New Rules: overpopulation

Last Friday, Bill Maher discussed overpopulation in his “New Rules” segment of Real Time with Bill Maher.

“[Republican presidential candidate] Governor Huntsman here is supposed to be the moderate conservative, the one who claims to care about the environment. Well, then why didn’t he stop after two kids? We live on a sick and tired planet. the human race is now consuming every year what it takes 1.3 years to restore. How is having a large family a badge of honor?

If we want to prevent living in a nightmare world with people fighting over water and food and god-knows-what-else, we have to discourage indiscriminate spawning. Starting with calling out these nauseating freaks. [Slide of the Dugger Family] The Duggers! Who have 19 children. So they’re adorable. And their television show is called “19 Kids and Counting.” If they had 19 cats and counting, their show would be called “Hoarders.” (1)

This is a position I have long held, and it’s refreshing to here someone else talk about it. There are numerous challenges that we, as a species, face in the near to distant future. I think the top three challenges we face are: energy production, food production, and climate change. These three are interrelated, but I want to tackle them one at a time.

I was fortunate as an electrical engineering college student to learn a lot about the technical aspects of energy production, so I feel that I am more qualified to speak on this topic than the other two. Simply put, delivering clean, cheap, and effective energy is damned hard.

Coal-fired Power Plant

Coal-fired Power Plant (2)

First, a little background. There are three categories of power sources: baseload, peaking, and intermittent. Baseload sources provide a constant amount of power 24/7/365. Examples include coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear and they provide the bulk of our power. Peaking sources are power sources that can be turned on and off very quickly and scaled rapidly to meet demand. These types of power plants handle cases where power usage suddenly spikes and the baseload sources can’t handle the extra demand. Peaking sources are most commonly natural gas or petroleum fueled turbines (like a jet engine). Intermittent sources are generally sources that don’t fit the previous two categories: they can’t provide energy constantly, and can’t adjust their output on-demand. Most green types of energy (wind, solar, etc) fall under this category. Baseload and peaking sources are a firm requirement for any type of power system. In order to replace coal, petroleum, and nuclear sources, we must find alternative sources that can provide baseload and peaking power, not just intermittent power, hence the reason that green power in its current form can’t fully replace our current sources. Fixing our energy problems generally revolve around two prongs of attack: finding new sources of renewable energy and increasing efficiency in power production and consumption.

We absolutely need to solve the energy crisis, but I don’t think that the solution has been found yet. Whatever we do to fix our energy problems, I don’t foresee it being centered around our current energy sources. I do believe that we will find a solution though, given enough time. In the mean-time, what else can we do? We can increase efficiency of course, and there is a major push to do so. Hybrid cars are probably the most visible source of this, but also look at the progress that has been made in insulation, windows, energy efficient washers and dryers, etc. This is an important and worthwhile cause, but it’s not the silver bullet some people make it out to be. If we increase efficiency by 50%, once the population increases by 50% we are back to where we started, and this doesn’t even take into account developing countries becoming more developed and thus needing more energy. The reason energy is a problem and becoming scarce isn’t because supply has been dropping, but because the human population has been growing. Reductions in the human population will ease the energy crisis.

California Grain Harvesting

California Grain Harvesting (3)

Food production suffers from pretty much the same problems as energy production. The current system is unsustainable, and the alternative (organic food in it’s current form) is not well suited to replace it worldwide. Don’t get me wrong, I think that a number of useful technologies are coming out of organic food, but it’s not the end-all-be-all that it’s often made out to be. I suspect the answer will involve technology (such as artificially grown meat, etc) combined with lessons learned from the organic industry (especially in the area of sustainability), but, once again, we are only in crisis because the human population is so large., and getting bigger.

Climate change is pretty much due to the above to areas, especially energy production, which is in turn related to the ever expanding human population. Humans have evolved to love kids, and to desire to have kids. This is obviously a beneficial trait to have when viewed in context of human evolution, but it has become a liability in the modern age. Just like our evolved desire to eat foods high in salt, sugar, and fat has led to a society that is overweight, our evolved desire to have children has led to overpopulation.

When I say “the desire to have kids,” there are really two aspects to it. One is the desire to have sex, and the other is the positive view of anything related to having kids, both of which contribute to the problem. Both aspects are also heavily influenced by religion. Discussing the issues of sex, religion’s influence on it, how it relates to safe sex practices, etc has been discussed ad nauseam, so I won’t bother repeating the arguments here. Suffice to say, Greta Christina has an excellent write-up on the subject here (4).

Crowded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Crowded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh (5)

I think that the second aspect is the more interesting one, because it’s one that is rarely discussed. I think it’s safe to say that the need to reduce the human population is warranted. The question then becomes, how do we do it? The only humane answer is to discourage people from having kids. Assuming we can fix the sex issue, there’s still the problem with people simply going nuts over kids.

Think about this: when someone announces they are pregnant, and assuming it isn’t a “bad” pregnancy, what is the reaction? Everyone is ecstatic and goes nuts. There is lots of celebration and fanfare. There are baby showers, gifts, etc. With this kind of encouragement, who wouldn’t want to have kids? We view having kids as the ultimate part of our lives…nothing else is as important as our kids. When a couple decides not to have kids, they tend to be viewed as if there is something psychologically wrong with them. This is a major problem! This viewpoint strongly encourages overpopulation, which could lead to the end of our species. We need to view overpopulation just like we view overeating. Obviously reproduction is necessary for the survival of our species, but, like food intake, we need to regulate it. In essence the human race needs to go on a reproduction diet. It just might save our species. Getting rid of religion, it’s focus on controlling sexuality, its emphasis on patriarchal lineage, and its commandments to “be fruitful and multiply” will be a good start.

(1) “HBO: Real Time with Bill Maher: Ep 218 June 24, 2011: New Rules.” HBO. 24th June, 2011. Available: http://www.hbo.com/real-time-with-bill-maher/index.html#/real-time-with-bill-maher/episodes/0/218-episode/article/new-rules.html
(2) “Fossil fuel power station.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_power
(3) “Harvest.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvest
(4) Christina, Greta. “Do Atheists Have Better Sex?” Greta Christina’s Blog. 7th June, 2011. http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2011/06/do-atheists-have-better-sex.html
(5) “Overpopulation.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overpopulation

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3 thoughts on “New Rules: overpopulation

  1. This is a very level headed essay. One contribution I might make is what my wife always tells me when I advocate the 2 child per family rule. She replies that “not everyone is equally qualified to raise children. Some people can raise a wonderful family of eight, while many others are better advised to have none. Population policy should always key toward the average, not every individual”. The Chinese two child law has created long term social distortions and changed the nature of their society. On the other hand, “desperate times require desperate measures”.

  2. Agreed Harry. Restricting the number of children that we can have legally is a disaster waiting to happen, based on what we’ve seen in China. Not to mention, it would surely be unconstitutional. I think the best approach is a financial approach. Instead of offering tax breaks for having kids, we should reverse it: increase our tax burden at an exponential rate for each child a couple has. E.g. 1 child is an extra $200/year, 2 children is $400/year, 3 children is $800/year, etc. This will discourage people from having more children, and it will affect the poor more than the rich. This is intentional because there is a correlation between intelligence and economic prosperity. It wouldn’t be perfect of course (there are smart poor people and dumb rich people), but overall I think it would have a leveling effect without the side effects seen in China, while still allowing people to have as many kids as they want.

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