The Ethics Of… Allowing YOURSELF to Breed

So last week we established that, even though there are definitely some people out there who should not be allowed to have kids, the measures needed to stop them would be so terrible (and unreliable) that it really wouldn’t be worth it. Unsatisfying – especially when you’re talking about a guy convicted of 22 paedophilia charges, buying a kid in Thailand and subsequently abandoning its twin there because it was retarded – but nonetheless, true.

But the fun thing about ethics is that it’s not about what we should be allowed to do, but rather what we should do. Controlling what other people do is the realm of law, and comes with a whole mess of practicalities that have to be dealt with – sure we might be right to ban something in principle, but it’s not going to do us a whole lot of good if people just find a dozen ways around that law.

Ethics on the other hand, is a personal thing. It’s about sorting out what is, truthfully, the right thing to do, and then doing it. Nothing can compel you to, but nothing really has to – either you do what you know is right, or you basically accept that you’re being a bad person (and not the good kind of ‘bad’ either).

So while it’s all very cathartic to talk about whether other people should be allowed to have children with impunity, the far more interesting question is whether we should allow ourselves to.

What? Why the hell would we need to even ask that question? The Dunning-Kruger Effect aside, it’s a pretty sure bet that if you have the bare minimum of self-awareness needed to read this sort of introspective article, then you’re probably going to be an OK parent. Maybe not parent-of-the-year super-mum/dad extraordinaire, but at the same time you’re going to be so far from Mr David ‘I-manage-to-be-worse-than-the-worst-parent-you-can-image’ Farnell that you’re not even on the same scale.

But there is a different aspect to the having-kids situation that many of us are aware of, but no one really wants to think too much about: overpopulation.

Freakin’ people all over the place

To say that the global population has boomed over the last few decades is to make a massive understatement:




Population boom

In the last 200 years we’ve gone from roughly 1 billion humans on the planet to over 7 billion, and as you can see from the graph, that number is growing exponentially. No matter what else you may think about the topic, that’s a fairly incredible statistic.

There are a ton of reasons for this explosion, from improved medicine, decreased infant mortality, longer life expectancies, better and more consistent food yields, less war – all excellent things I’m sure we can agree! But nonetheless the result of these improvements are, well, a hell of a lot more people kicking around.

A point about brown people

Now before we go any further, let’s get one point out of the way: yes, the vast majority of this population growth has happened in under-developed countries like China, India, Indonesia, and various regions of Africa.

Population boom - relative

But before we get jump to conclusions about brown people and the neutering thereof, please note that despite this, the vast majority of resources are consumed by the relatively tiny populations of developed nations. As in the richest 20% of the world’s population (which if you’re reading this, probably means you) currently consume about 76.6% of the world resources. Everyone else (~80% of the world’s population) gets to split the remaining 23.4%.

This leaves us with the interesting fact that, were everyone in the world to have the same lifestyle as your average Australia, we would need roughly three planet Earths to support that level of consumption. You may note that this is two more than we currently have. And given China in particular is doing its damndest to catch us up right now, this is a terrifying figure. (It also happens to imply that all those brown people being poor is the only thing keeping us from an economic and ecological catastrophe, but that’s a topic for another day…)

So while, yes, it’s mostly developing countries that are the source of this population boom, that doesn’t excuse people from developed countries from the question of whether they should have children of not – in fact, given that every new child in Australia consumes vastly more resources than one in say, Bangladesh, it actually makes it a more relevant question for Australians.

It is true that, for the most part, overpopulation has been overplayed as a serious threat at least in the short-to-medium term. Contrary to what you might expect, problems like poverty are not caused by overpopulation so much as serious economic inequality, corruption, wars and vulnerability to famines.

It is also true that technology gives us a pretty massive buffer against the consumption population growth drives – the idea of feeding 7 billion people would have been inconceivable back in the 1800s, but is (broadly speaking) completely realistic today. Given how fast technology is advancing, who knows how many people we might be able to support in years to come.

But neither of these factors change the fact that, at the end of the day, every resource on this planet is limited, and we are already starting to stretch those limits. Sure it’s technically possible that we could find new ways to synthesise oil after the natural reserves run out, feed 10 billion people and give them all laptops – but since even just getting to 7 billion people has already landed us with climate change, multiple resource wars and the threat of the collapse of global fisheries, excuse me for not having a lot of faith in humanity’s ability to do so without creating some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe in the process.

