Adventures in Ethics and Science

Ethics and population.

Back at the end of November, Martin wrote a post on the ethics of overpopulation, in which he offered these assertions:

  1. It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
  2. It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption.
  3. It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption instead.

I understand the spirit in which these assertions are offered — the human beings sharing Earth and its resources have an interest in creating and maintaining conditions where our numbers don’t outstrip the available resources.

But, there’s something about Martin’s manifesto that doesn’t sit right with me. Here, I’m not trying to be coy; I’m actually in the process of working out my objections. So, I’m going to do some thinking out loud, in the hopes that you all will pipe up and help me figure this out.

The first thing to notice is that Martin’s manifesto touches on individual ethics and matters of public policy — what choices should (or should not) be on the table for any given human, and what kinds of support (or restrictions) should be provided (or imposed) by societies. The hypothetical individuals in these hypothetical societies might be assumed to be more or less interchangeable; what’s good for one is good for another, so providing them with the same options looks fair.

Of course, there are many, many ways that real individuals in real societies differ from each other. One of those is wealth. (Another of those is desire for children — or for no children.)

I take it that the second point of Martin’s manifesto is calling for universal access to affordable family planning options (as well as to adoption of children already in existence — we’ll get to adoption in just a moment). Given disparities in wealth, it is worth pointing out that there are circumstances in which “affordable” means “free”. I’m pretty comfortable with this point in the manifesto, as I’m inclined to think no one should have to have a child who does not want to have a child. Once you have a child, there are many duties you have as her parent, but while the child is still hypothetical, you are under no obligation to become a parent and thereby take on those duties.

However, children do not just impose obligations. They create benefits as well as costs, and some of those benefits are difficult to capture in quantitative terms.

And here’s where I run into problems with the third point in the manifesto, where infertility treatments are reserved for those who can pay for them. Assuming that people of all socioeconomic strata may struggle with infertility, this would mean those with wealth are able to partake of the benefits of parenthood while those without wealth cannot.

Here, adoption is supposed to be the equalizer. But as things stand now (at least in the U.S.), adoption is not what one would describe as an affordable way to have children. Adoption is time-consuming, expensive, and not covered by medical insurance the same way pregnancy and childbirth are.

In other words, people with wealth have the option of adopting children. People without wealth have to hope that their reproductive machinery is in good working order.

Now, in Martin’s ideal world, adoption would be available without restriction — an affordable option available to everyone. Let’s assume issues of cost could be worked out. Would we really let anyone adopt a child?

We’re not talking hypothetical children here, but children already in existence. Whichever authority is overseeing the placement of these children will want to ensure that adoptive parents are able to take care of the children before putting the children in their care.* In looking out for the interests of these kids, that authority would prefer placements with people who have the skill set to manage crises, to provide structure and discipline but not abuse, to get healthy meals on the table, and so forth.

That authority might also opt for placements in households with substantial financial resources over those whose wealth would be stretched almost to its limits by a child.

Here, I know that there are people who will argue that one ought not to have kids if one is not in a financially secure situation. But this is the kind of view you can only impose on people you think aren’t well-off enough to have kids if they happen to need fertility treatments or adoption to have those kids and you decide to restrict their access. No one does a means test on people having babies the old fashioned way. Moreover, having the wealth to pay for child-related expenses does not ensure that parents will have the mental or emotional wherewithal to be good parents.

Rich parents aren’t necessarily better parents. And, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the attitude that the experience of being a parent is something to which only rich people are entitled. (To be clear, I’m not attributing that attitude to Martin. However, I worry that his manifesto might create a situation where only rich people have reliable access to that experience.)

While we’re on the subject of rich parents and poor parents, the children of the wealthy in developed countries probably consume more resources per person than anyone else. Strictly speaking, the issue with population isn’t the total number of people on the planet right now, but the impact those people have on the resources upon which we all depend. There’s a good chance that some of us with fewer children constitute families with higher environmental impact than most of the families in the world with more children.

In which case, arguing for a two-child limit might be missing the point.

