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Debating Pro- and Anti-Natalism

photograph of parent/child pedestrian sign on tile pavement

Every person on the planet has an incredible ancestry. We’re all the result of countless interactions between parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on. This lineage is so extensive that it stretches past the emergence of humanity as we know it today, through our caveman ancestors, all the way through to the advent of life itself. We are all, each of us, the result of an inexhaustible history of relationships, both biological and social.

So, with all this ancestral pedigree, one might feel the pressure to continue the line and have children themselves. Some may be familiar with such a demand in the form of arguments like carrying on the family line or name (think back to Tywin Lannister’s obsession with family legacy). Breaking the maternal and paternal chain that has existed for multiple millennia is no small act. Even if one faces no social or familial pressure to have children (and many do), it is understandable to feel some force to the idea that, after the countless generations and innumerable interactions necessary for you to emerge into the world as you are, you will be the one responsible for breaking the chain.

Yet, there are some who argue that not only is this not something to feel bad about, but that refusing to have children is the morally correct action as reproducing is a morally transgressive act. Those who hold such a position are known as anti-natalists.

There have been multiple arguments supporting the anti-natalist viewpoint, including convictions that life is inherently bad and thus should be avoided, that life need not be bad but we’re unable to create a life which would be good, or that we shouldn’t reproduce because we cannot obtain the consent of those we would create. What they all share, though, is the core tenet that the negative aspects of life are so great that we should not inflict that harm upon those yet to exist. This does not mean that we should try and eliminate those who do exist, as this would equate to murder and be itself wrong – for us, it is already too late as we are already subject to the harms of existence. But it does mean we should avoid passing that harm down to future generations.

Now, this may sound unreasonable to some. After all, while many of us will experience hardship in our lives, I would suspect most would say that such hardship hasn’t made our lives not worth living. Thus, to say that my being brought into existence by my parents was an inherently immoral act would seem a step too far. You might want to say it was selfish or reckless, but to accuse them of doing something wrong is a fairly extreme claim to make. Indeed, if it applies to one generation back, then there’s no reason to say it should go further than that and apply to my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and so on. Thus, the anti-natalists don’t just condemn you for having children, but everyone who has ever had children, and that’s a lot of people to scold.

The reason I want to bring this up is because, in recent years, there has been a renewed interest not in anti-natalism but in its opposite – pronatalism.

For pronatalists, having children is a moral necessity for which we should be commended and those who avoid such a “duty” should receive condemnation. And, while it has a long and troubled history with strong (yet not necessary) links to right-wing populist movements and theories like the Great Replacement, it is easy to see how it can capture the public imagination given that we typically celebrate the family unit and any addition of members to it.

Today, we see governments around the world implement policies designed to increase birth rates, be that through offering couples financial incentives – like tax breaks and housing assistance – to have children or by curtailing reproductive freedoms like abortion. In a rather striking example, Russia has recently reinstated the Mother Heroine medal, awarded to those women who have 10 or more children.

The reason for today’s emphasis on pronatalist ideologies is undoubtedly varied and complex. But, to oversimplify it: many countries worldwide fear the socioeconomic implications of their populations getting, on average, older and smaller. This is because an older population requires more younger people to look after it than a younger population (unless technology can come to the rescue). It also means that a more significant percentage will be retired and thus less economically productive. We have seen the effect of this already in Japan, where 1 in 10 people are now over the age of 80. Thus, all those countries wanting to deal with the demographic shift towards an older population must either make the elderly more economically productive (deferring retirement age) or shift the age imbalance by bringing more younger people into their fold. The latter is done either by encouraging immigration (which can be politically difficult to achieve) or by driving up birth rates.

It cannot be ignored that failing to address the global socioeconomic issues associated with an ageing population would be devastating. The prosperity of a country is inextricably tied to its economic productivity. And so, when a country becomes less productive, its population suffers. On this basis, there seems to be an argument that it is in governments’ interest to find any way to promote raising birth rates. (This is baked directly into the state’s job description – if a government can’t look out for the needs of its people, what is it for?).

Any success, however, would only kick the can down the road. The only way we can avoid the dangers of an ageing population is to have one of ever-increasing size. And this simply isn’t possible. Eventually, any given population will shrink as exponential growth isn’t possible on a planet with finite resources.

And it is here that we see the tension between pro- and anti-natalism: should we try to lessen the pain people are experiencing now or limit the number of people who will experience pain in the future? The former is born out of a desire to maintain the status quo, while the latter wishes to blow it all up.

It’s hard to say which viewpoint will ultimately carry the day. Pronatalism has the historical advantage. But life lived under threat of economic collapse, climate disaster, and humanitarian crisis makes the prospect of having children less appealing. Given these rising risks, I suspect more may come around to the anti-natalism way of thinking.

