A Non-Malthusian Argument for Population Reduction

No, the reason for reducing the human population of the world is not that we cannot feed all the teeming billions already on hand, and the further billions that will appear unless we take action to forestall them. It seems likely that human ingenuity is up to the job of increasing the supply of food and other necessities to match such a growth of the population for quite some decades or even centuries to come. But what human ingenuity is already unable to do is to provide space — both physical and psychological space — for all the billions now on Earth, let alone those to come1. Everywhere on Earth peoples are being forced into sharing their space with others they feel to be so different from themselves that prolonged, close contact is intolerable, amounting to a form of torture for them. The peoples who can’t abide each other may seem to outsiders so alike as to be indistinguishable, and their superficial similarity often leads observers into optimistic predictions of reconciliation between the two. But that superficial similarity is a reason for optimism only in the eyes of the outsider; to the parties involved, it only exacerbates their differences — that people so like themselves outwardly should differ so sharply from them in religion, language, politics, or culture seems to them not merely ordinary hostility, but treason. To be forced to live cheek-by-jowl with those they regard as alien creatures, or even traitors, has had the natural effect on many of increasing their fear and distrust of the Other — and if the Others resemble us, they are that much more dangerous, because so much harder to spot — and because their very similarity in superficial matters is felt as mockery and taunting.

Largely as a result of this intolerable crowding together of peoples, nationalism, parochialism, chauvinism, and xenophobia, so far from being diminished, are more than ever the dominant passions that drive conflicts everywhere. As the world effectively shrinks, with its human population growing uncontrollably, every square mile of land, quite literally from the Arctic to the Antarctic, is becoming the subject of exclusive claims by one country or sect or another. And every minority, linguistic or religious or racial, feels itself in danger of being swamped, and is fighting for its continued existence and independence, usually to include possession of some odd-shaped chunk of land that it regards as its homeland or rightful property. The Basques want to secede from Spain, the Scots to undo the Union of 1707, the Kurds to carve a state of their own out of Iraq and Turkey, the Bretons to separate from France, Canadians to break up into Francophone and Anglophone nations—the list goes on and on, and the process of fragmentation will accelerate and spread as more and more groups come to feel that they will perish as communities unless they get a homeland and all that goes with it. (Many politically correct citizens of the Western world, although opposed in principle to nationalism, feel obliged to support these claims—after all, they are made by minorities—even though the states that would be born if these groups had their way would not be viable, and would immediately fall under the suzerainty of some larger, established country if they survived at all.)

For many people, though, these clearly observable phenomena have not succeeded in discrediting the idea that enmity between human groups is almost always caused by misunderstandings, and that if brought together and encouraged to talk to each other, they will discover that they are really basically in accord, and that such differences as they seem to have can be readily worked out. That idea, which under the rubric of “diversity” now rules much of our social thought, lives on because, no matter how often its falsity is demonstrated, it answers a need felt in many hearts for comfort, no matter at what cost in failure to deal with reality. In normal times it may be an indulgence that we can permit to the tender-hearted and fuzzy-minded, but these are not normal times. We will have to recognize, if we are to survive, that the best way, often the only way, to deal with groups that hate and fear each other is to separate them; to put substantial distance between them. Apostates, infidels, heretics, barbarians, sub humans, and hateful people generally can be tolerated when across the sea or a mountain range or a desert; shoved into one’s face, they are insufferable, and must be killed. But even when the truth that peace often depends on separation is acknowledged, it cannot be put into practice if there is no space to put between hostile parties, as is increasingly the case today.

Even if the human race were thoroughly homogeneous, with no one feeling that he was being compelled to share space with a kind of people he detested or feared, the sheer density of humans on the earth constitutes for many a source of unbearable strain. Many of the crimes that newspapers and television report every day are caused, at least in part, by the desperate desire of their perpetrators to distinguish themselves, to make some breathing room for themselves, among the hordes of human beings they feel themselves overwhelmed by. The simple desire to get one’s fifteen minutes of fame, to get some attention paid to oneself, some acknowledgement that one exists, is enough to get many to perform atrocious acts; if one kills enough people, one will be remembered — not remembered kindly, but at least remembered, and not sunk namelessly into the ocean of those who might as well never have lived. The hunger for personal distinction is not now, if it ever was, just the last infirmity of noble mind, it is the increasingly common characteristic of ordinary minds, and its cause is the feeling that one is being buried alive by the sheer masses of fellow humans that one is sharing the world with. If I cannot get the world to acknowledge that I exist, do I exist?

