Do We Have A Moral Obligation To Limit Population Growth To Save Humanity?

February 19, 2009

This is an incredibly touchy subject, and to be honest, I don’t know the answer. In fact, I don’t even know how I feel about it either way. There are of course people on both sides of this argument, using arguments that I can both agree with and completely despise.

On one hand, some say that there could just too many people on the planet as evidenced by the amount of people who are starving and dying every day that should be taken care of. Add in the overcrowded cities around the world that are contributing to terrible pollution and other environmental issues, and we can see the problems that trying to support this many people on the planet could be leading us down a slippery slope. The world population is currently growing by approximately 74 million people per year, which is no small number. Spend some time in any big city, and you sit in traffic, breathe the bad air, and watch the garbage trucks full of trash operating 24 hours a day. Population size and growth certainly do play into any environmental concerns one may have. On the other hand…

Who is one person to tell another person how many children to have? There are people who say that having as many children as you want is a right, and that we can always adapt our food policies to feed the hungry if we really wanted to. That next child being born could cure cancer, solve the global warming crisis, or become a great leader. The problem with this argument, from my standpoint, is that the majority of people having multiple babies are in third world countries, where these children barely have a chance at learning to read, never mind becoming a world leader. The people having fewer children seem to be more educated and more aware of the problems we are facing. So…is it good that these people have fewer children to offset the growth in those other countries? Or are we limiting our childrens’ potential to do more because we are having fewer of them?

I just don’t know. I do know that the more people there are, the more fossil fuels we use, the more pollution gets emitted, the more land gets used and abused, the more plastic crap we have to make to sell to everyone, and the more companies like Monsanto can try to genetically engineer our food, using this population as an excuse to do so. For the most part, I feel like a little population control would do us some good, but how could anyone do that in a fair manner? They couldn’t – and that’s how I see the situation. It’s like Americans buying the biggest cars on the planet while telling everyone in China and India that they should not be buying and using more cars every year. Where do we get off thinking we can do so? The same goes for population control. Who gets to make that decision? And is it a moral issue?

What do you guys think? I would really love to learn more about what you all think about this, and what you think the solution could be if there were one to be had. Let me know in the comments, and I hope we can have a decent, sane discussion about it.

Filed in: Environment • Tags: , ,
Like this post? If so, please consider subscribing to my full feed RSS. Or, if you would prefer, you can subscribe by Email:

Enter your email address in the box below. Address will only be used to deliver a daily email and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Comments (24)

  1. Adam Shake says:

    I had to get involved in this discussion. We’ve done a good bit of writing on this subject, and it’s not an easy one, so I applaud you on this.
    We went so far as to allow a commenter with ideas contrary to our own, to write a guest post, which spawned quite an interesting group of comments.

    What it comes down to is that the carbon footprint of 33 Rwandan’s is about equal to 1 American. So which is worse, 1st world consumption or 3rd world overpopulation?

    Some will say that we “subsidized” 3rd world countries in the 70’s and 80’s through organizations like “Save the Children” and “famine relief” thereby increasing their populations and causing more severe environmental damage and civil war.

    I must placate myself with the knowledge that I am an environmentalist and do not work for U.S.A.I.D. or any other organization that seeks to bring relief to 3rd world countries, and as such, I don’t have to worry about the duality of my own message (though I do support them in theirs)

    Studies have shown that there are 2 main things that must happen to lower birth rates. Education of women and adequate medical facilities. I can advocate these and protection of the environment at the same time, without feeling like I am being hypocritical.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Adam Shake

  2. Tim @ MiniLifeHacks says:

    No, I don’t think so. I think we’re closer to populating other planets than we are to over-populating this one. We’ll get pretty creative before we decided that we’re actually too cramped in this place.

  3. Bucky says:

    Interesting question. And I’m afraid that I don’t have any easy answers.

    For the past few decades, we’ve been told that Malthus was wrong and the earth could in fact support a huge population. We are learning that Malthus was in fact correct and the enormous increase we’ve seen in population has only been possible because of the availability of cheap energy from fossil fuels and the ongoing destruction of our environment.

    Our day of reckoning is dawning.

    We may be somewhat isolated from the worst here in the industrialized West, but over the course of the next few decades, we should expect to see widespread mass starvation across the globe.

    Personally, I’d be hard pressed to find it a responsible choice to bring another child into this world. But to be honest, that decision is made rather easier for me because I am a gay man. That said, I am also an adoptive father. And I am frightened by the prospects my son faces in the future.

    Should we limit our population growth? YES.

    How is the problem.

