The Causes of Human Rights Violations (33): Nefarious Political Metaphors

I want to go out on a limb here and argue that most if not all human rights violations as they have occurred throughout human history can be explained and have been directly caused by the persistent and widespread use of metaphors. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no other causes).

But before I list some of the metaphors I have in mind, a few general words that may help to explain why I think simple metaphors can do so much damage. The fact that we constantly use metaphors in language and thought may buttress the thesis that they have some effect on our actions. The same is true for the fact that metaphors are not just figures of speech but are cognitively important as well: by claiming that some things are alike – metaphors are descriptions of one thing as something else – they help us understand things.

For example, if we say that compound interest is like a snowball rolling off a snowy mountain side, we use something we already understand – the snowball – in order to understand something else that looked and sounded strange before the application of the metaphor – compound interest. And when we then understand things in a certain way, we act according to our understanding of things – in our example, we put our money in a savings account that offers compound interest rather than in one that just offers a fixed interest on the basic sum.

Or let’s use another, more appropriate example (one which I will return to below): if we have difficulties assessing the impact of immigration on our own society and culture, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave of immigration” can help us to “understand” this impact and to do something about it (stop the wave, for instance). Immigration is like a wave because it’s equally overwhelming and harmful. It’s clear from this example that the word “understanding” should not be understood (pun intended) in an epistemological sense: the point is not that understanding produces correct knowledge about the world, but simply that we believe it does. In this case, I personally think the wave metaphor does not help us to understand the phenomenon of immigration (on the contrary), but many people believe it does and it inspires their actions.

If all this has convinced you that metaphors can indeed cause political actions, then it’s now time to list what I believe have been and to some extent still are some of the most destructive political metaphors in history. (Do tell me in comments if you think of other examples).

Moral Balance

This metaphor is most clearly expressed in lex talionis – an eye for an eye – which is a form of criminal justice that claims to balance crime and retribution. A softer version is proportionality: even if people shouldn’t be punished in a manner that strictly balances out their criminal acts, they should get what they deserve and they deserve tougher sentences when their crimes are worse. There may also be a deeper metaphor at work here, one in which there is some kind of cosmic moral balance that shouldn’t be disturbed and that should be corrected when people do disturb it. Failure to correct it leaves moral imbalances intact, and that is damaging in some unspecified and metaphysical way.

Many people agree that the moral balance metaphor has done a lot of harm in the case of capital punishment, but I argue that it poisons our entire criminal justice system. We shouldn’t incarcerate people in order to punish those who deserve some amount of incarceration proportional to their crime. If we have to incarcerate, it’s because that’s the only way to protect other people’s rights. And this rule would drastically reduce the number of inmates currently in prisons all over the world. It’s fashionable to say that we have come a long way since the time of medieval criminal punishment, but I believe our current judicial practices – even those in “developed countries” – are still among the worst human rights violations in the world.

Bootstrapping

This metaphor is most harmful when it blocks assistance to the poor (and poverty is a human rights violation). It promotes an “understanding” of the phenomenon of poverty that paints the poor as lazy, self-destructive and undeserving people who only have themselves to blame and who could easily save themselves were they willing to invest the necessary effort. This “understanding” obscures many other and often more important causes of poverty and therefore perpetuates it.

Dirt

Genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are made easier when the target group is persuasively depicted as some sort of “dirt”, “cockroaches“, “vermin” or any other dehumanized entity. The best way to violate human rights is to deny people’s humanity. However, dehumanization also occurs on a much smaller and seemingly harmless scale, in advertising, gender stereotypes, popular culture etc.

The dirt example shows that people often don’t even realize that they are acting on the basis of a metaphor and actually view what is supposed to be a similarity as being an identity. Many Rwandan Hutus implicated in the genocide probably believed that Tutsis and cockroaches were quasi-identical.

The Family

The metaphor of the family of fellow citizens is often used to justify differential treatment of citizens and non-citizens. For example, social security offers protection to fellow-citizens who are nationally the worst off but who are nevertheless relatively wealthy when compared to the poorest in other countries. And development aid is usually much less generous than social security. I would argue for a more cosmopolitan stance as a better means to protect the equal human rights of all human beings.

The same metaphor is used to justify excessive patriotism and the wars that seem an inevitable result of it, as well as authoritarian government by a father figure or by people who think they know better.

The Wave

As mentioned earlier, this metaphor is used to counter immigration, when in fact increased immigration could do an enormous amount of good, not only for millions of poor people all over the world, but also for the populations in the more wealthy destination countries.

The metaphor does some more damage when it’s used in overpopulation discourse. Horrible population control policies are supposedly justified by the “wave” of overpopulation, and as if these policies aren’t harmful enough by themselves, they have disastrous side effects such as gendercide.

The Child

This metaphor has often been used to subjugate women, those supposedly childlike creatures unable to control their emotions or to marshal the forces – physical or mental – necessary for many social roles. Slaves and colonized peoples as well were often viewed as childlike beings in need of the White Man’s guidance.

Conclusion

So, what can we take away from this? It would seem that we can’t do much about human rights violations: metaphors are notoriously hard to weed out and if they caused rights violations in the past they will continue to do so. But that’s not entirely true. While we may not be able to remove certain metaphors from common language, we may reduce their impact on real life events and their salience in certain circumstances. We can chip away at their nefarious role in rights violations, and that’s exactly what we already did in the past.

For example, the child metaphor used to be an important conduit in the submission of blacks, but that’s no longer the case today. The metaphor is still there and is still doing damage (in criminal justice for instance, as an analogy for punishment based on a supposed lack of self-control), but its range has been curtailed. Curtailment of harmful metaphors often means dismissing the similarity between things that a metaphor has tried to establish. For example, if we can show that immigration doesn’t do the same damage to a society as a “tidal wave” but actually has a lot of benefits, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave” can be curtailed.