The same urgent need to be recognized, distinguished, acknowledged, is to be seen in the popular obsession with celebrities. Celebrities are frequently derided as people “well-known for being well known,” with the implied suggestion that if those who worship celebrities knew how unworthy of worship they are, they would cease to treat them so. The critics seem to think that fans are deluded about celebrities, that they suppose that celebrities possess deep and precious qualities that merit such adulation, and that the fans need to be undeceived. But celebrity-worshippers are not mistaken, at least not in the way the critics suppose. It is precisely and simply for being well known that their fans adore them: it makes the celebrities unquestionably real — they have been seen on TV and on the covers of magazines, ergo sunt — and if I can touch one of them, get close to one of them, that reality will rub off on me; I will be real too. To put an end to the phenomenon of celebrity worship is not a major goal of, or argument for, population decrease, but it would certainly be a welcome by-product.

On the other side of the coin, our desire for privacy cannot prevail in the present, let alone the predicted, state of crowding. With conflict between uncomfortably situated peoples always imminent, no one can afford to let his neighbor engage in mysterious activities, or have possible sinister secrets; we must, for self-protection, know everything about him, as he must about us. Millions must be searched and scanned at every turn in an attempt to detect and thwart the one terrorist among them.

Much more consequentially, the crowdedness of the Earth makes for one of the ugliest phenomena of our time: Ethnic Cleansing. It is obvious that virtually everyone wants to live among his own sort of people; minorities who have clamored to be admitted to mainstream society nevertheless choose, when they have won that admission, to congregate with others of their own race, religion, or culture. That tendency is sometimes deplored by social theorists who would like to see such characteristics high-mindedly ignored, and have all of us accept our neighbors all the more gladly for their differences, and choose our partners exclusively for their inner worth, but a peaceful and moderate parochialism is for the most part accepted and taken for granted. But because of crowding, the normal act of moving away from a neighborhood into which people of the wrong sort are moving is increasingly difficult, sometimes impossible; when this occurs, the kind of murderous population adjustment now called Ethnic Cleansing is the result. When it becomes that ugly and savage, sometimes even genocidal, it turns from being mildly deplorable to being horrifically shocking, and all right-thinking folks agree that Something Must be Done — though just what isn’t clear. I suggest that Ethnic Cleansing is another phenomenon caused by crowding, and that there will be no ending it except by relieving the crowding.

Another unhappy consequence of human crowding: it forces us to fall back on racial, sexual, ethnic, and other such generalizations in forming judgments about people. We are forever being urged to overcome stereotypes and prejudices in our thinking about and actions toward others, but the sheer numbers of new and unknown faces many of us have to deal with daily forbids the close study of each individual we encounter, and the forming of our view of him on the basis of that study. More and more we are forced to rely on generalizations ranging from folk tales to statistical studies, and to deal with the person before us at the moment as if he were Mr Typical-of-his-kind rather than a unique and, like most of us, untypical-of-his-kind individual. As crowding robs us of the space we would need to maintain the peace by separating hostile groups, so it also deprives us of the time that is required if we are to treat each person as an individual rather than a member of some group or other. To the extent that Blake’s “To generalize is to be an idiot” is right, crowding is forcing us to be idiots.

Even worse, the overcrowding of the planet, and the consequent exponential increase in complexity of all social and political problems, makes it often impossible to predict the consequences of any proposed action — and when we can no longer accurately estimate the consequences of our actions, wise or even simply rational governance is impossible. We have long been accustomed to the idea of trade-offs in making plans; we know that almost any imaginable action, however benevolent in intention — planting a tree, widening a road, stocking a stream with fish — will hurt someone somehow; every move we propose steps on someone’s toes. We long ago accepted that the best we can do is take actions whose unavoidable bad effects are at least outweighed by their good ones.; now we are increasingly faced with making decisions whose consequences we understand so little that even such imperfect trade-offs are impossible. Our problems are too complex and exigent, and the time available to conceive and test solutions for them too short, to allow us to make predictions about any but the immediate consequences of any proposed solution; we act more and more blindly, and find ourselves taking actions that have effects quite different from the wanted ones, sometimes even their direct opposite. Our wise men are forever telling us that “there are no simple answers” to any of our problems: if they are right, that is very bad news, because for the human race in general, if there are no simple answers, there are no answers at all.

The frustrations of life in such conditions, in which seemingly sensible measures can have consequences very different from our intentions, and nothing seems to work as common sense and intuition lead us to expect, spawn the most irrational and vicious explanations of our failures; we are being attacked by conspiracies, by traitors, even by supernatural or extraterrestrial creatures posing as humans. It’s the Jews! It’s the Papists! It’s the witches! Let’s expel them from the country; no, let’s burn them at the stake!

