Well, as long as you're one of the 1.5 billion

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In Slate, Daniel Engberg argues for/covers Alan Weisman (The World Without Us)'s argument for smaller families as an environmental move:
Oh, if we all just disappeared. According to The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's strangely comforting vision of human annihilation, the Earth would be a lot better off. In his doomsday scenario, freshwater floods would course through the New York subway system, ailanthus roots would heave up sidewalks, and a parade of coyotes, bears, and deer would eventually trot across the George Washington Bridge and repopulate Manhattan. Nature lovers can take solace in the idea that the planet will thrive once we've finally destroyed ourselves with global warming. But Weisman takes the fantasy one step further: Let's not wait for climate change, he says. Let's start depopulating right now.

Instead of burning down our numbers with oil and gas, we might follow the advice of the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, who tells Weisman that everyone in the world should stop having kids all at once. Weisman isn't up for quite so drastic a measure, but he makes his own pitch, moderate in comparison: Let's cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century, he says, ensuring the habitability of the Earth for the 1.6 billion who remained. At that point, they could all reap the rewards of a more spacious planet, sharing in "the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful." It seems like a notion from the fringe, but Weisman's book has become a mainstream best seller. Could population control be the next big thing in green culture?

There are of course two ways of looking at preserving the environment: as something that's good in itself or as an instrumental good—who wants to live in a world where the environment is so destroyed that all you get to eat is soylent green? If you subscribe to the first theory, then sure, the lower the human impact the better. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the second theory, then it's much less obvious that a reduced population is a good thing. Those people who weren't born yet would presumably have taken some pleasure in life and now they won't. Now, obviously the people who are born will have a higher quality of life, but this kind of reasoning runs us right into Parfit's "How only France survives". I don't have a good answer to what the right population of the Earth is, but I don't see Weisman/Engberg's argument as particularly dispositive either.

Of course, it could easily be that Weisman subscribes to the first theory. I haven't read his book but I heard him being interviewed on NPR and got the distinct sense that he took some pleasure in contemplating a world without humans.


I've read the book, and the portrait of the VHEM makes them seem rather weird. They advocate what the name says, not just population control. The book describes a peaceful vision where everybody just stops procreating and problems go away slowly:

The first to notice would be crisis-pregnancy centers, because no one would be coming in. Happily, in a few months abortion provides would be out of business. It would be tragic for people who kept trying to conceive. But in five years, ther would be no more children under five dying horribly. The lot of all living children would improve, he says, as they became more valuable rather than more disposable. No orphan would go unadopted. "In 21 years, there would be, by definition, no juvenile delinquency." By then, as resignation sinks in, Knight predicts that spiritual awakening would replace panic, because of the dawning realization that as human life drew to a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water."

I have a rather more pessimistic conception of society without the hope for a future, but I don't think too many people take the VHEM seriously.

The other take on population control is the discussion of consequences of a global one child policy a bit later, and it seems that Weisman indeed views it favourably. I'm equally skeptical of this since life on a downward sloping population curve will probably pose a couple of challenges that people who are only concerned about the environmental impact tend to miss. If we actually get a population decline in the developed world and/or see China deal with the issues that arise, maybe we will be able to come up with social mechanism to cope, but at the moment I'm not convinced we're currently prepared to benefit from this scenario.

On the other hand, I find Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion repugnant indeed, so I take to vague muttering about "the middle ground" and waving my hands when pressed on the question (which, of course, I never am :).

On the topic of the environment as an intrinsic versus instrumental good, I have a lot of trouble believing in it as an intrinsic good.

4.5 billion years ago, the Earth was a lifeless rock. 4.5 billion years from now, the Earth will be a lifeless rock.

There have been several environment-destroying events during the last 4.5 billion years and there will most probably be several environment destroying events during the next 4.5 billion years. No matter what humans do.

Event in the absence of such events, most of the species extent 65M years ago are extinct today. Most of the species extent today will probably be extinct in 65M years. No matter what humans do.

So we're really debating about what's going to happen to the environment on an incredibly short time scale (from the universal perspective). The length of this interval is defined mostly by our lifespans and our species' existence.

Given this, I can't see how to divorce environmental goodness from it's utility to humans.

Actually, I think it's in humanity's best interest to limit the number of humans. Humanity has managed to create a situation where there are no predators and very few controlling infections or parasites. This has allowed humanity to expand very quickly. The problem is that humanity is expending with a speed that might lead to a population collapse. Controlling the population on our own would most likely be less "painful"

In the interest of the long term survival of the human race we need a diverse environment as a buffer. If we want to live the lives of the western world we also need a huge amount of biological buffer to handle the waste. Humanity is quickly outgrowing the planet. We are also laying the foundations of an economical disaster when we base the economy on eternal growth of the population.

In the end it's a political decision. How comfortably do we want to live? From a genetic standpoint 500 millions is plenty. 500 millions is also enough to allow specialization on a current level. Beyond that it's a balance between comfort of living, productivity and environment safety.

Personally I see no need for a larger population than we have today. A smaller population would most likely be preferable. And the growth rate is actually rather easy to control through economical systems, atleast in the western world.

A zero-population growth ideology in the rich countries is a monumentally bad idea, almost guaranteed to lead to nothing good.

Population growth already tends to be low or negative in wealthy societies, and high in very poor ones. This gives exactly the wrong kind of growth--lots more babies in places where they can't afford the ones they've got, not so many in places where children get good nutrition, healthcare, and education.

An ideology or set of political measures in the rich countries to promote falling population will just accelerate this pattern, and the already ugly demographic transition these countries are facing. Ultimately, we'll end up with a lot fewer people doing useful science and engineering to solve some of the world's problems, with no decrease in the number of people mired in poverty, because even a complete population collapse in Finland or Switzerland won't really make Bangladeshi kids or adults any better off. And, as large pools of retirees are supported by smaller and smaller working populations in the rich countries, money for luxuries like foreign aid will dry up. As will money for luxuries like government-funded research.

"Those people who weren't born yet would presumably have taken some pleasure in life and now they won't."

I suspect that any calculus that involves the theoretical lives of unconceived people is going to result in absurd conclusions when taken to their logical end (which is the moral I take away from Parfit's argument).

For example, the statement I quote would point to a moral (or, at the very least, humanitarian) duty to produce as many offspring as possible. Any non-pregnant, fertile woman would be committing a wrong to their potential descendants. (The onus on men would be much less austere, merely requiring action when a non-pregnant female is found).

However, I agree with your implied point: there is a balance somewhere, an optimal range of human population. It's easy to see how a cursory survey of human living conditions around the world might convince some people that we've exceeded that number already.

Some grist for the mill here: if you were to reduce the world population to 1.6 billion people, you're merely returning to where we were about 100 years ago (cf http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html). John's point is a good one, though: getting the demographic makeup of these 1.6 billion people correct is an insurmountable task.

I'm not really up on modern moral philosophy, so all of this stuff is pretty confusing to me. If the goal is just to maximize happiness, then shouldn't we just be brainwashing everyone (pharmacologically, perhaps) to be deliriously happy as they toil away in the soylent green factories?

As I've said before about Rawls, divorcing means from ends by contemplating ideal worlds completely irrespective of how they're created is a strange way to approach ethics and morality--which are, after all, about what one should do, not just what sort of world one would prefer. One would have thought that the folks who brought us the "trolley problem" would realize that.

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