Other posts in this series are here. More on the effect of language on human rights is here.

Overpopulation Discourse and the Alarmism of Fake Accuracy

So it appears that humanity will welcome its 7 billionth member. The United Nations claims that the baby in question will be born today, on October 31st.

Well, “welcome” isn’t exactly the right word. The number, like the 6 billionth 12 years ago, is the signal for hordes of population alarmists to repeat their message of doom. They aptly use people’s bias for numbers with a lot of zeros at the right side in order to garner some attention. 7 billion is believed to be special, highly significant, much more than 6.324.168.131 or 7.000.122.011 or something. Humanity is supposed to take another momentous step in its growth path. The common belief in the special significance of round numbers is the perfect excuse for those lamenting humanity’s growth to indulge in dire warnings, warnings that may fall between the cracks when there’s no round number on the horizon.

Never mind that none of this is actually true. No one really knows how many people there are. All that we have are rough estimates. There’s absolutely no basis to claim that a special person will be born today. In 1999, someone even had the stupid idea of actually naming the 6 billionth baby. No one knows exactly how many people there are because population censuses are inaccurate. And even if they were accurate, with more than 3 babies born around the world every second, it’s impossible to work out which baby is the world’s n billionth. It’s all just smoke and mirrors, pure symbolism that can only serve one purpose: to stress that there are many of us, too many. Still, people go about and pontificate about numbers as if they are actually true.

It’s not just the numbers that are misleading. The same is true for the conclusions that people draw from them. It’s highly dubious that there is an overpopulation problem. Even if we assume that there are indeed roughly 7 billion people on earth – which is a reasonable assumption after all – it’s incorrect to state that this number in itself is the cause of problems. True, certain resources are under pressure, but the reason isn’t always the number of people using those resources, and especially not the global numbers of people – small pockets of population concentrations can indeed cause resource problems, but then the problem is concentration, not overpopulation. The most important problem, however, resides in the ways in which resources are used, not in who uses them. I won’t repeat the detailed argument against the overpopulation discourse here: you can go back and read some of my older posts.

The Ethics of Human Rights (53): Some Problems With Theories of Justice That Are Based on Desert

Some theories of justice claim that justice is mainly about giving people (or letting people keep) what they deserve. These theories are opposed to other types of theories about justice, such as those that claim

  • that people should have what they are entitled to have (or have a right to have)
  • that people should have equal shares (of goods, opportunities, luck etc.)
  • or that people’s outcomes should be distributed so as to produce the best aggregate outcome (as in utilitarianism).

These distinctions aren’t always as clear as that, and one could argue that deserving behavior generally maximizes the utility of aggregate outcomes or that people deserve equal shares or equal rights. However, the goal of desert based theories is usually to argue in favor of some form of inequality. Usually this is inequality of wealth, income or financial compensation for effort and success, but it can also be inequality of praise, punishment, positions, admiration etc. I’ll focus here on desert based theories of justice that argue that justice requires inequality of wealth.

Take a look at this quote:

When the wages of labour are hardly sufficient to maintain two children, a man marries and has five or six; he of course finds himself miserably distressed. He accuses the insufficiency of the price of labour to maintain a family. He accuses his parish for their tardy and sparing fulfillment of their obligation to assist him. He accuses the avarice of the rich, who suffer him to want what they can so well spare. He accuses the partial and unjust institutions of society, which have awarded him an inadequate share of the produce of the earth. He accuses perhaps the dispensations of providence, which have assigned him a place in society so beset with unavoidable distress and dependence. In searching for objects of accusation, he never adverts to the quarter from which his misfortunes originate. The last person that he would think of accusing is himself, on whom in fact the principal blame lies, except so far as he has been deceived by the higher classes of society. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on Population

Ideas like these have become somewhat unfashionable, but the basic idea of desert is still very powerful. Many of us accept that inequality of wealth or income is to some and perhaps even a large extent the result of effort, and that justice requires that we respect the results of deserving actions. We also believe that it is wrong to reward laziness or willfully bad decisions. Hence, there are some powerful and widely shared intuitions that makes desert theories rather appealing. Equality based theories that do not provide space for desert seem to be bound to reward laziness rather than effort. And because they reward laziness they create incentives to settle in it. As a result, one runs the risk of creating a permanent and quite large “parasite” class that lives off the efforts of the deserving elements of society. That seems unjust to those deserving elements, but also to those who are undeserving since the latter are not really given an incentive to be deserving: if they are compensated for their laziness and bad decisions, then they are never encouraged to work and decide rationally, and in a sense they are therefore treated unfairly as well.

Apart from this moral or even moralistic objection to theories that don’t make room for desert, there’s the economic argument that they can’t provide stable prosperity. Not only is there a non-productive underclass in an economy without unequal rewards for desert, but the productive class will not put up very long with what it sees as unfair transfers from its productive surplus to others who don’t deserve those transfers (which is the basis of the “going Galt” mythology). This rejection may even lead some to the conclusion that transfers are bad in general, including transfers to the so-called deserving poor (those who don’t have themselves to blame for their poverty). However, things may even get worse than that: rather than rebel against transfers to the undeserving (or deserving) poor, people will stop being productive in the first place because absent rewards for productivity they no longer have an incentive to produce. It’s obvious that prosperity will be impossible under those circumstances, as will – a fortiori – egalitarian transfers of prosperity. So it seems that egalitarian theories of justice are economically self-defeating if they don’t temper their egalitarianism with desert-based concerns.

