Planet earth’s future cannot be bright with 8 billion people: our future depends on how seriously and quickly we change our materialist culture, social organization and technologies. An immediate action plan is offered for the generation centered around Greta Thunberg: young women, and just as importantly young men, should avow not to have children until their parents and grandparents take significant steps to deliver the world they promised.
By Ralph R. Sell
The same week 16 year old Swede Greta Thunberg shamed anyone older for lying about her bright future, I belatedly read the second edition of British ecological economist Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth. Professor Jackson argues that we must substitute for economic growth less materialist social goals if humanity is to truly prosper, or more ominously, survive. Most of the world’s religions have argued this over the same millennia which accompanied the triumph of materialist overconsumption. After some background, this essay offers a way out of this contradiction between the moral imperatives of the “should” and how people have and most likely will react to the allure of material plenty. Perhaps gratuitously, I also offer an immediate action plan for the generation centered around Ms. Thunberg: young women, and just as importantly young men, should avow not to have children until their parents and grandparents take significant steps to deliver the world they promised.
Both Thunberg and Jackson passionately call attention to the disasters soon to overtake us if multiple corrections and changes fail to be made in the way too many of us consume. By now books with similar messages would fill a library; warnings about global over-exploitation started 50 years ago (the first Earth Day occurred in 1970). Over these years the narrative moved from academic computer models about what was coming to Youtube visuals of what has already arrived. Clear to everyone who pays attention to anything beyond their own ego, the outcome of the Darwinian experiment nature is running on humanity, if left alone, will have disastrous and deadly outcomes. But humans are not drosophila genetically expanding to the limits of their bell jar environment; rather we are sentient humans who eventually look into each other’s eyes and souls, understand that we are all in earth’s bell jar together, and start to ask “What the %#@$ can we do?” I will first present a more organized way to think about all this, and then concentrate on a neglected element for saving our future. Uncharacteristically this offers just a hint of optimism in an otherwise depressing saga of human excess.
Many discussions of what to do about climate change get frustrated by the interconnectedness of the structures which have led us to where we are. These structures interconnect in complex ways and we need a simplifying framework. A borrowed acronym POET from human ecology, offers a start: Population, Organization, Environment, Technology. Changes in any one of the four components interactively induces changes in the other three.
For most of the 100,000 years of human existence, populations were small and stable; social organization, simple and direct, the environment, save for an ice age or two and a couple of human-induced extinctions, was essentially stable; technology, simple. Exactly when, how and in what order the balance among the factors changed need not divert us here, except to say that after a fairly languid 100,000 years, by about 1800 the world’s population topped 1 billion; the surface of the earth would soon be organized into competing geopolitical units; the environment, excepting some deforestation here and there and a couple of nasty mining scars, remained a self-regulating Gaia; and the first replacement of human and animal power by the fossil-fueled steam engine had just been commercialized. 220 years or .2% of human existence later a population of almost 8 billion; globally-organized production with the positive feedback loop of mass consumerism; an environment on the brink of inducing either an unimaginably nasty population culling led by an impersonal Grim Reaper or a context for human life generational spokesperson, Ms. Thunberg, finds insufferably inadequate. All this accompanied by technological changes which, while sometimes amazingly attractive, have more often been used by a small number of us for personal profit and control.
I taught university courses in social demography for most of my career, and in a way I return to my roots in this essay with a focus on the Population part of the POET framework. Returning to Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth, he assumes that prosperity must accommodate 9 billion or more people because projections tell him this will be our demographic future. But his less consumerist world, which I applaud, could just as well work, certainly far better, with say 4 billion people. It is simple arithmetic that whatever individuals’ resource consumption, overall consumption would be less with fewer people. To be blunt there will be fewer of us than 9 billion because the planet cannot support this many people with anything close to our “developed world” standard of living. The only relevant questions are how and how soon the reduction occurs: “naturally” by war and disease, or “unnaturally” by human interventions. The good news is that the case for human intervention is much stronger than many people realize and in fact has been at work for some time. And the good news includes a concrete and actionable suggestion of how the many younger people motivated by Ms. Thunberg can take part and push for real, that is beneficial, climate change.
