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Population: the easy part

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Chris Mooney has a rather odd article at Grist entitled “Can We Finally Have a Serious Talk About Population?,” profiling a new book on the subject by Alan Weisman. Correctly, he notes that population growth is a part of ongoing environmental crises. But if one were to merely read the article, one would get the impression that lack of much talk about the problem of population is the result of some sort of political correctness, of the issue being too politically loaded to discuss. He goes so far as to suggest it is a ‘taboo’ topic. Weisman, then, is cast as a brave truth-teller, going where no one else dares to go and speak frankly about a problem the rest of us would rather ignore. Furthermore, he gives the impression that insofar as the Ehrlich “population bomb” hypothesis was proven wrong by subsequent events, it was only via Norman Borlaug’s Green revolution and the advances in agricultural productivity that came with it, which didn’t resolve the fundamental problem but merely bought us more time.

This framing is incomplete, and misleading. For one thing, the notion that treating population growth as a problem is somehow ‘taboo’ seems, at best, a gross exaggeration. See, for example, this New York Times story from last week, in which the higher population projections are frankly and directly labeled ‘pessimistic’ and the lower projections are labeled ‘optimistic’. That population growth should ideally slow to a stop, and quite possibly reverse, may be controversial in parts of contemporary analytic philosophy, but is closer to a consensus view than a ‘taboo’ notion. Another way in which the Ehrlichs and their contemporaries turned out to be wrong was where they saw population growth going, if a mass famine did not occur: their Malthusianism wasn’t merely wrong in that we weren’t near a major crash, it was wrong in that we were not doomed to continue on the same growth pattern until a crash occurred (this characterization isn’t entirely fair to the Ehrlich’s especially if you look outside The Population Bomb, although they flirted with the notion). Since The Population Bomb was published, the global average fertility rate has been more than cut in half.  The projections for peak population have been regularly adjusted downward. (The most recent UN projections have bucked this trend slightly, based largely on African fertility rates not dropping quite as fast as previously, but see the NYT article linked above for some doubts about that.) Compared to the other key variable of our environmental crisis, greenhouse gas emissions, the news on the population front is positively cheerful.

Not only is it headed in the right direction, there is broad agreement on why that’s happening and what will keep it going. Mooney:

So what’s Weisman’s solution? Importantly, he is no supporter of coercive population control measures such as China’s infamous one-child policy. Rather, Weisman makes a powerful case that the best way to manage the global population is by empowering women, through both education and access to contraception — so that they can make more informed choices about family size and the kind of lives they want for themselves and their children.

I hope for Weisman’s sake Mooney is selling his argument short, because this isn’t news to anyone who has been paying attention. Development and the rise from poverty is important, of course, but women’s empowerment in economic, family, cultural and political life is probably moreso (compare, for example, the fertility rates of Pakistan and Bangladesh; the former is wealthier, but the latter, which has pursued a more feminist-friendly path, has seen fertility drop to replacement level while Pakistan remains above three.) If this is all Weisman’s book has to contribute to the conversation, It’s not making an important contribution. Indeed, despite occasional flirtations with authoritarian responses to population growth this is essentially what the Ehrlich’s proposed in the late 70’s.

In sum: population growth rates and global fertility rates are declining far more rapidly than anyone would have predicted a generation ago, for reasons that are largely well understood. The trends that contribute to this are happy trends in their own right for just about any sane non-misogynist. They are likely to continue on their own, although political action to speed them up is welcome and valuable. Greenhouse gas emissions are headed in the wrong direction, and while we have some knowledge about how to change that as a technical matter, as a political question we haven’t made much progress to speak of. I think this accounts for the relative silence on population growth quite well.

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