  4. I absolutely think we should limit our population growth. While there is plenty of uninhabited land in the world, a good bit of it is also uninhabitable. The amount of water it would take to make the desert, where I live, inhabitable by more people boggles the mind. I don’t see how any calculation could show no adverse impact of the additional use of resources and additional refuse that would result from more and more people being added.

    As I’m sure you know, this topic caused a huge furor in the Mother Earth News letters to the editor section.

  5. david says:

    True, Tim, but it’s not just about being cramped, it’s about using resources too. Which seem to be getting scarcer!

    Thanks Adam, appreciate the thoughts on that. We did subsidize 3rd world countries, but they are human too and should have access to clean water, medicine, and food, right?

  6. Edwin says:

    Don’t let the fact that the next person to be born might be the one to cure cancer stop us from putting regulations in place – a cure for cancer will only lead to greater populations! We need something to kill us off :P

    In saying that I know how I would feel if anyone were to tell me how many children I could have…

    …and it would not be happy.

    But we do need to limit population somehow to prevent widespread suffering (for both people and planet.) Mother Earth will limit our population naturally if we don’t, but that will be through the mass starvation across the globe that Bucky mentioned. So while any population limiting system will cause immediate suffering, it will prevent greater suffering in future.

    How is most certainly the issue. How? How how how how how???!

    I don’t know.

    Maybe stop putting so much energy into keeping people alive against the odds? While our world is facing a huge issue of overpopulation we continue to pour huge funds and effort into keeping it that way.

    Once again I know how I would feel if someone told me the doctors weren’t allowed to try to keep a loved one alive, despite the 20% chance of being able to do so…

    …Yip, not happy.

    What an issue! Like the rest of you I don’t have the answer.

  7. Craig stevens says:

    I know of one committed green woman who is raising 4 children so she can add 4 committted environmental persons to the world.

    cheers
    Craig

  8. knutty knitter says:

    Education and health care seem to automatically lower birth rates so surely that must be an answer. Especially when applied to women. If you know your child will survive to grow up and be part of a society, why have any more. Most excess children are the result of high infant mortality rates. The rest are somewhat due to religions and their control of fertility. Deal to the problem and the effect will start to recede.

    viv in nz

  9. BC says:

    This topic is near to my heart becuase my wife and I, who have 2 children, have been struggling with the question of whether to have more. And I am certainly one of the only people among my circle of friends to include zero population growth as a reason for why we should not. It’s hard, nearly impossible, to balance the needs of the world against one’s own desires and inclinations, but the first step is to see that this kind of question even matters. I think most of the people who have five children, drive a Hummer, or dump 83 loads of fill dirt into the wetland in their backyard (which just happened here in Virginia Beach) don’t even realize that there IS a larger world that might be affected by their actions. Others are so afraid that someone else might “tell them what to do” that they effectively shut off the possibility that their own conscience might cause them to limit their actions voluntarily.

    So this is a bit of a ramble, but the point is, yes, environmental responsibility did play a role in our eventual decision, which was to limit ourselves to two. And I feel good about that. And nobody else had to tell me to do it, either.

  10. Paola says:

    I think we should have a moral obligation to limit population. I wanted 3 kids but only have 1 amazing daughter. After careful thought I felt it is better raising, providing, and educating the one that I have then try to do the same for all 3. I am raising my daughter to be eco-friendly so that she is able to pass this to friends and her kids later down the road. I think the mom that had octuplets and has 6 other kids at home is being selfish.

  11. Rene says:

    Personally, I hate it when people try to impose their morals on me, so I don’t impose mine on them. As part of a couple who chose NOT to have children, I feel that my husband and I doing the least we can do to stop the population madness on this planet. But I can’t tell anyone else to make a choice like that, how rude!

    Besides, I thought the problem isn’t really overpopulation, but is how we in first-world countries are gobbling up more resources than all of the people in third-world countries?

  12. david says:

    Rene – in my opinion I feel like its kind of a combination of both. We have the room for people, just not enough of everything that we need to keep them healthy and alive. And yea, if we could stop raping 3rd world countries, that would be nice too. :-)

  13. nora says:

    Dont be fooled folks, the earth could support plenty more of us, its the way we use its resources and the destruction we cause that should be limited.

    There is no shortage in resources just a huge abuse and bad education. The higher functioning governments and banks and companies love for us to think in LACK, like there isnt enough. live in fear.

    What we need is for the flood gates of actual resource technology to finally be opened and he price tag ripped off. all communities should be able to harness free and clean sustainable energy (no profit to the power and fuel industries so be sure they are to keen on sharing what they know about FREE ENERGY) WE need technology that can clean up the mes we have already made and build homes and community gardens for the countries that live in poverty.

