Speaking of controversial. As mentioned in my previous review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition, concerns about human overpopulation go back to at least Malthus, a name that has become synonymous with this topic. How do you tackle this incredibly thorny issue? Malthus believed moral restraint where having children is concerned should be encouraged, which strikes me as starry-eyed and completely out of reach, especially in the individualized societies of today. Simultaneously, we have seen some pretty drastic population control measures with ugly side-effects, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. The cry of eugenics if never far away when this topic is tabled. Can we have any sensible discussion to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia? This small book does a serious attempt.
Divided into three parts, Diana Coole first asks whether there actually is a problem, as plenty of people will disavow overpopulation as being a problem to begin with. Covering developmental, environmental, existential, and economical arguments, she concludes that there are good reasons to try and control human population numbers. An example of a developmental argument is that overpopulation is not in the interest of poor countries. An example of an existential argument is whether a world completely dedicated to supporting a huge human population is in the interest of our well-being. Economical arguments on the other hand often end up pro-growth, given the costs of a large, ageing population.
Out of these four, especially the environmental argument is one that is rapidly becoming impossible to ignore, and I happen to think that overpopulation is the mother-of-all-problems where environmental degradation is concerned. As I argued in my review of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise and is also recognized in this book, a large human population multiplies the impact of our lifestyle. No matter what lifestyle this might be, you always have an impact. I get the impression this is often lost on advocates of sustainable development and green alternatives such as renewable energy. Coole touches on the framework of planetary boundaries developed by Johan Rockström and colleagues. In my opinion, it is important to realise environmental concerns go well beyond the extinction of some cute, furry animals. This is affecting the very fabric of our planetary ecosystem that we as humans also depend on. Ecologists describe this under the umbrella term of ecosystem services (there is a large literature on this, the Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services is but one of many starting points).
The other two chapters deal with the ethics and the means by which we could actually control population numbers. Coole argues that there are some clear ethical boundaries that cannot be crossed, especially where women’s rights and bodily integrity and autonomy are concerned. It stands to reason that we think forcing an abortion on a woman violates basic human rights. But the other side of the coin, that forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy by making abortion illegal, is equally problematic, but far less widely accepted. She discusses access to reproductive health services such as family planning and birth control, and whether it is ethical to yield these as tools to steer decision making by couples. Finally, there is the question of the ethics of family size. I found the argument put forth by Sarah Conly’s book One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? very relevant.
“[…] environmental concerns go well beyond the extinction of some cute, furry animals”
Last but not least, how do we actually go about influencing population numbers? Coole makes a strong argument that in democratic societies we already have a system of mild coercion through laws, taxes etc. to influence people’s behaviour. And often such tools have already been used to influence people’s reproductive decision making through tax reliefs, childcare support, housing schemes etc. used either to encourage or discourage population growth and family size. If we see no problem in governments manipulating consumer behaviour to mitigate environmental degradation, cold logic says we should apply this to human population numbers as well. A tiny problem that Coole also highlights is that many countries where the problem most urgently needs addressing are not democratic countries, but authoritarian regimes or failed states.
It is only all too easy to fall into extremes when trying to discuss this topic. My own views could safely be called controversial. It is widely documented that increased economic development and education of women reduces family size and is, in the long-term, predicted to lead to global population stabilisation if we could realise this globally. However, I am seriously concerned that it will be too little, much too late, which logically would force our hand to more drastic measures. On a bit of a tangent, I never cease to be amazed that couples wishing to adopt have to go through many hoops to show that they will be reliable parents, but that literally any nitwit can have children the old-fashioned biological way. Isn’t it time we introduced compulsory certification for prospective parents, thereby capping population growth? (I will immediately admit that this is far from a well-developed argument, and I can see it being problematic to implement – who judges the judges?)
Obviously, my ideas will be way too extreme for most, and this book has forced me to think about more widely applicable and realistic measures. Though the reading might sometimes be a bit heavy on theoretical ethics, Coole immediately convinces that we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. This slim volume does not provide all the answers, but it is an opening salvo for a much-needed, broader discussion.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Should We Control World Population? paperback, hardback or ebook
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: