Secular Humanism Greets the Seven Billionth Person

November 1, 2011

The surprising news is not that the world has reached seven billion people. That figure was predicted many years ago. A different surprise has emerged recently.

Looking further ahead, overpopulation in itself will not be the world’s primary problem within another generation or so. In all likelihood, within fifty years the urgent problem will be population decline across most of the world.

Underpopulation will be discussed more than overpopulation, in many countries. The bad news is that this trend toward future underpopulation won’t save the planet, either. The planet won’t support  eight or nine billion people for long, as they consume remaining energy, water, and soil resources. Secularism has been a large part of the helpful response to overpopulation so far. Looking ahead, humanism must take the lead in preventing disaster.

The efforts to reduce population using secular methods of education and birth control that were set in place two generations ago have largely worked. Families with only two children, or even just one child, are now common throughout the world. If international family planning programs had not been put in place during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, today’s world population could now stand at 12 billion or more by some estimates. Doomsayers warning of a demographic catastrophe forty years ago have been proven right. The investments back then to reduce family size and lift families out of poverty have paid off. Combating cultural ignorance and religious obstinacy has resulted in better education for women and rising standards of living, which in turn have cut fertility rates by half or more across nearly every developing country.

We should pause to explain what this “fertility rate” refers to. The total fertility rate of a country is the number of children born to an average woman who (1) has the expected fertility rate of women her age in that country, and (2) she survives from birth through the end of her reproductive life. A related term, the “replacement” rate, is about 2.1 children, which is the fertility rate required to keep a country’s population the same. Forty years ago, the fertility rate across most of the world was above 5.0. The current global average for fertility is at 2.5 children per woman, and that number is dropping steadily. Europe’s fertility rate as a whole has dropped below 1.8. China’s has dropped to 1.6. Japan’s is 1.3. Even India’s rate is just 2.6 now and dropping fast. In about 20 or 25 years the global fertility rate will fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. This has never happened before in the history of civilization.

Europe has already begun a discussion of underpopulation because not enough babies have been born to replace parents since the mid-1970s, and many European countries will have 15% fewer people by 2030. Russia and Japan are already depopulating and they will shrink about 20% or more by 2050. North Africa and the Middle East will grow slowly for another generation before peaking and then falling. China’s population will stop growing and begin shrinking around 2025, and its working labor force will begin shrinking earlier by 2020. Brazil’s population will peak around 2040 and then decline. One third of India’s states have already slowed their fertility rates below replacement level, and by 2060 India will stop growing and begin to shrink. Only Sub-Saharan Africa and North America is projected to keep growing past 2060.

The world’s population will gradually coast to a crest of somewhere between eight and eleven billion people by 2100, depending on who you ask. Even if the most draconian efforts to reduce fertility were imposed now, the world population would still reach 8 and a half billion people, more or less.

Humanism cannot endorse the most invasive methods of forced population control. China enforces its one-child policy with inhumane policies such as forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and property destruction. When parents are left to make their own choice, they too often choose boys. Both China and India are suffering from gender imbalances – some regions of India and China see only 700 baby girls born for 1000 baby boys. That gender imbalance will have disruptive demographic effects for the next generations.

The United Nations uses mathematical models to now predict over ten billion people by 2100. However, the UN doesn’t take into account famines, water shortages, epidemics, and wars. But we know those things will happen. By neglecting real-world environmental factors, the UN’s mathematical models forecast a billion more people in Africa by 2050 and 3.5 billion people total in Africa by 2100. These numbers are highly unrealistic. The reality is that Africa and other parts of the world will continue to lack the natural resources to sustain that many people. Half of the world right now suffers from inadequate nutrition. Yes, there was a green revolution during the 20th century. What actually happened? The world went from three billion people total to three billion malnourished people out of seven billion. A second green revolution, now hailed as the rescue plan by optimists, would similarly leave billions malnourished.

Many forecasters can’t figure out where the extra food and water will come from to feed another three or four billion people, even under the most optimistic assumptions about improved agricultural methods and genetically engineered crops. Until fertile soil and fresh water can be artificially manufactured as cheaply as plastic, people will starve, and more of them will starve in the future. This pessimistic outlook is no reason to stop trying to feed everyone. So long as more than just food is delivered, so that families are content to only have two or three children, the world could probably save these new people without pushing the world past nine billion people total. The real question is what sorts of lives those people will be able to live. Are we content to just save lives, but then leave them in terrible poverty? And why should a small percentage of the world keep consuming most of the planet’s resources?

Yes, there is an overpopulation crisis remaining today. But it might not be where you were expecting. 

There is no clear definition of overpopulation, since there is no agreement on what constitutes an excess human being. Humanism doesn’t help much at the outset. Simpler definitions of humanism rule out the very idea of an “excess” human, since the absolute priority of human life gets top billing in manifestos and declarations. But we could still talk about preventing future possible humans.

Who would be the first excess human being? Wealth is unevenly distributed to people around the world, and that humans busily produce ev
en more resources and promptly consume those resources. Earth has been able to add six billion people over the last two hundred years to its first billion people. The world has done this by dramatically increasing its consumption of renewable and non-renewable energy resources, and by stressing and poisoning the natural habitat, especially its animal life, the soil, the air, and the planet’s waters.

Overpopulation only exists within an environmental context – overpopulation is about the long-term sustainability of humans in their habitats. Are we paying enough attention to sustainability?

Unfounded warnings about overpopulation date back to Thomas Malthus, and well-founded warnings have been clearly sounded since World War II. The more taboo subject is instead overconsumption. It is not hard to observe plenty of evidence of overconsumption. If everyone on the planet consumed as much as the typical Canadian or American, the earth’s environments would be quickly destroyed. That’s an overconsumption problem, not an overpopulation problem. Put another way, if there is an overpopulation problem, that problem is quite local.

It takes more than 16 people in India to out-consume an American like me. If we took overconsumption seriously, we could arrive at the judgment that it is better for the planet to add 16 babies in India than one more American baby. That’s one way to address the overconsumption problem behind overpopulation. It wouldn’t work, though, because many of those children in India are going to grow up as part of India’s growing middle class, who will consume more and more like Americans with each passing decade.

If the middle classes of India and China were to even reach just one-quarter of the economic status as an average American, the resulting consumption of natural resources would exhaust the planet very quickly. The damage to the atmosphere would be even worse. An average American’s “carbon footprint” is 15 times greater than an Indian’s right now. If the people of India, or China, were burning fossils fuels more like Americans, greenhouse gases would be beyond all control.

Here’s another way to answer the overpopulation problem: Simply declare that few people on the planet should consume as much as us, and most people should consume much less than us. This doesn’t sound very humanistic, but that’s the actual policy of first-world countries. They negotiate international trade agreements and design global capitalist markets to ensure that the richest on the planet continue to consume as much as they can. That doesn’t seem fair to some people. Maybe that’s quite unjust according to humanism. But humanism is not running the world nowadays.

Humanism does support adequate food for everyone, of course. However, dismissing overpopulation as merely a problem of redistribution is both profoundly right and profoundly wrong. Yes, everyone on the planet can be adequately fed in world of egalitarian distribution. But no, that distribution system will never exist, because the current capitalist system will not be replaced, and no one will pay the immense costs of equitably distributing food instead. The countries with the most purchasing power will continue to buy up most of the food, and price others out of the market. Most of the rest of the world’s transportable resources are similarly priced by international markets, and that will not change anytime soon. Poorer countries will continue to have difficulty feeding their populations, since most are net importers of food despite the agricultural revolution of the past three decades. Rising populations in those countries will only make food and water problems worse.

Yes, overpopulation will keep looking like a problem to be solved by redistribution. However, large countries will only be focusing on the distribution of wealth within their countries, not on sending it away to other countries. And the overconsumption problem will only get worse if wealthy countries try to encourage larger families to prevent population decline.

