Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Join the Dinosaurs

By Cyberquill 12/13/200914 Comments


The other day, I watched a fascinating exchange between Laura Ingraham and Diane Francis, a Canadian journalist who advocated population control by referring to China as having had some success with their one-child policy. Although Ms. Francis, a self-professed feminist, conceded that she wasn’t particularly crazy about Communist dictatorships and their methods, some serious action needed to be taken in order to stem population growth, or else at some point in the not so far future global competition over basic resources like food, water, and energy would become so fierce that World War II will look like a dorm room pillow fight by comparison. (My analogy, but it captures the gist of her analysis.)

Needless to say, Laura Ingraham, being a card-carrying Christian conservative, blew her top at the notion of any kind of policy aimed at reducing birth rates, citing that any such policies would be impossible to enforce without draconian methods akin to those employed in China. For instance, we’d have to tell women how many children they could have, and this would never fly in this country.

Probably true. Hard to imagine to impose a one-child policy in the United States without kicking off a civil war that would make the Civil War (capitalized) look, well, like a dorm room pillow fight by comparison. After all, this is a Christian country, and one of the tenets of Christianity is that God creates every human life for a reason, and it is a mortal sin to interfere with the process. Hence no abortion, and, ideally, no birth control either. Certainly no one-child policy. Be fruitful and multiply.

(Besides, the U.S. population only went from roughly 25 million 100 years ago to 300 million today. Why worry about overpopulation here?)

When my grandfather was born, world population stood at two billion. Now we’re at over six billion, which means that the total number of people tripled within one decade. This circumstance alone, of course, is more frightening than terrorism and global warming combined to the power of googol. What are we going to do? Build a second floor onto our planet so half of the people can live upstairs? And then, as needed, simply add floors? Or pump air into the center of the earth in hopes it’ll inflate like a balloon? Order planet enlargement pills from some Canadian online pharmacy?

As the old saying goes, if you don’t change course, you’ll end up exactly where you’re headed. No way mankind will survive yet another tripling or even a doubling of its population, but that’s exactly where we’re headed. And the funny thing is, everybody knows it. It’s like staring at a category 5000 hurricane that’s coming right at you and hoping it’ll miraculously swerve left or right before blasting you and your town up into the stratosphere.

A high-school teacher of mine once presented the following image:

Imagine a glass jar with bacteria. These bacteria will continue to multiply, and once there are too many, they’ll all die off.

Simple as that. Dial M for multiplying ourselves into distinction.

So here’s the dilemma: on the one hand, we can’t just sit there and proliferate until we become too many and die off, all the while knowing perfectly well where we’re headed; yet on the other hand, it seems to be impossible to even mention a reduction in birth rates as a desirable goal without (a) the right becoming apoplectic with rage over such fascist and sacrilegious “anti-life” attitude, and (b) economists gently reminding us that we need an ever increasing supply of young people in order to support an aging population in terms of social security payments and the like.

Looks like we’re screwed. Clearly, overpopulation will do us all in. But if you dare say so, Laura Ingraham and her crew will bite your head off.

So what’s your solution to population growth, Ms. Ingraham, other than clutching that golden cross around your neck and ridiculing those who are at least trying to find one? Do you have one and you just didn’t get to share it with us because you were too busy talking over Ms. Francis?

Quite frankly, I don’t have a workable solution, either. Emphasis on workable. However, acknowledging that the problem exists may be a first step towards solving it. But one can’t get some folks to even do that lest they may incur God’s wrath for being anti-life, apparently not realizing–or refusing to realize–that by far the biggest threat to human life is creating too much of it.

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  • Dave Gardner

    Thanks for writing about this. Addressing overpopulation is, indeed, quite a challenge -- for all the reasons you catalogued. But there is hope. The more we write about it and talk about it, the weaker the taboo on these discussions becomes. Politicians in some countries are actually beginning to talk about it. We just have to keep it up.

    I’m actually making a film about this subject, to help make it “okay” to acknowledge the unsustainability of our population level.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

    • Cyberquill

      Hooked on Growth. Great title. Well, if politicians in some countries are already beginning to talk about it, it means the situation is dire. Recall that during the ‘08 campaign Obama and McCain only began to discuss the economy after Lehman Brothers had already collapsed and the enormity of the disaster was such that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. That’s usually the point at which serious discussion begins, namely when it’s too late, and then it’s always like “oops, what happened?”

  • Andreas

    As keynes said, ‘in the long run we’re all dead,’ and that first-person plural applies to us a species.

    Then again, it applies to any and every species. All species die out eventually. A few genes in our gene pool will make it into the next species, better adapted to whatever mess we create.