All this would seem to make it very hard to argue against desert based justice, but that’s not really the case. However appealing the notion of desert, it has its own problems:

  • First, desert based theories seem to be too unforgiving. A small lapse in effort in your youth may have disastrous long-term consequences. An intuition that’s equally strong as the one in favor of desert says that it’s not fair to make people suffer decades after a youthful error.
  • Also, desert based theories are sometimes excessively cruel. Imagine a person starving to death because of her lack of effort and desert: does this person not have a legitimate claim to assistance, despite her irresponsible actions? Does anyone really deserve to starve to death, even if it’s completely and utterly her own fault? But if not, then desert is not sufficient as a criterion of justice and some egalitarian rules have to come in (for instance a rule based on the equal right not to starve to death). Purely desert based theories of justice have some hard bullets to bite.
  • And they also run the risk of promoting big government: if we have to reward desert and avoid transfers to the undeserving, then the government has to determine who is who. In other words, the government has to monitor people’s efforts and decisions in order to see whether their poverty is really undeserved and whether transfers are in order. That can’t be anything but very intrusive. Moreover, it’s probably going to be a failure since the information requirements are huge and difficult to meet.
  • And even if we would accept such an intrusive government for the sake of desert, we would still be left with some very hard decisions. Take the case of someone who is systematically unable to find a decent job. Suppose we can determine that she is indeed not very industrious in her search (we have records about her activities). Is that enough to claim that she is undeserving and therefore not entitled to transfers? Maybe her lack of effort is not really her free and conscious choice but the result of her upbringing, of long-term employment discrimination against people of her color, of some unknown genetic deficiency, of alcoholism developed during childhood etc. How are we to know?
  • Of course, we can confidently determine desert in some cases. Poor children and the severely handicapped almost certainly don’t deserve their predicament and no amount of effort will allow them to help themselves. But we tend to overstate our ability to detect desert. We’re usually too quick to blame and praise. And we’re eager to withhold assistance for people who we believe don’t deserve help but whose lack of desert is only apparent because we lack detailed information about those people’s biographies and endowments. Likewise we’re eager to compensate people whom we admire but whose accomplishments are only apparently the result of their own efforts (after all, not even the greatest genius can do anything without a tight web of support, including infrastructure, national defense etc.). Desert based theories of justice and the practices that they inspire are insufficiently attentive to biographies and to natural and social endowments (or a lack thereof), partly because we rarely have full knowledge of those biographies and endowments. Of course, we can err in the opposite direction and put too much emphasis on endowments, in which case we lapse into determinism. Choices matter, and therefore desert matters as well. The point is simply that desert is often very difficult to determine, and acting on the basis of uncertain desert can be harmful, especially if goods, punishments etc. are distributed accordingly.
  • Suppose we are able to know, in general and not exceptionally, who is or is not deserving. Then we still face the fact that we somehow have to decide which activities and pursuits are deserving, and there as well we can err. There’s a notion called “marketable skills”. What if someone’s skills are not marketable (maybe someone is a philosopher)? That person may be very deserving and may invest enormous effort in her pursuits, but is still living on the brink of starvation. If her pursuits are correctly viewed as undeserving or perhaps even immoral by society, then she won’t have a legitimate claim to transfers. But what if we are wrong? What if we should reward the pursuit but don’t? And I don’t have to show that we are regularly mistaken in the way in which we differentiate between deserving and non-deserving or less-deserving activities. Just look here. Proponents of desert based theories of justice might answer that we should simply be careful and thorough when determining which pursuits and outcomes are deserving or not. But that won’t solve the problem because there’s likely to be permanent controversy about the nature of deserving pursuits and outcomes. People with different worldviews will have different ideas about desert.

More about desert here (and more about overpopulation here). More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (48): Overpopulation

It looks like we’re about to have another large famine, and so – right on cue – we’re hearing the familiar chorus of overpopulation. Equally predictable, I promised myself that this will be the last time that I drag my feet towards yet another rebuke of the Malthusians whose visions of the human flood always seem to cloud their perception of the facts.

The world’s population is estimated to continue its current growth path and to reach 9 billion in 2050, after which stabilization and even decline are likely. Those worrying about overpopulation claim that we can’t possible feed all those new people and that a decline in the numbers, if it will come, will come too late. A Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable without strong measures to reduce the number of human beings. However, that turns out to be a very simplistic assumption. There’s no good reason why humanity can’t feed one or two billion more members:

So long as plant breeding efforts are not hampered and modern agricultural technology continues to be available to farmers, it should be possible to produce yield increases that are large enough to meet some of the predictions of world food needs, even without having to devote more land to arable agriculture. (source)

The latter point also debunks the myth that population growth will inevitably mean increased deforestation and desertification.

Likewise, an excess number of people in a certain area isn’t the cause of current food shortages, and neither was it the cause of historic famines. A combination of climate factors, bad governance and infrastructure, the failure or inability to adopt modern farming technologies and panic hoarding produced those shortages. (Read also the work of Amartya Sen if you haven’t already done so).

If food production can keep up with expected population growth, maybe the problem is water. There’s indeed a water crisis in many parts of the world, but again it’s not population numbers that create the problem, but inefficient irrigation, excessive meat consumption and careless use. Rather than trying to limit the world’s population – which is very difficult anyway because it seems to require dictatorial government and has unexpected harmful consequences – one should tackle inefficiency and waste and focus on the development and improvement of fresh water production. Those objectives are eminently doable.

So, if water and food will be OK – notwithstanding the odd local famine that is likely to occur with any given number of human beings populating the earth – maybe a general increase of the world’s population will lead to pressures on poor countries’ healthcare systems? More children without extended healthcare systems means increased child and maternal mortality. However, current population increases go hand in hand with radical improvements in child and maternal mortality rates, so why would future increases be any different?

