing it to 1 + 1 = 2 doesn’t solve that kind of problem.

    The math is simple enough that one can easily say that “1 or 2 kids is probably OK” is NOT some sort of American culturual empirialism going on. That was the context of my math.

  82. Lewis: My point, which I seem to be failing to communicate, is that those sort of self-centered, egotistical beliefs

    You really can’t have a straightforward conversation about this without carrying the cross of martyrdom, can you?

    the mean number of children in US households dropping over the past 100 years, to where it’s now 1.9

    Great. A lot of people are now recycling. If one person doesn’t recycle, it probably won’t have a major impact on the world.

    But it isn’t self-centered to bring up the issue of recyclying and the effects it has. And one doesn’t have to be a “angry extremist recycling troll” to bring up the effects of not recycling. And it is irresponsible to hand out the casual advice to people that NOT-recycling won’t amount to “a hill of beans in this world”. It only works if one person doesn’t recycle while everyone else does.

    There is a SYSTEM and then there is the INDIVIDUAL. Right now, in the US, the SYSTEM is fairly stable, though overall population is still going up. But what happens at the system level doesn’t mean that the INDIVIDUAL has zero responsibility, or that the actions of an individual has no effect on the system. It may be that the system can absorb it, but there IS some effect.

    I await your cross-bearing reply where you continue to conflate the concept of individual responsibility with personal persecution.

  83. Greg @88 – I’m not sure where you got “American cultural imperialism” from my reply to Suzanne. Middle-class bourgeoise prejudice wrapped in faux eco-concern is not “American cultural imperialism” since, presumably, people expressing shock that any woman would want to ‘pop out’ more than two are talking to and about other Americans for the most part. Anyone who thinks we have way too many damn people should not be promoting two-child families. I think the Only One argument has a lot of flaws, but Only Two does not really add up (sorry).

    Tal @85: because education is not a genetic trait. I’m baffled that you think an “educated” person (read: one who agrees with you and me) has a baby, that child will automatically agree with Us. People have been making the “Marching Morons” hypothesis for at least decades (probably centuries, I’m too lazy to check) and yet, the world is not overwhelmed by waves of stupid. That’s because of education, not because of breeding patterns.

    And sad to say that many educated, intelligent folks nonetheless believe stupid and terrible things.

  84. mythago: if we need to reduce the population by a factor of ten, then having even one child is irresponsible. Period.

    Oh good grief. you don’t know the difference between responsibilty and shame. And you also refuse to distinguish between the systemic and the individual.

    You start out with the conditional statement that we NEED to reduce the population by ten. You then hand out the universal sentence on the individual that having even one child is shameful. If the system has gotten to the point that the world population is ten times bigger than the planet can sustain, then you’ll need some sort of systemic solution to figure out how to bring it down.

    Some guy like you walking around handing out Moral Judgements on individuals isn’t a systemic solution. You can’t have kids. You can have one child. YOu can’t have kids. You cna have two children. What the hell?

    The idea of responsibility is that the individual owns/acknowledges the effect of their actions. If I have one child, to be responsible for that action I would acknowledge that I added to the world population. I wouldn’t sweep it under the rug with DGLewis’s kinds of statements that it doesn’t “amount to a hill of beans”. I’d acknowledge that my action had an effect on others.

    This: “having even one child is irresponsible. Period.” doesn’t even make sense from the definition of responsibility. You’re handing out moral judgements. YOu’re declaring that having even one child is WRONG. PERIOD. That’s not “irresponsible” that’s making moral judgements.

    Irresponsibility means you did something that affected others BUT YOU REFUSE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE EFFECT. you down play it. you deny there was any effect. you try to change the topic. you point a finger at someone else.

    The effect doesn’t mean it was WRONG. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it doesn’t matter. But you can’t get any kind of real human morality without first getting the concept of individual responsibility. If you jump straight to morality, without individual responsibility, all you get is dogmatic declarations of right and wrong.

    So, if I had one child, I’d acknowledge that I added to the population. And assuming the planet could handle that one extra mouth for a while, my wife and I would eventually die and the final result would be an overall decrease in population. It’s responsible if I acknowledge those effects. it’s irresponsponsible if I act as if those actions had no effect on the world.

    And you can’t even begin to get to a position of whether it is right or wrong until you first get the concept of individual responsibility.

