24 Comments »Posted on Monday 22 June 2009 at 12:03 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

David Mitchell, as usual, wrote a very funny but also very wise column in the Observer yesterday about the Daily Mail’s ridiculous wheelie bin campaign, and about how our heightened sensitivity to injustices against us has overridden our sense of responsibility to society.

Our fear of being encroached upon has made us forget that there are few freedoms that can be fully exercised without impinging on someone else’s. The freedom to stab has long since been subordinated to the freedom not to be stabbed. But we still have the freedom not to recycle and to borrow or lend money recklessly, regardless of others’ freedom to live on a habitable planet and in a functional economy. We’ve hugely prioritised our rights over our duties because it’s only the former that tyrants try to take away.

A reader called Memoid posted a comment saying:

There’s not even been a hint of discussion about the right to have children yet, and that’s the debate we really need to have. And the world needs the vast majority of us to lose the debate.

He’s right, so let’s start the debate. There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. At the current rate, there will be 9.1 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will happen in developing countries, but even Britain’s population is expected to increase by 16 million in that time. And yet you rarely hear anyone talk about whether everyone can continue to have as many children as they like.

The Earth simply cannot provide enough food, energy and resources for that many people. And just think about the impact on the climate. How can we expect to make dramatic cuts in our carbon emissions if our population continues to grow?

People need to see having lots of children as the environmental sin that it is. You can turn all your lights off, cycle to work and insulate your house but having kids makes you more of an eco-criminal than the childless bloke next door who drives a gas-guzzler and takes 10 flights a year.

The idea of limiting one’s procreative activities will be very difficult for many to accept, for Darwinian as well as societal reasons. Surely having children is the most sacred of all human rights? I’m not advocating any government intervention in how big a family people choose to have. But I think the public needs to be more aware of the seriousness of the environmental ramifications of having children. Perhaps then more people might realise that this is one instance when our duty to society should take precedence over exercising our rights.

The Optimum Population Trust, of which David Attenborough became patron in April, runs a ‘Stop At Two’ campaign, and has a pledge that you can sign on its website. The idea will still seem outrageous to some, but I think signing the pledge is an absolutely reasonable step towards remediating unsustainable population growth.

(Incidentally, even if you plan to stop at two, it doesn’t always work out that way. My Dad found this out the second time my mum got pregnant: the egg that became me wasn’t the only one that got fertilised. As a result, my mum got her wish for three kids.)

This is all very easy for me to say. I’m 22 and single, and the prospect of having children feels almost as remote to me as arthritis. It could well be that in 10 years’ time I’ll turn out to be a massive hypocrite with three kids. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that I will be able to restrain my reproductive urges in light of the bald truth: there are too many people on the planet already.


  1. 24 Comments

  2. Here here! My favourite quote on the matter: “Population growth is the socio-economic equivalent of the Mauna Loa Curve”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeling_Curve

    I think one and then adopt if you want more is a good rule. But my mum also had the double egg scenario so who knows.

    By katie goates on Monday 22 June, 2009 at 1:00 pm

  3. Katie: If everyone only had one child, wouldn’t the human race eventually die out?

    By Jacob Aron on Monday 22 June, 2009 at 2:03 pm

  4. … On the other hand, large families tend to save on fuel, property and food. And tend to have more fun in the process! As with many ecological issues, this one is more about quality than quantity. We Europeans have smaller families but we throw away tons of food and valuable resources through the costly Common Agricultural Policy.
    People who starve tend to live under corrupt governments and die as a consequence of bad policies rather than of ecological reasons.
    Recently a book by Worldwatch’s Robert Engelman made an interesting point: what if women were free to decide about their childbearing?
    http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5636

    By Gaetano on Monday 22 June, 2009 at 3:21 pm

  5. Jacob: I don’t think that’s something we need to worry about for the time being.

    By Sam Wong on Monday 22 June, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  6. Firstly Jacob – what Sam said.

    Secondly I do agree with Gaetano that the situation would be a lot more manageable if familes, and society in general were more responsible about waste etc. However, I don’t see any of that happening anytime soon either. Maybe I’m too cynical.