Yes, there are situations we can point to in the developing world where families with many, many children live in horrifying poverty. Verily, I can imagine that some of these mothers would choose to have fewer children if they could, and that this choice might make life better for the whole family. But we should acknowledge that sometimes these large families are seen as an economic necessity. If your medical care is non-existent, how many kids do you need to have in order than any of them will survive to adulthood? In the absence of modern infrastructure, how many extra backs and pairs of hands do you need to fetch clean water, haul firewood, forage or herd or grow food?

Are kids more or less resource-intensive than driving a Hummer, eating meat, jetting around the world? Undoubtedly, it depends a lot on how you raise them. The way we’ve been doing things so far, a first world standard of living sucks resources faster than a third world standard of living. The problem may not be how many kids we’re having but how resource-greedy we are raising them to be.

And lest we forget, kids are not only consumers. They will also become grown-ups who contribute to our world in various ways (e.g., by developing green technologies or new vaccines, by growing food, by providing care for others, etc.) If we cut down on kids in order to cut down on consumption, what will the other longer term consequences be? Who, as Zuska so eloquently puts it, will wipe our asses when we are old and infirm?

Will we rely on robots to care for our geriatric populations? Or on immigrants from high-population countries?

Given that the U.S. burns through a huge amount of resources, I’d be disinclined to say to the people whose natural resources our multinationals are grabbing to produce more crap for the rich, “Hey, let’s make your lives better by sterilizing you.” We kind of have a bad history going down that road. Shouldn’t the first world folks (who consume so many resources per person) be at the front of the sterilization line?

My impression is that once your kids are more likely to survive to adulthood and less of an economic necessity (whether to bring in the harvest, haul firewood and water, work in the sweatshops, etc.), the imperative to have lots of kids is significantly decreased. Conditions in which women are valued as real human beings rather than as factories to make more members of the labor force might also lead to lower birthrates.

People shouldn’t be blind to the environmental impact of a growing human population, but it is not a simple numbers game. The humans in play do not consume (or produce) resources uniformly. And, whatever sensible system you impose to address population pressures, the rich will probably find a way to buy out of that system. My hunch is that an individualistic approach to the question of how to live sustainably on the planet we have isn’t going to work.

This isn’t a problem to be solved by individual ethics, but rather by working together as a human community. In other words, taking the well being of humanity seriously will demand more of us than limiting the sizes (and resource consumption) of our own families.

*It also makes sense to provide all parents — adoptive or not — with resources to help build their parenting skills, not to mention creating societies that acknowledge of the value of parenting duties while helping parents balance those with participation in the work place and in civic life.


  1. #1 notedscholar
    December 11, 2008

    Hmm. It does seem incorrect to say that we cant have as many kids as we want. After all evolution and God seem to have commanded us to reproduce!!!

    That’s a pretty strong alliance!


  2. #2 carey
    December 11, 2008

    Well, these problems with population and resource allocation are self-correcting over longer periods of time. A burgeoning population and a rapidly warming climate will probably result in a spectacular overshoot in the last half of this century, and we may well see some serious decreases in population.
    After the first hundred million die, even fundamentalists might stop talking about the immorality of contraception.

  3. #3 Onkel Bob
    December 11, 2008

    Simply not having children doesn’t “solve” anything. It ameliorates some of the problems, but when you run a ponzi-scheme retirement program like Social Security, then a declining birth-rate is detrimental.
    I disagree with the premise that children are part of the solution because they bring “potential.” When people deride me for being childless using the refrain “you were a child too,” my reply is so were Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, and Ted Bundy. What did they contribute to society? (Arguably Chingkis contributed a great deal, but not without tremendous cost.) Any future children bring as much potential for harm as they do benefit.
    Another problem with humanity is their inability to see beyond themselves. Judaism and Christianity are founded on the premise that we have dominion over the earth. Islam modified that to some respect by assigning man a steward. Buddhism ignores it all together by stating we magically reappear after death. There is no recognition of carrying capacity nor limits imposed upon it from outside forces.
    I believe we reached a critical mass. The stupid, deceived by the malicious, will always be able to overcome or undo any benefit done by the intelligent. I have no solution other than the cold-hearted response that “we all climb the ladder into the grave.” As I see it the only hope (and likely outcome) will be an event that indiscriminately kills a large proportion of humanity. In that way the remaining population may be smart enough to not to repeat this boundless (and mindless) reproduction. Expecting the existing population to gain the wisdom you propose has no precedent. It would be nice, but given we that cling to tribalism as tightly as we do our coffee cups, I’m pessimistic.

