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The moral case for population reduction
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David P
2021-07-13 19:25:29 UTC
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The moral case for population reduction
July 13, 2021
A frequent assumption in population policy debates is that
stabilizing populations will be sufficient to achieve
ecological sustainability. But as Karin Kuhlemann observes,
“that a population’s size is stable in no way entails sustain-
ability. It may be sustainable, or it may be far too large.”
A recent book from philosopher Trevor Hedberg convincingly
argues the moral case for global population reduction.

by Philip Cafaro

In recent decades, scientific studies and ethical analyses
of global climate disruption and mass species extinction
have proliferated, along with calls for political action to
avert these twin ecological disasters. These investigations
& proposals have mostly avoided discussing population policy.
Now humanity’s failure to arrest global ecological decline
has become the stuff of regular news reports, & the reali-
zation is starting to sink in that the impacts we worried
about inflicting on our grandchildren are happening to us.
This seems to have opened up an intellectual space to discuss
“the P word.” As philosopher Trevor Hedberg writes in his
excellent new book The Environmental Impact of Overpopulation
from Routledge Press:

"We are now over 25 years past the UN Int'l Conference on
Population & Development – the venue where explicit discussion
of population policy became a political taboo. Evading the
problem has not helped us. Population growth has continued &
made it more difficult to mitigate climate change, slow down
the rate of species extinctions, & adequately distribute the
world’s finite resources. Minimizing the harm that befalls
present & future people requires confronting this reality &
abandoning the fiction that procreative choices are too
private or intimate to be subjected to moral scrutiny."

Or as Samuel Johnson once said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a
man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates
his mind wonderfully.”

Important recent studies of population ethics include Sarah
Conly’s One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? (2015) and
Partha Dasgupta’s Time and the Generations: Population Ethics
for a Diminishing Planet (2019). Hedberg’s The Environmental
Impact of Overpopulation: The Ethics of Procreation (2020) is
a valuable addition to this literature. All three books are
grounded in the realization that excessive human numbers are
helping drive humanity deeper into ecological overshoot.
While they start out from different ethical premises and
support somewhat different policy prescriptions, all three
scholars converge on the general conclusion that policies to
limit human numbers are necessary to create the ecologically
sustainable societies essential to future human well-being.

Hedberg’s philosophical approach does not rely on any
particular ethical theory, such as utilitarianism or social
contract theory. Instead he appeals to general moral
principles that he believes most people, whether theorists
or the general public, will accept. The first half of his
book’s central argument, which he calls the Population
Reduction Argument (PRA), runs as follows:

1.People morally ought to avoid causing massive and
unnecessary harm to other currently existing people.

2.Our moral duties of non-harm are just as stringent toward
future people as they are toward current people.

3.Thus we morally ought to avoid causing massive unnecessary
harm to future people. [necessarily follows from premises
1 and 2]

4.If we do not dramatically reduce our current levels of
environmental degradation, then we will cause massive and
unnecessary harm to future people.

5.Therefore we morally ought to greatly reduce our current
levels of environmental degradation. [necessarily follows
from premises 3 and 4]

Premise 1 is indeed a generally accepted moral principle:
almost everyone accepts the idea that people should avoid
causing important & unnecessary harms to others. Premise 2
is denied by many mainstream economists, who accept
discounting the well-being of future people, at least people
in the far future, in the same way that businesses discount
future returns on capital compared to current returns. But
Hedberg convincingly argues that what may be good economics
is bad morality, in a world where our actions today could
make a huge difference to our descendants’ quality of life.
Hence he affirms a robust moral duty to avoid massive harm
to future people (premise 3). Combined with recent scientific
evidence that current levels of environmental degradation
imperil future generations (premise 4), this logically
implies a moral duty to greatly reduce such degradation
(premise 5).

Few environmentalists are likely to disagree with the first
half of Hedberg’s argument. But many still avoid connecting
the duty to limit environmental degradation to a commitment
to addressing population matters. The second half of PRA
aims to compel this conclusion:

6.Environmental degradation is the product of human
population size and the average rate of environmental
degradation per person.

7.Thus we morally ought to reduce our population size,
reduce the average rate of environmental degradation per
person, or reduce both. [necessarily follows from
premises 5 and 6]

8.There is no morally permissible way to reduce population
size enough to adequately respond to our environmental
problems if the average rate of environmental degradation
per person remains unchanged.

9.There is no feasible way to reduce the rate of environ-
mental degradation per person enough to adequately respond
to our environmental problems if our population size remains
at its current size or continues to grow.

