A Radical View on Population

March 13, 2009

Author Steven Kotler posted a recent blog entry that has to be the most succinct and radical take on the overpopulation issue I’ve read in years. Because the link is too long to fit in the CFI blogsite’s link field, here it is in text. https://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-playing-field/200902/the-five-year-ban-because-a-billion-less-people-is-a-great-place-to-st   (Be sure to paste the whole thing into a plain-text editor like Notepad and remove any line breaks before using.)

After painting a stark picture of the resource-starved future that probably faces us all, and soon, Kotler throws down the gauntlet:

“Not too long ago, one of my readers pointed out that I’m pretty good at pointing out what’s wrong in the world and lousy about pointing out solutions. So here’s my simple solution: Stop Having Children.

“I call it the 5 Year Ban. For the next five years let’s not have any kids. All of us. The whole freaking planet.

“I don’t think this should be a top down approach. I don’t mean a literal government ban. I mean a grassroots movement of responsible adults behaving like responsible adults. I mean a populist moratorium on childbirth.

“Why 5 years? Because it’s a manageable number. Because it would mean a billion less people. Because a billion less people is a good place to start.”

That passage really hit home with me, in part because around forty years ago I made my own decision to join Kotler moratorium. (No doubt that was some years before he thought of it.) I found a woman who felt the same way. We’re childfree by choice and have never regretted it.

Every few years FREE INQUIRY does another issue on the population crisis. As it happens, the next one comes out in a couple of days, with a lead article by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. If I’d seen Kotler’s piece when it came out (it’s dated February 8), I probably wouldn’t have sought to reprint it in FI; it’s a little over the top when Kotler urges slamming fertility treatment abuser Nadya Suleman (you know, Octo-Mom) into jail. And he’s relentless in portraying just how dire the issues we face genuinely appear to be.

I’d urge you read Kotler’s piece with an open mind. And ask yourself, aside from the jail-Nadya-Suleman part, what you can really find fault with. Who knows, maybe a reader or two (or more) will join the moratorium.

As for me, I eat meat, drive a car that’s on the efficient side of middle of the pack, mileage-wise, and don’t always recycle. But Sue and I have always lived in an apartment instead of an energy-wasting, four-walls-exposed-to-the-wind detached house, and we’ve never added mouths to this overpopulated world. So on balance I feel like I’m doing my part for the planet.



#1 Lauren Cocilova (Guest) on Friday March 13, 2009 at 10:32am

I try to be “green,” though it’s often at war with my skeptical self. I garden and compost, I recycle, I bring my own bags to the store, I use fluorescent bulbs where they make sense, I buy locally and organically but selectively, and I do eat meat on occasion. But, more to the point, I do not have children. My husband and I are decidedly childfree, and the health of the planet is definitely on our list of reasons why not.

#2 Matt Marshall (Guest) on Friday March 13, 2009 at 2:22pm

Thanks, Tom. Curtailing population growth is one of the least talked about initiatives in the environmental movement. Growth charts are constantly used to demonstrate the need to harness renewable resources and the like (and rightly so), but rarely to encourage a childless lifestyle. Maybe that’s because so many people in the movement have kids. Or because they fear being labeled a “child hater.” Who knows. But Kotler’s right, action needs to be taken.

That said, I think his grassroots approach, while laudable, won’t be enough. This is the age of stimulus. Why not give take breaks to those who choose not to have children? Likewise, we should limit the number of child dependents a person can claim to two or three (if not eliminate the deductions altogether) unless extra dependents are adopted. And our government and other relief groups should engage in as much birth control education throughout the world as possible.

#3 Colin (Guest) on Friday March 13, 2009 at 2:46pm

The obvious problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that the vast majority of population growth is happening in sub-Saharan Africa and in the 3rd world more generally.  While I laud your decision, Tom, people like you aren’t the problem!  Even in the US, it’s not liberal blog-reading, educated, financially secure couples who are pumping out kids - it’s impoverished, undereducated, usually religious couples (who aren’t likely to sustain a family either).  Simply put, contraception and womens’ rights (particularly in the developing world) are the solutions to this problem, not a moratorium on kids for progressive Westerners.

