I want to touch briefly on a topic which came up in discussion with Verdurous two articles ago. It’s the issue of what actions might help address the problem of population growth. I’ll merely touch on the subject in this entry, examining it in more detail in subsequent posts.
Occasionally, when I’ve mentioned to someone the need to address population growth, they’ve reacted with indignation. They assume I’m suggesting some sort of forced sterilization program or other draconian measure. Admittedly, this has occurred in Web based discussion in which some participants’ civility and impulse control often leaves something to be desired. (Okay, a lot to be desired!) Still, I’m not sure why they jump to this assumption. (Does it say something about how the topic of population growth has become taboo in many circles? That’s a fascinating topic for an upcoming post.)
In reality, there are a number of worthwhile methods we can and should employ to reduce fertility rates and thus population growth. Some have proven track records, while others, if not proven, are eminently sensible. In the discussion I linked to a recent Scientific American column by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. There, Sachs tells us, “We will have to help the poor regions of the world to complete the demographic transition to achieve stable populations, a process that is underway but by far not fast enough.” He explains why it’s necessary:
Fifty percent of the projected global population increase by 2050 will fall within Africa and the Middle East, the world’s most politically and socially unstable regions. That development could well mean another generation of under-employed and frustrated young men, growing violence due to unemployment and resource scarcity, growing pressures of international migration, and growing ideological battles with Europe and the U.S. The global ecological toll could be as disastrous, because rapid population growth is taking place in many of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots”–that is, unique assemblages of species and habitats that are a vital part of the global biological heritage.
Sachs concludes by listing four steps for reducing fetility rates in countries where they’re highest:
- Improve child survival rates because, “When parents have the expectation that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer children.”
- Provide better educational opportunities for girls. Girls in school will wait longer to marry, and educated, working women have more choices in life and so tend, on average, to have fewer children.
- Improve the availability of contraception and family planning information. Making sure every child is a wanted child is a huge step.
- Increase farm productivity because, “Income-earning mothers use their scarce time in productive employment rather than childrearing.”
All good ideas, I think. To them we can add the idea of economic incentives, as Verdurous suggested in discussion. Tax incentives and disincentives nudging families to have fewer children might make sense, and have in fact been used in some countries. This kind of benevolent, mutually agreed upon “coercion” was advocated by Garrett Hardin in his classic article, The Tragedy of the Commons.
A long list of such possibilities, as well as others such as publicity campaigns, is seen in an article posted on the ominously named Die Off site. Such information (and, one would hope, more updated information) shows us there are indeed humane strategies governments (or, in some cases, even private groups) can employ to influence fertility rates.
But that’s not all
There is much more, though, to think about. Focusing on U.S. environmental issues, for example, some call for tougher immigration restrictions to reduce this country’s population growth. Might we focus instead on providing assistance to Mexico to improve its economy so its citizens are not forced to come to the U.S. to make money they can’t earn at home?
Moreover, I recently received from Al Bartlett an article he had published in a recent issue of The Physics Teacher. In it, while acknowledging the good points in Jeffrey Sachs’s column, he is critical of Sachs’s line of argument for several reasons. Dr. Bartlett is one of my favorite thinkers on issues of sustainability and population growth, and his points were as incisive as ever. While I’m not as critical of Sachs, there is much in Dr. Bartlett’s article to think about. But that is for an upcoming post.
Image source: Gregor Rohrig, as posted on flickr