And don’t get me started on migration flows. The supposed harm done by migration is one of the biggest lies out there, on a par with overpopulation rhetoric.

More on overpopulation here.

Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?

Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:

[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)

So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.

Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.

On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (32): A Human Right to Free Movement and the Common Ownership of the Earth

I’m consistently in favor of increased immigration, and skeptical of the arguments against (such as those based on notions like “importing crime”, “importing poverty” or “watering down culture”).

However, if the arguments against immigration fail, how about the quality of the arguments in favor? Poverty reduction is a strong one: the prosperity of immigrants obviously increases when they are allowed to immigrate, but so does the prosperity of the families left behind (as a result of remittances). But a more interesting argument is based on the concept of the common ownership of the earth. Humanity collectively owns the earth and its resources because the earth is simply there. No one has created it and no one therefore deserves credit for it. Consequently, all individuals have an equal claim to every part of it and collectively own every part of it. (That’s an old idea, going back at least to Kant and Grotius).

Accidents of birth do not destroy this common ownership. They don’t yield private ownership rights to those parts of the earth where they take place. Hence, these accidents should not determine who gets the exclusive usage rights over parts of the earth. Immigration restrictions are morally arbitrary since they differentiate between people based on the lottery of birth. They take the accident of being born somewhere and turn it into a rule to stay there. They are equivalent to other morally arbitrary differentiations, such as those based on race or gender. However, contrary to what happened to those other differentiations, a majority of public opinion has yet to be convinced of the morally arbitrary nature of immigration restrictions.

From the notion of the common ownership of the earth follows that every kind of private property, not only the state as the exclusive property of a part of the earth claimed by the citizens who happen to live in that state, is a privatization of common resources. I think any justification of such a privatization, and therefore any justification of any type of private property, is bound to be difficult.

If the justification of privatization – whether of territory or commodities – does not succeed, then private property and the state are by definition illegitimate. So there’s a lot at stake here. The reason why such a justification is difficult, is that private property is necessarily based on an original theft of common ownership. Even if you cultivate the land you appropriate or privatize (or better steal from the collective of humanity), and even if you incorporate your labor in the product you make based on natural resources (Locke’s justification for private property) and thereby create added value, that doesn’t change the original sin: you’ll still be like the thief who takes care of the car he’s stolen and gives it a new color.

The same is true for a farmer fencing a part of the earth, a state imposing a border and restricting immigration, an oil company extracting the oil and refining and selling it, and a primitive tribe settling down in the jungle somewhere and keeping strangers out. Even nomadic tribes are guilty of the same sin by letting their cattle graze the land and keeping other tribes away.

So this reasoning a priori invalidates all talk about immigration restrictions. But it seems that I have proven too much: all private property, not just private property of land or a country, is, in the words of Proudhon, theft. Yet, private property is extremely important from the point of view of human rights. Private property also seems to be fueling economic efficiency, as the communist experiments have shown, a contrario. Especially private property of land – important in the context of immigration – is important for prosperity. I don’t want a justification of policies removing immigration restrictions that destroys all possible justifications of all forms of private property. Moreover, while I consider existing immigration restrictions unjust, I do recognize the value of some types of restrictions. Some restrictions used by citizens to limit access to a territory that they claim is theirs are legitimate. A state is necessary for democratic self-government and for the legal and judicial protection of human rights, and it would seem impossible to imagine the concept of a state without some immigration restrictions.

These are moral goals – rights, democracy – that are at least equivalent to the moral goal of not stealing and to the moral rights of immigrants. The problem is that stealing – namely stealing a part of the earth from humanity – is precisely what seems to be necessary to achieve these moral goals. So we have a conflict between moral goals. The fact that these moral goals all seem to be equivalent – it’s not obvious that stealing is always more wrong than protecting human rights for instance – indicates that it should be conceivable to violate – or limit the force of – the principle of the common ownership of the earth in order to create private property, both of commodities and land/territory. Hence, immigration restrictions are not necessarily morally wrong, although I would still claim that the existing restrictions of all countries in the world go much too far: they don’t take the moral claim of the common ownership of the earth seriously enough, and they overemphasize the goals of residents over those of immigrants.

So how exactly do we balance these different and equivalent moral goals? For example, a country violating human rights has less rights to impose immigration restrictions because such restrictions will not serve the goal of rights. (Unfortunately, this won’t promote migration since such a country will not attract many immigrants if it winds down its immigration restrictions). A wealthy country – like wealthy people – have less rights to exclude others from a share of their wealth, since their wealth is based on the use of common property. In that case, immigrants can demand entry rights based on common property.

While national borders are drawn in a morally arbitrary way, as argued above, and while immigration restrictions that go together with the drawing of such border are therefore equally arbitrary, they are not morally meaningless. They are a morally arbitrary fact that has acquired moral significance: they have resulted in a tool – the state – that can do morally good, e.g. protect human rights and democracy.

The Ethics of Human Rights (26): The Repugnant Conclusion and Human Rights

The Repugnant Conclusion is a moral dilemma for utilitarian and consequentialist moral theories. The dilemma was first presented by Derek Parfit in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons. The “repugnancy” in question refers to the consequence of a thought experiment. Imagine a society with a large amount of total utility resulting from a very large number of people all living at near-zero levels of utility. In other words, these people have no more than a marginally worthwhile life – Parfit calls it a life of muzak and potatoes but we can of course define “marginally worthwhile” differently if we want. And yet, because they are so numerous, the total utility of this society is very large.