    That said, two comments: 1) Malthus wrote your blog post 200 years ago, and was wrong. He concentrated on food running out, and we figured that one out. Then, overpopulation was the big worry again in the 1970s, but we seem to have stopped worrying about it. That’s because the fertility rate has fallen. So while our population is still growing, we’re really just ageing. 50 years out, and our population will start falling. Maybe we actually have changed course.

    2) in the meantime, I prefer to worry (since I do agree that we should always worry, for not to worry is a sign of, oh, whatever) about RELATIVE fertility. We are facing an evolutionary, biological first: For the first time in biologicial history, the “fittest” members of a species (the educated and rich and powerful) are voluntarily reproducing the least. The females of the species in that category are leaving it to the end of their fertile period and then require technological assistance. Meanwhile, the less adapted are breeding profusely.

    That one would puzzle Darwin.

    • Cyberquill

      If this Malthus character really wrote my blog post 200 years ago, I’ll sue his pants off for anticipatory plagiarism.

      Just because good old Malthus’s prediction didn’t pan out as quickly and for the reason he gave doesn’t mean the threat itself isn’t real. You don’t dismiss a general danger just because some guy erred in the timeline. The big food shortage me be coming once we’ve ruined most of the world’s arable soil. Aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben.

      As to people worrying about overpopulation in the 1970s, if my math is correct, since then world population has grown by almost as many people as were alive in 1900, which tells me that their worries were right on the nose.

      Although the fittest members of our species may be reproducing the least, this phenomenon, unless I’m mistaken, occurs mainly in wealthy first-world countries, which, in the aggregate, comprise only fraction of the world. It doesn’t help much if birth rates are leveling off or falling in a few countries while continuing to skyrocket everywhere else. The “fortress America” deal may not work in terms of keeping billions of desparate people from dragging us down with them. We’ve already got coal dust from Chinese power plants wafting all the way over to California. Check your window sill. Why are the Chinese building power plants like crazy? Because they’ve got too many people who need too much energy.

      The only solution seems to be to turn every country into a wealthy first-world nation, although I’m not quite sure how to accomplish such feat.

      As to Darwin being puzzled, I’m not sure. After all, the survival rate of these wealthy elderly ladies’ offspring is probably the highest offspring survival rate in the history of survival rates. So it makes sense that upper-class females are in no rush to reproduce, as the survival of the ones they’ll have is guaranteed to an unprecedented degree. I’m not an evolution specialist, but as far as I know, it is high infant mortality which spurs reproduction. Better to have too many than none at all. If you can wait till you’re 40 to have one or two kids that’ll probably survive, then there’s no real need to start reproducing like crazy when you’re 15 years old.

      If I were Darwin, I wouldn’t be puzzled at all. Of course, if I were Darwin, I’d be dead. (I was actually going to write “On the Origin of Species,” but then I realized someone else had already done so. Too bad I wasn’t aware of Malthus prior to typing my blog entry. I could have saved myself a lot of pixels.)

      • Andreas

        Alright, you have convinced me: I now have faith that you will forswear sex henceforth.

        Had I only known! While I wasn’t paying attention, I added to the problem. My twerps could be the straws that break …. 😉

        • Cyberquill

          Sex is a matter of how, not if, so there’s no need to forswear it. Of course, you’re aware of this, or your twerps count would be a lot higher than whatever it may be.

          For better or worse, the drive to multiply is built into us. Especially if we have kids of our own, the issue of population control becomes deeply personal, and people who raise it inevitably come across as hating children, including our own, and this launches us into an instinctive offspring protection mode.

          So even aside from religion, we carry a huge genetic barrier to addressing the problem, as our brains will immediately carry the matter to its radical conclusion, namely that, according to the overpopulation alarmists, we and our kids never should have been born in the first place. Now we’re in Defense Mechanism City. Next comes the suggestion that all people concerned about overpopulation should simply shoot themselves, as this would certainly help drive population down.

  • Pete Murphy

    Good post. First of all, there is a very reasonable alternative to China’s coercive one-child policy. Most people ultimately choose to limit the size of their families at some point for purely economic reasons. Responsible people don’t have more children than they can afford to support. Since, for most people, taxes are the biggest drain on their gross income, taxes already play a big part in that economic decision. The reduction in birth rate required to achieve population stability (or even a slowly declining population) can be achieved through economic incentives, with tax policy playing a central role. For example, instead of providing a tax deduction for each child, base tax rates could be cut, with a tax “adder” of some sort required for each child, or each child in excess of some number (one or two or whatever). Of course, such policy would have to be made “income neutral” so that the wealthy have just as much incentive to choose smaller families as the poor. It probably wouldn’t take much. In the U.S. we only need to reduce our fertility rate from the current level of about 2.09 to about 1.84 children per female. (Why less than 2.0? Because of our steadily increasing life expectancy.)