  4. #4 Avrom Roy-Faderman
    December 11, 2008

    I’m not sure I’d be terribly happy with this solution, but just as a question:

    Would it be at least an amelioration to your concerns if, say, the limit on number of children/family were not 2 but, say, the integer floor of the “local” replacement rate, where “local” meant “among families in a situation similar to this one in that [insert some reasonably comprehensive list of ways here]?”

    This might evaluate to something like 2 in highly developed countries, but would probably evaluate to a substantially larger number among the poor in less developed nations.

    You could also tinker with the formula by allowing, say, [some number] extra children for those engaged in subsistence farming, etc.

    About public funds for fertility treatments: I’m not comfortable with this either, but, assuming better adoption proceedings, would you feel more comfortable with a plan that, rather than banning public funds for fertility treatments, banned fertility treatments altogether?

  5. #5 L Zoel
    December 11, 2008

    As a 3rd child, I find the suggestion that it was unethical for my parents to have me slightly disturbing.

  6. #6 Southern Fried Scientist
    December 11, 2008

    to take it to the irrational extreme on the other end, isn’t it unethical for the state to continue to support the elderly once they’ve stopped producing? The wealthy could of course buy their own medical care, but the others will have to drift off on (fewer and fewer) ice flows. Reproductive choice means being able to decide when AND how many children to have. Controlling the population by force is unethical, not controlling the population is also unethical. What we need are some predators.

  7. #7 Robert Bird
    December 11, 2008

    People with low numbers of children are likely to spend more resources per child than people who have lots of children – children are in some sense like tickets in a genetic and social lottery, and if you buy fewer tickets, you are likely to want the tickets to have a better chance of winning (wanting your children to do well). This can be helped in other ways (spending time instead of money, though lots of times the two are basically equivalent), but is mainly helped by spending more resources.

    We want a lot in many cases in order to fulfill ourselves, and our children are likely to learn that as well (because we don’t necessarily have communities to fulfill that function instead, and kids aren’t going to learn if we can’t teach them how). Dealing with that, and finding alternative ways to fulfill ourselves, might be a more permanent and fair solution than limiting numbers of children (particularly to poorer people). We can limit some of our impact techologically, but our wants outstrip our resources for the most part, and better technology can’t help that.

  8. #8 SimonG
    December 11, 2008

    Is it unethical to have triplets?

    It’s inevitable that adoption is restricted. There are a finite number of available children. Whilst that may in some places exceed the number of eager potential parents, if the number of births is restricted as is implied one might suspect that there would eventually be more people wanting to adopt than children available.

    As for the matter of selecting adoptive parents when such selection is not applied to “normal” parents, I’m not convinced that this is wrong. Barring grossly intrussive policies it’s not possible on the whole to restrict natural births to “suitable parents”, (although one could discourage the unsuitable). But it IS possible to select adoptive parents. Since we can make that choice, would it be ethical NOT to make a choice at all? We do what we can: just because it’s not ideal isn’t a reason for not doing something, making the best available choice.

  9. #9 Derrick Reeves
    December 11, 2008

    This isn’t a problem to be solved by individual ethics, but rather by working together as a human community. In other words, taking the well being of humanity seriously will demand more of us than limiting the sizes (and resource consumption) of our own families.

    Just what would it take for humanity to be able to work together as a community? Currently, production is grounded on competition; nations compete for access to labour, markets and resources, firms and investors compete for profits, and, in the global labour market, workers compete with one another for the available jobs.

  10. #10 Noumena
    December 11, 2008

    Here, I know that there are people who will argue that one ought not to have kids if one is not in a financially secure situation. But this is the kind of view you can only impose on people you think aren’t well-off enough to have kids if they happen to need fertility treatments or adoption to have those kids and you decide to restrict their access. No one does a means test on people having babies the old fashioned way.