  85. Greg, I seriously believe you’re getting me confused with somebody else. That, or you’re skimming.

  86. @#83- Mythago- Possibly because I’m not postulating any sort of “Breeder Race” argument. Breeder genes, yes, but every species that reproduces has those.
    I’m guessing you’re assuming that anyone making an argument about population genetics and reproduction is channelling Tolkein and worries about those swarthy orks swarming into Rivendell to molest the fair-haired elves. Not my point.
    I’m also going to guess that you consider education, training, etc, to ultimately be a more powerful force in the structure of human civilization than human genes are. In short, that who you are doesn’t depend on what the mess of goo in your nuclei is.
    Let me know, and we can argue from there.

  87. Cicada @94 – I get that you’re not arguing a We vs. Them breeder race situation, but then your comment about ‘those darn selfish genes’ was puzzling. If the concern is that we need to reduce the number of people on the planet, then some people’s genes are simply not going to get passed on directly. Birth rate of 1.0 doesn’t mean that every single woman has exactly one child; it means that a lot of women don’t have any.

    The selfish gene doesn’t really matter in that context, although I suppose there’s also the argument that since your siblings share your genes, anyone really concerned about passing on their genetic inheritance could assist in the survival of their siblings’ offspring.

  88. Bucket-o-commentary:

    I’ll just re-emphasize Tal’s (@10) point: If you think overpopulation itself is a problem, there is a proven solution that requires no overt coercion, murder, starvation, or other catastrophe. *Educate women and give them access to contraception.* It works. It expands knowledge, wealth, and choice. Surely something this effective and politically popular should be your main strategy if you want to reduce population.

    With respect to the theory that we will not sacrifice standard of living to reduce environmental impact so it will only get worse, I disagree, because we have been doing it for decades. It’s not an easy thing by any means, but we have continually worked at reducing our environmental impact for a long time, with remarkable successes. It turns out people like the environment and are willing to make trade offs, and greenness in general is strongly correlated with youth. Pressure to be green is going to get stronger.

    With respect to resource depletion – yes we are going to use some of them up, and yes, not all of the substitutes we find will be as satisfactory as we have now. However, I do not think we are so rigid and fragile that loss of cheap fossil fuels or rare earth metals or whatever will collapse technological civilization.

    With respect to various “outbreeding” strategies and worries: If you are in favor of liberal democracy, you should know that it has quite effectively expanded its numbers via co-option of the children of people who are not liberal or democratic. Repeatedly. Let’s stick to the strategy that is working, rather than co-opting the strategy of the folks we are co-opting. Thanks.

  89. The other magical change I’d like to make in the human race is to make fertility strictly voluntary, so you’d have to actively and deliberately (not unconsciously or sleepily) do something to activate your fertility (and it would have to be something you can only do yourself, like meditating in a stress-free state for ten minutes, so women couldn’t, or couldn’t easily, be coerced into doing it). That way no one would have a child they weren’t expecting and hadn’t chosen to have.

    Our species would die out in no time.

  90. @95 Mythago- Ah, whoops, let me try this one again: Those darn genes, who are selfish in the context that Dawkin’s “The Selfish Gene” postulated– genes that lead to their own promulgation wind up spread more widely than those that don’t. Wasn’t talking about a hypothetical gene for selfishness.

    As for helping the siblings, you’re not actually taking it to its conclusion– this is what eusocial insects (okay, and naked mole rats) do- they protect one breeder, because any siblings they have would have more of their genes than any offspring they themselves might have.

    The other question is– if you want a child, do you want _your_ child, or will any random kid do? In short, are your own genes more valuable to you than some other couples’?
    It does seem like most people tend to prefer their own genes to those of strangers. It’s “If we can’t have kids, we’ll adopt”, not “If we can’t adopt, we’ll try to have a kid”.

  91. The other magical change

    There was an SF story I read some time ago and the only thing I can remember about it was that one character mentioned purely in passing that he couldn’t be the father of some other character’s baby because his “valve” was still in place. And i remember thinking, yeah, that’s a good idea.

  92. Greg @ 92: You quote mythago as saying “if we need to reduce the population by a factor of ten, then having even one child is irresponsible. Period.” and assume that she is stating her own personal opinion, complete with moral arbitration. However, as the word “if” at the beginning suggests, this is not the correct context. Here is the full thing, from her post at 37:

    “rys @34 – You think the world population should be reduced by a factor of ten, but you were happy to add to it by a whole nuther human being? How is that responsible? And please, don’t tell me about replacement rate. If you think the world’s population should drop to 600 million, then you should not have added to the existing 6 billion at all. Bearing children in an overpopulated world is a selfish choice, period.”

