"Population" by Juinn-Ren "Andrew" Wang

Co-Winner, Undergraduate Category, Student/Teacher Essay Contest, "Ethics for a Connected World," 2012

February 21, 2013

Juinn-Ren "Andrew" Wang

Juinn-Ren "Andrew" Wang is a 21 year-old junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?


We are living in a world of increasing uncertainty. Environmental and political problems that could previously delayed or ignored are increasingly unavoidable. What is most chilling about our predictions regarding the future is that we may have to rely on increasingly unethical methods to approach the world's problems. Perhaps the best example of where what is ethical and what should be done to solve these problems clash the most is in the problem of creating a sustainable population.

Many authorities on population agree that the world is overpopulated and cannot sustain our population for much longer. According to Kenyon College Professor of Anthropology, J Kenneth Smail, the world can only sustain 1 or 2 billion people, particularly if the aspired global standard of living is what the average American currently enjoys. According to studies conducted by the UN, the world is projected to have a population of 10 billion by 2050, despite the fact that governments around the world are already having more and more trouble providing food, water, and employment for the 7 billion people that currently live on Earth. Such problems of scarcity will only increase in scale as the world faces increasingly rapid desertification and the water sources we rely on to irrigate our crops dry up. Having such high populations create a multitude of problems, such as even more widespread environmental damage, greater contention in the international arena for remaining resources, and in some cases, even an erosion of democracy.

Our governments don't like to talk about population control because it is unpleasant; it is unethical to tell others how many or how few children they are allowed to have. The last time such a subject was broached in Western memory was an era where regulation of reproduction was unspeakably racist, classist, and eugenicist until it fell out of public favor after World War II when people came to associate it with the crimes of Nazi Germany. Solving the problem of our world's exploding human population is thus the greatest ethical challenge humanity will face in the 21st century. The preeminent naturalist Sir David Attenborough put the solution to the world’s population crisis bluntly: “[Creation of a sustainable population] can only happen in one of two ways. It can happen…by fewer human births…[or] an increased death rate.” The future of humanity may well see a combination of the two.

Perhaps the least controversial option in creating a sustainable population is to improve empowerment for women by granting them better access to education and employment. Such practices have been consistently shown to reduce birth rates. Increasing the availability of comprehensive sexual education, particularly in the developing world, is also a relatively uncontroversial option for reducing birth rates. Options for contraceptives, such as condoms and birth control pills, can be made more widely available—something that few (with the exception of groups such as the Catholic Church and the pro-natalist movement) would find ethically or morally ambivalent. Despite the fact that only a small minority object to comprehensive sexual education and contraception, access to these services is not widely available to women (especially in developing nations).

Unfortunately, these measures may not be enough to help reduce human population in time to preserve the world as we know it. According to the CIA World Factbook, the average Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is currently 2.89. The replacement fertility rate (the rate at which population becomes stable) is 2.1, which many nations in the developing world have reached. However, if the estimate that the world can only sustain around 1-2 billion people is correct, then humanity will have to reach below replacement rate in order to reach a sustainable population. The same sources that suggest such a population limit also estimate that humanity must reach this population by the 23rd century—otherwise, widespread conflict and inequality would ensue in the struggle for increasingly scarce resources. Simply put, ethically comfortable means of reducing and reversing population growth may not be rapid enough. It might thus be necessary to take a look at measures that are considered unethical by mainstream society.

The first of these measures is coercive population control instituted by the government. The best-known example of this is the One Child Policy implemented by the People’s Republic of China. Since the introduction of the One Child Policy, the TFR in China has dropped from 2.63 in 1980 to 1.61 in 2009—a rate and scale of reduction in birth rate that has been practically unprecedented. However, the policy has also been highly controversial. Along with accusations of violating human rights, the One Child Policy has faced a multitude of problems. China's culture highly favors male children over female children, and the institution of the One Child Policy has led to increased rates of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion, creating a gender imbalance. According to the Guardian, there were 118 males for every 100 females in China as of 2010. Another problem with China’s One Child Policy is the resultant rapid aging of the population due to a high senior to youth ratio. There have also been accusations that the Chinese government has skewed statistical information it has released regarding its TFR, and that the impact of its One Child Policy is not as great as it claims to be. Nonetheless, it is clear that the One Child Policy has had a significant impact on China’s TFR. Implementation of similar policies globally, particularly in nations with high TFRs, might help reduce TFRs to a manageable level—but such measures will no doubt be highly controversial and problematic, as well as possibly economically unsound due to the inevitable aging of the population.

Another solution is a shift of the global human diet towards plant-based foods. Animal-based foods (such as pork, chicken, and beef) are highly energy intensive, and inefficient in regards to providing sustenance. Much of the crops produced are used to feed animals; according to the Whole Earth Catalog, for instance, 97 percent of the soybeans produced in the United States (by weight) go towards feeding livestock. If governments can encourage (through either benign or coercive means) their people to have lower levels of meat consumption—perhaps removing it from their diets altogether—then the planet can provide for more people more comfortably. Such measures would likely be met with opposition: the notion of governments telling the people what they are allowed to eat infringes on personal freedoms. Such a shift in diet may also be difficult to implement as the practice of producing and eating meat is deeply ingrained in many cultures, and the meat industry has considerable political influence in many wealthy nations. The governments can encourage a shift by subsidizing vegetable and crop production, while reducing or removing subsidies on meat.

What is so insidious about the problem of population growth is that it can be easily dismissed as an overblown problem (as it has been in the past) when in reality it is not. The problem of overpopulation is not nearly as conspicuous or as immediate as, say, a chemical spill in a suburban community. Population growth is not something that people can easily notice or point out when they walk through a neighborhood. Most importantly, most are still believers of the attractive illusion that indefinite growth of human population and consumption is possible on a planet with finite resources and space. Either we more earnestly begin to enforce policies that reduce population—such as the empowerment of women, improving the availability of contraceptives, a change in diets, or restricting birth rates through government coercion—or nature will reduce our population for us, through starvation and material scarcity.

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