Utilitarian and consequentialist theories must rank this society higher than other more desirable societies with higher average utility but lower total utility resulting from lower population levels. They must because they state that the best society is the one in which there is the greatest total quantity of utility, and utility is defined as whatever makes life worth living. The muzak and potato people have a life worth living – just barely – and if they are numerous enough they will constitute the best society because the sum of their individual utilities will be higher than any other total utility in any other society.

There is always a muzak and potatoes society that has a higher total quantity of utility or welfare than any other possible society: just add more marginally worthwhile lives and you produce a society that outperforms any other in terms of total welfare. That such a society should be preferable is repugnant. The people in that society have lives only barely worth living and yet it’s a superior society compared to one with fewer people all living a better life. The emphasis on “total” welfare or “total” utility means that any loss in the quality of the lives in a population can be compensated by a sufficiently large gain in the quantity of the population. (Note that the lives added are marginally worthwhile. These lives are worth living. We’re not adding lives of continuous pain for example. That would diminish total utility and that isn’t the purpose of this thought experiment.)

The question here isn’t whether such a society is practically possible or likely, but whether we should indeed prefer it, as utilitarianism posits (implicitly). It doesn’t seem intuitively correct to prefer a society of people living a life that’s barely worthwhile over other highly attractive alternatives, just because the former has a very large population.

To some extent, the thought experiment is convincing because we do believe that every human being is valuable (has some value), however low this value may be (remember we’re not talking about lives that aren’t worth living because of continuous pain for instance). Therefore we do tend to believe that addition of new lives does increase total utility (“we” meaning even the non-utilitarians among us, and that probably includes myself). It would be equally repugnant to try to avoid the repugnant conclusion by claiming that after a certain number of additions the lives added don’t bring any more value.

Given the unacceptability of not counting the lives after a certain number of additions, there’s another possible way of avoiding the repugnant conclusion, namely invoking non-utility values such as justice, dignity, desert etc. But according to Tyler Cowen, non-utility values can always be overwhelmed by total utility:

It might be the case, for instance, that the less populated society has significantly greater amounts of justice, aesthetic beauty, or dignity. If this is true, the Repugnant Conclusion alternative simply needs to make up for this deficiency by having more people to increase its utility total. (source)

Any moral theory must weigh conflicting ends, such as utility and justice. There’s no escape. You don’t have a moral theory if you can’t do that. The non-utility value(s) must receive some “value” or importance. And the same for utility – even non-utilitarians can’t say that utility has no value whatsoever because then you would say that a marginally worthwhile life of muzak and potatoes has no value (and that’s intuitively wrong because then you would be allowed to end such a life). Hence you need to compare the total value of the less populated society with high non-utility values to the total value of the more populated society with very low average utility. Just add more people to the latter and it will always be a better society. And this will always be repugnant.

However, I do think non-utility values show us a way out of the repugnant conclusion. The first thing we can say is that without emphasis on non-utility values there won’t be a way out. If utility is all that counts, if in other words you’re a pure utilitarian then you are a value absolutist, just like a libertarian, a socialist, a hedonist etc. One value, in this case utility, trumps all others. Necessarily you’ll end up accepting the repugnant conclusion.

If, on the other hand, you accept value pluralism, then you reject hierarchical or lexically ordered value system in which one value trumps all others. And then you probably also don’t believe that large losses in one value can be balanced by equally large gains in another value, as happens in the repugnant conclusion. That seems to me to be the error in the Cowen quote above: the muzak and potatoes society can simply compensate for the deficiencies on non-utility values by adding more marginally worthwhile lives. I believe – contra Cowen – that invoking non-utility values can help us to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but not if these non-utility values are simply accorded a certain value (possibly a very high value) and then compared to the value of utility. If we only do that, utility can always overwhelm the other values by just adding more persons, and gains in utility can always compensate losses in other values.

My point here is that there are certain other values for which no losses can be accepted or tolerated, not even with near-infinity gains in utility. That is why these other values – such as freedom, dignity, equality and justice – are protected by human rights, and human rights are unconditional and untradeable. No matter how many people with barely worthwhile lives we add to a society, this will not compensate for violations of human rights. Nothing ever will. You can call that value absolutism if you want, but it’s the absolutism of plurality.

Gender Discrimination (22): Gendercide

The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of

  • selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
  • childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
  • prejudice, preference for male offspring and
  • population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.

Interestingly, the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.

Causes

In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:

  • individual choices based on
  • plain prejudice against girls
  • cultural and legal traditions, or
  • economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.

Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).

Consequences

The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.

Solutions

Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.

Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.

Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.

The Causes of Poverty (32): Overpopulation

How can I say, as I so often do on this blog, that overpopulation isn’t a very important problem, and certainly not the main cause of such human rights violations as famine, war, poverty etc.? Especially when we know that there will be 9 billion people on the earth in 2050, that with the almost 7 billion living now we can’t manage to properly feed one billion everyday, that many resources (water, fish, arable land in certain places etc.) are already overexploited, that rising incomes will mean rising consumption of food and water (especially meat, a water-intensive commodity), and that because of all of this green house gases will increase?

How can you be so stupid not to believe that overpopulation is a problem, I’m often asked in comments on this blog. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that people have been sounding the alarm about the “population bomb” for over 200 years now, and it still hasn’t gone off. Of course, it’s not because people have been wrong for 200 years that they will continue to be wrong. But there are some indications in this paper that they will continue to be wrong.

The paper explains how we can feed 9 billion people, and argues that we’ll need to change the food system. Agricultural waste is a huge problem. Up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, transportation and storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

We could also promote vegetarianism, or at least a reduction in meat consumption, since meat production is very costly in terms of water use, land use, deforestation, green house gases etc. (see here). A side effect would be that we reduce factory farming and are a bit nicer to animals.