But the worst of all the many bad consequences that follow on over-crowding is the effect it has on our ability to deal with reality and tell the truth. We all know that we are living among peoples who are full of resentment at the oppression and injustice of which they feel themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be victims, and that very little is required to offend them or even set them rioting — we feel sometimes that we are living in an explosives bunker, where the slightest spark could cause Armageddon. And knowing that, many of us automatically censor our speech to suppress anything that could, by the farthest stretch of the imagination, offend any of these groups; some of us seem even to have censored our inner, unspoken thoughts on racial, religious, and cultural issues. (If Jefferson and Lincoln were alive today, and published their thoughts on such subjects, they would be vilified and ostracized by polite society; luckily for their reputations, few modern Americans are aware of what those American icons said.) This cringing self-censorship, commonly known as ‘political correctness,’ poisons the very root of thought and action in matters where what is actually required is the greatest candor and realism we are capable of. When what is needed is a willingness to speak truth to the powerless, we have forbidden ourselves to speak truth to anyone; soon we will be unable to speak truth to ourselves2.

But how is population reduction to be achieved? Who is to be told, ‘You may not have more children’, and who is to do the telling, and what if those told refuse to obey? The answer is that no rational method of handling the problem is available, and therefore it is going to be handled irrationally. From a rational point of view, the people who should be required to refrain from having so many children are those who are having the most at present, and are least able to provide for them. But these are overwhelmingly non-white and poor — Asian, African, South American, and so on — and it would inevitably be charged, if such an approach were tried, that the real goal of the campaign was not to cut the size of the human population, but to cut the size of the non-white and poor population. Whether or not there was any truth in this charge, it would be made, and believed by billions; the impossibility of refuting it makes the rational approach impossible. This being the case, the only path to reduced population lies in such things as war, epidemics, famine, and other such disasters, and these will be increasingly destructive and lethal as the industrialized nations, already under great economic pressure, refuse to make heroic efforts at relieving the victims of these disasters. The citizens of those nations that have traditionally mounted substantial relief efforts in cases of disaster are already showing signs of unwillingness to spend substantial resources on distant, largely unknown peoples when all sorts of domestic needs are clamoring for those resources. This is a saddening development, but it is unavoidable, and it will have the unintended effect of diminishing the total population. That population cut will be achieved in the cruelest way possible, causing far greater misery to everyone concerned than would a rational program of limiting births to two per family, but the human race is not prepared to take the steps necessary to avoid that pain, and so must suffer it.

* * *

Studies of social problems customarily conclude with passionate urgings, or at least tentative suggestions, about what must be done to deal with them. If I have nothing of the sort to offer, not even tentative suggestions, the reader may ask why I bother to raise the issue at all. I certainly have no solution to offer, and I think it possible that there is no solution — no solution that is politically acceptable, that is; it may be that we can only sit by while nature takes its terrible course. The only justification for offering this analysis anyway is that if by some near-miracle there is a solution, it will be found only by someone who has first been thoroughly sensitized to the problem, and this essay might serve that purpose. In the meantime, I claim that over-population is the root of half our problems, and at least an important factor in the rest. We are forever being adjured to seek ‘root causes’ in our investigations of social problems; here is such a root if ever there was.

Notes for additions
Hitler’s quest for lebensraum was at least in part a symptom of the “crowded” feeling:

In an era when the earth is gradually being divided up among states, some of which embrace almost entire continents, we cannot speak of a world power in connection with a formation whose political mother country is limited to the absurd area of five hundred thousand square kilometers.

—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), page 644

The invasion of ecological units by the flora and fauna of other units that is made possible, even inevitable, by mass travel and importing of goods between one unit and another is another evil to be laid at the door of crowding. Even when such foreign flora and fauna are not intrinsically harmful, like parasites and contaminators of the environment, they often do massive damage just by upsetting the balance of nature in the units they are introduced into — damage not only to native flora and fauna, but to humans as well.

More and more, what would be local outbreaks of disease (like the ‘Mexican Swine Flu’ outbreak in the spring of 2009) are converted by crowding into an epidemic of global dimensions.

Those who value human cultural diversity, and in particular those who lament the vanishing of many of the world’s languages and dialects, should be among the strongest advocates of population decrease and the restoration of healthy buffer zones between cultures. Only so can minority cultures and languages survive; if they are forced into contact with the world’s dominant languages — English and Cantonese — they will succumb to the influence of those dominating languages, even without any such intention on the part of the English- and Cantonese-speaking communities. An elephant cannot help encroaching on the space of the mice, no matter how respectful and solicitous of them he may be. When the big rock rubs against the little, the little will be worn down before the big.

