How to Fix the Planet, the Easy Way

To avoid disastrous deterioration of Earth’s climate and biosphere, humanity has to reduce its demands on nature. Fewer births and a falling population is no quick fix, but compared with voluntary austerity, it has many more up-sides than down-sides.

by Jon Austen

Scientists are reporting that there is an existential threat to life on Earth. 8 billion people on a planet with depleting resources and increasing CO2 is entering into an epic slow-motion disaster. Climate-related disasters are coming to a town near you, but as far as solutions go we are only looking at one side of the coin while ignoring the other, because it starts with the letter ‘p’.

We are making token gestures to try to fix the climate, but we are not doing nearly enough at the pace needed to make any real difference. This year is set to be the hottest on record, unprecedented fires are burning, and Antarctic ice is at lows never seen before. We need to expect the unexpected as new disasters will take us by surprise in the future. The complacency in the media reporting is staggering, but not surprising. Our mind-numbing ignorance, daydreaming and complacency is pushing us quickly towards disaster, it seems.

Wildfires and melting glaciers are a problem driven by our excessive numbers. Lowering fertility would be an easy fix for the planet
Photos from left to right: Salam2009, Andrew Slifkin, Gary Bembridge (all cropped)

Is the trouble that we cannot change? We seem to be pre-programmed to keep what we like and stick with the status quo. We compare with others, and we like our flights. We like our beef. We like our cars. We like our air conditioning. We’re just not going to stop doing these things until real change is forced upon us and our choice is removed.

The fundamental flaw with democracy is that we vote for things that make our lives better in the short term, even if this means trouble or disaster in the longer term. We do not vote to give up luxuries voluntarily. Instead we have token fixes like electric cars and solar panels and kid ourselves that this is enough. Meanwhile, the developing world is playing catch-up up with living standards of the overdeveloped world and in doing so increasing overconsumption.

There is one simple answer that has been airbrushed out of our collective thought – we reduce our numbers.

Before you jump to any genocidal conclusions, please consider the facts. Managing our numbers is effective, easy to implement and is more cost effective than any other measure. Fewer babies being born is all that is needed. Sex is still possible, but by reducing the global birth rate by an average of one child per family we would quickly see the benefits which would compound themselves as the years pass.

Some people panic and argue that this is not going to fix the problem quickly enough. True, but we are not taking the measures needed to reduce CO2 nearly quickly enough as it is, so why not do both? Long-term problems require long-term solutions.

The benefits of a smaller population are everywhere. Food production would be easier without a growing population to feed. Would you like to see an end to poverty and famines? Charities like the WWF and Save the Children will never achieve their goals until we reverse population growth.

Reforestation could happen as beef production would reduce. Fish stocks would recover as demand fell, there would be less traffic on the roads, less pollution. Number one on the list of benefits: it helps fix climate change. Everything would be better – except perhaps profit margins where they depend on abundant cheap labour.

We are doing almost nothing to make it happen – we do not even talk about it! But with policy changes and public support we could easily change and make the world a better place.

We do not consider our numbers for a range of totally spurious reasons. We are led by growth-obsessed politicians and businesspeople who are out of touch with what is happening to the planet and with the answers so desperately needed. Governments have goals for net-zero carbon emissions but they are farcical when they happen alongside high net immigration figures which add more to emissions, not least from the hundreds of thousands more homes that need to be built as a result.

We are still adding 75 million people a year to the planet, almost another Germany, all needing water, food and shelter. A fertility rate cut to an average of 1.3 children from the current 2.3 would soon see population growth stop and then begin to decline. The immense pressure that a growing population has put on Earth for the last two centuries would ease. Things would gradually get better, eventually getting much better.

With 8 billion people and rising, all wanting decent lives, a vast amount of CO2 is being emitted. Estimates for the number of people the planet can support vary, depending on standards of living. 8 billion and heading to 10 billion is unsustainable at current levels of consumption, with overdeveloped countries taking far more than their fair share. Estimates of a population that could be sustained in the longer term if average consumption levels were reduced (greatly reduced in rich countries to allow for greater resource consumption in poor countries) vary between about 2 to 5 billion. Therefore, there are at least 3 billion more people on the planet than can be sustained. But note that “2-5 billion” does not take into account that we also need to restore biodiversity to previous levels.

So either our consumption comes down or our numbers come down, or a combination of the two. So far, we are not changing our consumption habits and our overall numbers are still rising. One, or both, will reduce whether we like it or not. But we have a choice. We can either continue pretending the Elephant in the Room of overpopulation doesn’t exist, or we finally face the fact that The Emperor Isn’t Wearing Any Clothes and pro-actively encourage fewer births until our numbers come back down from the currently dangerous levels.

