What People are Saying—Population reduction has to happen first, part 1

Update: Due to excellent questions, I’ve updated this portion (see population momentum below) and added more on what experts say in What People are Saying—Population reduction has to happen first, part 2.

This is the fourth and final part of the What People are Saying portion of the series on the culture wars, which began with Climate change is a concern: yes or no?

Overheard in public discussions:
• The best solution of all is for us to limit population. If we don’t limit population, there is no other solution. Frequent suggestion: make birth control available to those who want it.

• The richest 20% are responsible for 80% of consumption (see Over-consumption of resources by a small developed population —also a major problem) and the poorest 1/5 consume very little, so target those condoms!

• If there is not enough for everyone, we’re going to have to practice mandatory birth control, but only after other options. (See Susan Power Bratton for her Bible-based support of coercive family planning under some circumstances, ‘Christian responses to coercion in population regulation’ in Consumption, population, and sustainability: perspectives from science and religion Audrey R. Chapman, 1999 Island Press.) She argues that there is a moral imperative to keep the population low enough that we can feed and care for everyone.)

• Reduce immigration to US and reduce fertility in the US and elsewhere (so that there will be less pressure to come to the US). See policies of Negative Population Growth.

What I’ve read:
Population reduction is important, but unlikely, and discussions can be politically uncomfortable, particularly when those pushing the point the loudest are the richest of the richest.

A challenge: the birth rate can be below 2, but the population can continue to grow even so; in these countries, there are relatively few older people dying compared to the number of births. China’s population continues to grow, although the fertility rate is 1.75.
China's population 2010
China's population 2050
China’s population will continue to increase
This is called population momentum, as the large number of younger people ages.

This will happen in the US as well, but the results will be less dramatic. In Japan, the number of older people is also expected to increase relative to the population, but this is in part because the number of young people declines:
Japan today
Japan 2007

Japan 2050
and Japan 2050 (Don’t be confused, the scales are different!)

I have seen few solutions proposed other than voluntary birth control and education, both general education to increase women’s options, and education on family planning. Here is one: the desire of fishermen to earn a decent wage motivated population control (see Fishing for a Solution to the Population Problem). Have you seen others?

OK, what have you been hearing, and is it rational discussion, or the culture wars?

What People are Saying
part 1—Climate change is a concern: yes or no?
part 2—Cap and trade for greenhouse gas: yes or no?
part 3—Choosing technologies/ changing behavior
second part—What People are Saying—Population reduction has to happen first, part 2

10 Responses to “What People are Saying—Population reduction has to happen first, part 1”

  1. Population control is important – but maximum environmental detriment is caused by the US – where birth rates are lower than places like rural India and Africa – so, I think, lowering consumption and cutting down GHGC at the policy level in the US will have a bigger impact than population control in places like rural India. And on that note – population control in the US will also have a bigger impact – and yes, all types of birthcontrol should be encouraged and made available – govt clinics used to distribute birth control pills, free of charge, in India – and also, had vigorous family planning campaigns via T. V – it’s hard to enforce dictatorial limits on family size in a democracy – so education is KEY… probably a lot slower in terms of change tho

  2. David says:

    The best birth control is wealth. This was pointed out over 230 years ago by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations. He noted that constantly over history and across nations and cultures, wealthy people have fewer children and poorer people have more. This was in an age long before birth control. As you pointed out often the wealthy are most concerned about the number of poor people being born and they snivel in their tea complaining about “how are they going to feed all those children?”

    I also find a strange contradiction between those who will oppose nuclear power on every possible ground – from some type of religious conviction that it is evil – and yet at the same time worry greatly that the world is getting over populated. Nuclear power might kill some people they say. (Though less than nearly any other technology so far). But then we need less people. The one unmentioned in this is the abortion industry. Condoms fail too often to be a realistic way of reducing population but abortion “takes care” of the problem right now. This is starkly incongruous, and reveals an anti-human bent to some of the conversation. I.e. Don’t use nuclear power, some might catch cancer in 100 years, but please use abortion to remove those unwanted poor people. Hum.