Stricter systems to reduce overfishing are also required. And let’s not forget that on a global level, the arable land is underused.

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. That gives humanity a lot of room to grow.

Mother Earth actually has the capacity to feed her people, even the billions that live on her now. As more and more people need to be fed, more and more people can be put to work farming, planting, and engineering new food management solutions. (source)

But not just the quantity of agriculture can be boosted, also its quality. Crop yields can be improved, perhaps by way of genetically modified crops but other techniques are also available: farmer training and financing for example, or more efficient irrigation, which would also solve the problem of water shortages, another “consequence” of overpopulation.

This shows that when you improve the food system, you automatically lessen other types of environmental population impact: not only water shortages but also global warming (because of less waste and less meat production), desertification (because of more efficient land use and again less meat production) etc.

Of course, focusing on food production and consumption is just part of the job. An increasing population also means increasing energy consumption. But here as well, there are many things that can be done short of population control. It’s the way energy is used, not the number of people using it, that is the problem. 85% of the people living on this planet consume below the world’s average energy use. Adding many more people isn’t likely to add substantially to energy use.

The Causes of Poverty (31): Overpopulation and Food Shortages

I think overpopulation is a silly and simplistic explanation of the world’s problems, hysterical at best and damaging when it inspires public policy. I don’t deny that it can cause problems when we look at local areas: there can be too many people in a certain area compared to the locally available stocks of food and water. But the problems there aren’t caused by “overpopulation” but by inadequate distribution of goods, wasteful use of goods etc. But if you think all this is BS,  do go and read my previous posts for a more thoughtful discussion of the issues.

How is overpopulation a human rights issue? Well, if you believe overpopulation is a problem, you will probably have some of the following reasons for your beliefs:

  • Overpopulation may cause poverty, hunger and water shortages. And poverty, hunger and water are human rights issues.
  • Overpopulation may cause violence and war. No need to argue the link with human rights I believe.
  • Overpopulation may cause refugee flows. Immigration can cause a wide variety of human rights issues, going from xenophobia and discrimination to poverty and exclusion.

Personally, I think that all of those problems are real, but that they have other more important causes. Take food shortages for instance:

[F]ood availability can be significantly increased, at minimal cost, by simply reducing agricultural waste … As an engineer, I regularly travel to sort out post-harvest problems and I am convinced that there is little benefit to be gained from merely increasing farm production without making considerable improvements to post-harvest systems and facilities.

The majority of grain and vegetable stores in east Europe date back to the 1930s, in design if not in construction, and they are truly and hopelessly insufficient, amounting to losses of some 15m-25m tonnes of grain annually. India loses 40m tonnes of fruits and vegetables as well as 21m tonnes of wheat a year because of inadequate storage and distribution. To put that in perspective, India’s wheat wastage each year is almost equal to Australia’s entire production of wheat.

In South-East Asia 37% of rice is lost between field and table; in China the figure is up to 45% and in Vietnam it can be as high as 80%. This loss of 150m tonnes of rice each year represents a waste of resources on a truly massive and unsustainable scale.

In America and Britain the buying habits of the big supermarkets actually encourage waste. They impose draconian penalties on suppliers for failing to deliver agreed quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables during the year, which force farmers to grow a much bigger crop than they need as a form of insurance against poor weather and other factors that may reduce their yield.

Even worse, 30% of what is harvested never reaches the supermarket shelf owing to trimming, quality selection, etc. Of the food that does reach the supermarket, up to half is thrown away by the consumer. David Williams (source)

Overpopulation isn’t the cause of food shortages, and population control measures, such as sterilization, offspring limitation etc. aren’t the solutions. And if you don’t believe me, read the work of Amartya Sen on the link (or better the absence of a link) between food supplies, population and famines (see also here):

Amartya Sen convincingly refuted the claim that either food supply or population had anything to do with famine.  Famines regularly occurred at times and places where food was plentiful, and in the most thinly populated places, like Darfur. Nick Cullather (source)

The Causes of Poverty (29): Overview

Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. (We define middle class as having an income of at least $50,000 a year for a family of three). Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

However, that seems to be a bit reductionist. There are many other possible causes of poverty. Some more convincing than others. For example, here’s Montesquieu according to whom people in hot places are simply too lazy to become rich:

In Europe there is a kind of balance between the southern and northern nations. The first have every convenience of life, and few of its wants: the last have many wants, and few conveniences. To one nature has given much, and demands but little; to the other she has given but little, and demands a great deal. The equilibrium is maintained by the laziness of the southern nations, and by the industry and activity which she has given to those in the north. (source)

According to Thomas Malthus, poverty is caused by overpopulation. Food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc.

Max Weber believed that protestant work ethic put protestant nations at an advantage compared to other nations. Certain values, such as the opinion that God will reward those who work hard and save money, or the belief in predestination—getting rich is a sign of God’s approval—make some nations rich and others, that lack these values, poor.

Jeffrey Sachs focuses on geography and weather. In the poorest parts of the world, the soil is nutrient-starved, making it difficult to produce food. Moreover, tropical climates foment disease, particularly malaria. The UK, on the other hand, the country where the Industrial Revolution started, has a fertile soil, a lot of coal, and good waterways.

Daron Acemoglu states that nations are not like children — they are not born rich or poor. Their governments make them that way.