The silence on our excess numbers is the greatest and most cowardly collective tragedy and betrayal of modern times. Our numbers need to come down quickly and humanely. Mother Nature has had enough of this wantonly destructive species and is slowly turning up the heat and extreme weather dials. In the not too distant future it will be too late. The frog in the pot will be boiling and we will fight for our own survival, taking down more of the population and other species along the way. This is the default path.

Many countries already have low birth rates and they are falling gradually in most places where they are currently high. This is often used as a reason not to take any positive action. But when we can so easily manage our birth rates, why not do it pro-actively? We have the technology, Captain. All it takes is a condom, a pill or a vasectomy and no more babies. One entire lifetime of resource consumption and its consequences avoided at virtually zero cost.

When you ask people what is the most effective thing you can do to help the environment, the answers given are to stop eating meat, stop flying, recycle, or one of the many usual suspects. Only a tiny minority of people will ever give you the right answer, despite the fact that adding another person to the planet is the most damaging thing you can do, by far. Birth rates are in our power as individuals to change, just by deciding not to have children, or an extra child.

Of course, for many people, having children is the most fundamental and enjoyable part of being alive. We would not last long without them. For a relatively short time we should make a commitment for the sake of those very people who will be alive at the end of this century. We don’t appreciate the positives because we have never experienced them. If we could stop population growth, we would be able to stop or reduce building, as we just would not need more building, except restorations. This would reduce emissions massively whilst also freeing up millions of people to do more positive work.

Governments are increasingly taking the opposite view, seeing a decline in population as a fiscal issue that needs changing to keep tax revenues growing. Some are giving couples financial incentives to have children, saying that we don’t have enough people to look after the elderly. But these are false arguments when you consider that only 100 years ago most of us worked just to produce food. Today it’s a tiny fraction, meaning there are plenty of people with the time to look after the elderly.

Funding could be given to countries where people cannot afford visiting clinics for contraception which currently traps them into a cycle of large families and continuing poverty. Given the ominous road ahead is it morally justifiable to bring another person into the world anyway? A terrible question to have to ask, but given the situation it is one that we must ask.

Fifty years from now some cities will be under water, according to climatologists. If we aim for a reduced population the coming breakdown will be much easier to manage.

A world of 6 billion people would be happier and more content than the one with 8 billion. A world with 6 billion would see that 3 billion would be even better. We are heading full steam toward the iceberg, which is dead ahead. We could still take a turn and avoid it, but for now the Captain is nowhere to be seen.

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14 thoughts on “How to Fix the Planet, the Easy Way

  1. The Upside of a Population Decline
    To the Editor:
    Re “The World’s Population May Peak in Your Lifetime,” by Dean Spears (Sunday Opinion, Sept. 24):
    Dr. Spears warns that, more than 60 years hence, the global population will peak at 10 billion and then drop to a mere eight billion (roughly our population today) by 2100. He worries about “tens of billions of lives not lived over the next few centuries — many lives that could have been wonderful for the people who would have lived them.”
    In a world where our natural resources are already strained to the max, this is rank sentimentality.
    Year after year, we wring our hands about climate change, yet continue to drive up energy use and resource extraction to meet our ever-growing hunger for greater comfort and diversion.
    Along with taming our resource gluttony now, a retreat from population growth will be the best thing that could happen to our ravaged planet.
    —Philip Warburg, Newton, Mass.
    The writer is the author of two books on renewable energy and former president of the Conservation Law Foundation.
    To the Editor:
    When I sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our nearby freeway, at a time of day when not too long ago there was rarely any traffic at all, I am hard-pressed to feel much concern about the dangers of a declining population. While there are certainly dangers inherent in a decline that occurs too rapidly or too steeply, we needn’t worry about this.
    First, as the article itself points out, the pace of any projected depopulation will be very slow. Slow enough for us to adapt and adjust.
    Second, I believe we should welcome some measured decline, not fear it. The world population in 1960 was only three billion (compared with eight billion today). I don’t recall that people were concerned about too few people on the planet back then. Quite the opposite: “The Population Bomb” would become a best-selling book later in the decade.
    Finally, the article appears to assume that halting a population decline would result in a relatively stable population size without any problematic growth. That seems naïve. More likely, the pendulum would swing to the other extreme and we would again experience the unsustainable population increases that have been our primary fear until now.
    —Ted Landau, El Cerrito, Calif.
    To the Editor:
    We should not ignore the many positives of a declining human population.
    Fewer humans means less pollution, less carbon, less climate change and less impact on other species.
    Fewer humans means more living space, more wilderness, cleaner oceans, greater sustainability, healthier families and more opportunities per child.
    We should celebrate all parents who choose to have two or fewer children. Their legacy is a better future for everyone.
    Justifying increased human population in the name of economic growth is a G.D.P. pyramid scheme that leads to an ever less livable planet.
    —Kevin Curtis, Cazenovia, N.Y.