    John Stuart Mill actually proposed this in chapter four (I think) of On liberty. He thinks it follows directly from the liberty principle: if the potential parents don’t have the necessary means (and I think he would be comfortable with including `the mental or emotional wherewithal to be good parents’ as necessary means) to care for the child properly, they will actually be harming the child by bringing into existence, and hence a means test for parenthood — even done the old-fashioned way — is actually obligatory.

    He doesn’t go into much more detail than this. But I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t want to say that only rich people should get to have kids. Let’s say the threshold is being able to satisfy the child’s basic material, social, and emotional needs until she or he is 18. That’s a pretty easy standard to meet.

    Now, if the argument is `poor people are stupid and irresponsible and hence should not be allowed to have children, even biologically’ then, yeah, that’s classist as hell. But that’s not Mill’s argument. Instead, it’s straightforwardly utilitarian: regardless of the good intentions of the parents, they can’t give the child the care she needs, and hence it would be harming her to allow them to raise her. That argument might still be classist, but it’s harder for me to see just how the response is going to go.

    So I think your second and third arguments (that simply looking at the number of children, rather than the environmental impact of those children, is missing the point, and that in some communities large families are an economic necessity) are much stronger than just rejecting this Millian argument out of hand.

  11. #11 Isis the Scientist
    December 11, 2008

    Dr. FreeRide, I ask a purely hypothetical question and advocate nothing–

    If, in fact, 1 and 2 are the solutions to the problem, why not surgically sterilize any woman with two children already?

    (I wondered how women who chose to have additional children in a second marriage would respond to this as I wrote it.)

  12. #12 anonymous
    December 11, 2008

    In which case, arguing for a two-child limit might be missing the point.

    Are kids more or less resource-intensive than driving a Hummer, eating meat, jetting around the world?

    This sounds like you are missing a fundamental point – if the population keeps growing (more than two children per two parents), something must change to fix the population problem. Some possibilities include war, famine and plague.

    Current consumption is not the largest problem, future consumption by many more people is.

  13. #13 Jim Thomerson
    December 11, 2008

    Some random comments: I read, years ago, that for a poor Indian woman to be 95% sure she would have at least one child to care for her when she reached age 60, she had to have five children.

    Paul Colinvoux, in “Fates of Nations”, argues that people tend to have as many children as they feel they can afford. Children of affluent people are very expensive to raise, whereas children of poor prople are cheap to raise and in many situations, economically profitable. (Think, for example, of the nine year old sweatshop laborer who is the major income maker for her family.)

    Demographic transion, the change in reproductive behavior as a nation develops. Europe, Japan, etc. with stable to declining populations.

    It has been mathamatically shown that delaying the age of first birth is an effective way of decreasing population growth, without restricting the number of children per mother.

    Increase in population growth is inversely correlated with the status of women.

    So, we need to decrease mortality among children, increase the status and non-young-mother options for women, and increase the economic status of poor people so they stop having so many children. We might also learn to live more efficiently so we can live well while using fewer of the earths resources.

  14. #14 Pat Cahalan
    December 11, 2008

    > The problem may not be how many kids we’re
    > having but how resource-greedy we are raising
    > them to be.

    You probably could have started this post with this line, and gone forward.

    I’ll have to read the linked post, but I expect I’ll have some issues with it just from reading your response here…

  15. #15 Avrom Roy-Faderman
    December 12, 2008

    The worry here is that the problem is *both*. It’s certainly clear that, while reducing *either* population growth *or* per capita resource consumption would stretch out our resources, reducing *both* would stretch them out more. The question is, simply, how much do we need to stretch them out by, and how much of that are we willing to do by one method or the other? (That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know.)

    This is made especially tricky by exactly the sort of thing Jim Thomerson points out above (although I think he meant to make it *less* tricky)–one of the best known ways to reduce population growth is to spur economic development…which is also one of the best-known ways to increase per capita resource consumption.