Conclusion: Therefore we morally ought to do both: reduce
our rates of environmental degradation per person & reduce
our current population size. [necessarily follows from
premises 7, 8 and 9]

Premise 6 is a version of Ehrlich’s & Holdren’s IPAT
formula with affluence (A) and technology (T) combined.
Hedberg justifies this by noting the need for prompt action
& the uncertainty about whether technological progress will
help or hinder efforts to protect the biosphere, asserting
that “even if some technological optimism is justified, the
rapid onset of these problems simply does not give us enough
time to wait for techno-fixes to emerge” (56). So in order
to live up to our moral duty to avoid massive environmental
degradation, we must address either population size or
average consumption, or both (premise 7). The question of
which must be informed by science.

Given humanity’s current population momentum (we add over
80 million people to the global population annually) & the
evidence that we are already overpopulated by billions of
people relative to what Earth can sustain, there is no way
we can humanely reduce the global population fast enough &
drastically enough to avoid having to cut back on our per
person consumption (premise 8). Hedberg thus rejects views
which see population reduction as an environmental panacea.
But the obstacles to cutting average consumption fast & deep
enough to avoid environmental catastrophe are perhaps even
more daunting. After all, most nations around the globe
have decreased their fertility rates significantly over the
past half century, while no country in the world has a lower
per capita consumption rate than it did 50 years ago, or
aspires to one. Hundreds of millions of people around the
globe would like to have better access to contraception to
decrease their personal fertility, according to national
health surveys, but there is no evidence that many people
are looking for ways to significantly decrease their
personal consumption. Thus there appears to be no feasible
way to cut average consumption enough to sustain a global
population of 8-12 billion people over the long term (premise 9).

The realization that premises 8 and 9 are both true leads
many environmentalists to throw up our hands and hope for
technological miracles; it leads others to put their heads
down and work on their own projects to protect particular
landscapes or species. Such personal efforts are valuable,
but their long-term success will depend on the creation of
ecologically sustainable societies—and as premise 7 affirms,
we have a moral obligation to create such societies. Instead
of avoidance or wishful thinking, committed environmentalists
should hold fast to this fundamental moral commitment, accept
the massive empirical confirmation of premises 8 and 9, and
join Hedberg in concluding that humanity must reduce both our
per person environmental demands and reduce our current
population size. Both. Significantly. As quickly as possible,
subject to moral and practical limits—which, however, cannot
be used as excuses for inaction without the grim
consequences rebounding on us and our descendants.

So runs Hedberg’s central moral argument, which he develops
with great clarity and ingenuity in the first half of his
book. Its second half is devoted to fleshing out the
practical implications regarding both personal procreation
decisions & govt population policies, & to responding to
likely objections to his positions. Hedberg is particularly
concerned to identify public policies that uphold & enhance
human rights, including a right to procreate. But his
treatment suggests that in our crowded future, upholding
rights will depend on acknowledging limits rather than
avoiding thinking about them. As he writes:

"In the past, there was often no danger of undermining
others’ rights by procreating excessively: in fact, for
the vast majority of human history, we needed to be rather
prolific in our procreation just to ensure the continuation
of our species. But our circumstances have changed, & so our
limits on the right to procreate must change as well." (134)

Coercion & rights violations can take many forms, not the
least of which involve hunger, poverty, homelessness,
ill-health, poor schooling, & physical insecurity—all of
which are made worse by excessive human numbers. Hence
societies have a strong interest in avoiding overpopulation.

We'll have a better chance to create societies that avoid
overpopulation while maximizing human freedom if we
explicitly talk about that goal and how to achieve it.
That’s why the appearance of this book is so welcome;
hopefully, it will spur many lively conversations. Environ-
mentalists should welcome The Environmental Impact of
Overpopulation and similar efforts, because limiting human
numbers will be key to preserving wild nature and creating
sustainable societies in coming years. Hedberg’s main
analysis is anthropocentric, focused on human interests &
how best to further them. But a short chapter titled “What
about the nonhuman community?” notes that if we extend
moral consideration to other species, the incentives to
reduce our own numbers increase significantly. Or as one of
the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species
Condoms puts it: “Wrap with care, save the polar bear.”

https://overpopulation-project.com/the-moral-case-for-population-reduction/
Vir Campestris
2021-07-20 21:07:26 UTC
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An argument for China's child restrictions? Silly.
"Go forth, and multiply, and fill the earth". Is it full yet?

(Asimov)

There must be a time when growth must stop. Either through control,
disease, or famine.

Andy
Rod Speed
2021-07-20 21:44:06 UTC
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Post by Vir Campestris
An argument for China's child restrictions? Silly.
"Go forth, and multiply, and fill the earth". Is it full yet?
(Asimov)
There must be a time when growth must stop. Either through control,
disease, or famine.
Its actually stopping by itself.

