Clarifying arguments on population control

To read more recent thoughts on this topic, check out my Human Population page. (12/6/2011)

First, I want to thank Anna at Walden Effect for offering great arguments in this debate, and thus provoking me to look a little more closely at my own opinions and assumptions. Second, I want to post my most recent response to the ongoing subject of overpopulation so that I might clarify my position a bit. The last post I made on my blog was rather hasty when I re-read it and I think I’ve since gained a better perspective

ETA: I don’t intend to discredit any opposing sides, because I agree with much of the science that is presented. I wish only to offer some hope that we can change our impact on the environment, and to express my belief that wise management of the environment will be followed (not preceded) by a stable population based on reproductive freedom.

So here we go:

I am not arguing that the population isn’t out of whack, and that it is okay at the level it is. I am only arguing that the methods we might use to force the population to an acceptable level will be very risky and may border on infringing of human rights and cultural indoctrination, the consequences of which might be worse for humanity (look at China’s one-child policy) than the problem we intend to solve. This is often the case when humans go after symptoms rather than causes of what we perceive as problems.

The causes can be simple seen: Green Revolution and industrialization have been the latest major promoters of population growth. This growth has been stunning and terrifying for some. However, it came about as a result of an attitude where humans took it upon themselves to improve what they saw to be problems in humanity (food scarcity) and it has since invested us with confidence in our own sciences that is arguably beyond what that technology deserves, especially when we consider the unforeseen consequences.

Birth control has been practiced by many pre-industrial cultures, but often not with the type of absolute control that is possible in a post-industrial society. Many women reject chemical birth control for health reasons, many women are allergic to condoms and barrier methods, and many women are not resolved to never have children and will not opt for surgical sterilization. Birth control cannot solve all of the problems, although it is useful for women who are willing and able to use one of the methods available.

The fertility awareness method offers a great alternative, but the fact exists that people still want to have babies and though we can all fight to overcome this, whether all or most of us should be obliged to do so for the greater good is precisely where one religion becomes another.

Because wikipedia and Mirriam-Webster have different definitions of religion, I’ll offer another:

” Definition of RELIGION

2:  a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices


: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”

This better describes what I mean when I use the term. Where one set of beliefs replaces another set, which have been passed down from a recognized religion, I think the result is a new religion. Values and ethics all come from our deeper beliefs and we should not be too quick to deny this. [Therefore, taking it upon ourselves to specify an ideal population, and following through with population control practices would depart from traditional religious beliefs, and lead to the adoption of a new institution of beliefs-- or a new religion where we put faith in ourselves for controlling our destiny.]

I accept that this is a major ethical dilemma, but the population is a symptom and not necessarily a cause, and the cause in my opinion has been management. We have not globally changed our system of management and so we do not know if our population really has reached or exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Here is where the cattle analogy comes in. When people attempted to alleviate damaged caused by improper cattle management, their response was to reduce the sizes of the herds. The result of this reduction was further degradation, to everyone’s disbelief. The reason population didn’t solve the problem was because the management style had to be changed, and when it was, ranchers realized that the “ideal” population size they predicted under the old management scheme was much lower than the actual carrying capacity of the land. The land could hold many more cattle than we predicted, but we were so frightened of the damage witnessed under poor management that we assumed reducing numbers was the solution.

I would never argue to pack more and more individuals of any species into any area simply because that many creatures could be born. However, I will continue to advocate turning away from number management, and focusing most intently on changing our path and insuring that those people who are alive today and their offspring, however many, can reach a new model of society that works more effectively for them than ours does today.

Much of the degradation of this Earth is the result of far smaller populations of humans than we have today (especially those of the 19th century). America’s land was nearly stripped of forest because of greed and enthusiasm and a lack of restraint, not because of necessity or a large population. We no longer have virgin land to abuse and degrade, and I find it very unlikely that we will see any growth in our populations in the future that look much like those we’ve seen in the past as a result of society’s excesses.

Growth is reaching its end, I believe. Though it was scary and brought about tremendous world problems, many of these problems can be corrected by restoring a natural process to humanity. In the end, we’re not like cattle because our needs can be so creatively accommodated. For as long as a family of four can produce 7,000lbs of food on 1/10th of an acre in arid southern California, I think we can afford to find creative solutions to the problems at hand without panicking and culling our herd, so to speak.