    In addition, in order to attain population stability in the U.S., we must address our high rates of immigration. While we’re proud of our heritage as a nation built of immigrants, we can no longer sustain immigration at a rate that contributes substantially to population growth.

    The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded “the dismal science” after Malthus’ theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. Even worse, economists insist that population growth is vital to economic growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues.

    But because they are blind to population growth, there’s one obstacle they haven’t considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit either of my web sites at or where you can read the preface, join in the blog discussion and, of course, buy the book if you like.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

    • Cyberquill

      Thanks, Pete. I’ll check out your blog and your book.

      I agree with you that reasonable people don’t have more children than they can afford to support, so tax incentives may work. The question is, however, what percentage of the population falls into that category. One could also say that reasonable people don’t eat more than their bodies need, yet look at our waistlines; or that reasonable people don’t spend more money than they have, yet look at our collective credit card debt. Not sure how much stock I would put into people’s overall capacity to act reasonably.

      As to your assertion that most people ultimately choose to limit the size of their families at some point for purely economic reasons, that strikes me as yet another first-world phenomenon. In an ironic quirk of nature, people seem to have the most kids in countries where they couldn’t even afford one, let alone feed a whole gaggle.

      Regarding immigration, I agree that it is a bit puzzling to hear many tout virtually unfettered immigration on the grounds of this country being a proud nation of immigrants, utterly ignoring the fact that, at its founding, U.S. population stood at less than five million, so it has essentially sixty-upled since then. No more frontiers to move into. (Of course, being a naturalized subject myself, the logical response would be to suggest I return whence I came if I’m concerned about overcrowding in the New World.)

      You’re certainly correct in that the planet ain’t getting bigger. Perhaps we could genetically engineer smaller humans who will need less food and take up less space.

      • Jim Hagen

        You are right–Copenhagen couldn’t possibly come up with a solution to global warming because no one has the guts to tell the truth–that overpopulation is the root cause. Andreas and Pete are both correct that family size should be a rational decision based on economics. But too often, well meaning social policies actually reward those least able to care for children. Teen mothers in most US states get what appears to them to be a windfall for having another child.

        • Cyberquill

          It is a tough issue to address, probably the toughest of all. Gandhi once famously said, “You must be the change you’d like to see in the world.” That’s an excellent motto to live by, of course. Trouble is, according to it, anyone who complains about too many people ought to lead by example and commit suicide. (“Want fewer people? Start with yourself, buddy!”)

          No wonder no one is particularly eager to broach the topic. And if you dare, your listeners will most likely wonder what sort of unspoken “solutions” you carry around in the back of your head–mass sterilizations? Forced abortions? Extermination camps?

          People are–I believe rightfully so–afraid what kind of methods any notion of “population control” would entail in practice, should the idea ever find widespread approval.

          • Dave Gardner

            I suggest that advocating wise family size decisions and/or population policy is not “complaining.” Also, early in my life I drove a car without a catalytic converter and did not fasten my seatbelts. Does that mean I cannot now, having learned, make forward progress and support policies requiring use of those devices? Of course not.

            Someone with 4, 6 or more kids (not me, by the way) can discover today that it is not responsible to bring that many new carbon-emitters to life, and they can begin to advocate for better decisions. I believe they have the right to do that, and they should do that. And you can be sure someone will call them a hypocrite and suggest they commit suicide. Those kinds of comebacks are not rational dialogue, but rather reflect the irrational, emotional, baggage-laden nature of the topic.

            We should continue to bring up and discuss the subject and either ignore such comments or repeatedly point out their nonsensical nature…until rationality prevails!

            Thanks for engaging in such an important conversation.

            Dave Gardner
            Producing the documentary
            Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

            • Cyberquill

              I agree that it isn’t “complaining,” but due to the, indeed, emotional and baggage-laden nature of the topic it will be perceived as such. One will inevitably be branded an overpopulation-alarmist, just like most of those who warned about Wall Street speculation and lending practices prior to the economy blowing up were branded “recession-alarmists.” Certain disasters, alas, have to slap people in the face up close and personal in order to be accepted as real.

              It’s like the environment. Some people will only be willing to admit that there is a problem once the air is so toxic that inhaling itself makes them sick. Perhaps then they’ll realize that clean air is an important part of the so-called “standard of living” that they’re so eager to defend via opposing virtually every measure at addressing the problem.

              Rationality prevails? Let’s hope it will, and not human nature.

  • Peter Practice

    This might be the solution:

    • Cyberquill

      Continuing to breed at the present clip may work even faster toward that particular goal.

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