It’s not about Nadya Suleman – what we need is an informed debate about sustainable population growth

Posted: February 18, 2009 in environment, society
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Zero-Sum Game

By Richard Heinberg on February 12, 2009, Post Carbon Institute

nadya-sulemanOops!—bad timing. The announcement that California taxpayers will have to pay most of the costs for raising the famous octuplets born recently near Los Angeles is provoking widespread indignation about what is often taken to be a fundamental human right—i.e., the right to reproduce ad infinitum.

The story might have raised eyebrows a year ago or five. But the fact that the 33-year-old single, unemployed mother’s plight is capturing headlines at the very moment when the State of California is in effect declaring bankruptcy (and laying off teachers and other state workers) not only provides grist for irate radio call-ins, it also highlights a profound shift taking place just beneath the surface of our collective awareness.

For most of the last century or two, economic growth has lifted all boats and temporarily increased Earth’s effective carrying capacity. Though the human population was growing relentlessly and at an unprecedented rate, few worried: every year there were more jobs, more opportunities, new careers. The pie was expanding, so the fact that there were always more people at the table was perceived as a plus. With more folks to talk to, life was becoming richer! Whatever area of skill you might be interested in, you could see records being broken, unheard-of achievements being made: there were better pianists and violinists than anyone had ever heard before, better athletes than anyone had ever seen, more brilliant mathematicians, surgeons—you name it—just because there were so many people competing with one another to develop excellence in their areas of expertise. What a time to be alive!

Now suddenly the game has changed. The pie has stopped getting bigger. As more people arrive at the table, everyone nervously eyes the remaining crumbs, anxious to avert a free-for-all but also keen to avoid being left out.

Welcome to the post-peak economic meltdown!

A lot is going to change due to the fact that we have reached the end of economic growth as we’ve known it. One non-trivial item concerns our attitude toward population.

Environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich have for decades been pointing out the obvious truism that the Earth can support only so many humans, and that the more of us there are, the more likely we are to undermine our planetary life-support systems, perhaps eventually triggering a humanitarian as well as an ecological crisis of apocalyptic dimensions.

Some listened; most did not. Efforts were made world-wide to reduce fertility through family planning; in China a one-child policy successfully reduced (but failed to end) population growth. However, on the whole our species continued to pursue its opportunities for expansion, and our numbers continued to grow (current total: 6.7 billion and counting).

Without more cheap energy, without cheap credit, and without economic growth, feelings will change. Are changing. Fewer people will want to bring a large family into the world knowing that economic opportunities are dwindling—but some will still do so. Attitudes toward parenthood are deep-seated, culturally sensitive, and controversial. But they are not immutable.

Here’s the rub: Unless previous beliefs about the sacredness of unlimited fertility (and the corresponding proof-of-masculinity afforded by the siring of many offspring) can be openly questioned and honestly discussed in these new circumstances, the cognitive dissonance between long-held beliefs and deep-seated biological urges on one hand, and the painful awareness of ecological and economic limits on the other, is likely to lead to a kind of societal explosion that will take the forms of heightened demographic competition and intercultural violence.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The discussion about the octuplets now taking place in the popular media is a good thing if it can help us collectively process new information and let go of old thinking. The point is not to blame the single mom; the point is to use this current news trivium as a mirror by which to see ourselves and reassess and change what we observe.

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