I recently attended a dinner forum on what size the population should be. All of the speakers held the same position: small. The only upsides of population mentioned were to horrid profit seeking people like property developers. Yet the downsides to population are horrendous – all our resource use problems multiplied! As one speaker quoted “The population can’t increase forever, and as a no brainer it should stop sooner rather than later”. As there are no respectable positives in the equation, no need for complicated maths. Smaller is better.
I suggested to my table what I saw as an obvious omission in this model: I at least am enjoying the population being big enough to have me in it, so I would at least consider putting a big positive value on human lives. My table seemed to think this an outlandish philosophical position. I suggested that if resource use is the problem, we fix externalities there, but they thought this just as roundabout a way of getting ‘sustainability’, whereas cutting the population seems straightforward and there’s nothing to lose by it. I suggested to the organizer that the positive of human existence deserved a mention (in a multiple hour forum), and he explained that if we didn’t exist we wouldn’t notice, as though that settles it.
But the plot thickened further. Why do you suppose we should keep the population low? “We should leave the world in as good or a better condition as we got it in” one speaker explained. So out of concern for future generations apparently. Future people don’t benefit from being alive, but it’s imperative that we ensure they have cheap water bills long before they have any such preferences.
One simple solution then: since all these costs of our population go to the next generation and they don’t actually benefit from being alive – lets not have another generation! Then not only will there be no resource use in future, but the costs of our rapacious lifestyles will have nobody to go to. Coincidentally Peter Singer wrote an article to this effect last week, asking ‘Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?’
At the forum mention was made, and amused looks were exchanged, over the voluntary human extinction movement. Apparently it’s crazy to want our species extinct, but crazy not to want it arbitrarily smaller. Is the main benefit of all this human civilization species diversity then?
The fine line between good ‘population reduction’ and killing people was accidentally jumped when a speaker spoke approvingly of Frank Fenner’s work on ending smallpox then went on to praise him for joining the population reduction movement after realizing he had contributed to the population problem in eradicating smallpox. Note that in this case the population lowering was in the form of people being killed, not just never being born – the usual barrier to equivalence. As far as I could tell nobody noticed this. Should we praise other groups who have made active contributions to a sustainable population, post birth?
I’m not surprised if people mostly concluded on balance that there’s probably little wrong with stopping people from being born, or that it’s not as bad as killing them. But to not even consider a value on human lives except to property developers, in a population debate, seems incredible. Is it just that once you consider this question you are already alive, so can imagine still being so in all but the total extinction scenario? Is it just an extreme of our usual blatant moral hypocrisy around groups too weak to mold the evolution of our morals?