The observation that most people, most of the time, are uncomfortable when forced to live alongside those of different religion, culture, language, physical appearance, and so on, is now supported by a number of academic studies that have come to the same conclusion. Those studies, of which the best known is probably that by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard: E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (http://www.eukn.org/binaries/eukn/eukn/research/2007/9/putnam2007.pdf), document and wherever possible quantify the common-sense view that birds of a feather flock together. This is one of those glaringly obvious truths that dare not speak its name, at least in faculty lounges and other haunts of the politically correct, where it is considered to have been refuted by bumper stickers reading “Honor Diversity.” Many of those performing these studies have met Karl Popper’s criterion for truly scientific investigations: they have done all they could to disprove their own findings before publishing them. That the conclusions reached by these studies are often unwelcome to their authors is a tribute to the authors’ personal integrity, and to the trustworthiness of their conclusions. See Steve Sailer, “Fragmented Future: Multiculturalism doesn’t make vibrant communities but defensive ones” (http://www.amconmag.com/2007/2007_01_15/print/coverprint.html) and Michael Jonas, “The downside of diversity”


In support of the point that many criminals commit crimes just to be noticed, see Carol Ann Duffy [new poet laureate], Education for Leisure:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. ...

Another – and a major – argument against overpopulation: it makes democracy impossible. Democracy works well in small communities of fundamentally like-minded people; it quickly becomes impossible as population grows, even without the further complication of the proliferation of new, differing, and sometimes incompatible interests, points of view, and beliefs. Huge masses of people cannot be provided with full information on critical issues, time to digest it, and a chance to vote on it; they can only be managed like herds of cattle; overpopulation leads to despotism. The notions of personal freedom and civil rights become increasingly obsolete as crowding grows. With densely packed masses, governments must step in to control more and more, even in the absence of any intention of violating the rights of individuals. We are frequently urged to consider every life as being of infinite (positive) value; with continued crowding, we will all soon reach the point – already reached in some quarters – of regarding almost every individual life as of negative value, with all the consequences of such a view on our treatment of others.

Crowding leads to civic breakdown: even today’s relatively mild crowding in U.S. cities makes just about any development so difficult and expensive as almost to produce paralysis. Try to put up a building, a road, a bridge, even a hospital or school, and immediately it turns out that the proposed development would do serious harm to some interest group that must be taken seriously; it would increase local traffic congestion, prevent residents from finding parking space near their homes, create noise that would assault the ears of babies and night workers trying to get some rest, cut off the view that home owners had paid to enjoy, divide some ethnic community into two pieces, and so on and on interminably. The complaints are often valid and to be respected, but they nevertheless prevent needed developments, decrease public amenities, and can cause a community to choke to death as it tries, futilely, to do justice to all interests. This near-paralysis will grow worse and worse as crowding continues.

See David J. Craig, “Can we talk about Overpopulation,” Columbia (Summer 2009), pages 28-37, for another article on the subject that assumes that the main, if not only, problem posed by the world’s growing population is providing enough food.

Discuss the Chinese “one child per family” policy.

We have been told very often that a major cause, perhaps the major cause, of terrorism is the lack of decent employment for huge numbers of young men throughout the less-developed world, and that we must find some way to offer them better prospects than those offered by demagogues, cult leaders, and jihadists. But we cannot even find decent jobs for the least successful tenth of our own wealthy population; how are we to find them for the billions of young, uneducated men of the third world? The task is an impossible one; and if peace depends on our accomplishing it, then we will have no peace.

We Americans, in general, want to be good, but we are finding it harder and harder to do so. The major reason is that we are forced to interact with many other countries and cultures whose practices we find offensive, even outrageous – and since we must interact with them, we are forced at the very least to connive at such practices, even sometimes to accept them and become openly complicit in them. There is for our aspirations to morality a lesson to be learned from an unexpected quarter, that of real-estate brokerage. As the real estate people tell us again and again, the three principal considerations in determining the price of a house or parcel of land are, in order of importance, location, location, and location. It doesn’t much matter, for sales purposes, that your house is superior to its neighbors; it will not fetch much more than they will, simply because it and they are all in the same neighborhood. And when it comes to driving in traffic, the motorist soon learns that you cannot drive much faster than the bulk of the traffic. The same is true of morality: a society cannot rise much above the average level of the other societies that it has to interact with. Of course an individual can decide to be a saint, a martyr, or a hero, and exhibit in his own behavior a level of morality far superior to that of those he lives among; but a nation cannot do this. We in the United States are now compelled to interact with many different societies, and doing so means that we cannot observe the level of virtue that we were easily able to when we were effectively insulated from the world, as we were until World War II. If it is important to us to be good, we had better not try to interact with all the cultures in the world — and the only way to accomplish selective isolationism is to diminish the world population sharply, so that effective buffer zones can be maintained between us and those cultures whose practices we cannot accept.

1.It is also true that the size of the present human population, let alone the population to come, is incompatible with the survival of many other species. The larger mammals in particular, both terrestrial and marine, and with them their predators, are bound to lose their habitats, and hence their existence, to the swelling human population. The effects of this on the balance of nature are incalculable, but likely to be profound, and perhaps not pleasant.

2.Thomas Jefferson said in a letter of August 19, 1785, to Peter Carr: "…he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions."