Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why (some) liberals are so sold on the dangers of population growth (that they don’t really mind if it’s about to stop)

In my last post I used the publication of a report about 1968 book The Population Bomb to question the general validity of the predictions of immediate doom that public luminaries have been making at least since the end of the XVIIIth century, apparently undaunted by the fact that such doom has failed to materialize once and again. In today’s post I want to qualify my own questioning (as I do find some merit indeed in pointing the dangers of unlimited growth in any finite system) and analyze why the dominant reason has counter intuitively embraced the denunciation of demographic growth as an indisputable part of its ideological core (when in its origins it was wedded to the idea of constant, unimpeded proliferation of consumers and producers).

On with the qualifications, then. When I brought in as an explanation of the failure of all the prognosticators of immediate societal collapse their inability to account for technological progress, as expounded in Popper’s book The Poverty of Historicism, I did not want to align myself with the opposite current of “techno-optimism” which posits that any of society’s ills will, in short order, be solved by such progress. In this case optimism is as unwarranted (and as irrational) as pessimism. We just can’t know what the consequences of developing technologies will be, either for good or ill. We don’t know either how long it will take them to develop to have a significant impact in how our society is organized, how it produces its necessities (and all the rest) and how it distributes them. Does that mean that any prediction is hopeless, and we should entirely abandon the idea of trying to determine in advance what may befall us? Not at all. Trying to discern what the future has in store for us belongs to our basic human nature, we cannot help but be fascinated by forecasts, prophecies, extrapolations, alternative future scenarios and the like because we love to peek into whatever may await us. The problems start when we intend to use those forecasts to take action now either to prevent or to reinforce some aspect of that always hypothetical, always uncertain future, especially when that action may have some certain negative impact right away. As a Brazilian sage once told me “it doesn’t make any sense to commit suicide for fear of being murdered”.

I guess all I’m saying is that those predictions should come with a bit more of humility and of recognition of their necessary fallibility. I’m also saying that people that intend to use those forecasts as launching pads for their own thoughts on the matter should take them with a grain of salt and not leave their critical capabilities aside as so many seem to do. Regarding the subject at hand, the models that try to predict any societal “tipping point” based on the consumption of a number of resources (like World3, used by the Club of Rome) are ludicrous simplifications, so do not put much stock in them. Of course population can’t grow indefinitely (at least as long as we are stuck in this planet, the moment in which we start colonizing other worlds, or travel freely between the stars, if that moment ever comes, would be an entirely different story), nobody is discussing that, but nobody can say, either, if a sustainable limit (what has been termed Earth’s “carrying capacity”) stands at 3 bn, the current 7 bn, 10 bn or 1,000 bn (albeit I’ll reckon that the latter figure sounds a tad high), and whoever claims to know is normally selling a dish of malarkey, with a side of baloney (we will ponder a bit later why people would want to support those kind of claims). Of course, the number of people the Earth can sustain without compromising its ability to replenish its resources is of the greatest importance, but unfortunately it is far from being a question amenable to a “technical” (value free) answer.

To make things worse, it is not amenable to an ethical answer either, even a very considered one. We are covering quite a crowded field here, but after all I’ve read (and thought myself) about it I still believe the best discussion of the issue to be found is the one presented by Derek Parfitt in Reasons and Persons. He contemplates there the traditional utilitarian argument of a situation being preferable if it causes the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”, and he recognizes this would lead (assuming beyond a certain point the addition of more people reduced the average happiness of everybody, as they would have to live in a more crowded space, with less resources, less biodiversity, etc.) to a world with billions upon billions of humans, the happiness of each being barely enough to make life just tolerable, as the sheer amount of humans would make the total amount of happiness to be so much greater that if only a bunch of people lived, even if each one of them were extremely happy, that it would make that state of affairs ethically preferable. This he called a “repugnant conclusion”, as he could not agree with it. Unfortunately, the alternative of stating as a more sound ethical end pursuing not the greatest total happiness, but the greatest average happiness, wouldn’t work either, because that may be reached in a scenario where only three or five very good and loving friends lived, each of them having lives bursting with delight and contentment, but whose overall value seemed to the author to pale in comparison with a vibrant community of at least a few millions leading only slightly less contented lives. What I just wanted to highlight with this discussion is that it is by no means clear that a more crowded planet is neither a better nor a worse outcome than a less crowded one, for any set level of population, regardless of what people may tell you. Every individual may have a personal preference, but when you take into account the unalloyed good that existence is for each of the already existing persons in it, the merit of such preference becomes less clear.