    An energy rich situation would solve the “problem” of greenhouse gases and population growth by making everyone more wealthy and allowing for more than enough clean water, light and energy to sustain the wealth. Fresh water can be desalinated from sea water. Lights can be lit on crops to extend and quicken their growth. Cars can run on Electricity (mass transit reduces the freedom to travel). Trucks can run on synthetic diesel produced in high temperature nuclear gas cooled reactors. The “waste” can be burned in either fast reactors or in my favorite design LFTR’s.

    In other words, we do have a solution. The problem is that the confusion comes from people making vast amounts of money from our current solutions. They have a vested interest to keep people afraid and to take advantage of our transparent system to slow and stop the development of nuclear power.

    I am pro people. I believe we have enough resources to live comfortably, with education and dignity on this planet with billions of people. I have lived in a city of 9.5 million that was only 18 miles east west and 25 miles north south. This area could have been fueled and powered by nuclear power eliminating the need for CO2 emitting transportation and electricity.

    We don’t need to kill or prevent people from being born. We need to supply them with power and opportunity.

  3. Karen Street says:

    There is a lot here. I’ll respond to one misconception.

    I really do hope that everyone avoids the abortion discussion. There are other places to post. I often fail to approve posts that include everything including the kitchen sink.

    I don’t know about Adam Smith, but in an excellent book on population, Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support?, I learned that birth control perhaps began in France 200 years ago when the cultural situation changed so that women met more frequently. With the use of birth control, the area became richer. Presumably this was not your typical farm area as A) women got a chance to meet, and B) farmers in that time might have been wealthier with more children. Increasing wealth may lead to fewer children, but it’s not as clear as that. Increasing cost of children and access to information about birth control does lead to fewer children.

  4. David says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thank you for allowing my post. I will respect your limits on the conversation. You have summarized attitudes very well.

    Adam Smith references differences between rich and poor in countries as diverse as China, Egypt, the Colonies (America) and Great Britain. His 1776 book is notable because population growth was not a focus of his work, but he mentions it in relation to it’s effect on economics. He observes that the worst situation for a common laborer is a static population growth. When population is growing a common laborer has the opportunity to increase their income.

    I don’t know the history of birth control but I was fascinated to find out that there are natural restrictions on the number of children as wealth increases, even apart from efforts at specific birth control, or education about that issue. I think that education (which normally accompanies wealth) generally gives women options that naturally reduce their fertility.

  5. Rosemary says:

    Karen, I wonder if what you say about China’s population growth is true about Europe and North America as well? If so, it would seem that the real population growth problem results more from increasing human longevity today and the wealth and consumption of fossil fuels of older people in the developed world, rather than from procreation. I don’t see that anything ethical can be done to alter that source of growing emissions, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about population growth being the thing that has to change first. Technology has to change first. It’s the only thing that can change.

  6. David says:

    Which is why I am now a strong supporter of nuclear power.

    After living in Asia for twelve years and seeing the poverty there, I spent several of those years doing private research on many forms of alternative energy. I had not even thought of nuclear at the time. After looking at all the types of, wind, solar, geothermal, wave power, methane generation, and bio-diesel (I even helped a British company connect with a business to grow tuba tuba plants for bio-diesel), I concluded they were all too expensive and or weak to make much of an impact.

    About 3 years ago I found a plan done by MIT for a modular pebble bed reactor. It was my first introduction to nuclear. Since then I have read thousands of pages, several books and listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts. I am convinced that nuclear power is safe, clean and reliable, and that fuel in and for a power reactor cannot be used as a weapon (in any practical sense, so I won’t use the word impossible, just highly highly improbable). The problem with nuclear is that it is so good that other energy producers toss FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) into the market to make sure it is not strongly developed. I do not work for any energy company, or even own stock in one (outside of a very small investment in a mutual fund which might have some energy stocks).

    I believe we can supply vast amounts of emission free, reliable energy for a growing world population. The other choice is to continue to burn fossil fuels at a vast rate, or to allow large numbers of people to die early deaths. I don’t like either of those options.

  7. Karen Street says:

    Rosemary, China is a more dramatic example than Europe or North America because there is such a difference between the number of procreating women today and 50 years ago, and the increase in life expectancy in China has been more dramatic.