    It bullsh%t to think in Lack and I hope that the few left after 2012 will be clear on how to proceed to rebuild and purify our current home and possible travel to new ones.

    all crazy talk i know but to be honest all you naysayers can go live your life of fear and die off in your reality of lack, judgment and destruction. I know lots of light workers and rainbow warriors that will be living on peace and sustainable community organization as soon as our science is trully shared and spread across the planet. we will heal the earth like a virus gone holy, we will turn it around and live in prosperity soon, bring on the light children and crystal babies! I got two and after ’12 ill be coaching lots of families on how to have more.

    FREE ENERGY!! FREE PLANET!! FREE PEOPLE!!

  14. Jenni says:

    I think, my opinion, that is the people can responsibly, financially, and otherwise, raise the child, or children, that is right up there, with balancing that out with protecting the enviroment we all call home. There has to be room on the land for growing food, storing it, moving it, and than for the places to get it. And the resources for all the other things we need to grow and use. Place for the dump, which we need to throw away as little as possible, for we may have a park on top of it one day, to take our kids to play on. There is a lot that goes into this, not just having a baby and raising it. This world has way too many orphans.

  15. Ken D. says:

    Limit population? Yes.

    At the moment we are using 40% of the Earth’s “primary photosynthetic productivity;” that is, %40 of the “surplus” plant tissue formed by photosynthesis, over and above what plants need to stay alive. Herbivores rely on this surplus for their survival. A herbivore which takes more than this surplus starts to eat into the ability of plants to recover from predation. This includes crops, trees, and the meat we eat from the land and ocean, which is ultimately dependent upon plants of one sort or another.

    In other words, we take %40, every other heterotroph on the planet has to live on %60. double our population while keeping the same consumption pattern and we’re using %80. Everything else — fish, whales, birds, coelenterates, Queen Anne’s Lace, fungi, orchids — would have to scramble for the %20 left over. Even if we all lived like the average Nigerian, we’d still blow massive holes in biodiversity.

    Limit population: how?

    As long as we have a civilization based on money, the way to make things happen will be to make people follow the money. So children have to be expensive.

    — education, for example. Educated people usually want their kids to be well-educated too. Education is expensive. Ergo, fewer kids.

    — more education. The more people get what is going on the better.

    — educate women. Many women who get a taste of a life which consists of doing something other that being ordered around by men and popping out babies learn how to, and choose, to limit their family size. This is not always true, of course. not every woman dreams of being a yuppie living in Washington D.C., but every little bit helps.

    — medicine. If chances are good your kids will make it to adulthood, you won’t have to have twelve of them.

    — easy, effective, cheap birth control. It exists. And if anybody comes to you and says that God wants us to have lots of babies, or that God hates condoms/the Pill and only approves of abstinence, tell them that God must be off Her rocker and living a fantasy world, and go about your business.

    — Less labor-intensive work. Farm and herding societies requite many hands to work well. Don’t forcibly settle people in factory towns, but make other ways of life more appealing.

    — give everybody free, unlimited Internet access. Nothing kills the sex drive faster than huge amounts of free porn.

    Also:

    Tim: Settling other planets is technologically, and physiologically, just about impossible. Getting there at all — let alone getting millions of people there daily, which is what would be needed just to keep the population stable — is something we don’t know how to do. Living there would subject our body to weird gravity, toxic substances, radiation hazards, and other problems. We can visit, but not settle. I’m not going to say full speed ahead to 9 billion assuming that we’ll figure out artificial gravity and teleportation by then.

    Craig Stevens: anyone with kids can tell you that raising them a certain way is no guarantee that they’ll turn out that way. Every committed vegan activist could have 9 kids and raise them as vegan activists, but I guarantee you that a good number of them will end up going to business school or working for Chevron.

    Nora: All I’m going to say is, noting special is going to happen in 2012 — no planetary realignments, magnetic pole shifts, nibru close encounters (there ain’t no nibru) or anything of that sort. Don’t depend on the crystal children to save your neck.

    I’m not sure how effective any of this will be. We’re clever and all, but we have an incredible ability to ignore what’s good for us. Our brain is a thin layer of Zen master wrapped around a mantle of monkey wrapped around an adamantine core of lizard. If we can’t figure out how to make it work, perhaps someone else, someday, will.

    — Ken D.

  16. n says:

    well you solved it ken, more internet and less stupid women

  17. Tatyana says:

    Perhaps the women (and couples) that REALLY want kids – and believe they have tons of love to give – should give that love to the orphans of their community, and of the world if possible. I think we have enough unloved, unwanted children on this planet to have 40 year old women desperate to have kids using science (that tortures animals in the process) to help them conceive. Perhaps our world would have some chance of being a better, more humane place if the children (and animals) here NOW received some love, rather than being subject to the poor conditions most orphans have to endure (even here in the U.S.) until “adulthood”. I believe if someone has love to give, it doesn’t matter if the recipient is a blood relative or not. We are all related, in spite of what Western imperialist teachings tell us!

