Last week, I saw a Tweet from Businessweek get ratio’d, and hard. On the surface, it looked like the author was against slowing population growth, and for this they were widely panned. While not everyone agrees that population growth should slow down, it’s generally pretty widely accepted that populating the Earth until there is standing room only is a bad idea. For that reason, among other reasonably selfish ones, humanity came up with birth control, and that may prove to be one of the most important clean technologies ever invented.
Spare a thought for the billions of people who will never exist. As world population growth slows, the never-conceived are the ultimate forgotten ones. https://t.co/MDuWqaEVa8
— Businessweek (@BW) June 1, 2021
As happens on the internet often, though, people like to share things and opine about them without doing anything more than reading the headline. In my usual defiance of the crowd, I decided to actually read the article and see what it had to say.
It was actually quite interesting. The writer explored the different philosophies people have tried to apply to population sizes, and showed that it’s not a simple thing to come to any reasonable moral conclusion about.
Before we get into what he covered, let’s look at how much things have changed in the last 100-200 years. Historically, and prehistorically, people had a lot of children, sometimes dozens. What is now an extreme outlier (religious fundamentalists with 19 kids are now interesting enough to merit idiotic reality TV programming), was once the norm. There was no birth control, and people in many places were told that supernatural beings would be angry with them if they didn’t have as many kids as possible.
The lack of medical technology affected more than just whether one got pregnant, though. There was next to no way to save mother (or the occasional intersex or transgender man who gave birth) or child if something went wrong, and it often did. Many women died in childbirth, and 50% of children born died before reaching age 5. The problem was bad enough that infants were often not given a name until a year or two old for fear of getting too attached.
That’s why, despite the wider availability of birth control, population continues to rise. Fewer kids are born, but nearly all survive. At the same time, people are living much longer, so the loss of population at the other end of life has also slowed down, making it so more are alive at any given time.
An Unprecedented Choice
When ancient people spread ideas about population, they didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. “Go forth and multiply” was a basic human instinct, and not something people had a lot of control over. The drive to engage in copulation is irresistible for most people, and doing that enough almost always led to pregnancy. To command reproduction was like commanding people to breathe, or to eat. It didn’t take any convincing in most cases.
Today, for the first time in human history, it’s a choice for many of us (but not all, as access to contraceptives is still a problem). Now, it’s usually people with some sort of religious belief against contraception or for having many children that lies beneath the decision to have more than 2 or 3 kids. Myself, I have four, and that’s largely because I grew up in such a faith system (but no longer live by it).
Not A Simple Choice In Reality
When I think about how things might have been different had I been raised differently, it’s not a hypothetical for me. If I had stopped at two children, I have two real human beings I know wouldn’t have ever existed on this earth. They’re unique people, with personalities, tastes, and feelings. The thought of them not existing activates a strong “mama bear” instinct in me, because their continued existence is something I’d literally kill others to protect (if necessary), like most parents. Defending the young (and the young of others, too) is a strong instinct in humans, like reproduction.
In theory, the world would be a better place with two less people, but that’s water under the bridge at this point. Admittedly, the other me in that alternate reality with only two children would have no idea anybody was missing, just like the me in reality doesn’t know who the two children would be if I had six children. That lack of knowledge leaves room for important questions.
That thought of who would exist in a world with a higher population or who wouldn’t exist in a world with lower population isn’t the core thought of the article in question, though. The real point is that it’s hard to philosophize and come up with a moral argument for an ideal population that should exist.
In theory, just a few hundred million people living in the world could have a much better life than ours (assuming they had the same level of technology). They’d have cleaner air, less issue with climate change, and a lot more space to roam. Whole ecosystems would exist that our species has wiped out with our massive population growth. They’d probably be happier.
That assumption that they have the same technology is questionable, though. In a world where 15 out of every 16 of us doesn’t exist, who’s missing? We’d like to think that only the most mediocre and awful of us fall in that vast majority never born, but we’re kidding ourselves.
Google’s neural net responds with these names when we ask it who the best inventors of all time were:
- Thomas Edison (businessman who helped develop the light bulb)
- Alexander Graham Bell (telephones)
- Benjamin Franklin (lightning rods, bifocal glasses)
- Nikola Tesla (almost everything electrical we use today)
- Wright Brothers (human flight)
- Henry Ford (mass production methods)
- Leonardo da Vinci (parachutes, human underwater travel, armored vehicles, and much more)
- Samuel Morse (telegraphy)
- Archimedes (water screws, understanding of leverage, astronomical instruments)
- Eli Whitney (cotton gin)
- Galileo Galilei (considered by many to be the father of modern science)
- Johannes Gutenberg (printing press)
- Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web)
- Steve Jobs (anything Apple, great contributions to Unix, better smartphones)
- James Watt (steam engines that powered the industrial revolution)
- Guglielmo Marconi (radio communication)
- George Washington Carver (alternative crops, prevention of soil depletion)
- Isaac Newton (current understanding of classical physics)
- Albert Einstein (theory of relativity, among other things)
- Charles Babbage (the idea of a digital, programmable computer)
- Alexander Fleming (antibiotics)
- Robert Fulton (steamboats)
- George Westinghouse (air brakes, power distribution)
- Louis Pasteur (making many food items safe to eat/drink)
- Allesandro Volta (batteries, methane)
- Stephanie Kwolek (Kevlar)
- Lewis Howard Latimer (air conditioning, key portions of light bulb research)
- John Logie Baird (television)
- Alfred Nobel (modern explosives)
- Rudolf Diesel (Diesel engines)
- Charles Goodyear (tires)
- Karl Benz (automobiles)
If global population were only 1/16 its present size, you only get to keep two of these inventors, and their inventions. Worse, many of their inventions rely on the work of others on the list, so you might not get the invention just by keeping that one person around.
Look at important contributions to philosophy, religion, science, and art. The top people in each list are likewise hard to choose from. Do we get a good culture, or “potatoes and Muzak?” Does one bad religion dominate our hypothetical small population of humans, or a good one? Or none? What key ideas of philosophy can we live without?
Would they (and I say “they” because any one person’s chances of living in that world are very small) have gotten Hitler without Roosevelt and Stalin to fight him back? Or would there be any megalomaniac rulers at all? We simply don’t know what that would be like.
And what have we missed out on over the years? Would we be worse off with 20 billion humans, or would one of them have invented a key technology to put most of those humans on Mars and the moons of Jupiter, leaving that alternative reality better off than our own? We really don’t know the answer to that, either.
The whole point of the article about population wasn’t that we should have more population, but that choices of this kind are rarely simple or easy to make, philosophically speaking.
Featured image by US Census Bureau