    I saw an analysis somewhere of one’s contribution to climate change through one’s own behavior, and through one’s progeny, and both are large. If I find it, I’ll add it to this post. Both are important, and most find challenging both the discussion of population and per capita reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

    One reason why so many people avoid the subject of population is your reason, there don’t seem to be any really large ways to change population, though providing birth control to those who want it should be done for moral reasons as well as how much better off all will be. The second is that so many of the population control people, like ZPG whom I linked to, don’t sound good-hearted and worried for everyone and so some just want to avoid the discussion altogether.

    I think I should add the benefits seen from soap opera discussions of contraception, even soap opera characters choosing to use birth control, in both the developing and developed world. Population growth can be changed by education in popular media.

  8. Karen Street says:

    David, your path is interesting. Then when you became interested in nuclear, you became very interested.

    I agree that nuclear power is seen as more reliable than any other low greenhouse gas energy source (except hydro where available year round), and cheaper than any other low GHG energy source, except hydro. That said, the nuclear organizations mostly will point out that nuclear is not enough. See for example World Nuclear Association:

    • While new countries can and should introduce nuclear energy, over 80% of nuclear growth – and thus most of nuclear technology’s environmental contribution – will occur in nations already generating nuclear power.

    • Even with expansive growth in nuclear power, renewables will also be needed on a large scale, despite their higher cost. In this sense, nuclear and renewables are not competitors but clean-energy partners.

    • Conversely, even if renewable and clean-fossil technologies meet extremely optimistic assumptions, a global clean-energy revolution adequate to avert catastrophic climate change will require an enormous contribution from nuclear power and extensive realization of its worldwide growth potential.

    The most ambitious pro-nuclear proposals I’ve seen in peer-reviewed journals also contain significant amounts of renewables, and the most ambitious pro-renewables proposals I’ve seen include significant amounts of nuclear.

  9. David says:

    Yes, I understand that most of the nuclear industry also promotes renewables. This is because there are very very few pure nuclear industries. Most of the power plants are owned by energy companies who have a “nuclear mix.”

    Nuclear is scalable in some amazing ways. You can have a reactor as small as 10 MW (actually you can have one as small in wattage as you like but the cost of materials is about the same for the very low wattage as for the higher wattage). A 10 MW plant could be as small as a hot tub. Hyperion had a design for a “nuclear battery” that ran on uranium hydride that was the size of a hot tub. A Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) can be made very physically small and they can follow a load. The only renewable I like is biomass because in order for a biomass plant to operate and repay the investors they have to burn waste wood that would be burned or thrown away anyway. Either that or they plant a special crop to feed the boilers. This means that they are either carbon neutral or carbon negative.

    I am no longer excited about solar, or wind. Mostly because they are weak intermittent solutions that are quite expensive. In some cases that is all you can use, like on some of the islands where I slept in a home with a flashlight bulb for a room light, powered by a car battery charged from a small solar panel. In that case the island was so small and the population so small you could not get a large generation there. Solar makes sense in that situation. But I have also been on islands where the government supplied them with solar panels and in less than 2 years none of them were working because the people did not know how to repair them when they broke.

    Pebble bed reactors are interesting to me because they are very simple and inherently safe, they cannot melt down or explode. LFTR’s are interesting because they burn thorium and can burn up 100% leaving almost no waste and tapping into a metal for a power source that is almost as abundant as Tin. We could use this for the rest of the projected life of the solar system.

    Finally, we had a drought last year in the Philippines. The hydro electric facilities dropped from 700 MW to 30 to 40 MW in output. It was not until we had a typhoon that refilled the lakes that reliable power was restored. For months we suffered with rolling blackouts. When you live with intermitent electricity it becomes much less interesting. Hospitals, factories and businesses don’t run well when the power goes off and on.

  10. Karen Street says:

    Actually, in Is nuclear power necessary? Is it sufficient? I look at what the experts say and they say that we can’t get there from here. I find interesting your real life examples, though there are counterexamples as well.

    Meanwhile, both David and Rosemary have made me realize that I need to supplement this post, thanks! Now to work on it…