    It’s the poster to whom she responded who claimed that the world population needed to be reduced, although he had a child himself. She’s saying that if that’s his viewpoint — that the population needs to be cut drastically — then he, the poster, rys, was being irresponsible and selfish himself in having a child since he thinks the population should drop and by extension that everyone has the responsibility for making it do so. It’s not her premise or moral prescription, which is why she’s not defending it. She restated someone else’s argument to point out its inconsistency with the person making it, and this restatement was repeatedly quoted out of context.

  93. Robin, correct – although rys clarified his initial posting so I’m not inclined to whack on him.

    Cicada @98 – ah, but remember we’re talking about the problem of global overpopulation. If the argument is “Somebody ELSE needs to stop having kids, not me,” then that’s not a real solution. So the selfish gene doesn’t really matter. Whether my genes do or don’t make it into the next generation is completely irrelevant to lower birthrates and reducing global population.

    There is a plausible argument that most people are not going to give up being parents, or “just adopt” (as if adoption were like picking out a new toaster, rather than being a choice with many ramifications); but then they should have only one biological child. One child still allows people to have babies but reduces the birthrate. It’s the breeding equivalent of ‘better to marry than to burn'; not the ideal solution, but the next best thing given that a lot of people are going to struggle with the ideal and fail.

    The argument that “or two” still puts you in the Planet Lovers Club is just idiotic. Sorry.

  94. @101 Mythago- Well, it sort of _is_ a solution technically, but Lebensraum’s not likely to fly far in the modern political climate.

    Anyhow, I suspect the matter’s politically moot as well– if the elves tell the orks not to breed, enforcement gets ugly…

  95. Yeah, mythago, I know you and rys resolved that… I just was annoyed that Greg was then whacking on you for something you didn’t even say. Misattribution of words or just playing saying something that isn’t real or true about someone else is a major hot button for me, far beyond any logical explanation — I can’t even take jokes that have not-truths as their basis, and I’ve tried. I was probably (well, obviously) more bothered by Greg’s mistake than you were.

  96. Robin: assume that she is stating her own personal opinion, complete with moral arbitration

    I’m pretty sure mythago does NOT think we NEED to reduce the population by 10. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was the conflation of a systemic problem and individual action, and a conflation of “wrongness” versus responsibility.

    First, if we NEED to reduce the population by 10, then we NEED a systemic solution to deal with it. We don’t NEED people like mythago handing out their ten commandments of what they think the rest of the world should do and failing to follow that is “wrongness”.

    Second, if the systemic solution to reduce the population by ten says that one couple out of twenty will be allowed to have a single child, drawn by random lottery, then having that child is not, to use mythago’s word, irresponsible.

    Responsibility means you acknowledge the effects of your actions. Mythago was using it to mean “wrong”, i.e. if we have to reduce the population by ten then having even a single child is wrong. The word “irresponsible” as used in mythago’s sentence doesn’t even make sense:

    “if we have to reduce the population by ten then having a child is (not acknowledging the effects of having that child)”

    Well, if the systemic solution says one couple in twenty can have a single child then that IS acknowledging the effects of having that child. So it isn’t “irresponsible”.

    It’s the poster to whom she responded who claimed that the world population needed to be reduced, although he had a child himself. She’s saying that if that’s his viewpoint — that the population needs to be cut drastically — then he, the poster, rys, was being irresponsible and selfish himself

    Yeah, exactly. Mythago was using the term “irresponsible” to mean “wrong”, or as you put it, “selfish”. And it fails to distinguish between a systemic problem, a systemic solution, and individual action. If the systemic solution says one couple in twenty can have a child, then having that child is not “irresponsible”, is not “wrong”, is not “selfish”, is not (insert moral judgement here).

    rys decided that hte population should be reduced by ten and rys decided that having 1 kid was an acceptable solution.

    Mythago came in and imposed mythago’s “solution” that the only “proper”, “responsible”, “moral”, “nonselfish”, thing to do to reduce the population by 10 was to have zero children.

    Says who? Says mythago. Mythago imposed mythago’s individual solution as the only “right” solution. Mythago was imposing mythago’s solution not as “responsible” but as “moral”.

    You need a systemic solution to deal with a system problem and you need a systemic solution to determine what individual action is “wrong”. If the systemic solution to reduce the population by 10 is the one-in-twenty thing, then if you happen to be the 1 in twenty, then having 1 kid is not immoral and is actually acceptable.

    So, yeah, i got that it wasn’t mythago who said that the population needed to be reduced by ten, it was rys. That wasn’t the issue. the issue was mythago misusing the idea of responsibility to hand out moral declarations and failing to distinguish between systemic problems and individual action.

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