Even highly efficient, environmentally-friendly alternatives like a totally vegan diet, solar panels and cities designed to minimise car travel can’t save us – stretch any resource far enough and you will run out of it. There is only so much arable land, so many people you can cram into a square meter, and so much sunlight that hits the earth’s surface before you run out. One way or another, things will start getting crowded, hot, scarce and flatout dangerous soon enough – particularly soon given the current population growth rate is exponential.

A lot of people like to point to space travel as our saviour at this point, but despite what sci-fi would have you believe, we are nowhere near colonising another world, even if we knew of any that were suitable. We are especially not developing that capability fast enough to deal with a population that is growing this damn fast.

Good ideas that no one likes

So, faced with this inevitable reality we have two choices:

  1. Keep having kids at the same rate and spread the butter so thin it technically doesn’t exist anymore, or,
  2. Have less kids.

Of the two options, number two seems the pretty obvious choice, right? Less people means more for everyone. With manufacturing and other basic industries increasingly being mechanised and even automated, we can enjoy a high quality of life with significantly less labour and with less people to share with we can enjoy that quality of life sustainably (which is to say, without killing ourselves).

Sure we might have to have less kids as a species, but that’s ok isn’t it? We don’t have to stop having kids, just decrease the numbers – a maximum of 2 kids per couple, 1 by preference and we’ve got the problem sorted in no time. Easy fix!

…Wait, what do you mean me?

And that right there is where this theoretically good idea goes tits-up big time. Most people when presented with the facts and reasoning above will agree that, yeah, people need to have less kids. What they will not agree to however, is that they personally should have less kids.

Why? Because at the end of the day, when people say something should be done about a given social issue, or that someone should be made an example of for breaking the rules, or that people need to pull their weight, that ‘someone’ is never, ever, themselves.

Say it with me now: “I am the exception!”

This god damn line pops up pretty much every time someone gets caught breaking the rules;

  • People breaking the speed limit are selfishly putting others at risk! But it’s ok when I do it because I’m a good driver!
  • Telling lies is wrong and you should be ashamed! Oh my lies? Those are just white lies to save people’s feelings! What they know can’t hurt them…
  • Those damn junkies making the streets unsafe should all be forced to join the army! Let me vent my spleen about it while I chug my fourth bottle of red.

I have no idea what this cognitive bias is called and if anyone knows please let me know in the comments, because I see this bastard crop up all the damn time. And it is exactly this that turns population control from a sensible idea to ‘literally Hitler’ in under a minute. People having less kids is sensible, but an individual having less kids is monstrous – or more accurately, an individual who I care about and/or who could be me.

And it actually only gets worse when some people do agree to have less kids themselves? Why? Because that sort of sacrifice requires fortitude, conscientiousness, long-term thinking and general not-being-an-arsehole-ness; ie. the precise qualities we want parents to have. So asking people to voluntarily decrease the number of kids they have is actually a really bad idea.

So with voluntary population control off the table it’s tempting to consider regulation – but as we discussed last week, this is a road you really don’t want to go down. Even if we somehow avoid the spectre of eugenics-style forced sterilisation and child removal, the complexities of that sort of system are mind-boggling and more likely than not to cause one hell of a mess – as China found out with their horrific, but utterly necessary one child policy. Parents favouring boys over girls not only resulted in a lot of dead and abandoned babies, but has now spawned a generation without women, and one with some extremely strange ideas about themselves to boot.

Worse, take a guess what would happen if we somehow managed to control how many kids we could have on a global scale. Reckon the people in the rich nations would wear that? After all, why limit yourself when there are brown people who can limited for you! The international child trade would spring up so fast it’d make your head spin – and it would make the current surrogacy scandal in Thailand look positively cuddly by comparison.

The soft options

Soooo…. Business as usually until the planet collapses, then?

Not necessarily. There are plenty of ways we could help control population without straying into Nazi-town, but they require a pretty dramatic shift in the way we think about the whole topic of children.

Up until recently in Australia for example, we have a thing called a ‘Baby Bonus’ – $1000 cold hard cash for every kid you have. The mechanism was put in place by a previous government to ‘boost Australian fertility rates’ (or ‘more white people please’ for those that don’t speak bullshit). A really good way of encouraging people to have less children without victimising them is pretty much the opposite of this: every year you don’t have a kid, you get a $500 tax refund.

Simple, easy, effective and totally harm free – and total political suicide for any politicians to even think about too loudly.

The same goes for other options like making contraceptives virtually free, or offering all teenage males a reversible vasectomy procedure (that has the added benefit of killing many STDs and can be done as an out-patient job). It doesn’t matter that these are good ideas that cost very little, impinge on no liberties, would be highly effective, and address a massive looming problem in out mid-to-long future, because it flies in the face of how we currently view having kids – ie. the more the better.

It’s not a hard attitude to understand, what with it being our number 1 biological imperative (when you realise that breeding is more important than survival when it comes to evolution, a lot of human society suddenly makes a lot more sense), but just as the ‘individual survival at any cost’ biological urge has had to be curbed to make civilised society possible, so too does this ‘having children is our purpose’ attitude need to change to make our long-term survival achievable.

Hell, in many ways suppressing of biological, animal instincts is exactly what human development and progress has been all about – it would be an ironic fate indeed if our inability, or unwillingness to control our desire to breed was what ultimately ended our ability to do so.




10 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Allowing YOURSELF to Breed

  1. “It is true that, for the most part, overpopulation has been overplayed as a serious threat at least in the short-to-medium term. Contrary to what you might expect, problems like poverty are not caused by overpopulation so much as serious economic inequality, corruption, wars and vulnerability to famines.”
    We couldn’t disagree more with this analysis of the state of our world. In a less populated world, migration could solve the inequality, corruption, wars and famines you name. This world is overpopulated, Period. Without addressing that fact, no other solution will prove effective.
    Have children? Sure, if that’s what you want. But one, or two. Not three or ten.

    • Hi Barbra and Jack, thanks for the comment.

      I agree and disagree. The world is definitely overpopulated in that we are ‘eating our future’ to sustain our current levels of consumption.

      That said, it is also true that poverty and famines NOW actually have little to do with overpopulation according to the research:

      There are plenty of densely populated nations that have a very high standard of living (ie. Japan) and many low density nations that do not (Mongolia, most of Russia). Nor is famine generally a result of simple food shortage – rather they are usually caused by a lack of access to food due to political or economic forces (ie. the Irish potato famine):

    • I’m pretty sure poverty and inequality have been around since agriculture has lead to civilization and the world was much less populated then. If we were all hunter-gatherers perhaps, but I don’t think reducing the population is the answer to all our problems. In fact Steven Pinker’s book Better Angels of our Nature that as a percentage of population, less people die in wars today than a 1000 years ago.To say migration would solve all our problems is a great oversimplification. Migration has lead to great damage of indigenous populations and ecosystems. Also migration really just delays the problem, because what you’re really doing is having your surplus population that you can’t provide for go to an area of fresh resources only to then produce a population that they can’t provide for. It’s the same thing as what Japan is doing now that we have the ability to bring resources to where we already live. What difference would it make if a whole bunch of Japanese people showed up in the rain forest and started cutting down trees and settling there? In the U.S. we definitely have enough food to make sure everybody is fed, but there are homeless and hungry here. Just as there were throughout American history when populations were smaller.

      • Well, we disagree. In the U.S., indeed, we “have enough food…” at the expense of draining our aquifers, creating over-nutrified dead zones in ocean estuaries and in many lakes, and reduced biodiversity and increased extinction events. Ivory-billed woodpeckers were finished when their forests were converted to soy bean fields. Have there always been localized starvation events in human history? Yes. What is new is that in an unending effort to feed a population that has grown exponentially, we are turning good lands to desert, and not just wiping out species, but Wiping Out the Habitat species depend on.

      • Hi Swarne, thanks for the comment as always. I have heard about ‘Better Angles of our Nature’ and it sound fascinating. I must read it – sounds very relevant to a post I’ve been thinking about for here.

  2. Hi back. Japan and the other economically prosperous nations which are densely populated are cutting down rain forests in South America and drilling the seas clean of fish to sustain their prosperity. Not trying to convince you. Urging you to dig deeper. Friends, Jack & Barbra

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