#4 Logan Narcomey (Guest) on Friday March 13, 2009 at 8:14pm

If people agree with these arguments but would like to have kids, I would think adoption would be one thing to consider.

I definitely agree that more needs to be done to educate people on this matter in the developing world, along with poverty relief and all the other good stuff.

#5 Antonio Casares (Guest) on Friday March 13, 2009 at 9:59pm

It is puzzling to reason how would the predominantly Caucasian couples who are in the financial capacity of raising or adopting children help to solve the problem if they do not have children and don’t adopt homeless kids.  Instead, they opt for sterilization while claiming that they are helping some solutions, when in reality all they are doing is, living their lives in very self-centered styles.  However, for each of such couples there are exponential numbers of other couples - married or not - who don’t care at all about the issue.  As a result, we find that the over-population problem becomes unmanageable precisely among the “less fortunate” who are by the way more religiously malleable and who are told by the religions that abortion and child-planning are a sin.  Options for better access to education of those under-served sectors would be a good start.  And there is genocide.

#6 Russell Blackford (Guest) on Saturday March 14, 2009 at 5:06am

I’m childfree by choice. I don’t make a big deal of it, just expect people to accept it rather than make unfounded assumptions or nasty comments about being selfish or self-centred. I won’t take that any further.

I do think that people should at least think carefully about whether they really want to have kids, rather than just assuming it’s the default. If they make a conscious decision to have a certain number of children, I have no problem with it, as long as we all work on the basis that it’s now entirely a matter of personal choice and no one has to justify their choice.

I should add that the carbon footprint of an extra human being in America or Australia is a lot greater than in a developing agricultural country. It really does make a positive difference if people in highly-industrialised Western countries treat having children as a choice rather than as a default assumption. The other thing we need to do is find ways to encourage the education and emancipation of women in the non-Western countries.

#7 DoctorAtlantis (Guest) on Saturday March 14, 2009 at 5:56am

It’s just a modest proposal, but if everyone would just eat five friends that would also help.

On a serious note, I would like to thank all the women who had the foresight to postpone MY child-making by more than ten years.  If I’d only known y’all were trying to make the world less crowded maybe I wouldn’t have stood out in front of your houses playing “In Your Eyes” on my boom-box until you invariably called the cops on me.

I’m just saying.

#8 Judy Walker (Guest) on Saturday March 14, 2009 at 10:56am

And the worst can be filled with a passionate propensity. No doubt some of the numerous know that they breed political safety and power. We must expand our expression and support, in both private and public life, of fully secular educational strategies to overcome this pernicious aspect of “one person, one vote.”

#9 diogenes99 on Saturday March 14, 2009 at 2:46pm

“As for me, I eat meat, drive a car that’s on the efficient side of middle of the pack, mileage-wise, and don’t always recycle. But Sue and I have always lived in an apartment instead of an energy-wasting, four-walls-exposed-to-the-wind detached house, and we’ve never added mouths to this overpopulated world. So on balance I feel like I’m doing my part for the planet.”

You are sorta doing your part.  I think the problem needs to be approached more scientifically.

There are some things we can’t ALL do, like foregoing children, since speicies survival would be threatened.  There are some things we can ALL do, like being a vegetarian, recycling, conserving, etc.  Think about Kant’s categorical imperative—the first can’t be a moral law.

I think a better approach is to give some “utile” number to the environmentally unfriendly practices of life. This might be based on a calculated carbon release or excess consumable formula.  Then, like the “Eat a Meat in Deck-of-Cards” program, you get to choose what earth-unfriendly practices you want—until you hit your limit.  Obviously this would put a crimp in the lifestyles of large families, but I think its one way to preserve freedom of choice.

#10 Lucretius on Saturday March 14, 2009 at 6:30pm

But what about much of Europe and Japan? Don’t they have the opposite problem- declining birthrates to the point where many governments are trying to get citizens to have more children? I read an article recently that quoted the inventor of the Pill (I forget his name) as saying that it is resulting in a demographic catastophe.

#11 diogenes99 on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 5:41am


“Children come with a high carbon cost” from the 15 March 2009 issue of New Scientist.