    Finally, I think there is an interesting situation here where the rights of the parent and of the possible child are not really in agreement. Although someone has a fundamental right to reproduce, does their child not have a fundamental right to a certain quality of life. A quality of life that limited resources and climate change will make impossible.

    By katie goates on Monday 22 June, 2009 at 7:38 pm

  7. Why don’t you just off yourself? Think how many flights per year you’d save.

    Of course I’m not being serious now, I don’t advocate anyone’s suicide just because they are sheep who swallow the government global warming hoax line hook and sinker. What you REALLY should do is more research on the issue. Here is a movie that you can use to begin to de-program your current state of brainwash:

    The great global warming swindle:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=288952680655100870

    By malte on Thursday 16 July, 2009 at 8:04 pm

  8. The Great Global Warming Swindle has been heavily criticised for its numerous scientific inaccuracies. Perhaps it is you who needs to do more research?

    By Jacob Aron on Thursday 16 July, 2009 at 8:57 pm

  9. And the entire global warming hysteria has been debunked as a big hoax and propaganda.

    Take for example the fact that since 2005, greenlands ice mass has been growing. How does that rhyme with global-warming blog posts like this one here?

    Consider this quote from the club of Rome, A Rockefeller / UN think tank:
    “In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill…”

    By malte on Thursday 16 July, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  10. Quote from blog: The idea of limiting one’s procreative activities will be very difficult for many to accept…

    Good god, this sounds like something out of a nazi textbook.

    Any calls for denying, or limiting, any persons right to procreate is nothing other than eugenics.

    Anyone foolish enough to think that the world is overpopulated ought to take a trip to Montana. Or Siberia. Or northern Sweden. Or eastern Russia. Or central California. Then take some pictures and come back and show me the overpopulation you found in these areas.

    And after this exercise, ask yourself what right YOU have to impose limits on anyone’s natural rights to live. The answer is a resounding NONE.

    It was people like me and all those others that love freedom and hates tyranny that resisted the nazis in the 40ies, and it is people like me who will resist people like YOU in the major conflicts that sadly probably will come to pass in the near future.

    By malte on Thursday 16 July, 2009 at 9:52 pm

  11. Yes, I hate freedom because I’m a Nazi. I won’t try and change your mind, because there isn’t really much point.

    By Jacob Aron on Thursday 16 July, 2009 at 10:43 pm

  12. Damn you Jacob, calling for people to voluntarily consider the consequences of their procreation in the face of limited resources and a growing world population…

    I, for one, am going to have a family of 12, and we’re going to buy up hundreds of acres in Siberia and frolic on the tundra. Who knows, in 50 years, I might even be able to start growing crops.

    By David on Friday 17 July, 2009 at 12:23 am

  13. What resources is it that are so scarce right now that you feel the world population must be reduced?

    By malte on Friday 17 July, 2009 at 1:29 am

  14. I never said resources are scarce right now, OR that the world’s population must be reduced. Stop reading what you think is being said and start looking at what people are actually saying.

    The fact that prices of many basic resources are increasing indicates that demand is increasing faster than supply, which is driven by increasing population and increasing development of non-western nations.

    To turn the question back on you; how many items in your household are generated from resources which are unlimited?

    No-one here is trying to take away people’s freedom to reproduce. It is about facing the reality that procreation increases demand on resources more than (almost) any other single act. This awareness is clearly going to be more emotionally challenging than, say, buying a V8 car even though it uses more resources than a more efficient model.

    However I’ll take a leaf out of Jacob’s book and stop feeding the troll…

    By David on Friday 17 July, 2009 at 6:55 am

  15. Are you familiar with the term artificial scarcity? Planned economies? I guess not, because you think that a price hike in any product must mean that the demand for that product has gone up proportionally. Just look at what the EU just did, buying up huge amounts of butter and milk powder. What do you think that does to the prices of butter and milk powder? And it has nothing to do with demand, only socialism and planned economics.

    Proclaiming that having a large family is a sin, where a large family is defined as having any more than 2 kids (which is not enough to sustain the current population) IS the same as calling for a population reduction, period.

