Population control

A friend of mine has been banging on about population control as a way of curbing environmental harm for a while now, which has forced me to come up with some sort of opinion. I’m not persuaded by arguments that it is inherently abhorrent to restrict reproduction, or that people have a right to reproduce. Indeed I’m open to the idea that some controls on reproduction might increase welfare.

Far more persuasive to me is the point that George Monbiot makes: over-population isn’t a direct strain on the planet’s resources, over-consumption is. Increases in population may drive consumption but so do many other factors, which is why consumption is growing far more quickly than the world’s population. If we restrict population growth then we penalise those who would raise children in a low-consumption lifestyle and fail to solve the problem of consumption growth.

The easiest way to reduce consumption is to increase prices. Ideally resource prices would reflect the true social and environmental cost of their usage and over-consumption would be a thing of the past. Population control would then be redundant as an environmental goal. Of course, that wouldn’t guarantee that an optimal number (whatever that means) of children would be born, but it would mean that their aggregate consumption wouldn’t overly tax our natural resources.

So I’m not in favour of population control as an environmental measure. It seems to be an indirect way of achieving what we’re already making direct strides towards: controlling world consumption. Far better to focus our efforts on implementing schemes to solve global warming and support sustainable resource extraction through economic incentives. That way we don’t need to fiddle around with ad hoc restrictions on people’s lives. We can internalise the environmental costs of consumption decisions and let people make the best decisions for themselves AND the planet!

12 replies
  1. Dion
    Dion says:

    Excluding concerns about environmental externalities, is it not a value judgement that resources are being over-consumed?
    It is almost impossible to value inter-generational welfare.
    Especially when future generations will be poorer in terms of resources but will definitely be richer in terms of ideas and technology.

  2. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Over-consumed is indeed a sticky term, however I don’t think it is too essential for the point he is making. I think the primary point is that if we believe that there is scarcity of resources, then the price signal will reflect that – as a result there is no need to “limit” the population.

    Now, rauparaha appears to be saying that EVEN IF over-consumption is the problem (so without it we wouldn’t need population control for sure – but even if we have it) market prices will take account of this – we don’t need arbitrary population management to do that.

    Now if the market price does not reflect that there must be a reason – and he says that it is better to deal to that reason directly to the market failure than to arbitrary control the population. This also makes sense.

  3. moz
    moz says:

    The problem is that market prices are not a sufficient measure. Specifically, there’s human rights as well as a social cost to poor children. So you’d need to fix those before market pricing could be applied.

    Specifically, at the moment we support children of “poor”[1] parents in a variety of ways through the social welfare system, and directly though agencies like the Police and fostering system. We also educate all children regardless of their parent’s wishes and supply medical care etc regardless of ability to pay. If those measures are left in place, the market pressures are quite limited.

    Human rights are an important driver of that: we don’t consider it reasonable to punish children because their parents are poor.

    At another level, it’s well established that poor people commit more of the important crimes[2] so society has an interest in reducing the factors that cause poverty. So using poverty to reduce the birth rate might also increase the death rate amongst the non-poor. from an environmental perspective that doesn’t have to be bad, but it’s likely to produce negative environmental secondary effects as those who can afford to defend themselves.

    So, how do we “fix” that to allow market pressures to act?

    [1] just how far up the income scale does “Working for Families” go, anyway?
    [2] important as determined by policing and jail sentences. For example, robbing a bank by deliberately fooling the bank manager gets you little to no prison time in the unlikely event you’re even prosecuted, doing so by pointing a gun at said manager gets you lots of jail time.

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