    (This isn’t to say we shouldn’t do it; there are obviously lots of reasons independent of the general fate of the planet to lift people out of poverty.)

    I don’t know how those numbers balance out. My *guess* (an educated guess, but still essentially a guess) is that certain particular changes, such as improving girls’ and womens’ access to education, will cut population growth considerably faster than it will add to resource consumption, whereas untargeted “stimulate the economy” sorts of things will do the opposite. But I don’t know.

  16. #16 Coriolis
    December 12, 2008

    “There’s a good chance that some of us with fewer children constitute families with higher environmental impact than most of the families in the world with more children.

    In which case, arguing for a two-child limit might be missing the point.”

    It’s not actually. The argument is pretty simple – assuming that all (or nearly all) children grow up and have 2 children of their own, than if you have more than 2 children per family you end up with population growth. This will eventually lead to an unsustainable population, no matter how little each individual consumes, assuming limited resources.

    How much we’re consuming per capita only changes what the limit is for how much total population is sustainable for a certain amount of resources.

    Of course developing world countries don’t satisfy the assumption that nearly all children will grow up to have a family and 2 children of their own, so for them the number of children to achieve stable population is rather higher. Technically even for developed countries it’s more than 2, I’m guessing more around 2.1-2.2, since some people do die before they can have children.

    So under the assumption that we have a society people don’t die before they get to have children (because of disease, war, etc.), in the long run, there is no real “ethics” in choosing to have only 2 children per family on average – it’s just necessary in order to limit the population.

    The ethical question is, what’s the right size of population? Less people mean more of the limited resources per person (like land, natural resources, etc.). On the flip side, you could easily argue that with less people you’d have less great science, art, etc. – things that tend to benefit all members of society and access to them isn’t limited per capita the way land or oil is.

    Admittedly most of this analysis is based on thinking in the very long term, i.e. t->infinity. Which leads to a joke about us physicists and how we solve problem which I won’t go into… 😉

  17. #17 hip hip array
    December 12, 2008

    “On the flip side, you could easily argue that with less people you’d have less great science, art, etc. – things that tend to benefit all members of society and access to them isn’t limited per capita the way land or oil is.”

    That’s Julian Simon’s argument, and the obvious response is: We’ve had a population explosion in the last century, and the biosphere continues to deteriorate. Exactly when are these geniuses who’ll solve our problems supposed to be born?

  18. #18 Avrom
    December 12, 2008

    Coriolis never really stated that these geniuses would “solve all our problems,” just that they would create a lot of good. And they have–if you look at the progress of, say, medicine over the last 100 years, and compare it to the progress over the 100 or so years before that, it’s *very* clear that it’s sped up quite dramatically. To our benefit, I’d say.

    Of course, there’s no reason to believe that the geniuses will be able to produce more goodness than the large population required to guarantee a steady supply of said geniuses (plus the fairly large level of per-capita resources required to ensure that they have proper nutrition, education, etc) will consume, so we’ve got to be careful where we draw lines. But none of that is incompatible with what Coriolis was saying.

  19. #19 hip hip array
    December 12, 2008

    “Coriolis never really stated that these geniuses would ‘solve all our problems,'”

    Nor did I.

    Medicine has helped populations exceed the carrying capacity of their land. Long term, the value of medicine, like anything that lessens our death rate, is not proven, in light of its contribution to the potential collapse of the biosphere as we are accustomed to it.

    Coriolis wrote “….great science, art, etc. – things that tend to benefit all members of society and access to them isn’t limited per capita the way land or oil is.”

    I’m skeptical of both those assertions.

  20. #20 Avrom
    December 12, 2008

    Even if you ignore (or, rather, are skeptical of the value of) the advances that medicine has made in allowing people to survive through their reproductive years, it’s pretty uncontroversial that it’s made a lot of progress in ameliorating pain and suffering, too. Surely that’s got to be worth *something*.

    And access to these things certainly isn’t limited the way that land and oil is. If you double the number of people, you halve the amount of land or oil available per capita. I don’t see that that’s true with, say, art.

