Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Five Year Ban

So MUCH to write about this morning, it seems. This comes from commenter Rob over at TheViewFromHell, concerning the idea that we should have a moratorium on childbirths to get the detrimental environmental impact of too many people somewhat under control. I'd like to zoom in on one particular comment, if I may:

Not wrong, but incomplete.
Submitted by Jill on February 8, 2009 - 8:24am.

It's not that I think you're wrong-- I don't. I think you're absolutely right. But this article conveniently fails to address the byproducts of the kind of change you're talking about. A very good friend of mine is a delivery nurse. Her and her tens of thousands of colleagues across the country would be out of work for the next five years, along with obstetricians. If this ban were to exceed five years, kindergarten teachers would soon be out of work, too. I realize that none of these issues are as pressing as addressing the overpopulation crisis, but punishing those with careers in the infant-producing-and-rearing industry doesn't seem appropriate. What sort of programs would need to be in place to make sure these people don't fall through the cracks? How much time would be need to implement such changes?

Just curious if you're thinking beyond the numbers.

I don't mean to be overly harsh to the commenter here, as I think it's reasonable to assume that a lot, if not most, people think along these rather 'practical' lines. But isn't this an awful lot like working to keep the crime rates high to ensure employment for prison guards? And if we cure cancer, what are we gonna do with all those oncologists? They'll all be standing out in front of Home Depot looking for day labor, disrupting traffic!

I also find it telling that even the various environmentalist groups seem to have absolutely nothing to say about overpopulation these days, even though they know damned well that 'too many people' is at the root of practically all their concerns. Why? Because they know that asking people to sacrifice their procreational 'rights' is unpopular, and will lose them financial support. And so, once again, the truth goes untold. It's the way we operate.


Shadow said...

Yeah. That sounds about right. Let´s keep reproducing so all the nanny´s, nurses and day care centers can stay open.

Yeah, put a lot of people on the unimaginable quest of existing just so a couple of others can still find a way to pay their cable tv´s. yeah, that´s the reason I was expecting to hear.

Sister Y said...

"infant-producing-and-rearing industry" - what a funny and accurate phrase.

Also, this.

Chip said...

"I also find it telling that even the various environmentalist groups seem to have absolutely nothing to say about overpopulation these days, even though they know damned well that 'too many people' is at the root of practically all their concerns."

Actually, the "too many people" assumption once widely trumpeted by "Population Bomb" types has not fared well empirically. Julian Simon's economic theories may be faulted for failing to take qualitative trends (i.e., dysgenisis) into account, but he won the big bet, and most research that I've seen shows that human ingenuity has alleviated most environmental problems over the last half century or so, despite steady population growth.

The claim that increasing population size leads to environmental despoliation may bear out at some critical mass (or by assuming the optimal population to be zero), but by conventional standards, Malthus, Hardin, Ehrlich et al have yet to have the last laugh.

metamorphhh said...


I've always believed that the major mistake of the Ehrlich types was being too quick in pulling out numbers and dates; always struck me as sensationalism. I see a lot of the same thing going on regarding 'global warming' these days.

However, leafing through your link I was immediately stymied by this idea that natural resources are infinite, a notion justified by the theory that human innovation will always serve to make resource use more efficient, supposedly 'increasing' the back-supply. On its face, this strikes me as a bit of voo-doo economics, sort of like saying if I learn to live by taking 1s out of my wallet instead of 5s, somehow the total amount of money in my wallet will actually begin to increase, and pretty soon I'll have enough green to wallpaper the Earth with it. Frankly, I don't buy it. Also, I can find plenty of research out there citing many environmental factors that are degrading. Guess it depends on which 'experts' you pick :) It's a complicated subject, and I'm certainly no expert.

Anyway, the gist of the point I was making is that overpopulation has traditionally been a concern of the environmental movement on the whole, and yet we hear very little about it as part of the larger discourse these days. Why? Is it because environmentalists have suddenly started believing that the planet's resources are infinite? Or is the more likely explanation that any talk about even addressing procreational 'rights' is anti-PC, and automatically off the table for serious debate? I believe it's the latter.

metamorphhh said...

Interesting; I've been sitting here Google-ing stuff about perceived environmental problems due to human overpopulation, and have actually found a bounty of resources, including joint statement issued by 58 of the world's scientific academies. However, there seems to be a disconnect with the man in the street, for the reasons I've already given, or so I believe. Here's the introduction to an article that sort of reiterates my feelings on the matter-

"Climate change and global pollution cannot be adequately tackled without addressing the neglected issue of the world's booming population, according to two leading scientists.

Professor Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, and Professor John Guillebaud, vented their frustration yesterday at the fact that overpopulation had fallen off the agenda of the many organisations dedicated to saving the planet.

The scientists said dealing with the burgeoning human population of the planet was vital if real progress was to be made on the other enormous problems facing the world.

"It is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about" Professor Guillebaud said. "Unless we reduce the human population humanely through family planning, nature will do it for us through violence, epidemics or starvation.""

Bringing this full circle, I find that last bit to be a fairly appropriate analogy to the subject of antinatalism. For in truth, doesn't every child ever brought into this world fall victim to 'violence, epidemic, or starvation'? Add disease and accident to that list, and we're pretty much covered, aren't we? So in truth, no matter what we do in terms of population- or anything else, for that matter- we're still in exactly the same fix, aren't we? Rendering the Earth more habitable, or more comfortable, or whatever, really does nothing to alleviate the ultimate tragedies of life. Sure, it might lesson the total body count, which is certainly worthwhile. But the same principles of dissolution and death remain, and always will remain until we wise up and simply.stop.breeding. It seems like the commonest of common sense notions to me.

Chip said...