  18. Bucky says:

    Tatyana:

    Interesting comment and near and dear to my heart as an adoptive father. But ain’t never gonna happen. I never had any desire to see little replicas of me running around loose in the world, but I know lots of people do. Go figure. And then throw in the religions requiring everyone to go forth and multiply and multiply despite the immorality of banning birthcontrol and encouraging huge families to people that can’t even feed themselves.

    And you don’t even want to get started on couples who will go to any expense and length to have a “child of their own to love.” I get it that you might want a genetic copy for all sorts of reasons but if you can’t love a child unless he’s got your nose and eyes, perhaps you shouldn’t be a parent.

    But I digress …

  19. david says:

    I could not agree more Tatyana and Bucky. It’s amazing to me that people want to outlaw choice in this country, but those same people are not willing to support those kids who are not getting a fair chance in life because of the situation they are born into. If you want to take away choice, you better be ready and willing to deal with the consequences. And this country is not willing to do that.

  20. Alyss says:

    I think we need to limit population, but before we start limiting the number of children people can have, why don’t we find a way to ensure acess to contraception to everyone, world wide, and see what happenes.

  21. John Taves says:

    This is not a difficult question at all. The logic is actually quite simple. It is immoral to choose to have more than two children.

    There is a limit to how many people the planet can support. It does not matter if you think we can invent ways to double food production, or produce more fresh water, there is still a limit. It does not matter what that limit is, and it does not matter where you think we are relative to that limit. The population must be stabilized, or we will hit the limit. The only way to stabilize, without killing, is to limit our offspring production. Or to put it another way the population will be “stabilized” one way or the other.

    When you choose to have a third child, you are choosing to permanently increase the human population. The only way to undo that permanent increase is for someone else to have fewer than two. So, choosing to have more than two is a selfish choice. It is also cruel, because it moves the human population closer to misery. When you choose to have a third, you are not expecting that child to die before having children of their own. And at today’s fertility rate you can expect that child to also have more than two and thus you are choosing to grow the population forever, thus guaranteeing that some generation will suffer dramatically shorter lives to make up for your selfishness. Or to put it another way, you are choosing to force humans into shorter lives. Shorter average life spans is the only possible outcome if the fertility rate stays above the replacement rate.

  22. Sharon says:

    Yes, I think we are morally obligated.
    The more food we have, the more population will grow, the more we will waste and pollute…

    I already know this will seem harsh.
    I am a female of child-bearing age and NEVER want to have children. If I could get sterilized, I would! lol

    I wish people would be open to the idea of restrictions on births.

    1. Offer incentives: high incentives for 0 children with lower incentives for 1-2 children
    2. Limit families to 2 children
    3. If adopting, families can adopt as many as they can afford/handle
    4. After the 2nd child is born, offer free sterilization (male and female)
    5. If families give birth to more than 2 children, they will pay fines (I believe China does this)

    (I do not support abortion; I support pregnancy prevention)

  23. Ellen says:

    I do not think we have a moral obligation to limit the population. There are a lot of things we can do to support ourselves along with resources that are untapped. Maybe we have a moral obligation to change our habits, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

    Limit families to 2 children? Do you believe in personal freedom? If not, move to China.

    If you believe that America is too crowded because you live in a city, drive for a while. I may be called insensitive, but we as people are more important than animals. I also believe that they can adapt fairly well, and don’t need people kicked out of their “habitat.”

    I do not want U.N. Agenda 21 shoved down my throat. If you do not know what that is, please do some research. Both Democrats (democratsagainstunagenda21.com) and Republicans have made strong statements against it. Agenda 21 takes away so many rights (including property rights), and actually states that people should be less educated because they would use less resources (among MANY other disturbing things).

  24. rickyh says:

    I didn’t see anyone ask what encourages population growth in the first place? I’m sure health, productivity and simple math play a role, but one of the underlying supports for population growth (beyond free choice, etc.) is simply our economic systems. Capitalism requires continued growth to return adequate return on investment. As long as profit is the main motive for investors (which in some way we all are), do you think there will be much motivation to really curtail growth. True, richer economices have more of a “capped” population profile, but the real action is in “developing” economies that still have large populations to enjoin the market. My sense is if we could move to a more evenly distributed wealth system without such high demand for growth, we’d see less need for large populations in the first place. I’d like to see a smaller population where more resources could expended on each person and the lives they live could enable them to share their unique gifts in the highest order possible. That would be a guaranteed immortality for each of us.