The Population part of POET must become more complex to explain this. Real populations come with different amounts of old and young people, over and under consumers, etc in all the variety of humanity. Crucial for population forecasts are women and men’s future baby making. Well known is that for a stable population the average couple over their lifetime needs to have about 2 children to replace themselves. Less well known is that it matters a great deal at what age these average couples have babies. Generational overlaps will be greater and stable populations will be larger if mothers have babies around age 20 rather than around age 30. Sophisticated calculations have lots of complex interactions—this is what demographers and computers deal with—but a simple example should make this point. Currently, about 100 million babies are born and about 40 million people of all ages die each year, thus adding about 60 million to the existing population of 7.7 billion. 10 years of this will add 600 million people to the 7.7 billion or 8.3 billion. Now suppose 16 year old Ms. Thunberg and others pledge “NO CHANGE, NO GRANDCHILDREN!” for 10 years, perhaps believing that the future as offered to their potential children would be far too bleak. 10 years of no babies and in 2030 the world would have about a billion fewer people consuming a billion units less of planetary degradation. Fewer people will not solve over-consumption, but will make solutions more manageable.
This initiative would support several existing social movements from around the world who have already pledged to forgo childbearing until governments take concrete steps to halt and reverse climate change. Two notable examples include: #BirthStrike “a worldwide movement of people who have decided not to have children because of climate change” and #No future, No children which collects pledges to not have children until governments ensure their babies a safe future. Similar movements, such as Conceivable Future directly link the climate crisis to failures of reproductive justice while making clear that these actions are not directed against children, but rather at increasing the chances that babies enter a livable world.
As always the real world remains far more complex and, frankly, this is as it should be. However, for some time now and in most parts of the world women and men already have been having fewer babies, at older ages or remaining childless. In fact by most measures well over half of the world’s entities have birth rates below replacement. In terms of population size and thus overall impact, the fertility of China’s 1.43 billion people is below replacement (1.7 babies per woman), India’s 1.37 billion just above replacement (2.2), and 3rd in size USA below replacement (1.8). Ms. Thunberg’s hypothetical call to action would fit existing trends, but has the dramatic potential to speed up other consumption changes which must occur as well.
How did these rapid and far reaching changes to patterns of behavior in something as personal as having babies come about? The three largest countries just mentioned offer three different pathways. The most direct in terms of policy remains China where in 1979 rules were set in place and enforced to limit most couples under most situations to one child. The policies explicitly aimed to lower population growth, were highly effective, and thus were relaxed in 2015 toward the goal of a stable population size. The USA has never had an explicit population policy regarding itself, but education and encouraging women to pursue careers outside of motherhood induced the same reduced baby-making result. The USA and many other places clearly show that on average if given options, especially those which reduce patriarchal influence if not outright control, many couples forego childbearing, have children later in life and have fewer of them. India’s efforts fall between these two poles with episodes of coerced vasectomies intertwined with significant investments in human development, but with the clearly demonstrated result of lowered overall fertility before, rather than after, well-distributed economic well-being. As demonstrated by these three large and diverse societies, the options to halt population growth can take many different paths.
Under all scenarios, accommodating and/or moderating climate change and its effect on our Environment will not be easy. Technologies to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere, produce and use energy more efficiently, and many others, must be developed and exploited. The Organization of our lives must be directed away from excess material consumption while simultaneously directing some of that excess toward those who need more. But at the same time as attention gets directed at three-fourths of POET, Population the final fourth has the potential to make a sustainable accommodation sooner, rather than catastrophically, later. Planet earth’s future cannot be bright with 8 billion people; exactly how fewer depends on how seriously and quickly we change our materialist culture, social organization and technologies.
Dr. Sell received a Ph. D. in Sociology from The Pennsylvania State University and has taught at Penn State, the University of Rochester, the American University in Cairo and the Rochester Institute of Technology. He retired from academia in 2006.
Disclaimer: Dr. Sell has one grandson.