How to be more ethical than the Swedes

Population Will Come Down -- We Choose How:

So, as I once wrote, for a person to produce more than two children is unethical. If you want lots of kids, then adopt -- preferably from an affluent country, as you only make things worse if you move people from cultures with a small environmental footprint to a land of big cars and hamburgers.

We need to give little girls worldwide a good education, because that makes them have fewer kids when they grow up. And we need to combat various religious organisations that sow doubt about the efficacy and moral acceptability of contraceptives.

The whole thing about adopting from affluent countries only seems kind of mean really. I get Martin's point, but there are other terms for "small environmental footprint," and they wouldn't leave Jeremy Bentham smiling. In any case, here are the total fertility rates for nations below Martin's homeland of Sweden from Wikipedia:

TFR 2005-2010 Nation
1.2  Belarus
1.21  South Korea
1.22  Ukraine
1.23  Bosnia and Herzegovina
1.23  Poland
1.24  Czech Republic
1.25  Slovakia
1.26  Lithuania
1.27  Japan
1.28  Hungary
1.28  Slovenia
1.29  Latvia
1.3  Romania
1.31  Bulgaria
1.33  Greece
1.34  Russia
1.35  Croatia
1.36  Germany
1.37  Malta
1.38  Italy
1.39  Armenia
1.4  Moldova
1.41  Spain
1.41  Georgia
1.42  Switzerland
1.42  Austria
1.43  Macedonia
1.46  Portugal
1.49  Cuba
1.49  Estonia
1.5  Barbados
1.53  Canada
1.61  Cyprus
1.64  Trinidad and Tobago
1.65  Belgium
1.66  Luxembourg
1.72  Netherlands
1.73  People's Republic of China
1.79  Serbia
1.79  Australia
1.8  Denmark
1.8  Sweden

Martin's recommendation about female education is a common one, and based on robust social science. But I recall that demographers have note that in many nations fertility rates have been dropping even faster than expected when noting the levels of literacy attained (e.g., Bangladesh's TFR is around 3). But what other insights could we learn from these nations which best Sweden?

* Drink a lot, reduce male life expectancy. Slavic countries do really well on this list! I know that the Scandinavian countries have attempted to force reductions in per capita alcohol consumption through taxation, so perhaps that explains their higher fertility vis-a-vis Russia.

* Give up Communism. Lots of ex-Communist countries on the list.

* Have men live at home for a long time with momma. That's the Italian solution.

* Similar to the Italian solution, have a lot of young Japanese men around. They avoid women apparently. If they hide, they can't have sex.

* Also, be Korean. They're playing video games all the time. I haven't played video games since I was 16, but I don't think that the sex ones are that realistic yet, right?

* The low fertilities in southern and eastern Europe, as well as East Asia, show that too much female empowerment can be a bad thing. For optimal low fertility it seems rather obvious that Saudi Arabia level female slavery is definitely the worst case, but, northern Europe style gender equality is pushing the fertility back up. Nations like Italy have enough female freedom where women have a choice, but men are sexist and immature enough that they make the choice not to settle down with men. By contrast, sensitive Swedish men like Martin are probably irresistible. The happy medium for population decline is one where the only women who can love an over-grown chauvinist man-child is his mother.

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That settles it, I'm moving to Japan.

Good post Razib. I am an ecologist and if you want to reduce population size, the number of kids is only one variable on a three parameter equation, the solution is:
later in life, fewer in number and well spaced.

Under 20s having 2 kids will leave more offspring than a 40 year old having 2 kids. This is why population declines so sharply with women education and work, having kids is postponed (in Spain having kids before your 30s is now rare).

The meek were supposed to inherit the earth

But they aren't the ones who most frequently birth

It is those without will

Who can't swallow a pill

Whose love of their children is their source of self worth

By Dave Chamberlin (not verified) on 02 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hmm, looks like nordics will replace the whole world. All others become endangered. Tiger Woods offsprings will definetely move to that direction.

This, as a childless-by-choice British woman, made me chuckle. We have a lot of men living at home with momma, and yet we are not on the list! Hopefully the rampant culture of alcoholism that we have been carefully cultivating for the last thirty years will do the trick.

By embertine (not verified) on 02 Feb 2010 #permalink

This is why this is one of my favorite blogs. Great post!


Who is Jeremy Benthem? Should that last e have been an a?

Also, as to Martin's post, I'm a little puzzled that he's so confident he's figured out what the optimal level of humans are and how many children it is "ethical" to have. The present level is too high, but not high enough to mandate that you have less than two children, which is the number he's had already. Neat.

Even if you did accept his premise, why would it be any better to adopt from an affluent country?

Raising an unwanted child from a rich society to become a rich adult will consume the same as raising an unwanted child from a poor society to become a rich adult. Either way, you're subsidizing one extra person's life consumption that wasn't there before.

Or is he implying that the child from the affluent society is "guaranteed" a foster parent, so it doesn't matter if you're the one, but the third worlder would be left to languish in poverty without you.

I first interpreted the statement as the politically incorrect (but yet unjustified) idea that the First world adoptee will be more open to Western ideas and stop breeding, while the Third Worlder will not and continue raise many kids as an adult.

I know this is blazingly obvious, but it's difficult for a political movement to succeed when a direct consequence of success is a reduction in the number of people in the movement. I've never been able to figure out how to get around this.

This may be a false memory, but I can swear I can remember being in grade school, being told that there were too many people in the world, and that because of this Americans ought to have smaller families, and thinking that if we did that then eventually the world would be taken over by people from other countries who believed in having large families. Maybe it was junior high school. In any case, for most ideologies (this includes religions), anything that increases the number of believers is good, and this includes big families (since children in general accept their parents beliefs). But if the cause you are trying to advance is population reduction, then by practicing what you preach you are continually undercutting yourself. The Shakers may be the best example of this (compared, lets say, to the Mormons), but the Western World as a whole seems to be doing the same thing in slow motion. So how do we avoid selecting for high birth rate cultures? How do we avoid handing the world over in the end to whatever group is least willing (or able) to reduce its own birthrate?

'I am an ecologist and if you want to reduce population size, the number of kids is only one variable on a three parameter equation, the solution is:
later in life, fewer in number and well spaced.'

You are projecting your own desiderata into the problem, apparently due to mathematical laziness or ignorance. If the number of children is below replacement level, then having them earlier in life results in faster population decline in the long term (the march of shrinking generations proceeds more quickly). Why 'well spaced' would matter, even if you cared to define it, isn't clear.
Of course in a growing population having children later will slow the exponential growth.
At any rate, this attempt to define ethical behavior around sustainability is dubious. We could imagine a society that was static, parsimonious in its use of resources, and mostly happy: let's say we transform the world into a society of biodynamic Amish-esque farmers along with a thin layer of technocratic elites. Some might like this, and some (like me) would 'rather hold it better men should perish one by one, than that Earth should stand at gaze like Joshua's moon in Ajalon'. The question of what world and society should look like is fundamentally aesthetic and these attempts to make 'logical' arguments about it are just a variation on the old is/ought sleight of hand.

Biologically, it is better and safer to have babies before 30, certainly before 35.

If your children contribute more than a minimal amount to the human economy, their contribution to technological progress is greater than their cost.

Many environmentalists hope human technology will stay the same forever. No advanced medicine, etc. Just die whenever you happen to wake up with cancer.

High IQ parents should have as many kids as possible if they care about the big picture.

Mthson, I appreciate your passsion but your claim is a (really, really silly) strawman. I've known environemtalists of many, many sripes but never one who 'hopes that human technology will stay the same'. Most, in my experience, argue that we should force major rapid advances in our technology, abandoning the industrial-revolution model that relies on fossil resources. A small minority are back-to-the-earth luddites. But none that I know of want the status quo.