People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. … if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments. [People should be able to] enjoy law and order and dependable government services — they can go about their daily activities and jobs without fear for their life or safety or property rights. (source)

There are obviously many more explanations of poverty, both “exotic” and sensible ones. And regarding the latter, it’s extremely difficult to say which ones are more important. Poverty is surely one of the most complex and intractable problems facing humanity. However, if we look at the country that has been most successful in the reduction of poverty – China – then the last quote above seems to be the most convincing one. China still has institutional and legal weaknesses today, but it did start to develop only after it abandoned the follies of the Cultural revolution and communist rule in general, and started to protect property rights and build its government institutions. Which doesn’t mean that institutions are a “silver bullet” solution to the problem of poverty. There’s no such thing, unfortunately.

The Causes of Poverty (24): Population Growth and Income Growth: Incompatible?

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. Those who worry about overpopulation are often called (neo-)Malthusians, and either predict a sharp fall in population levels because of the problems caused by overpopulation (a “Malthusian catastrophe”), or/and propose population control as a measure to solve these problems.

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. That’s the “Malthusian Trap”: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat. The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it’s worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world. Conor Clarke (source)

… over a roughly 3000 year period, during which there was obviously quite a lot of technological progress — iron plows, horse collars, mastering the cultivation of rice, the importation of potatoes into Europe, etc. — living standards basically went nowhere. Why? Because population growth always ate up the gains, pushing living standards back to roughly subsistence.

… technological change was slow — so slow that by 1600 or so, when England had finally reclaimed its population losses from the Black Death, it found real wages back to more or less 1300 levels again.

And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period. Paul Krugman (source)

It’s clear that population growth can go hand in hand with income growth, and that it’s not correct to state that population growth necessarily leads to more poverty, which in turn leads to a reversal of population growth. But these compatible evolutions of population and income seem to require technological advances.

Note: my criticism of Malthusianism and other types of overpopulation hysteria (see here for some examples) is targeted only at deterministic theories which believe in overpopulation as the main if not only cause for the world’s problems, and which see overpopulation as a global problem. I accept that in certain specific areas of the world, population pressures can make things worse. But I don’t agree that these pressures are the sole or even the main cause of problems such as poverty, famine, war etc. And neither do I agree that population control is the main remedy for these problems. For example, we all know that water shortages – even very local ones – aren’t caused by overpopulation and won’t be solved by population control. More intelligent irrigation methods are the answer. And when we leave the local level and take the global point of view, the population problem is even less salient. On a world scale, income has grown systematically faster than the world’s population during the last centuries. Population pressures do not lead us to an inevitable “trap” as Malthus and his followers claim.

The Causes of Poverty (23): Better Healthcare = More People = More Poverty?

Investment in better healthcare results in lower mortality rates (especially child mortality rates) and larger populations. If more people have to live from an equal amount of resources, every individual has less resources. Hence there will be more poverty.

This reasoning is typical of Malthusians and others who fret about overpopulation. They forget, however, that high mortality rates and inefficient insufficient healthcare lead to high fertility rates because people decide to have many children in order to offset the risk of mortality. Better healthcare brings down fertility rates because it reduces this risk, but also because it leads to less poverty and hence eliminates another reason to have a lot of children: extra labor force.

Read more about this here.

The Causes of Poverty (19): Does Better Healthcare Lead to More Poverty?

This may look like a stupid – or, more kindly, counterintuitive – question. The answer is obviously “no”. At least when we focus on the level of the individual, better healthcare seems like the best way out of poverty rather than a cause of more poverty. With better health comes better education, better and more productive work, and hence less poverty. Even a society as a whole seems better off if less of its members are unhealthy. Overall productivity and wealth increase when there is less disease. Healthy people produce more, innovate more and contribute in other ways to social wealth.

However, many people believe – wrongly in my view – that the question should be answered in the affirmative, especially when the topic is development aid. When a country drastically improves its healthcare system – thanks to development aid for instance – life expectancy rates will go up and child mortality rates will go down. This results in population growth which often outpaces GDP growth (for example because scarce development resources have been targeted at healthcare rather than GDP). GDP per capita will therefore decrease, which means increasing poverty levels and perhaps even famine.

This type of reasoning is sometimes used to justify limits on development aid in the field of healthcare. However, it’s plainly wrong. Better healthcare doesn’t lead to high population growth, and this non-existing population growth therefore cannot result in more poverty.

Now, why doesn’t better healthcare lead to population growth? With just a few exceptions, it’s the poor countries of the world that have high fertility rates, and when countries become richer, these rates drop dramatically. Poverty leads to high fertility rates for a number of reasons (see also here), but the most important one is that people tend to have more children to offset the risk of high infant mortality rates that are typical for poor countries.

Countries with high infant mortality rates also have high population growth (contrary to intuition). Some other reasons why high fertility rates are correlated with poverty:

  • More developed countries move away from agriculture and towards urban and industrialized economies, reducing the need for children as farmworkers.
  • For the same reason, women become more active in the economy, increasing the cost (in money and time) of raising children.
  • Also for the same reason, contraceptives and family planning become more common.

In this case, it seems that our initial intuitions are correct.

Migration and Human Rights (14): Migration and Overpopulation

People often, but mistakenly in my view, see two types of links between overpopulation and migration:

  • The pressure to migrate from the undeveloped South to the richer North is mainly if not exclusively caused by overpopulation in the South.
  • The reason why countries in the North restrict immigration from the South is the fear of overpopulation in the North, resulting from immigration. The relatively healthy economies of the North would not be able to withstand the population shock of major inflows of immigrants, especially given the fact that most immigrants are not high-skilled and tend to be a burden on an economy rather than an asset. Immigration needs to be restricted because it means importing poverty.

I’ll try to argue that both these arguments are wrong and that it is a mistake to link migration to overpopulation in these ways. I’ll start with the first point.

Two things are true about the first argument: migration towards developed countries has increased sharply during the last decades (see here), and population growth in the South has been faster than in the North (see here). What is not true, however, is that the latter has been the cause of the former.