If you’re interested in how we might go about accommodating our current population, check out “Cities and Natural Processes” by Michael Hough, “The Granite Garden” by Anne Spirn and take some time to explore the topics of landscape architecture, human ecology and city planning that tackle the need for sustainable living in an urban setting and on a much larger scale than an individual homestead.

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3 thoughts on “Clarifying arguments on population control

  1. Anna

    In case you don’t check back over there, here’s what I posted in response to your most recent comment:

    I’m sorry to be dense — I should have figured that when your argument stopped making sense that was me stopping understanding it. :-) I’m still not sure where you stand, though. If there was a way to lower our population without any governmentally (or whatever) mandated actions (which I agree is not a good idea), would you be in favor? In the perfect world I envision, people would simply be more aware of the realities of the world population, of how much work it takes to raise a child well, and of options for not reproducing. Getting there could be as simple as a few of our celebrities taking on the task of educating people about these issues, or a few blockbuster movies portraying these issues in a non-glamorized light. Then we would each make our personal decision with open eyes, which I suspect would lower the human population organically.

    Meanwhile, each of us would also work toward living more lightly on the earth. I’m not sure that I would agree, though, that 19th century humans did more damage than modern humans, and that we can remove the link between human population and environmental devastation. I live in a region where mountain-top removal is the norm, streams are filled with acid runoff from mines, and we’re still clear-cutting and watching the non-coal-containing mountains erode away. A coal-fired power plant down the road is sending vast plumes of mercury and acid-rain-causing chemicals into the air, and spills from the plant have created multiple-mile “dead zones” in a river which is widely considered to be the most biologically important one in the continental United States. From everything I’ve read and seen, we’ve just got better about putting the environmental degradation in poorer areas where the middle and upper class don’t have to see it.

    I think that we are too anthropocentric when we say that if we managed the earth more carefully, we could pack more humans in. Chances are you’re right, and we could feed and house two, three, or more times as many people as currently live on earth, but even if we were careful enough that we kept the ecosystems we depend on alive, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t continue to cause widespread extinction outside the human world. To give one example, when large scale farms replaced the small family farm, many hedge-row loving species became threatened. When we impact habitats, we tend to cause large-scale declines like this.

    Since my college schooling was mostly in the field of ecology, I’m very aware that even my most permaculture-minded projects on the farm make drastic changes in the local ecosystem, wiping out masses of salamanders, millipedes, and other forest dwellers. By opening up a two acre patch in the woods, I help cowbirds spread into the surrounding woodlands, where they lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and push out the warbler’s chicks (warblers who are already threatened by loss of winter habitat in the tropics where we get so much of our cheap paper and lumber.) The fragmented woods is no longer prime habitat for mammals who require extensive tracts of unbroken forest, like bears.

    It’s very natural for humanity to think of ourselves first, to think that if we can feed ourselves, if the air is clean enough to breath and the water is clean enough to drink, that we’re doing okay. But I think we have to look beyond that short-sighted picture and realize that every living thing on the planet is just as important as we are, and that we have to minimize our impact to give them space to live too. Yes, we should be changing over to more sustainable practices, but everything I’ve read has suggested that the only sure way to protect those other species is to set aside more tracts of non-human-impacted land. And that eventually means we need to have a lower population.

    Moving to to the religion argument (which is really just semantics, I know), I don’t think Mirriam-Webester’s first definition proves anything — it gets pretty cyclical if you use the word “religious” in your definition of religion. Definition 4 looks like the one you’re looking for, and to me that’s more of a colloquial definition of religion (probably why it was definition 4 instead of 1.) I think we’ll both be happy if we just talk about beliefs rather than using the loaded word religion.

  2. Anna

    I think I’m going to bow out of this argument. I don’t actually enjoy rhetoric for the sake or rhetoric, merely as a way of understanding other people’s points of view. :-) I’m coming to believe that our deep-seated differences lie in the dichotomy between your religious faith and my scientific background, and I’ve never found arguments of that sort productive. Thanks for talking through your beliefs!

    1. Sara Post author

      You may be encouraged to know that there are programs (Medicaid) offered by your state and mine to provide birth control options, for free, to lower income people. In VA, it includes the cost of vasectomy.


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