  2. That “world leaders” can’t see the obvious disqualifies them from being
    “world leaders.”

  3. “The Captain is nowhere to be seen.”

    The “Captain” for now is a conglomeration of: (1) greedy, short-sighted, big-money interests focused only on ever-increasing profits incompatible with environmental sustainability, (2) the “leading” most powerful government they have bribed with campaign donations to do their bidding (except for a few), and (3) a public largely characterized by some combination of (a) wanting to get into the greed game, (b) ignorance of the facts and facing too much struggle to care, (c) plainly not giving a hoot about the fate of future generations, and (d) apathy and numbness to it all.

    Captain entity (1) is blind drunk on money and power. Captain entity (2) has joined in the stupor, seeing no way out of the plutocracy sanctioned by the highest court in the land.

    Given the drunken stupor of entities (1) and (2), we are left with Captain (3) as the final line of defense to avoid the iceberg. It will take massive efforts by leaders within group (3) to fully awaken the members of their group and, in turn, bring some sense to groups (1) and (2) who have chained themselves to the ship’s wheel, roaring with ironic laughter that the iceberg will melt in time as they “play chicken” with it.

    Some believe that human nature won’t change and that hitting rock bottom is necessary for the degree of change needed. We need skillful optimists to help others visualize the suffering at rock bottom and persuade them toward a less difficult recovery. It is a whole-of-population effort. It may require a well-considered restructuring of the global ship of power.

  4. I don’t think this blog is doing itself any favours but constantly implying that “yeah, we should reduce consumption, but it’s no fun and we won’t do it any way”. Lots of people ARE reducing their excess consumption, ARE voting for environmental parties as best they can, or campaigning against mines/factories/developments that will increase production. Governments do have powers and do reduce the wealth available to certain citizens through taxes.
    Like it says in the article, for some people less children is a sacrifice just as much, if not more, than less beef or flying is for others. We either all make some sacrifices, or we waste all our time arguing about which sacrifice is nicer or more likely.
    If you keep doing this, it makes you sound like just a rich people’s club.

    1. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reduce our consumption, absolutely we should. What I’m saying is that many people really won’t give up their lifestyles no mater what. So, having a smaller family is at least one thing that can be done. Yes, we should all make some sacrifices, and this is one option that is often overlooked. It’s not an argument about which is better, I’m just pointing out that this is one of the options, and a very important one.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I wasn’t just referring to you but to other similar things I’ve read here. I often get the impression this is the message.
        Like I said, it’s not really about people giving things up or making sacrifices, although that is part of it. It’s about governance. Governments often give HUGE public subsidies to both production and consumption, and could do more in capping the wealth of the extremely rich.
        I’ve written a short book about agricultural subsidies, and I am writing another on tourism with a lengthy discussion of subsidies. The amount of money governments take from people and redirect to things like intensive factory farming or ski pistes is staggering. In Italy, the construction sector is insanely subsidised too. You could argue it’s for electoral reasons, but actually, locals don’t really want to work in those sectors of the economy, so you need to import people to do it. Cutting all of this would significantly reduce consumption at a moderate political cost.
        Not to mention, many people are forced to work more than they would like to because they are required to support this system. If you cut the subsidies, you can also cut taxes to the lower classes, and the people who want to go for degrowth on a personal level can finally afford to.

      2. I totally agree. The whole capitalist mindset is for growth, GDP, more of everything, turbocharged by advertising. Then the figures look like we’re doing well. In reality it’s a disaster
        What we should be doing is sitting down with a drink and chatting to our friends

  5. Look at Albanese and Trudeau, both “climate action” poseurs, both foisting extraordinarily high rates of population growth on their respective countries, causing major housing distress and homelessness. Their hypocritical policies have keen support from the “virtuous” and powerful “stakeholders” and are kept right away from the powerless voters. Democracy 101.

  6. Until DEVELOPED NATIONS–especially the highest per-capita one, the UNITED STATES–lead by example and reduce population growth, most of it via ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION sanctioned by “leaders”–AND until we again have media reporting honestly on population, we will make no progress on climate or any other environmental issues.

    1. Most of the population growth in the UK is from legal immigration, ten times the size of illegal immigration. The government makes a big deal about tackling illegal immigration while at the same time leaving the door wide open for legal immigration. Then Labour promise to build millions of new homes. All further adding emissions and accelerating climate breakdown.

      1. It’s the same in Italy – I wrote about it on this very blog. Our economies, societies and families are really dependent on the cheap labour. An Italian sociologist wrote a very insightful book about how in Italy most people aren’t working, but we’re still living like fat cats. Immigration is one of the reasons why.

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