Is 8 Billion People Too Many? Too Few?

photograph of crowded pedestrian intersection

The United Nations projects that the world population will hit 8 billion by the end of this year.  Global challenges from overfishing to climate change are strongly affected by sheer numbers, and the figure has already served as a touchstone for public discussion. For example, comedian and media provocateur Bill Maher recently argued on his show to “Let the Population Collapse.” The phrasing was a direct rejoinder to billionaire and media provocateur Elon Musk, who tweeted about the dangers of a “collapsing birth rate.”

Concerns about overpopulation specifically are longstanding (see the previous discussion on The Prindle Post by Evan Butts). The classic text is the 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population by the English economist Thomas Malthus. His central argument was that population growth was exponential whereas food production was merely linear, so inevitably population would outstrip food supply. Malthus saw this as a limitation on utopian thinking, for by providing better conditions to everyone we only accelerate towards starvation.

By and large, Malthus’s dire predictions never materialized. Those currently pushing overpopulation as an issue stress not the global food supply, but other kinds of resource scarcity as well as the environmental fallout associated with a large population. Topping the list, unsurprisingly, are global greenhouse gasses.

With each new person comes a new carbon footprint. Ostensibly, it’s just math.

Clearly, a large global population sets constraints in place that would not exist with a smaller population. If there were fewer of us, we could all be more extravagant and wasteful without the same catastrophic ecologic consequences – not that this would justify such wastefulness.

Critics worry, however, that the analysis provided by focusing on population size is too flat, and that it neglects crucial inequalities in individual resource use and the structures that perpetuate such inequalities. It can unfairly focus attention on those slices of the world with the highest population growth – the uneducated, the global poor, the non-white, developing nations – despite the facts these very same groups tend to use the least resources.

An American billionaire and a small-scale farmer in Burkina Faso may contribute equally to global population, but they certainly are not equivalently burdensome to the environment.

These worries are not groundless, and stripes of Malthusian thinking have often been connected with eugenics and racism.

From the resource use perspective, the emphasis should be on using more sustainable technologies (e.g., solar as opposed to fossil fuels) and changing patterns of consumptions (e.g., more plants less meat) with the hope that more people can get by comfortably on fewer resources. Although unique cultural resources, like tourist sites, pose particular challenges to a global population desiring a modern Western lifestyle as scientists have yet to synthesize a lab grown Venice or Machu Picchu.

There can also be ambiguities about whether arguments against overpopulation are targeting population growth or total population. If the concern is growth, then population growth has substantially slowed with peak global population predicted to hit sometime in the late 21st century.

Factors such as urbanization, changes in the labor market, education, contraceptive availability, and economic growth have combined  into a global population slowdown.

If the concern is the ecological burden of the current population, then absent grievously unethical action, the space for intervention is limited. Any environmental challenges posed by the current population must be addressed by changing resource use.

Taking stock, two general ethical strategies are at play in concerns about overpopulation. The first are Malthusian concerns arguing that if something (perhaps something unpleasant) is not done to spur harms associated with overpopulation, then it will result in greater harms in the long-term. The evidentiary case for this is weak. The second relates to general welfare, and contends that we could on average live better lives if there were fewer of us.

Even if one accepts one or both these arguments, they may still be concerned that they deflect attention away from stark global inequalities in resource use, or that population based interventions are unethical or ineffective.

Some proposed solutions have been more controversial than others. Paul Ehrlich, the author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, prophesied (incorrectly) mass famines and suggested such tactics as eliminating child care subsidies. He even alluded to unnamed colleagues who believed forced sterilization might be necessary – as happened in countries such as India in response to population growth panic.

Others, however, worry more about having too few people than too many. Population growth is a major driver of economic growth. And economic and population growth also drive general welfare. This does, however, assume that substantive quality of life improves alongside gross domestic product – even factoring in the unintended environmental effects associated with this growth. This assumption has been challenged by the controversial degrowth movement, which advocates for an economic future that does not depend on endless growth. In response, supporters of larger populations, like the economist Julian Simon – a popular rival of Ehrlich – have long argued that more people means more ideas, means more technologies – which will ultimately overcome the negative effects of population growth.

But this dispute depends on scientific models and predictions regarding unprecedented scale: how quickly do problems multiply as growth balloons and how quickly do big answers come as we add more heads?

Finally, it is an implication of some ethical frameworks that more people is, all else being equal, simply more ethical. One of the most influential ethical theories is utilitarianism, in which the aim of ethics is to maximize “utility,” variously defined as happiness, pleasure, or well-being. The appeal of this general approach is clear when it comes to, say, vaccination, as it would encourage vaccination for the total benefit it provides (even though in rare instances there can be negative reactions to vaccines). However, because it is concerned with the total amount of happiness, utilitarian is directly connected with population size. Eleven happy people is strictly more ethical than ten.

