I’ve written at some length about “the population problem” — most recently last April with respect to nervous lobsters — and about why I serve on the board of Zero Population Growth (ZPG).

Many people think this is silly. Sure, they acknowledge, we are now swelling our ranks by a billion people every dozen years or so. That is simple fact. No one disputes it. But have you seen all the land yet to be paved and developed? Or consider this: the average human probably lives in a two-story structure. (Most live in one-story housing, but blend in all the taller buildings and maybe the average is two stories.) So if we gradually Manhattanized the world (people love Manhattan!), then we could go from 2-story structures to, say, an average 10-story standard, and we could fit five times as many people — an extra 25 billion or so — without having to disturb any wilderness. As for food, pretty soon the biochemists are bound to find a way to produce protein and carbohydrates from water, air and all those autumn leaves suburbanites now just have to bury or burn. A single food factory might do the work of a half-million-acre farm.

Leaving aside what other technical problems there would be, and what the lines would be like to see the Grand Canyon, here’s the thought I wanted to add today:

Population concerns may be silly. Or they may not. You can make a pretty persuasive case on both sides. But compare the alternatives:

  • If we’re wrong in thinking it’s important to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to find other voluntary ways to help slow world population growth, where’s the harm? What’s the risk? Too few people? If underpopulation ever emerged as a threat — and, incredibly, some people have actually begun worrying about “the birth dearth” — we could resolve it in virtually a single night of global merry-making. (I exaggerate and oversimplify, but you get the point.)
  • If we’re not wrong, overpopulation will cut into our species’ quality of life, and possibly throw out of kilter the billion-years-in-the-making delicate ecological balance that has so nicely sustained human life. What would the solution be then? A single night of world slaughter? How would you ever get the population back down from 10 billion 50 years from now to, say, today’s 6 billion or 1950’s 3 billion?

Not to be concerned with population is to take a huge, species-threatening — and unnecessary — gamble. It would be beyond awful ever to get to the point in the world where we actually felt involuntary population limitations, of the type imposed in China, were the lesser of two evils. It’s precisely to avoid that, among other things, that support for population education and other measures of the type ZPG advocates is, in my view, a “core holding” in one’s social portfolio.

 

 

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