#12 Tom W. Flynn on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 7:11am

Replying to Lucretius: For those of us concerned about overpopulation, nothing is more frustrating than the hand-wringing in Europe and Japan over declining birthrates. Think of it—their people are dealing with overpopulation, literally setting the stage for exactly the sort of massive rollback in numbers humanity needs in order to make itself sustainable, and it’s all VOLUNTARY. Not a one-child law in sight, people are just doing the right thing, all by themselves, for reasons that make sense to them. Yes, such a demographic contraction poses terrible problems: how can a smaller generation of workers support a larger generation of retired elders? But if we’re ever going to do something about overpopulation, eventually we’re going to have to have fewer people—from a sustainability viewpoint, better sooner than later. This means the “demographic inversion” problem associated with population shrinkage isn’t a disaster that should prompt leaders to invite immigration, pay bonuses for births, etc., anything to keep the population growing. Instead it is a problem we need to solve, preferably soon, so that we can arrive at a future with smaller, more sustainable human populations. It’s a crisis, all right, but a crisis we should confront rather than evade. Paul and Anne Ehrlich will touch on this in their article in the April-May FREE INQUIRY, out this week.

#13 Lucretius on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 7:47am

Tom- Thanks, that helps. It’s just an argument I hear in conservative religious publications quite a bit, so I was curious as to what a good response would be.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the “Room for Debate” article from the New York Times on this topic. One contributer wrote, “The huge unknown here is future fertility trends. Looking out to 2050, fertility trends drive all the calculated population totals — but we have no accurate and reliable scientific method for anticipating changes in the birth rate. So instead we have to rely on educated guesswork — which is why long-range population projections have do be regularly revised.” http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/12/the-latest-population-bombs-and-busts/#nicholas

Isn’t the projections of population increases, as he says, all guesswork?

#14 Ronald A. Lindsay on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 10:14am

Tom’s argument about the merits of going childless is based largely on the projected negative consequences to the environment/our living situation from increased population, combined with the normative premises that we have an obligation to do something about this, and one thing we should consider doing is to go childless. Many of the comments seem to adopt this viewpoint as well. Accordingly, perhaps we should consider the most significant causes of the dramatic increases in population humanity has experienced over the last few centuries, namely, the vastly improved nutrition and health care many on our planet now enjoy. (Book suggestion: Robert Fogel’s Escape from Hunger and Premature Death. This will give you a sense of how radical the change has been.)People are not having more children than they had centuries ago. They are having fewer. The difference is that most of them survive infancy and, indeed, tend to live longer than 99% of humanity did until recently. So should we stop subsidizing health care, especially for the elderly? Should we stop trying to eliminate diseases in third-world countries (they are the ones having most of the babies anyway)? Most people would probably say no; some would even consider such suggestions repugnant. But if the net number of people worldwide is our concern, why should these suggestions be any more repugnant than the suggestion that it is irresponsible for persons in developed countries to choose to have children (assuming they don’t have 14 of them)? Does a couple in the U.S. have an obligation to forego what they consider one of the most important personal choices in their lives (and whether one decides to have children or go childless, it’s difficult to maintain this decision will not shape one’s life)for the sake of allowing persons they may never know the possibility of living to 100? Or 120? Are life-extension technlogies to be discouraged or prohibited? And, by the way, it won’t do to argue that I am comparing harms to actual people to harms to possible people. First, the person having the child is actual, not possible. Second, when discussing negative environmental consequences, we are largely talking about consequences to persons not yet born. (Yes, our environment is lkely to degrade over the next few decades, but the projected possible catastrophic consequences are still some way off.) So the allegedly morally appropriate thing is to forego providing the benefit of life to my own possible child so that possible children of the future whom I will never know, born to parents I will never know, may have a better life? I am not sure that the moral norms that would support such a conclusion are defensible. One could certainly choose to make that trade-off, but it seems doubtful that is it morally required, or in any meaningful sense more praiseworthy.
The choice of the couple (or single parent)to have a child or not to have a child is not by itself, in my view, something we should condemn or praise, absent unusual circumstances (e.g., the mother with the brood of more than a baker’s dozen). That said, I don’t think the government should do anything to encourage people to have more children, so the tax breaks given to families with children (which also mean the childless pay more than their share of taxes)should be reduced or eliminated.
Full disclosure: I have two children (the replacement value for me and my wife), I have never owned or will own a truck, Hummer or SUV, I eat meat, and I recycle whenever it’s not too much of a bother. I also fully intend to claim my social security and medicare benefits.

