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!