It is even more utopian to simply say that overpopulation is just a temporary problem for future technologies to soon solve. Unless we are all uploaded into the super-computer Singularity within 50 years, there probably will not be a new power source capable of largely replacing the consumption of oil and gas and coal around the world within this century. And that power source won’t also be cleaning up the oceans and replacing all its fish, or replenishing lost soils, or moving fresh water between continents.

The bad news about overpopulation is that famine and malnutrition will remain a severe problem for the poor, and overconsumption by wealthy countries will make matters much worse. The worst degradations to the earth lie immediately ahead during this century, not the 22nd century. Humanists hoping for science’s rescue within this century will be largely disappointed. The planet is being consumed to death too quickly. And the richest countries are leading the way, as they always have.

What Does Humanism Have To Do With Overpopulation?

Humanism in general promises a universalizable social ethics for guiding humanity’s earthly welfare. Social structures such as economic and political systems must answer to this humanist social ethics.

More specifically, humanism stands for valuing life, human rights, justice for all, and government that promotes opportunity for everyone. Because humanism values life in all its diversity, humanistic environmentalism is not a contradiction is terms. Balancing human needs with environments is not a problem that humanism can avoid. There are varieties of humanism which can potentially accomplish this balance. But taking them seriously won’t happen until we realize how Enlightenment humanism is now hopelessly inadequate. It was designed for a phase of civilization that has passed into history and will not return.

Enlightenment humanism, roughly from John Locke to Jeremy Bentham, constructed the ideal liberal government for protecting the natural goodness of civil life. Enlightenment humanism prospered under European conditions of growing populations, increased productivity, and national prosperity. Enlightenment humanism fostered things like mercantile capitalism with its support for individual property rights, the right of labor to seek work wherever it can, capitalist markets liberated from feudal systems and protected by legal systems, and governments prioritizing the social welfare of their populations. The liberated individual was viewed as the warm engine of progress as well as the bright light of reason. Modern humanism inherited this liberal concern for valuing and protecting every person.

Ethics proposes ideals, but nature deals out its own reality. Ecology can predict what naturally happens when an omnivore species is fed enough and has no natural predators. A deliberate plan to let the earth overpopulate could not do better than apply selected ethical principles from Enlightenment humanism: individual human values are supreme; every human life is a life worth saving; after the right to life, property rights are paramount; having offspring is an exclusively parental matter; everyone should have an opportunity to raise their standard of living as high as they can; governments should deliver rising economic prosperity to the people, and the like.

Those 18th century humanist institutions mutated far beyond any foreseeable dimensions by the mid-20th century. As republican constitutionalism evolved into mass democracy, it transcended civic virtue and community values. Mass democracies demand that governments ensu
re ever higher standards of living, and voters punish governments for letting economies stumble. As capitalism grew into a global financial web with a life of its own, it also passed beyond humanistic control. Capitalism only needs selfishly rational producers and consumers to perpetuate itself, and immense financial powers try to control governments rather than the other way around. Just like individuals, countries will keep borrowing and amass huge debts just to maintain an expected standard of living. 

Both high-finance capitalism and mass democracy are excellent short-term deliberators: immediate conditions right now dominate thinking, and only the next few years, at most, are taken seriously. Immediate consumption is our obsession. The consequences for the planet are obvious.

Are there any new humanisms to help prevent those consequences from getting worse? Some varieties won’t do much at all. For example, there are plenty of personal humanists focused on their own lives, who are heard to say that humanism is just a lifestyle, and not something pointing to any specific political or global agenda. Lifestyle humanism takes for granted the Enlightenment framework of rights permitting their consumptive lifestyles.