  21. #21 hip hip array
    December 12, 2008

    You’ve mixed my comments up. I’m skeptical of the notions that great science and art benefit all members of society and that access to them isn’t limited by wealth (not that medicine has reduced pain and suffering).

  22. #22 Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde
    December 13, 2008

    As someone undergoing fertility treatments, I recently posted about some of the ethical implications of IVF, as well as about the single best reason for insurance coverage (that coverage results in fewer multi-embryo transfers, and hence fewer multiple births–which often arrive pre-term and are therefore way more expensive to take care of than singletons.)

    Finally, I think BitchPhD had it right with this defense of childbearing and of the support society should give it.

  23. #23 Jim Thomerson
    December 13, 2008

    There is poor correlation between availability of modern medical care and rate of population growth in various parts of the world.

  24. #24 anon
    December 15, 2008

    I have heard many comments, said in humour by minority members of our society, that we need to get busy making babies because the only way to change our society is for us to have more kids, who live by our values and not the mainstream. . its called increasing your representation the fun way.

  25. #25 Coriolis
    December 16, 2008

    You’re not understanding my point hip. As Avrom also pointed out there is a qualitative difference between things like land, oil, etc. and scientific/artistic works.

    If I’m a carpenter, and I make a chair, it can only be used by one person at a time, and for someone else to use it the first person needs to stop using it. And access to better quality chairs is usually more limited.

    The same is not true for maxwell’s equations or Beethoven’s 9th symphony. You don’t loose access to anything because I’m playing the 9th symphony as opposed to some inferior piece of music – everyone can play it if they wanted to once beethoven made it. The same applies to scientific theories.

    Now whether society is structured in such a way as to allow everyone to know/enjoy as much science/art as anyone else is a matter of politics – how society is structured. Mostly a matter of how widely available education is and how much free time people of different classes have to enjoy art.

    But assuming that on average more people would mean that you’d get more great science/art, then with more population you’d have more of both for everyone. On the other hand you’d have less of the resources that are independent of the population – land, oil, etc. So there’s a choice as to what is the right balance.

    I of course don’t have the slightest idea.

  26. #26 Jim Thomerson
    December 16, 2008

    The argument that a larger population would contain more great composers, scientific geniuses, etc. looks reasonable fom a statistical distribution standpoint. Do you think there was a 20th century composer the equal of Bach, Brahms, Mozart, etc. of past centuries when populations were smaller? Paul Ehrlich answered this argument with the idea that giving more members of a smaller population access to education, etc. would accomplish the same thing. The majority of today’s human population live under circumstances unlikely to produce a great scientific genius or a great classical composer.

  27. #27 hip hip array
    December 16, 2008


  28. #28 Coriolis
    December 17, 2008

    Yes of course I think there are musicians from the 20th century that are just as good if not better then the Beethovens and the mozarts, etc. Have you ever heard of the beatles, for one? It’s just that we’ve moved on to different styles of music being popular and hence the new greats aren’t in classical music. But I have no doubt that let it be or hey jude will still be around 200 years later along with beethoven’s 9th.

    And are you seriously arguing that more people today live in worst circumstances then in the 19th century, in the developed world? That your average kid has worse education or access to less information? What are these circumstances in today’s developed world that supposedly lead to a lesser chance of becoming a great artist/scientist today compared to the situation of a 19th century peasant or factory worker in Europe? Much less the serfs of the middle ages that preceded them.

    The only difference is that at least for science today, so much has been done already that we’ve come to the point where further advances are getting quite hard, and also there is so many more things to be learned before one can tackle the interesting questions. This is one reason that quite a few high energy physics people have moved to biology – far more easily accessible, unexplored problems which look solvable and interesting.

  29. #29 Jim Thomerson
    December 17, 2008

    Looking at Wikipedia I get total world population at around 1.5 – 1.7 billion in 1900. Present population is around 6.7 billion. According to this site,
    80%, ie, 5 billion + live in poverty on $10 a day or less. So the number of people not living in abject poverty is about the same as the total human population in 1900. I wonder how today’s ratio of one affluent person to four poor people compares to the ratio of affluent to poor in 1900.