    Nothing in my household is generated from resources that are infinite, because technically there is exists no such thing.
    But the point I am making here is that you and the cadres that like you believe anything that the mainstream media tells you, is that we are nowhere near depleting the resources that are needed to sustain the current population, or even an increased population on earth.

    The world does have problems, but they are not caused by the mass majority of people, or the unborn of tomorrow. They are caused by the people financing the wars around the world, the globalists controlling the central banks of the world, the same people that run government and put out the kind of propaganda that this blog post advances.

    I am not a troll, I am just someone pointing out what is so glaringly obvious to anyone that cares to study geopolitical world history.

    By malte on Friday 17 July, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  16. Malte, you are so wrong.

    By BetterIdeas on Sunday 19 July, 2009 at 7:03 pm

  17. Malte, why don’t you go to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, the Alberta tar sands in Canada and Linfen in China and then tell me that the world is not seriously messed up?
    Instead of swallowing one type of ‘media propaganda’, the one advocated by qualified scientists, you are taking swigs of the far-right, everything is going to be alright if we ignore and throw money at it view. The one that continues to think that humans are the only reason for the universe. We’re not. If we died, the Earth wouldn’t really notice and all the other things inhabiting it would probably be better off. No matter what side you take it is supported by the mass-produced media, but you can always make the more informed choice.
    Basically, you are saying instead of controlling our populations and conserving resources, we should continue on the road we are now. Never mind that maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand years from now, when you are long dead, people are going to run out of all resources. Huh so pawn responsibility to the next generation? Great thinking, that.
    While there is no such thing as an infinite resource, because the sun will one day die and all hell will break lose, there are some resources that are more long lasting than others. Coal and oil take a reeeeally long time to form, and we are using it faster than that so it will be depleted rather quickly. Solar energy, on the other hand, will last as long as the sun does. Plastic bags are made from oil and can’t revet back nor decay. More hemp bags on the other hand can always be grown, and they decay.
    Back to the original article. If you don’t like it, go away. It isn’t being shoved in your face, only suggesting that it be encouraged that we have less children. Why, exactly, is it so bad to have a smaller population? If we had less children, there would be less starving children, less unbreakable diapers and less crying infants in cinemas. For me, that’s enough reason alone to abstain.

    By Juju on Sunday 19 July, 2009 at 9:05 pm

  18. Consider rabbits. If you put some rabbits out in a field with no population control (say wolves perhaps) they will breed to their hearts’ content and before long there are too many rabbits for the amount of food available in the field. Eventually they being to starve and their once plentiful and happy lives are shattered. There is only so much habitat and resources to go around. If we don’t begin to limit our numbers mother nature will do it for us; and in what I can assure you will be a very unpleasant way. Perhaps it is better to have a good future for fewer children then have a bad one for more?

    By Ophois on Sunday 19 July, 2009 at 9:09 pm

  19. The sad part is that (if you succeed) you’ll only convince the ones that aren’t multiplying so fast. I’m sure the ones that are, don’t read your web site.

    By Paul on Sunday 19 July, 2009 at 10:58 pm

  20. What justification is there for a government faking global warming? Green energy R&D is expensive; we are so rooted in fossil fuels that we can shift to renewable resources only at great economic cost. Global warming is a scientific REALITY. Sure there are scientists paid off by progressives to exaggerate the threat, and likewise private interests might hire scientists to do the opposite. But the scientific community is largely in consensus about the threat that global warming poses.

    This is not a government feeding us propaganda. It is an international group of individuals without political obligations that know far more than either of us possibly could about the issue. I’m not reading The New York Times or watching biased documentaries (for the record, I had watched The Great Global Warming Swindle prior to reading your post). I’m talking strictly scientific studies, such as this compilation available on Springer: http://www.springer.com/earth+sciences/meteorology/journal/10584

    By Steven on Sunday 19 July, 2009 at 11:26 pm

  21. This is absolutely right on the money. Just coming back from Borneo where deforestation is advancing at tremendous pace I had plenty of opportunities to reflect on overpopulation and its consequences. Orang Utans are one third what they were in 1990. Most commercial fish species are on the brink of extinction or with such low populations they cannot bounce back….

