Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Overpopulation: Are You Sure it is an Ignored Problem?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the problem of world overpopulation was often debated, and birth control was proposed as a solution. It soon became politically incorrect even to mention this subject in public, but it may be that it wasn't forgotten, but it is rather being acted upon in ways that don't involve a public debate. I recognize that this post is a little catastrophistic, but some posts just write themselves and this is what happened with this one

In July of every year, the WWF usually alerts of the arrival of the "Fish Dependence Day" that marks the date when the European consumption of fish equals the projected yearly production from European seas. There follows that, from that day onward, Europeans eat only imported fish or offshore fish up to the end of the year. It is just one of the many indicators of the overexploitation of the world's natural resources, fish is just an example as I and my coworker Perissi describe in our recent book "The Empty Sea".

You probably know that the politically correct way to mention overexploitation is to say that we should be more careful, consume a little less, diversify, avoid the most overexploited stocks of resources, and that then everything will be well. This is the way I reported the 2020 Fish Dependence Day in an article I wrote for an Italian newspaper. But the anonymous comments I received were most politically incorrect: the majority of them blamed overpopulation. Most of these comments were not sophisticated: the idea was simply that the fewer people there are, the less the pressure on the ecosystem is. So, reduce the population and -- magically -- all problems are solved, from fish depletion to climate change.

Of course, that brings a small problem: how do you reduce population? The politically correct way to mention the problem is to immediately add a disclaimer in which you explain that you are not planning to kill or sterilize anyone, but just to use rational arguments to convince people that it is in their best interest to have fewer children. But, as you may imagine, even the disclaimer above won't save you from attacks from both sides of the problem: some people will accuse you to deny the population problem, others to overemphasize it, and both will accuse you of planning the extermination of humankind.

But in this post, let me try the untriable and face the unfaceable. In other words, to discuss how could states and societies act on overpopulation once they decide it is an important problem? (and, maybe, they already have decided that)

Let's start by saying that the whole debate on population, as it is today, is pure smoke and mirrors, as most public debates are. It is the way things are: debates are not there to take decisions, they are encouraged by the powers that be (PTB) in order to create confusion, divide the public, and make any decision difficult or impossible -- especially those decisions that the PTB don't like. But that doesn't mean decisions are not taken. It is just that they derive from different mechanisms. 

In some cases, decisions are taken by the PTB and then forced on people by means of laws, police, jails, and the like. Perhaps more often, they are the result of a form of collective intelligence that exists in all societies. No man is an island, and that applies also to decisions regarding family size: humans do not breed like rabbits. They decide according to a wide range of social conventions, laws, customs, peer pressure, and more. And the result is a certain degree of "population policy" that takes hold even in the absence of specific laws. As I describe in my book "The Seneca Effect", the Japanese society attained a nearly perfect population stabilization during the Edo period without any specific government intervention.

But often things are not so idyllic. Let's see a few historical examples, approximately ordered in terms of increasingly proactive societal intervention.

1. Ireland after the great famine. You probably know the story of the great famine that struck Ireland starting in 1846. In about one decade, Ireland had lost about half of its population to a combination of starvation, disease, and emigration. The interesting point of this story is that the Irish did NOT try to compensate for the losses by having more children. They did exactly the opposite, they reduced birthrates. The Irish of those times didn't have good contraceptives, but they coped mainly by retarding the marriage age and by adopting a lifestyle that discouraged sexual activity among young people. And they did the right thing: after the famine, the Irish population grew at a much slower rate than before, and today it has not yet reached the level of before the great famine. This is a very interesting story because it shows how a whole society can take a decision on a collective behavior without the need for this decision being enforced by a government. But note also that the Irish arrived at this decision only after having being struck with the equivalent of a hammer blow to the head. The Irish society as a whole had no predictive capabilities, it could only act after the disaster had already taken place.

2. The demographic transition. The modern decline of birthrates called the "demographic transition" can take different forms. In China, an official government program was enforced in the 1970s to limit the families to one child each. It involved financial penalties and forced sterilization and it was kept in place until 2016. The results were not so drastic as it might have been expected and the Chinese population continued to increase, although at progressively slower rates. In the West, the transition was more gradual and it may have started with the beginning of the 20th century, but the results were similar: slow decline of birthrates and gradual stabilization of the population size. In both cases, we may say that society reacted to the perception that population couldn't continue to grow exponentially forever. It may not be impossible that in both China and the West society had metabolized some of the results of the "Limits to Growth" study of 1972 and were reacting to it, even though the study soon became another politically incorrect story. For the Chinese, the result was an explicit government program of birth control, something that was possible in a strong state as argued by Chandran Nair in his recent book "The Sustainable State." In the West, instead, the concept of "birth control" soon became unspeakable in political terms, but it was implemented in practice by Western women on their own initiative.This case shows that there is a certain degree of societal intelligence that can react to the assessment of future threats. It is a limited capability though. The decline in birthrates was very slow and didn't lead to a population decline.