Extending this logic, the philosopher Derek Parfit has coined the “repugnant conclusion.” Parfit argues that as long as we think in something like total happiness, for any given population of happy people, there is a hypothetical population of miserable people that is sufficiently large to have more total happiness. If true, this could spur us to increase the population even if the average quality of life dropped. Repugnant the conclusion may be, at least some philosophers have been willing to bite the bullet. Parfit’s aim, however, was not to argue for a massive population. Instead he sought to demonstrate how the intuitively appealing project of aiming for maximum total happiness can have unsettling implications, and highlight the challenging terrain of ethics at the population level.

Population Growth and Anti-Natalist Philosophy

photograph of tightly-packed crowd

July 11 marked World Population Day, observed by the United Nations (UN) each year since 1989. It was established after the human population of Earth reached 5 billion on July 11, 1987 to, “…focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues.” As of July 11, 2019 the human population has reached 7.7 billion and is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Continued overall positive population growth, combined with a general upward trend in worldwide human life expectancy, has created concerns about overpopulation: that is, a situation in which the resources of particular regions—or the planet in general—are outstripped by the needs of the human population. 

Concerns about human population are not new. Throughout history, legislators and scholars across cultures have been concerned with either depopulation, overpopulation, or population density. In Ancient China, Kongzi (Confucius) advocated government policy to ensure a balanced distribution of people across the arable land of China. Mozi, though a critic of Confucianism, also advocated government policy concerning population. One of the three  moral/political criteria for beneficial actions (, “lì”) in Mozi’s philosophy was that it promoted population growth. In Ancient Greece, Plato fixed the ideal population of a city-state at around 50400 (accounting for 5040 citizens, and then other non-citizens such as women, children, and slaves). Aristotle criticizes Plato’s calculations for not taking into account issues with fertility rates, mortality rates, and the size of territory required to sustain a population. In the Middle Ages, the Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote extensively on population dynamics, advocating for denser population centers to facilitate social and economic prosperity.

Much of the contemporary discussion of human overpopulation is traceable to Richard Malthus’ 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus provides a mathematical argument as the basis of his thesis that overpopulation was a problem that would steadily grow worse: human population grows exponentially while the food supply only grows linearly. That is, the increase in food production occurs at a rate which remains the same over time whereas the increase in population occurs at a rate which itself increases over time. Malthus’ view of the problem focused on the poor and destitute, whom he viewed as those whose position was more vulnerable to famine and disease. These twin killers are examples of what Malthus referred to as positive checks on population: calamities that arise naturally from overpopulation and serve to check population growth. Allowing population to grow until checked by such natural forces was cruel in Malthus’ view. He argued that the better measures were so-called preventative checks: e.g., abstaining from or delaying procreation. 

In the current day, there is significant sympathy with the preventative aspect of the Malthusian position. In light of the growing population, and ever-increasing evidence that human activity is a primary driver of climate change, some people believe that having children is immoral. Or, at least that it is a decision which has to be made in response to the issues facing the world—and not narrower personal or familial ones. Other contemporary scholars have generated their own strands of reasoning to argue against procreation—or at least against the presumption that a decision to have children stands in need of no special justification. In general, arguments to the effect that procreation is immoral are referred to as anti-natalist views. Canadian philosopher Christine Overall and South African philosopher David Benatar both provide their own versions of anti-natalism.

Overall, in her book Why Have Children, canvasses the usual arguments both for and against having children and finds them all lacking. She concludes that the decision to have children always stands in need of justification, and that the justification must be given in terms of the possibility of a healthy relationship developing between parents and children. Benatar, on the other hand, argues that human existence is generally characterized by misery. Because of this he argues that it is always bad to bring new life into the world. In other words, whereas Overall claims that having children can possibly be justified—though not in any of the usual ways—Benatar argues that having children is always unjustified. In his Better Never to Have Been, Benatar claims that life is bad—but so is death and dying. The only way to avoid this double-bind is to never have existed in the first place. (Incidentally, the sort of arguments Benatar gives are among the types of arguments Overall finds lacking.)

In the broad sweep of history, anti-natalist views rise and fall with the population itself. At times when populations have significantly decreased, arguments arose advocating having more children. Barring the success of a general anti-natalist argument like Benatar’s, issues about overpopulation are broadly about resources and climate. Given the dire warnings and predictions about the state of Earth’s climate future, sympathy with anti-natalist positions will likely continue or even increase.

How Should Societies Counteract Overpopulation?

As the human population continues to grow, questions arise concerning how to deal with problems that are human in origin: problems like pollution and environmental degradation, resource depletion, and global food shortages.  The global population, which currently sits at over 7 billion, is expected to reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century.  

As populations increase, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions also increases.  Topsoil depletion that took place between the years 1900 and 2000 was equal to the depletion that took place in the 1000 years that preceded it.  As a result, land that is suitable for agriculture becomes more and more scarce and our ability to produce enough food for climbing populations is threatened.  

Continue reading “How Should Societies Counteract Overpopulation?”