I won't dispute your ultimate analogy re antinatalism, nor do I share Simon's boundless optimism regarding human ingenuity.

But I think scientific organizations tend to exhibit a narrowly pessimistic -- and technocratic -- bias in these matters, and I think this is cultural. It is always possible to mine for metrics that seem to portend doom in one area or another. It is much harder to look at specific trends over time and conclude that conditions have objectively worsened. In the United States, EPA data show consistent overall improvement in water and air quality over the past 30 years (despite population growth), and if you broaden the lens and go back further -- to the industrial age in Europe -- the long-term improvement is greater. I think it is very difficult to plot a downward shift in any area that correlates with broadly accepted definitions of "quality of life" or cost-based resource scarcity, even as the population has grown. See if you can find one or two well-sourced big ones over any 50 year period for which stats are available. I bet you come up short.

In my view, Simon's important point is that when problems arise, (smart) people have a market-driven incentive to come up with solutions. And the track record, on the whole, has been pretty good. In the first world, people live longer than ever and enjoy greater access to medicine and energy and other resources than they did in the past. To break it down to something fundamental, I'd be willing to bet that the world-average cost (in real dollars) of a loaf of bread will continue it's long-downward slope throughout our lifetimes. And of course, if nanotech pipedreams materialize, scarcity won't even be an issue (though basement nukes will).

I should emphasize that my (narrow) optimism on these points is informed by a "long arrow" perspective. Provided civilization is buttressed by a critical mass of brainpower and the rudiments of an open market, things generally become more efficient, cleaner, and better over time. This doesn't mean that there is a point on the horizon where eternal bliss awaits those who have been cast into existence. To grasp that nothing trumps the asymmetry is to understand that deeper shade of pessimism, the truth and force of which I do not question.

metamorphhh said...

Thanks, Chip. I'm certainly not one to idealize the past, and I'd agree that we tend to find solutions for the problems we create, although I get the feeling that balancing all those problems becomes increasingly like a game of tip-it as we go along, with subsequent actions becoming more and more strategic, and fraught with unforeseen repercussions.

I'll also confess that my view is somewhat biased vis-a-vis my preferences regarding population densities, my general revulsion for cities, as well as my distaste regarding many aspects of the clamoring multitudes. To be honest, I find the idea of people stacked on top of one another absolutely hideous *shrug* I suppose this is why I'm a bit more patient with environmentally driven antinatalism than some of my ilk. While I don't find their motivations that compelling, nevertheless I have SOME sympathy, and besides- pragmatically they want the same thing I do, other than the fact that, given the choice, I'd take the rest of nature with me. What was that Schopenhauer said? Something about idealizing the Earth as sterile as the crystalline structure of the moon? Yeah, something like that.

metamorphhh said...

Here's the actual quote (I was pretty far off...hehehe)...

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

metamorphhh said...

Here's the actual quote (I was pretty far off...hehehe)...

If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.

Garrett said...

I've rubbed elbows with environment driven antinatalists, so I heard that, and I'm with you. The one I personally know (and still consider a friend) seems to understand the basic flaws of the human condition, yet is unable to completely disconnect from the rest of the world. Problem is, he is one of the owners of a large South African wildlife sanctuary so it's not the easiest position to remove himself from. He still views the planet as "Mother Earth", you know. Yet he did once say to me that he wished he never possessed a sex drive and wouldn't care if he were never born.

I've never felt that affinity for this indifferent lump of rock, so it's beyond me. Maybe it's just a way of coping? Once one becomes repulsed by the human race as a whole, we feel the need to romanticize and feel connected to other species of flora or fauna? I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Chip's last comment (which had no Latin phrases by the way :P) about the "deeper shade of pessimism" reminds me of those poor souls (is there any other kind?) that sternly dismiss antinatalism on grounds like "pain and pleasure can't be quantified", "one man's pain is another man's pleasure" (woo that one's ambiguous), "pain is useful because it bla bla bla"... It's obvious to us that these facts are rather irrelevant in the face of the assymetry.

Looking at most of the links that have been posted here lately, I see that most of the comments fit neatly into a few categories. Annoyingly, most of these comments go unchallenged; in my mind's eye I see someone post "why don't you just kill yourself omg lol" and then close his browser window and walk off to go drink away his misery on top of a mountain in the burning sun...

I remember there being a thread about antinatalism on some kind of science forum; I think it was at Dawkin's forum. Of course you get the usual secular optimism stuff, but I also remember comments along the lines of "we evolved morality to help our species (or tribe or whatever) survive to procreate; not procreating endangers our species; hence not procreating is immoral". Well, poop! Geez!

Another case was on the Ligotti forums, where you get all these strange mystics debunking antinatalism based on their wicked worldview.

Maybe we should keep a list of some of these non-rebuttals somewhere. Didn't somebody have a wiki?

Compoverde said...

timcooijmans, I had a wiki but I took it down. If you want to start another one go to and you can start an antinatalism wiki and tie it into this website.

The Plague Doctor said...

Better just add a "Arguments in favor of antinatalism" section to Wikipedia.

metamorphhh said...

If you guys want, I can always make another listings post that everybody can access and add to as they see fit. That seems to work pretty well.

Mark said...

I think life is indeed getting better for most people. If trends continue, most of us may live 500 years and be wealthy in a few hundred years. How does this impact the antinatalism argument?

metamorphhh said...


A couple of things. First, I'm not a big believer in such optimistic assessments as you offer here, and which probably all of us have heard in one form or another. Shit happens, y'know?

Secondly, longevity and wealth are far from being guarantors of happiness. Disease and tragedy will probably always be with us, as well as the host of other maladies which serve to pollute the streams of imagined Shangri-Las.