July 7, 2022

Let’s fight climate change with population engineering

Bioethicists table strategies for reducing greenhouse gases

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich popularized the formula I=PxAxT in his race to defuse the Population Bomb. It meant that environmental impact is the result of population, affluence and technology. Although almost none of his predictions have come true, the formula continues to mesmerize academics, especially those interested in climate change.

Just published in the journal Social Theory and Practice is an article by a bioethicist from Johns Hopkins and two philosophers from Georgetown which tackles the most tractable of the three variables, population. Resurrecting the idea of population control, or as they call it, “population engineering”, they argue that people must be persuaded to produce fewer people. While this is an idea which has been in a bad odour after China’s one-child policy and atrocities in countries like India and Peru, reluctance to act is “unjustifiable and, ultimately, irresponsible”.

Although the three authors, Colin Hickey and Jake Earl, of Georgetown University, and Travis Rieder, of Johns Hopkins, eschew coercive policies, they insist that governments do need to incentivize small families to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions which are driving climate change. Procreation is dangerous because it creates more people who generate more greenhouse gases. The worst case scenario is that having an additional child raises one’s “total lifetime carbon emissions by nearly six times”. It seems clear to them that the question “is not whether we should implement some sort of fertility-reducing population engineering program, but rather which interventions such a program should include.”

Thankfully, Hickey, Earl and Rieder believe that gentle interventions will normally be sufficient. “Straightforwardly coercive interventions to reduce human population growth are almost always wrong, and we will not defend them here,” they say. They favour the increasingly popular theory of “nudging” people through a combination of incentives and propaganda.

These changes could be achieved through mass media such as radio and TV content, billboards, poster campaigns, leaflet distribution, folk theater or other artist sponsorship, campaigns or assemblies in public schools, funding for public lectures, and so on.

While critics might complain that these erode people’s autonomy, the authors claim that such measures would actually enhance autonomy in pro-natalist societies. “Most people live in pro-natalist cultures, in which the social value of having children has been reinforced over centuries by any number of contingent practices and ideologies,” they write.

(Plummeting birth rates around the world suggest that pro-natalist cultures are disappearing rapidly and flourish only in Africa, but “the cultural dominance of pro-natalism” is a cornerstone of their argument.)

Governments could also introduce economic incentives, like those employed by China, India and Singapore. These did lead to abuses, but the approach was fundamentally sound and shows that incentivization works. They favour initiatives like “reducing child tax credits beginning at a middle income bracket, or even introducing a progressive, income-sensitive tax for every additional child one creates.”

Is population engineering practical as a way of slowing climate change? Yes, because reducing the number of children is easier than reducing one’s standard of living. “In many cases, it will be easier for individuals to cut their GHG output by reducing their fertility than by reducing their personal consumption.”

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