    With soon 9B people and growing economic power, we will deplete every single resource or species there is. Sure, if we industrialized every square meter of the planet for intensive agriculture or energy production, we could sustain a whole lot more people but why ? Isn’t a planet that’s worth living on with other species and a variety of plants a more desirable objective for our children than just reproducing ourselves out of an ecosystem ??

    Furthermore, large families introduce a bias in the democratic system which is meant to be “fair” at any point in time but forgets to address the fact that any given group can game the system over a few generations by reproducing much more than other groups. In fact our democratic systems (and most governments as a consequence) encourage large family sizes. There maybe should be instead an incentive to lower family sizes by for example having one parent to give their voting right to the third child and the other to the fourth… Fair to children who will all get the right to vote and a disincentive to the parents who multiply too much.

    Pushing the reflection further, I think our sole interest in the well being of people, to the detriment of all other life forms, is a consequence of our anthropomorphic vision of god. Older religions had a much more holistic approach with the entire environment taken into account and sustainability somehow built in. We forgot this with agriculture which introduced a means of controlling and dominating nature instead of depending on it and that led to the excesses we now face.

    A small percentage of growth from one year to the next is a geometric series and in essence has an exponential progression. Human population has reached the point where this exponential explosion has rendered it unsustainable.

    We can only find a solution once we break this taboo about the long term ecological cost of large families.

    By phitar on Monday 20 July, 2009 at 7:35 am

  22. Juju, its not about left or right. That is a false paradigm, a box created by the establishment to let people fight with each other in and think that it makes a difference. Personally I like to think outside the boxes, so I am not going to partake in any phony left/right discussions.

    If all humans died, that means I would die, my children would die, and every person I care about. Therefor things WOULD change, at least for me. If you think a step further you’ll realize its a philosophical question.

    No I am not saying to stay on the road we are on right now. We are headed for a tyrannical new world order (which has de-population / eugenics on the agenda) which is propagating this whole ‘oh-noes-we-are-running-out-of-resources-kill-yourself-now’ propaganda.

    I am certainly not for using up all resources (if one now happened to really be scarce), deforest the planet, or killing of any other species.

    But the point you and everyone else here are missing is that what you get fed from the mainstream media is propaganda. Mixed with half-truths sure, to make it seem believable, but then exaggerated ad nausem.

    I am not for declaring it a sin to have kids. I am not for sterilizing anyone, nor give empower any government to do it either. I am for promoting real development in the world, which, as you may know, stabilizes population levels.

    By malte on Tuesday 21 July, 2009 at 10:44 pm

  23. Steven, you must joking. Can you really not understand why globalists would want to fearmonger about global warming? Have you been asleep through the entire terrorist-fearmongering that has been going on the last 8 years?

    Go read the documents from the club of rome, where the globalists put in WRITING their plans of using a fake environmental threat to gain power and control over the world.

    How about looking at the new cap-and-trade system that is being steamrolled through congress in the US. What will that bill do? Raise taxes all around, and make Al Gore, one of the global-warming-priests wealthier than god, holding a huge stake in the cap-n-trade trading house to be.

    You are right about that there are ‘groups of international individuals’ running the show. But you are sadly mistaken thinking that they have your best in mind. They don’t. They are the globalists, the people pushing the new world order. They are building a control-grid, and they will enslave you (even more than they already have). Think paying 35% of your income in taxes is bad? Wait till the new cap-n-trade system is in place (or similar, coming to the UK). Wait till there is a global co2-tax on people directly (yes this is mentioned in the club of rome documents, which so far, has been implemented piecemal since the 70ies).

    Bleh. Inform yourself.

    By malte on Tuesday 21 July, 2009 at 10:52 pm

  24. Phitar, in response to your statement: “A small percentage of growth from one year to the next is a geometric series and in essence has an exponential progression. Human population has reached the point where this exponential explosion has rendered it unsustainable.”

    What scientific basis do you base this on?

    By malte on Wednesday 22 July, 2009 at 2:41 am

  25. Government monopsony distorts climate science, says SPPI: http://www.transworldnews.com/NewsStory.aspx?id=104031&cat=12

    By malte on Thursday 23 July, 2009 at 3:20 pm

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