Other social and economic factors, rather than overpopulation, have driven migration. Given the highly regulated nature of migration to the North (green cards, other types of labor certification, visa, border controls etc.), it’s obvious that the people who are able to immigrate are not the poor that are supposedly driven out of their own economies by overpopulation. Only the “jobworthy” who are successful at applying for entry-visas can migrate. (See also here.) And the same is true for illegal immigrants, i.e. those bypassing the regulations. They as well tend to be people who have work prospects in the North, or at least enough money to pay human traffickers.

All this also serves to disprove the second argument above: if migrants in general are not the poorest of the poor, then the second argument doesn’t hold.

However, back to the first argument for a moment. Another economic factor driving migration and completely unconnected to population levels, is the globalization of economic production. Employers in developed countries actively look for relatively cheap workers from the South, and technological improvements in communication, transportation and travel are making this easier.

(One could also point to war and violence as driving forces behind migration, but Malthusians would reply that the real driving force is overpopulation, causing first war and conflict, and then migration. There’s a lot to be said against this, but I’ll keep that for another time).

Regarding the second argument, one can make the following counter-claim. Let’s assume that immigration controls indeed serve the only purpose of keeping people out so as to keep the economy healthy and avoid population shocks which the economy wouldn’t be able to withstand. (Of course, immigration controls in reality serve many other purposes, e.g. pampering xenophobes). If we assume this, we should further assume that existing quotas on immigration (quotas as the result of visa policy, labor permits, family reunion policy etc.) are set in such a way that the number of migrants that are allowed into the country is roughly the number that the economy can sustain. Not higher because then immigration policy would defeat its purpose, but not much lower either because then the restrictions would be unjust and arbitrary.

Given these two assumptions, how do we explain the failure of massive numbers of illegal immigration to destroy host economies? Take for instance the U.S. It’s in an economic crisis right now, but nobody in his right mind claims that immigration is the cause. The U.S. economy was booming for years, and at the same time accommodated millions of legal and illegal immigrants.

To sum up, the tidal wave paranoia of the poor masses of the South engulfing the developed world is just another example of Malthusian hysteria. A simple look at population growth numbers make this abundantly clear. Population has indeed grown more rapidly in the South than in the North (partially because of higher birth rates), but only to return to the same proportion as a few centuries ago. The industrial revolution in the North resulted in more rapid population growth, and the South is now catching up. Fears of growing imbalances and “tsunamis of the poor” aren’t based on facts.

The Causes of Poverty (17): Overpopulation

According to Malthus, food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc. (This is called a Malthusian catastrophe). Ultimately, population growth will halt because if this, and population levels will return to the “normal” equilibrium possible within the limits offered by nature (the so-called “carrying capacity”).

And if these disasters aren’t enough, active population control is necessary, including measures such as the abolition of social security (social security doesn’t incite people to birth control, see here) and even more extreme policies (many of which proposed by Malthus’ more enthusiastic followers rather than by himself).

Malthus agreed that humanity was capable of increasing its productivity, but believed that population growth would necessarily outpace this increase. The facts are, however, different. Standards of living have risen enormously over the last centuries, notwithstanding large increases in population numbers. GDP growth has even been faster than population growth, giving, on average, every human being more resources than ever before in history. Of course, these resources aren’t equally distributed, but that’s a problem of justice, not of population.

Blaming everything on overpopulation is simplistic. All major problems in life are multi-causal, and population isn’t a real or major cause in many cases (bad governance is often a more important cause). And when it is, population control isn’t the answer. Technology, productivity, consumer adaptation, better governance etc. are more promising solutions.

The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. The areas of the world which are inhabitable and useable for agriculture are too small compared to the number of people living in them. These people are followers of Thomas Malthus or of malthusianism, and often even predict major catastrophes which will reduce the population significantly. They also advocate some quite draconian measures for limiting the human population.

In scientific terms: overpopulation occurs when an organism’s numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat; carrying capacity = [available sustainable resources > current and projected needs of the organism].

For example, imagine a population of 10 living in a habitat of 10 square kilometers. These 10 square kilometers can produce food, drinking water, shelter etc. for 15. Then there is no overpopulation. But if the population grows or is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, without an equal or superior growth in resources, then overpopulation threatens. There would also be overpopulation if the material resources are adequate but other needs such as space, privacy etc. are not met. For example if the available space is too small to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

So overpopulation can result from changes in the population (increased births, reduced deaths, better healthcare, migration etc.) or from changes in the resources – material or psychological – in the habitat (for example desertification, natural disasters, technological innovations etc.), or from a combination of both.

The current state of the world’s population is the following:

  • Present world population – 6,500,000,000 but unequal distribution of world population (see graphs below). The main population clusters are East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Average world growth rate – 1.4% annual, but also unequal distribution of growth rates: fastest growing areas are the Middle East – over 4.0% annual – and the slowest growing areas are Central and Eastern Europe – 0% or less. Southern Africa even sees negative growth rates as a result of the HIV epidemic.
  • Forecasts are notoriously difficult but the world’s population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion by 2050.

 

 

Blaming everything on overpopulation is misguided and reductionist. Problems such as poverty and war have a complex set of causes, including in some but not all cases overpopulation, government policies, cultural factors, repercussions from colonialism, religion etc.

One can also question whether there is indeed a problem of overpopulation. Per capita food production has risen the last 50 years, and poverty (expressed as the number of people living on less than 1$ a day) has decreased while the population has increased. So poverty and war may not have anything to do with the size of the world’s population. However, ecological problems may have something to do with it. If so, the solution would surely not be population control, which is much too difficult and often dictatorial. Changes in consumption patterns are a much more promising route.