Progressive humanists have a bigger agenda, by focusing on social and political reforms to expand domestic rights and liberties. Progressive humanism is also taking for granted the first-world context of abundant wealth and opportunity and just concerns itself with appropriate domestic distribution. The atheist agenda of resisting religion isn’t the solution to overpopulation or overconsumption, either. People leaving religion is not considered by demographers as a large effect on population changes. While highly secular countries saw fertility reductions sooner, their higher standards of living mostly accounts for this effect.  Almost all Catholic and Muslim countries now have dramatically falling fertility rates too. For example, Iran’s fertility rate dropped from around seven to 1.8 in the last thirty years.

These three sorts of humanisms that I have mentioned – lifestyle humanism, progressive humanism, and anti-religious atheism — are still moving on inertia remaining from Enlightenment humanism. None of them will be much use for dealing with overpopulation and overconsumption. They can even look pretty hypocritical if they try to tell the rest of the world how many babies to have. Humanists in rich countries offering their calculations about how poorer countries should limit their family sizes and energy consumption are not very different from global financiers dictating how poorer countries should run their economies. Who is really benefitting from poor countries restricting growth while wealthy countries can have whatever populations they want?

Is there anything salvageable in the humanist tradition to construct a planetary ethics that prioritizes global sustainability in a just manner? Enlightenment humanism was made obsolete when its core premise was proven wrong: that civil life is naturally good if it is sufficiently liberated, fed, productive, and protected. This premise had a built-in assumption – an unlimited amount of fresh natural resources. But the 20th century demonstrated how limited and fragile the planet’s ecological resources are. At a global scale, we have about reached that practical limit.

The liberation of civil life is not naturally good, not at a planetary scale with so great a human population. Ethical theory reminds us how our situation has become a tragedy of the commons. With everyone feeling free to take as much as they can for themselves, there will be little left for future generations.

Humanism must become ecological: its premises about what is good for human life must take into account the sciences telling us how excessive consuming populations burden and exhaust the planet. Ecological humanism is the great leap forward from Enlightenment humanism. We need more eco-humanism and less ego-humanism. Ecological humanism has an answer to that provocative question, who are the excess human beings? The humanist answer is that there are no excess human beings, but only excessive people not yet part of the ecological and sustainable future that the world deserves. Don’t look around elsewhere – look more closely at yourself.

Humanists are friends to all life. Humanism cannot approve of any policies that fail to take care of living people. Humanists are not Mathusians who disapprove of charity and food for the poor. Humanists are not social Darwinists who disapprove of lifting people out of ignorant poverty into educated productivity. Humanists are not anti-technology Luddites dreaming of some innocent natural utopia. Humanists will always favor helpful technological advances for humanity and they will always advocate educated productivity for everyone. Ecological humanism demands that consumers spend their money on things that do not destroy the environment and do help sustain the planet for the next century and beyond.

Wealthy countries do not have to abruptly slash their income or  of living so long as their productivity and consumption is far more sustainable and makes investments in the future. People should spend money on foods that do not deplete the soils, fresh waters, and oceans. People should spend for the consumption of renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. People should spend more on electronics and machinery that use energy efficiently rather than outdated machinery. People should spend far more on developing the new technologies that everyone on the planet can use without further damaging the environment. All that re-directed spending of wealth would make an enormous positive impact on the world. There’s no lack of labor or of wealth in an ecological economy. Its not wealth that’s the problem – it is how that wealth is created, and how that wealth is spent. There are many social agendas and political movements that offer green and sustainable paths for the planet into the future. Humanists should join these sorts of movements, whichever ones they judge are the most worthy.

I have no specific green platform to endorse. This essay is about humanism and overpopulation. Humanism offers a universalizable social ethics for guiding humanity’s earthly welfare. We need to worry less about raw numbers of populations and worry more about sustainable populations. If humanism can realize its pioneering vision of caring concern for all of humanity, dedication to equal opportunity for every person, and commitment to a world habitable for future generations, then it can evolve into a truly planetary humanism. If humanists today are a vital part of that social evolution, we may deserve posterity’s kind judgment upon us.