It shouldn't come as a surprise that the work of Travis Rieder and his colleagues on Population Engineering is getting a lot of airtime. NPR picked it up. Rieder himself has commented on the impact he, somewhat unwittingly, made. We at the Center for Biological Diversity even wrote about it. It's one of those topics that is as fascinating as it is terrifying. And in the pro-natalist world we live in, suggesting people have fewer children and that babies are part of the problem is a taboo that borders on offensive.
But Sam Mulopulos's Climate Change Requires Innovative Solutions, Not Population Control really takes the cake for missing the point. His hive mind argument claims that, rather than limit the number of people, we should be tapping that collective knowledge to solve climate change and, not only that, celebrate growing population as the solution. After all, according to this theory, more people equals more minds, and more ideas equals the solution to climate change.
There are three big reasons that logic doesn't work quite work out:
- More people equals more emissions.
It could be the biggest coincidence that while human population has grown faster in the past fifty years than any other point in the history of our species, global temperature is also the highest it's been in the same time period. It could be a coincidence, but the majority of scientists agree that it isn't. Climate change is driven by human activities. Human activities, it should come as no surprise, are driven by human population. Therefore, the more of us, especially those of us in developed nations that consume many times more resources than other nations, the greater the threat to the environment.
We're already seeing the consequences of climate change in the form of extreme weather, droughts and melting ice caps. And if we don't do something about it right now, additional dangerous consequences are not only possible but likely to impact our future and our children's futures, as well as the future of countless other species we share the planet with. In other words, we can't wait for the babies born today to grow up in the hopes that some of them may come up with the magical mix of solutions to the climate crisis. And we don't need to - we already know how to curb emissions, for example by switching to a fully renewable, just energy system and shifting a more plant-based diet that reduces greenhouse gases caused by animal agriculture and food waste. We don't suffer from a lack of ideas to solve the climate crisis, but from a lack of leadership and vision from decision-makers and industry.
Worse still, climate change is having the greatest impact on people who aren't creating the problem and who often have the least access to resources, including reproductive healthcare. This is especially egregious since population growth makes it even harder for vulnerable communities to adapt to the pressures of a changing climate and environment. Instead of focusing on flooding the free market with ideas, let's use the ones we have to create a world where everyone has a chance to thrive.
Sure, Malthus was wrong. Really wrong. And classist and racist. Let's not give that guy any awards. But that doesn't change the fact that, even though we've used technology to save our ever-multiplying butts in the past, A) we can't count on that in the future, B) for the nearly one billion people who don't have food security, fears over famine are still a real threat and C) the food solutions we've come up with come at a steep cost to other species.
Mulopulos did get one thing right: We have a lot of big problems and we need many minds working to solve them. But that doesn't mean we need more minds. We need to make sure that the 7.4 billion people already here have the education and empowerment to help determine to future of the planet.
That means improving access to contraception and education for women and girls, which has been shown to lower fertility rates and improve lives (especially for women), and using mainstream media and discontinuing incentives (such as tax breaks) to encourage people to have fewer children without ever forcing anyone to not have the children they want, if they want them. In fact, unlike the specter of coercion often raised by those opposed to addressing population growth, none of these solutions are forcing anyone to do anything. They're about expanding rights and increasing opportunity so everyone has a say in solving these problems.
We need to come at the climate crisis from all sides, including how population pressure makes it harder for any solutions to work. Advocating for a brake check on our growing human population has to be part of the answer along with changing consumption patterns and addressing waste, trading fossil fuels for renewable energy like distributed solar and rethinking how and what we eat. We can start with removing the policy barriers that are making it harder for people and communities to institute the solutions to climate change we've already thought up.