3. Eugenic policies in the West. This is a sensitive subject, not often discussed and for which it is not easy to find extensive data. In any case, eugenics is not, normally, about reducing the population size, but that may well be a side effect. Typical methods used involve forced sterilization and may arrive at "involuntary euthanasia." (a nice euphemism, although not so impressive as others that came in fashion in later times, such as "humanitarian bombs"). Eugenics made a fleeting appearance during the first half of the 20th century (and a little beyond that) in the West, mostly in the US and in Germany. In the US, eugenic policies had a decidedly racial aspect. Sterilizations targeted mostly minority groups seen as inferior (Blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, etc.), but it doesn't seem that forced euthanasia was used. In Germany, the idea arrived later, with the Nazis in the 1930s, but it was practiced with much more enthusiasm and it involved the elimination of entire minority groups. We all know the case of the Jews, but the German state also engaged in the killing of a significant number of German citizens, although not on a scale that could reduce the population size. This case is interesting because it shows how a society can literally go crazy and enact drastic measures of population control that are not only probably useless but surely evil.

These are just examples, but I think it is possible to take a few general conclusions from them. The main one is that a society under strain may react by enacting laws or developing customs to influence the population size. Up to relatively recent times, states tried to overcome crises by increasing the birthrate of their citizens -- some still do that. It was a way to obtain more cannon fodder (or, even earlier, more blade fodder). But with the 20th century, military might was not anymore proportional to the number of soldiers that a state could field. So, the societal response to a crisis could be to stabilize the population and optimize the economy by reducing birthrates, in some cases even by using drastic methods such as eugenics. 

Now, in our times, there is no doubt that we are in a crisis, a very serious crisis, a crisis that no other society ever faced in the past. No matter what Steven Pinker tells us about things getting better, it is clear that they are not getting better when tens of thousands of the best world's scientists keep telling us that climate change is going to destroy our civilization. You may fault capitalism, the rich, inequality, the psychopaths in power, all that. Sure, but it is legitimate to think (even though it may not be said) that 8 billion people are a problem.

Let me state again that I am not here to propose any population policy: I have no such capability, nor title, and not even interest in doing that. I am just wondering about how society (and the Western society in particular) could react to the perception that, 1) there exists a very serious existential problem, and 2) it may be caused by overpopulation.

Clearly, reducing birthrates would not be enough: alone, it can't be fast enough to counteract the dire scenarios that we face in terms of ecosystem disruption. An "Ireland-like" scenario may well be in the cards: a major famine could halve the world's population, as it happened in Ireland in the mid-19th century. In that case, the population may not restart growing after the disaster and the worst-case climate scenarios might be averted. Alternatively, there would be the possibility of a new round of eugenic programs. That would be the most drastic and desperate attempt to react to the threat. Could that happen for real? It is true that eugenics is considered a bad word, but that doesn't mean it can't be implemented under different names.

The recent COVID-19 epidemics gave us a good example of what Western governments can do in an emergency, or what they perceive as an emergency. As an example, let me report a recent statement by Alan Dershowitz
“Let me put it very clearly: you have no constitutional right to endanger the public and spread the disease, even if you disagree. You have no right not to be vaccinated. … And if you refuse to be vaccinated, the state has the power to literally take you to a doctor’s office and plunge a needle into your arm.”
Which is a pretty good description of what the new eugenic policies might look like. It would all be for your own good, of course, but you cannot oppose being inoculated with something you would rather avoid to be inoculated with. And if you protest, you'll be branded as an enemy of the people and punished accordingly.

So, we could see something like what Antonio Turiel's described in his fictional story titled "Good Vibrations." In it, he shows how a government decides to get rid of the people considered a burden for the economy by enforcing the consumption of an anti-depressant drug that has the unfortunate side-effect of killing those who take it in about 5 years. Even without forcing people to take a deadly drug, governments could simply let the commerce of opioid drugs expand, with the result of obtaining the elimination of a good fraction of the "useless" people. It could happen.... wait... It is already happening!

And so we conclude that the future is indeed an interesting place. After all, we are all going there. But there are no maps of the future and so we don't know what we'll find there. Maybe it won't be so bad as some say it could be, or maybe we'll find it is much worse. Who knows? Just enjoy the ride: it is free!


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)