  30. #30 Coriolis
    December 18, 2008

    You don’t need to wonder. There is no shortage of descriptions of the life that most common people had from the middle ages, through the Renaissance and then the ages of exploration and the industrial age, at least for europe.

    The way that the vast majority of people lived in those days would make abject poverty in any country in the developed world at this time look like a great life. Now of course if one focuses romantically only on the upper ruling classes of the previous ages than maybe you’d come to a different conclusion…

  31. #31 speedwell
    December 18, 2008

    I think he means that no couple should produce more than two living children on average. Two children would replace the couple. Dead children, not to belabor the obvious, don’t count toward overpopulation. One childless couple and one child-bearing couple might be allotted four children between them. Maybe we could issue transferable “child credits.” Why not?

    Enforcement of these rules without jailing and forcibly sterilizing parents or killing children is problematical, though. Maybe not so much for the proponent of mandatory child-limiting laws, but some of us are more than revolted at the prospect.

  32. #32 Jim Thomerson
    December 18, 2008

    You guys are all reinventing the wheel. All this was discussed as much as needs be back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Look up the late Garett Hardin, early Paul Ehrlich,you will find everything which has been said here, and much more. It made no more impression on the world then as we are having now.

  33. #33 Avrom
    December 18, 2008

    Of course, Coriolis, the 5 billion+ figure is not people living in abject poverty in any country in the developed world–I think very few of those countries have almost *anyone* surviving on the equivalent of $10/day or less PPP(certainly any country with *anything* resembling a welfare state, even to the very limited extent the US has, provides a minimum standard of living well above that).

    The relevant question is how the vast majority of people in, say, 1908 lived compared to the poor in *less* developed countries. I simply don’t know the answer to that; it’s certainly the case that the lot of a poor person in, say, Sierra Leone is incomparably worse than that of a poor person in the US, let alone most of western Europe. I think it’s arguably rather worse than the life of a poor person even in 1908.

    Jim–re whether any 20th-century composer is the equal of Bach, Mozart, or Brahms: My guess is that, when the verdict of history is finally in on the worth of 20th century composers, the answer will almost assuredly be “yes, several.” People tend to devalue artistic achievements which came recently. It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of the 20th century population growth has been in non-Western countries, and achievements in the arts that occur outside the West are recognized by the West *very* slowly, if at all.

    This isn’t, of course, to say that unchecked population growth is a great idea. Sooner or later, even if we *do* manage to strictly limit our per capita consumption, it’s just not going to be possible for resources to keep up.

  34. #34 Jim Thomerson
    December 18, 2008

    Poor has lots of definitions. I think we would agree that most people facing starvation or heavy-duty malnutrition could qualify as “poor”. I googled around on starvation and malnutrition worldwide and found mostly advocacy sites. This one struck me as maybe being objective.

    I was raised on a small ranch in Texas. During the drouth of the ’50’s there were several years when we had a gross income of less than $1000/year, with expenses several times that. My parents were the kind who did not discuss money with me. However, during that period, out of the blue, my mother said to me, “People think we are poor, but I want you to know we have $25,000 in the bank.”

    I’ve spent a good bit of time in northern South America, primarily Venezuela and Colombia. Most people here in the USA have no idea what poor is all about.

  35. #35 Rr
    December 19, 2008

    If, in fact, 1 and 2 are the solutions to the problem, why not surgically sterilize any woman with two children already?

    …That sounds like a very hostile sexist act to me, unlike as opposed to a statement of sterilizing any women and men. That one would only be possibly hostile, and not sexist.

  36. #36 Martin R
    December 20, 2008

    Thanks for you thoughtful comments! I haven’t been able to reply before because of moving house and lacking net access.

    I wrote “let’s view it as unethical”, not “let’s make it illegal”. I’m advocating the voluntary adoption of a set of ethical rules that would be beneficial to humanity. Instrumental ethics!

    As for infertility treatments, they probably don’t contribute much to overpopulation. I just think it makes good public fiscal sense not to support with one hand what you work to curtail with the other. Call me a Scandy social engineer.

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