Friday, November 4, 2011

Ode to Marie Stopes

The world is facing a lot of problems, but the one that concerns me the most long-term is overpopulation. The simple reality is that we will have to choose how to balance the total human population with the quality of life we’d like each person to have, and how much land we’d like to set aside for conservation and other species. It may be possible to have 15 billion people living quality lives, but that might be more of a toll on nature than I’d like to countenance.

The good thing about the problem is that it’s possible to solve it without anyone having less kids than they’d like. It appears that our fertility rate could be dropped to a sustainable level simply by preventing unwanted pregnancies. Expanding access and increasing the social acceptance of contraceptives not only helps prevent overpopulation, it’s one of the cheapest and best ways of protecting the environment, fighting global warming, increasing the status of women, and promoting economic development. That’s because less people demand less natural resources and use less energy. If women are able to control how many children they have, they’re more able to pursue education and participate in the workforce (if that's what they want), which is empowering to them. The higher the status of women in a society, the less violent or prone to war that society tends to be.

Months ago, when I left the church, I wanted to find a charity I really believed in to consistently donate to instead of paying tithing. I looked for one dedicated to promoting family planning in developing nations. I found such a charity: Marie Stopes International. Their Global Impact Report estimates they prevented 4.8 million unwanted pregnancies last year, and spent about 83.3 million pounds. That means they only spent about $34 dollars for each averted pregnancy. It’s my favorite charity, and I just want to encourage everyone to find a charity dedicated to making the world a better place that you believe in, regularly donate to it. I believe it does make a real difference.


gavinomics said...

Here is how I understand your argument:

Premise: Each additional child imposes a cost on others and the environment.
Conclusion: We should encourage people to have fewer children (via the means that you mentioned).

I don't think this argument means very much. Why? because one must try to assess both costs and benefits before being justified in making a assessment. So one must ask the question, "Do the costs of each additional child outweigh the benefits or vice versa?"

I am convinced by economists such as Steven Landsburg and Thomas Sowell that the benefits of each additional child outweigh the costs. I encourage you to read this Slate article by Steven Landsburg

I was going to try to summarize it, but it is written so well that I couldn't make it much shorter.

The claims that we are running out of space and environment have been discounted by objective facts. For example, the entire population of the world today could be housed in the state of Texas, in single-story, single-family houses—four people to a house—and with a typical yard around each home.

Here is a great quote that exposes the fallacy behind anti-population growth arguments:

“Is there some ultimate limit to how many people can live on the planet? Probably. But to see how meaningless and misleading such a question is, consider the fear of the young John Stuart Mill that the finite number of musical notes meant the there was some ultimate limit to the amount of music possible. Despite the young Mill’s melancholy over this, at that point Tchaikovsky and Brahms had not yet been born, nor jazz even conceived. Nor was there any sign that we are running out of music more than a century later.”(Thomas Sowell in The Vision of the Anointed)

Predictions that we are running out of resources from environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich are always embarrassingly wrong. Natural resources become more abundant as the entrepreneurs produce better and better substitutes. We need more children to create more innovative ideas to make the world a better place.

I am much more worried about the economic consequences of underpopulation. Contrary to your conclusions, if we want economic progress, cleaner environments, and more innovation, then we should encourage more children, not less.

gavinomics said...

I'd like to add that people should be empowered to make their own decisions about how many children they should have. They are better equipped to make their own decisions than any 3rd party onlooker.

Also, countries with free trade and capitalism have fewer children as they get wealthy. Why? because the opportunity cost of each additional child is generally greater per family unit. So if you really want to decrease childbirths, don't send money to some organization just promote free trade and capitalism.

Bennion said...

I agree with your second comment: that people should be empowered to make their own decisions about how many children they should have. Marie Stopes is about empowering people in that way, not about encouraging people not to have kids. I think parents should decide how many kids they have based on whether having those kids will make them happy, not for any other reason. Merely preventing unwanted pregnancies should be sufficient to put population growth on a more sustainable level.

I read the Steven Landsburg article, but I did not find it convincing. Humans only have the capacity to know so many people very well. After the population size is quite large, an increase in population size will not increase the number of people any particular person is familiar with. So when he says, for example, "Somewhere there is a young lady whose life has been impoverished by my failure to sire the son who would someday sweep her off her feet," I don't think that's true at all. That young lady out there somewhere will know about the same number of people whether he had sired a son or not, and her chances at love are the same. Creating more people doesn't increase any one person's chance at love in a population that is already very big.

In fact, I don't see anything in the article showing how everybody per-person would be better off with more people.

As for Thomas Sowell's argument, I think it's clear that the more people we have, the less land/resources we can leave for nature, and there is an ultimate limit to how many people we can have, even if it's far away. That's why I advocate trying to move to sustainability earlier.

We agree that as countries get wealthier, they have fewer children. I've seen evidence that it goes the other way, too: countries that encourage fewer children see better economic growth per capita than countries that encourage more children, but I don't remember where. I'll let you know when I find it.

Bennion said...

I found an Economist article concluding the same thing I did: that our population growth is driven by huge numbers of unplanned pregnancies, and that lower fertility leads to stronger economic growth per capita.

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