Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Planet is Underpopulated

Is the problem with the world that we have too many people?

Many liberals would be surprised that there is even a question: population should be reduced to medieval levels to fix everything from African Hunger to Global Warming. But rather than battle that particular straw man, let me restate my counterthesis by positing rather weakly that many of our problems, to the liberal way of thinking, are caused by overpopulation.

Assuming arguendo that all (or most) of the world's problems are caused by having too many people, is the prospect of having too many people one we have to address? That is, how should we address the threat of overpopulation?

Hopefully all of the answers to that will involve attrition this time, not mass slaughter as they did in the 20th century. Now, that wasn't fair. Sorry. Just because every Communist who has ever gained power has been a world-class mass murderer doesn't mean that the next one will be. And that all communists are liberals doesn't imply that all liberals are communists of the mass-murdering persuasion.

But people are writing (and purchasing) books about how wonderful the planet would be without us. What if Man were to be wiped off the face of the Earth? I've thought about that. Seeing the weeds that grow in the cracks in the driveway, it seems obvious that in a few short years, they would overgrow it. The roof of the house would soon start to leak, the leaks would lead to rot, and soon trees would take root in the attic. No, wait, that's how it is now. I really should patch those holes soon.

There is an undercurrent in progressivism that holds Man to be a locust, destructively feeding on The Planet to the misfortune of all other living, and non-living, things. Obviously, if there weren't so many people the damage would not be so great. Mankind (and by unavoidable extension, individual people) are parasites, an unpleasant blight on an otherwise perfect world.

But even without considering the damage to the planet, overpopulation (and of the "wrong" type of people) has been the left's bogeyman since Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood to do something about it. The efforts continued, branching from the eugenics movement to encompass the horrors of World War II. And it continues unabated.

According to a 1994 study at the site (yes, really), "U.S. agricultural productivity is already unsustainable". That quote is, fortunately, not supported very well by the study. A key logical error interposed itself, wherein the study notes that population growth is primarily due to immigration, but concludes that individuals must exercise family planning or the entire population will be at the mercy of nature. Nowhere in that study did they actually look at U.S. agricultural productivity due to technological advances over time, except noting in the conclusion

Given the fact that the supply of natural resources is finite and that the ability of technology to replace many of these resources is limited, we are left with the necessity of controlling population numbers. Certainly, diminishing consumption levels by stringent conservation programs will help slow depletion. But individual responsibility on the part of men and women to control family size is vital to control population numbers and maintain a high standard of living, otherwise the harsh realities of nature will impose its control on the population.
Another flaw in the logic employs the fallacy of Division: just because the whole population will suffer if everyone doesn't exercise "individual responsibility", that doesn't imply that anyone in particular will suffer, whether or not they choose to exercise "individual responsibility".

But a more basic problem with the logic is the assumption that resources are finite. New resources, and new uses for old resources, and new ways to avoid using resources altogether are found with a regularity and pace which blows that assumption out of the water. It's a case of failing to understand that what appears to be a constant is actually a curve that changes in ways we don't understand.

In a piece from 2005, Jeff Lindsay wrote
How can the "obvious" logic of the population control lobby be wrong? Because the resources of the planet are not a fixed pie that dwindle with each birth. The resources are whatever we can make of this planet - or solar system - and it takes the work of human beings to transform raw materials and energy into useful resources. Humans are not a liability, but a resource that we need!
Population growth is only a problem if your basis vectors are skewed. I look at population growth as the goal, and the lack of place to put the people as a problem to overcome. I want the human race to dominate the universe. That goal is unattainable at our current population numbers.

I am for any plan or technology that allows continued, sustainable population growth, and I reject any plan to artificially limit that growth. Even if the population growth curve is exponential, it doesn't mean we can't sustain it.

If the people are hungry, figure a way they can feed themselves. If that means skyscraper farms (beware the popup), or floating farms over the 70% of the Earth that's covered in seawater, then that's what it means.

Unrestricted population growth should be our goal not only because we want growth itself, but because the restrictions are worse than the growth. Artificially restricting growth is saying "I've got life, but you can't have it.", which is akin to stomping waterlogged hands from the rails of the lifeboat.

Furthermore, it has been shown that the populations of prosperous, industrialized societies naturally level off, all by themselves. Or perhaps that's all Margaret Sanger's doing, by birth control and abortion.

Humans have the right to procreate. Whether they do it well enough to suit us is irrelevant, because it isn't our call. To fret and bother about where we will get the food to feed their children is equally silly, because that is certainly not our problem, it is theirs. Is that irresponsible? No, it's simply practical. Responsibility is taking possession of the effects of your actions. Someone else's actions are not part of that.

The lifeboat metaphor fails in several ways, not least in that there is a very good chance that one extra person in the boat could drown everyone, and that is wholly unlike the effects of increased population. One extra person could be the one who saves the rest of us.

But all in all, it seems better to work on how best to keep the boat afloat, rather than telling anyone they need to swim ashore.

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