For thousands of years, population control meant violence. War, famine, disease, and genocide served as the primary powers that nature and the state could wield to limit the expansion of the world’s human footprint. However, medical and cultural advances, such as readily available birth control and women’s liberation significantly changed the conversation around not only the ethics of population expansion, but also the available means of curbing it. (For more on this topic, see "How a Free Market Deals with Overpopulation.")
Population Growth Fears
In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, bioethicist Paul Ehrlich outlined a doomsday scenario with predictions that the world’s population would increase to a point where all natural resources would be consumed, causing massive upheaval across the globe. More recently, researcher Travis Rieder, at the Berman Institute of Bioethics, argues that humans have a moral responsibility to limit the birth of children to protect the environmental stability of our planet.
At NBC News, he writes,
I am certainly not arguing that we should shame parents, or even that we’re obligated to have a certain number of children. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think there is a tidy answer to the challenging questions of procreative ethics. But that does not mean we’re off the moral hook.”
Reider has effectively connected a subjective standard of morality to an individual’s right to use their bodies as they see fit. Scientific research is a means of testing and presenting evidence. Morality is a system of imperatives designed to govern human action. Several problems exist with this type of moral imperative associated with a scientific claim. Reider must not only prove his link beyond a shadow of a doubt – he must as prove that his solution is the only and moral one to follow.
Since 1950, the world’s repopulation rate has decreased.
For the past 40 years, the scientific community has waffled between the impact of global cooling and global warming as a doomsday scenario for our planet. While it is hard to argue that environmental changes have occurred over the course of many millennia, it is harder to link this change to specific human action. In direct rebuttal to Ehrlich’s and Rieder’s concern for a population bomb, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1950, the world’s repopulation rate has decreased from an annual rate of 1.5 percent, below the necessary rate of population maintenance, to a projected 0.5 percent by 2050.
The alarmist attitude of researchers searching for a link between human repopulation rates and global impact is misguided and naive. In The Guardian, a different warning has been issued about declining birth rates in European countries. In 2015, Spain’s repopulation rate fell to 1.27 percent while the general repopulation rate for Europe is now teetering at 1.55 percent. For Rieder and Ehrlich, unless the total extermination of the human population is the ultimate method of achieving the least amount of carbon footprint, it would seem that not only are humans taking care of reducing our population voluntarily, but it brings up the question of who will decide the correct number of humans populating the earth.
Top-Down Population Restrictions
Policies such as China’s One Child mandate, phased out in 2015, have led to numerous unintended consequences including forced abortions and what is estimated as currently 30 million bachelors with too few eligible young women.
Top-down restrictions of human population growth have produced negative economic and societal results.
Genocides perpetrated in Europe during World War I and World War II, including the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags, impacted the economic growth of countries such as Germany and Russia following these wars. Top-down restrictions of human population growth have, in every instance, produced negative results both economic and societal.
What Rieder and Ehrlich discount as a potential solution to environmental change is a reliance on human ingenuity and entrepreneurship to solve these problems. The use of horse-drawn carriages across the world was potentially the highest impact to global greenhouse gas emissions prior to 1910. The invention of the automobile solved this issue more effectively than any city ordinance about how and where to remove waste. Numerous examples exist including the invention of the light bulb, the electric car, and energy efficient technologies. Whenever the human race has faced a societal problem or designed a new invention that changes history entrepreneurs, not governments, have dealt most effectively with the implications of change.
Human reproduction is neither a problem environmentally, nor morally, if we seek to find new ways to reduce our carbon footprint through innovation. Stringing together a supposed and unverifiable set of causes that impact something as integral as human reproduction, while we restrict investment and research into alternative sources of energy, is a misguided approach to solving a small problem while ignoring larger more direct issues.
It’s important to allow humans to be free to reproduce, spurring entrepreneurs and scientists to find new ways to steward our planet wisely. Instead of relying on government to regulate growth we will produce a society with more moral and social responsibility, as we seek new ways to encourage the human race to flourish in a sustainable fashion.