The birth rate has dropped dramatically everywhere
except where its already right down in the noise.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependencies_by_total_fertility_rate#1950_and_2015
Peeler
2021-07-20 21:54:20 UTC
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On Wed, 21 Jul 2021 07:44:06 +1000, cantankerous trolling geezer Rodent
Speed, the auto-contradicting senile sociopath, blabbered, again:

<FLUSH the trolling senile shithead's latest trollshit unread>
--
***@home to senile know-it-all Rodent Speed:
"You really should stop commenting on things you know nothing about."
Message-ID: <pCVTC.283711$%***@fx40.am4>
Animal
2021-07-21 20:15:30 UTC
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Post by Vir Campestris
An argument for China's child restrictions? Silly.
"Go forth, and multiply, and fill the earth". Is it full yet?
Nowhere near. China is greening huge amounts of desert, which in time will get used to a fair extent for food production, enabling them to take over a lot of the world. There's also plenty of desert in US, Africa, and plenty of unfarmed farmable land in various places eg Russia.
Post by Vir Campestris
There must be a time when growth must stop. Either through control,
disease, or famine.
Andy
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current rate of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
Steve Walker
2021-07-22 08:56:10 UTC
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Post by Animal
Post by Vir Campestris
An argument for China's child restrictions? Silly.
"Go forth, and multiply, and fill the earth". Is it full yet?
Nowhere near. China is greening huge amounts of desert, which in time will get used to a fair extent for food production, enabling them to take over a lot of the world. There's also plenty of desert in US, Africa, and plenty of unfarmed farmable land in various places eg Russia.
Post by Vir Campestris
There must be a time when growth must stop. Either through control,
disease, or famine.
Andy
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current rate of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
On the whole, the wealthier countries, have a birth rate below
replacement value and it is only immigration that is keeping populations
rising.

Even third-world countries birth rates have dropped considerably and are
continuing to drop, where education and contraception have been available.
Rod Speed
2021-07-22 09:53:28 UTC
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Post by Animal
Post by Vir Campestris
An argument for China's child restrictions? Silly.
"Go forth, and multiply, and fill the earth". Is it full yet?
Nowhere near. China is greening huge amounts of desert, which in time
will get used to a fair extent for food production, enabling them to take
over a lot of the world. There's also plenty of desert in US, Africa, and
plenty of unfarmed farmable land in various places eg Russia.
Post by Vir Campestris
There must be a time when growth must stop. Either through control,
disease, or famine.
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current rate
of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
On the whole, the wealthier countries, have a birth rate below replacement
value and it is only immigration that is keeping populations rising.
And India and China combined aren't even self replacing now.
Even third-world countries birth rates have dropped considerably and are
continuing to drop, where education and contraception have been available.
In fact everywhere now, even where education and contraception are not
available.
Peeler
2021-07-22 10:09:52 UTC
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On Thu, 22 Jul 2021 19:53:28 +1000, cantankerous trolling geezer Rodent
Speed, the auto-contradicting senile sociopath, blabbered, again:

<FLUSH the trolling senile pest's latest trollshit unread>
--
Bill Wright addressing senile Ozzie cretin Rodent Speed:
"Well you make up a lot of stuff and it's total bollocks most of it."
MID: <pj2b07$1rvs$***@gioia.aioe.org>
Vir Campestris
2021-07-23 20:16:10 UTC
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Post by Steve Walker
Post by Animal
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current
rate of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
On the whole, the wealthier countries, have a birth rate below
replacement value and it is only immigration that is keeping populations
rising.
Even third-world countries birth rates have dropped considerably and are
continuing to drop, where education and contraception have been available.
I assume you've both noticed how COVID spreads faster in cities?

Andy
Tim Streater
2021-07-23 20:23:51 UTC
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On 23 Jul 2021 at 21:16:10 BST, Vir Campestris
Post by Vir Campestris
Post by Steve Walker
Post by Animal
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current
rate of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
On the whole, the wealthier countries, have a birth rate below
replacement value and it is only immigration that is keeping populations
rising.
Even third-world countries birth rates have dropped considerably and are
continuing to drop, where education and contraception have been available.
I assume you've both noticed how COVID spreads faster in cities?
Well quite. And here's England with one of the highest population densities in
Europs and still these people write to the papers and say we are being mean in
trying to refuse entry to all these economic migrants.
--
If socialism helps the poor, why are the poor in socialist countries so much poorer than the poor in capitalist countries?

Mark
Animal
2021-07-23 21:39:44 UTC
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Post by Vir Campestris
Post by Steve Walker
Post by Animal
It hasn't yet, and humans have been at it awhile. With the current
rate of technological progress & wealth incerase, a stop looks unlikely.
On the whole, the wealthier countries, have a birth rate below
replacement value and it is only immigration that is keeping populations
rising.
Even third-world countries birth rates have dropped considerably and are
continuing to drop, where education and contraception have been available.
I assume you've both noticed how COVID spreads faster in cities?
Andy
Everything does, except covid. Covid doesn't spread at all.

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