"It is now the willingly childless woman who is the heroine of our planet. She is the one who now deserves all the kudos and praise, for helping to do what is necessary to spare humanity from the ravages of over-population" - Isaac Asimov, from a talk at Queen's Park Theater, Barbados, Feb. 6, 1976
Despite the chronic overthinking peculiar to a number of human issues, questions, some answers ought to be obvious - so obvious that virtually no measurable decision time is needed. One such question was raised in a header in The Denver Post Sunday Perspective Section: To Breed Or Not To Breed. The question headed up an extensive piece on the decision of many young people today to forego having children. Not even one. Extreme? No, not at all. In a world steered off its sanity axis by pandemic isolation and chaos, political strife and climate catastrophe - not to mention critical resources in short supply - it is the most sensible choice most couples can make.
Despite that, the author of the piece claims at one point that "there is still much debate over the idea that having fewer children is the best way to address the problem". Basically pretending that from the instant of birth humans don't leave carbon footprints wherever they are - with the largest ones in the most advanced nations. This is given the much higher energy consumption and hence higher emissions. The piece also quotes a "climate scientist", Kimberly Nichols, who claimed (in an interview with Vox in April):
"It is true that more people will consume more resources and cause more greenhouse gas emissions. But that's not really the relevant time frame for actually stabilizing the climate, given that we have this decade to cut our emissions in half."
However, I hate to break it to her but that ship has already sailed. The first pandemic year ended up one of the highest ever in emissions, e.g.
So was this past one. Every policy decision, every bill passed (or not) thus far and statistical indicator discloses that we are nowhere near seriously cutting emissions, especially in half. That might happen if a 50 % gas tax was imposed, but just how long does she think any government would last if it tried to do that? And if she believes carbon trading and credits are the solution she is truly living in dreamland.
Minus serious emission cuts and instantly - not in ten years- most climate researchers see much higher temperature thresholds and up to 5-6 C increase by 2100. So I don't know what planet she's living on but it's not Earth. For one thing she's totally ignored the existing climate carbon burden, best represented as a series for the contributions of CO2 for all preceding years stretching back a century (given the mean lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere is 100 years), e.g.
CO2( 2021) = x 1 + x 2 + x 3 + x 4 +.............+ x 1 00
Thus the CO2 emissions effects for a given year are not just for that year but inclusive of the cumulative emissions for all the years preceding. This means even if humans went 'cold turkey' from fossil fuels and halted all carbon emissions today it wouldn't be enough to prevent us hurtling past the nonsensically low Paris - as well as COP26- thresholds (i.e. to hold warming to 1.9 C by 2100). Even more sobering, we know the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been kept artificially low by (partial) absorption in the oceans, but that can't go on forever. See e.g.
The evidence now is that the oceans are reaching their limits as a carbon reservoir.
To fix ideas, and reality, we are now headed for CO2 concentrations in the vicinity of 600 ppm by the end of this century, which is runaway greenhouse territory. Those like Ms. Nichols can try to soft soap it all they want but the math doesn't lie. Do the math! If the current rate of CO2 concentration is increasing at 2.5 ppm/ yr., then add 75 years of increases to the current mean concentration of 415 ppm. In 75 years that means an additional (2.5 ppm/ yr. x 75 yrs.) = 187.5 ppm, or a total CO2 concentration: 415 ppm + 187.5 ppm = 602.5 ppm.
Most climate scientists I have known, such as Prof. Gunther Weller (Geophysical Institute, Univ. of Alaska-Fairbanks) take 600 ppm as the crossover threshold to a runaway greenhouse world. In other words we are looking at a new, catastrophic global equilibrium by 2100 - and the planet would have already been climate destabilized for over 70 years.
The hard fact is that humans, to have avoided this fate, ought to have begun seriously curbing all fossil fuel emissions from the time of the Rio Summit in 1992. That curbing never transpired, so nearly 30 years of excess CO2 emissions elapsed and left exhaust pipes and coal-fired smokestacks spewing in the interim. And we are supposed to believe now humans will magically change behaviors? Get real! To quote climate blogger John Atcheson:
"Most of the climate-related estimates you hear in the news and from the IPCC have built in assumptions that we humans will take necessary actions to mitigate the worst of the climate crisis. There’s no evidence that making such assumptions is a prudent thing to do. We’ve known about this unfolding tragedy for three decades now, yet we’ve been steadily increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses we release."
In other words, he recognizes - as I do - that human behavior isn't going to change any more in the short term (say 10 years or even 5) than the long term.
In terms of why there is no 'lead time' to reduce population one can refer to the Global Footpoint network and its graph showing we have already outrun our sustainability on this finite planet, e.g.
The interpretation of the graph is straightforward. By June, 2030, two full Earths will be needed to support the then human population. Already we are at 1.5 Earths, or 0.5 Earths beyond where we ought to be in terms of our sustainable numbers.
Isaac Asimov himself believed the carrying capacity of Earth had to be 3 billion, no more. We are already past that by more than 4.5 billion. Again, the severe limiting of numbers ought to have been from 30+ years ago - not acted on just now!
Each year the Global Footpoint Network raises awareness of global ecological overshoot using its 'Earth Overshoot Day' campaign.
Earth Overshoot Day is the day on the calendar when humanity has used up the resources that it takes the planet a whole year to regenerate.
Beyond the impending climate catastrophe there are other urgent reasons to limit human numbers. Among them is the fact - as pointed out by Michael Shermer (2015 book, 'The Moral Arc Of Science') that too many people means too much strife and competition for scarce resources, and hence a deformation of humanity's moral arc. Citing this work in her essay in Free Inquiry magazine, Karen Schragg observes: :
"As a science writer Shermer knows that the Earth is a limited place and that humans are at a trophic level that is meant to be inhabited by a very limited number of individuals. As our numbers continue to climb in a hockey stick-like curve,
our resources decline and our density increases. That brings with it an increase in scarcity. This is hardly a scenario in which our collective morality will be well-incubated."
Why not? Well, because as she further notes (ibid.):
"Morality - encompassing such values as equal treatment under just laws, equal job opportunity, equal access to healthy food, equal access to potable water is profoundly threatened by the far -reaching implications of overpopulation."
"Simply put, whenever demand exceeds supply there will be immoral scramble to get one's fair share."
We all beheld this at a micro-level last year when fights broke out in super market aisles over limited toilet paper rolls- when the first supply shocks hit after the pandemic began. Now try to imagine major food supply shortages and the mad scramble to "get one's share". This is why Asimov - as well as Shermer and Ms. Schragg - could see that overpopulation is a roadblock to any kind of moral progress. To put it bluntly, in a scarcity environment incepted by too many mouths to water or feed, ethics and morality are the first to go. The "moral arc" is destroyed or blunted severely, and it is "survival of the fittest" to use the phrase of the Social Darwinists.
This is why in many respects Asimov's quote - at the top - is spot on though it may sound harsh to the baby breeders (which the Denver Post piece noted are mainly conservatives and those lacking college educations). But those breeders, which include the extremist "pro-lifers" - who don't give a damn about life after it's born - e.g.
Need to grasp that in an overpopulated world all lawful options to limit higher density (and scarcity) need to be on the table. That includes abortion and birth control - and I don't mean the Catholics' rhythm method. At least one young woman (Jenna Ross) quoted in the Post piece gets it. In her words;
"Harnessing the love I have for my unborn, hypothetical kid, comforts me in sparing them an inhospitable future. In this way my choice (not to have children) is an act of love."
Many of her peers feel the same way: that it is a greater act of love to spare any potential progeny the horrors that await - in a world awash in political extremism, hate, economic imbalance and climate catastrophe (including huge migrations to escape these). The effective choice to never have a child, and further, engage in activism to educate others to do likewise. Why the urgency? As Prof. Schragg notes, if the population of the U.S. and the world keeps going up, "any existing moral arc will continue to go down or even crash"
- because humans won't behave better in a world of scarcity.
In other words, too many humans inhabiting a limited resource planet "is a Petri dish for fostering immorality and disorder." We see that already in everything from the sex trafficking trade to the rise of autocratic racist nationalism (see link below), to a massive global drug trade addicting millions, to the rampant homelessness in major cities - not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. Why would any sane person want to bring a kid into this world? Perhaps better, why would any sane person want to inflict more pollution, congestion, chaos and terror on this world?
Prof. Schragg's last remark is perhaps her most trenchant:
"Indeed, we overpopulation activists are the ones holding on to the reins of morality and justice...Unless we start working on this critically important issue as a moral imperative, morality itself will be rendered irrelevant, flattened by the thundering feet of billions of desperate people."
Time to wake up and take note.