Because the problem in the end, especially when you take imaginary physical limits out of the question, is that if there are too many of us, who is to decide who remains and who is in excess? I distinctly remember a comic strip from the Argentinean genius Quino presenting that very same dilemma: in it a friend of Mafalda, the main character, (can’t remember if Felipe or Miguelito) is reading in the newspaper  that “there are two billion people in excess in the world” (these were the seventies, so there weren’t so many of us around), and full of anguish she asks him “Is there a list of names?”; when he answers there is not such a list she sighs with relief, stating that she preferred to be an “anonymous remainder”.

That’s what anybody prefers, isn’t it? We would be imposing much lighter burdens on earth, and would probably enjoy a cleaner environment and higher biodiversity, if there were only one or two billion humans on Earth (including us, of course, I guess nobody is willing to count himself out), but what should we do with the other five billions already here? I can empathize with some people’s claim that we never should have reached such numbers in the first place, and that we should have pursued more restrictive fertility controls much earlier, by compulsion if needed (implying that, not having done so, it is high time to start doing it now), but I can also detect a whiff of very patronizing imperialist mentality, as those controls unfailingly had to be imposed on the third world countries (well, after all, that is where the demographic shift took place later –not even in all of them, and the only places nowadays still reproducing above replacement levels), limiting their freedom more than we are willing to limit ours (mandatory limits to the number of children in demographically exhausted developed countries are not needed at all, but I can not avoid thinking they wouldn’t be as enthusiastically endorsed by many). Patronizing and a bit hypocritical, then. What I perceive behind the protestations about the unbearable burden we humans impose on the planet, especially in the “first world”, is a concern about the impact in our cosseted lives of all those dark savages growing endlessly, multiplying like bacteria or viruses, that not being able to find a living in their “realm of chaos” (Friedman’s words, not mine) will sooner or later come to our shores, or to our less guarded frontiers, and seep in and infect us with their “otherness” in the form of undocumented immigrants, paperless, faceless, lawless (because we condemn them to be so).

And that rejection of the other that the Western mind (either in Europe or in America or, in growing numbers, in Asia) so stridently expresses (without wanting to recognize it) gives us the final clue about why the apocalyptic credo is still so popular, why regardless of the continued postponement of the avowed collapse all the good thinking people of the developed countries clings to the belief that we are doomed, doomed I tell you! If we do not do something urgently about that reproductive thing and somehow start reducing “our” numbers (which really means, as I pointed in my first post, “their” numbers). Even more so when, as I have argued elsewhere, we are the last remnants of and exhausted civilization that has failed in the ultimate goal of any political group: give its members reasons enough to reproduce themselves. Thrown relentlessly to a rat’s race of endless toil, trapped in a zero sum game to “keep up with the Joneses” (only to find the Joneses are in the same arms race, and every time we catch them we give them additional incentives to up the ante and invest even more time and effort in the pursuit of empty status symbols) we have finessed a social system that has proven to be great for the massive production of material goods, many of them with an immediate application to ensure military superiority over any real or imagined foe. What our system is not so good at is giving structure to our lives, providing us with frameworks of meaning we can identify with, enabling us to mine sources of deep value that make it possible to have a “good life” (regardless of what the said Joneses choose for themselves).

And the final manifestation of that inability is its forsaking of humanity itself. In a global system of values where only satisfying desires counts (it doesn’t matter how empty or how self-destructive they are), where the measure of success is how many material goods you can accumulate and lay exclusive claim to (the more outrageously expensive and the more conspicuous, the better), it is obvious there is no place for the recognition that every life has a value of itself, and is imbued with dignity. Only in such a system can there be a numerical solution to how many lives a country can optimally support: exactly as many as allows it to maximize its use of other factors (classically land and capital) to produce as many gadgets as possible. Not one less, not one more. Each additional life that doesn’t add to that production is “in excess”, and thus lacks any value. In poor countries, with low endowments of land and capital not many lives will be so justified, so the sooner they stop reproducing the better. Your average NYT or Guardian reader would recoil in horror before admitting this as the real reason for attacking any claim that we may not be so close to collapse after all. They consider themselves good global citizens, moved by the plight of the poor, full of concern by their fellow men (only… there are so many of them! It would certainly be better if their number were halved… or decimated!). Well, in Christ’s time the Pharisees considered themselves the true guardians of the law (and in a sense they were), and that didn’t stop Christianity’s founder to see behind their veneer of self-righteousness and denounce them for despising their fellow citizens and putting their hard hearted principles above the real suffering around them.

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