#15 DoctorAtlantis (Guest) on Sunday March 15, 2009 at 7:54pm

You know - in thinking about this seriously - how is this any different than saying, “You know what we need to do is stop having wars for five years.  Just no wars.  We’ll all just agree to get along for the next five years and work on solving global human issues.”

It would be easier to do that than to get people to stop having procreative sex, I’d bet.

#16 merrilykaroly (Guest) on Monday March 16, 2009 at 12:10pm

I agree with the points that Ronald A. Lindsay is making above.

I am sick of people condemning others for making the decision to responsibly have children.  Why not have children and teach them how to live in an environmentally friendly way, just like you are doing? They can carry on your “green” habits and teach them to others—instead of leaving the child-rearing to people who perhaps don’t care about the environment like you do.

#17 Sarniaskeptic (Guest) on Monday March 16, 2009 at 12:48pm

merrilykaroly:  The problem is not that people are not living green, it is that overpopulation, in itself, is a concern for the environment.

It’d be hard to suggest that people in Africa are driving Hummers, leaving the lights on, eating too much processed food and wasting too much water.  The problem is that they’re having so many children. 

The environmental cost of additional people is not simply dealt with by having them live “greener” lives.  We can’t sustain the population growth. 

Future generations should be thankful that I was born ugly and that nobody would want to have children with me.  I’m glad I could do my part. (Mind you I drive a Hummer in hopes of changing the “too ugly” part by impressing the women. Just kidding.)

To follow suit, I don’t send anything to landfill (I burn it all in a barrel in my backyard), I use energy efficient lightbulbs (but have 12 times more of them), I eat meat (but not all of it, generally just a fifth of the steak - the rest gets burned in my barrel) and I live in an energy efficient home (it doesn’t have 4 exposed walls, it has 8 and I leave the windows open year round so I can smell if the burn barrel is out). 

To be serious -
I hardly see not having children as selfish.  I not only attempt to live a “green” life (I bike to the supermarket, etc.) but I have chosen to not have children and, when you consider it all, none of it is really for my benefit.  I, as an atheist, believe in bettering our world and doing my best to ensure that there is a sustainable future for humans to continue to live. 

I am bothered, however, that there are millions of people who will happily replace my non-children with their own children.  If the ones most concerned with the future are the ones not having children, is this a hopeless plight?

#18 diogenes99 on Monday March 16, 2009 at 1:06pm

On the one hand, if we look at earth as an *infinite* resource, then the geometric increase is no big deal.  On the other hand, if we calculate the carrying capacity of the planet, giving enough space for humanity, flora, and fauna to thrive, then we might already be at the limit. 

We need to look at the planet as a house with only so many rooms in it.  If someone’s has a lot of kids, then it is just greedy use of floorspace and it forces more conscientious people to either conserve more than average or limit their children to none or one.  It’s a free-rider problem. I think there is room to scold people for having too many children.

There is another issue that might be behind some comments.  If humanity screws up and does not regulate its behavior, then mother nature will whack human beings back into line.  Global warming will probably increase disease, even in first-world countries.  So if we don’t do anything, perhaps the solution will come quicker than trying to get people to voluntarily cut back.  If people can’t do something as easy as become vegetarians, even among the group of well-off moral philosophers, how in the world can we expect progress at voluntary population control among the general population?

#19 opentoreason on Tuesday March 17, 2009 at 5:01pm

Good idea but guess what?

The islamists in our midst are committed to producing children at a rate similar to rabbits, what with polygamy and doctrine.  They will happily replace all your non-children with faith-headed bigots who will continue the demographic spiral.  This no-children policy (while clearly unviable and unrealistic) would only serve to hasten the demise of the democratic culture we live in which is probably the only one which even cares about its environment.  Maybe its just as well that it is unviable….....................

#20 joshualipana on Thursday March 19, 2009 at 6:39pm

I believe this can be solved by the Free Market.

#21 diogenes99 on Thursday April 09, 2009 at 1:00pm

Another aspect:


Secret to marital bliss? Don’t have kids
Parents all know that children make it harder to do some of the most enjoyable adult things. Now scientists have attached some numbers to the situation.

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