Looking to the Future
One of the most complex issues in the world today concerns human population. Is population growth good, bad, or neutral? What policies, if any, should responsible people implement? The Progress Report is pleased to present a guest article by Edward J. Dodson, Headmaster of the School of Cooperative Individualism. We invite the reactions, replies and responses of all our readers on this difficult topic.
ARE THERE TOO MANY HOMO SAPIENS?
by Edward J. DodsonThe number of homo sapiens living off the earth's resources and stressing its ecosystems has doubled in just forty years. In 1960 there were 3 billion of us; today there are 6 billion. We have no idea what maximum number of people the earth will support. What would happen, for example, if the billions of impoverished people were to gradually achieve incomes so that they could actually consume goods at the same level as now occurs by households with even modest incomes in the United States of America? Is this type of consumption sustainable?
Anyone familiar with the analysis presented by Henry George knows that George argued very persuasively that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between population growth and widespread poverty. People are born into the world with capacity to produce wealth sufficient to meet their needs if only given the opportunity to do so. The monopolization of access to locations and to natural resource-laden lands, along with the private appropriation of the rental value commanded by "land" as a factor of production is the fundamental obstacle to individual production.
I have no quarrel with Henry George's argument. Clearly, if we had just socio-political arrangements and institutions that secured and protected "equality of opportunity" the world would be a much better place. Had Henry George and those who championed his cause in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought an end to privilege, development during the 20th century would have been far more orderly, there would certainly have been much less warfare and all the waste and destruction associated with war. Instead, about all we can say is that by some accident the earth and all of its wonders have yet to be destroyed.
Within the international Georgist community there has always been hope, if not always a sense of optimism. We Georgists are convinced the public policy changes we propose are key to the gradual lessening of tensions in the world. The major conflicts between peoples continue to be over the control of territory without external interference -- or, in too many instances, without laws based on principles of equality of opportunity.
I agree that if the principles espoused by Henry George were incorporated into the laws of the world's nation-states that most, if not all, conflicts could be resolved by negotiation rather than destructive warfare. People would also begin to behave differently because they would begin to think more about the future. Birth rates -- and death rates -- would come down as more people enjoyed what Mortimer Adler has called the "goods" of a decent human existence (i.e., adequate food, clothing, shelter, access of education, medical care, time for leisure and involvement in civic affairs). Sadly, there is no emerging momentum to displace the entrenched systems of privilege that plague our societies. We Georgists keep working at it; the knowledge of what must be done imposes an obligation on us we find difficult to abandon.
And so, in the developed world there continues to be enormous waste and inefficient use of land and resources to feed our consumption desires. We argue the pros and cons of corporate agribusiness, of the automobile versus electric trains and buses, of urban living versus mile after mile of houses built on quarter acre lots where walking to anywhere is a near impossibility. One side decries the loss of fertile land to development, while others point to the fact that only 2 percent of the land mass of the United States is developed. And yet, millions of people are living in very dangerous places -- building houses and entire towns or cities in flood plains or on the sides of cliffs that collapse every time a severe storm comes along. Whether "global warming" is happening or we are just becoming increasingly vulnerable to the earth's natural rhythm of climate change, almost every day there are multiple reports of disasters that kill hundreds or thousands of people, destroy billions of dollars in capital goods and societal infrastructure or (to me the most frightening) expose one part of the globe and all its inhabitants to the diseases and infestations for which there is little or no protection.
What should be done? A few countries have already reached ZPG (zero population growth); however, instead of being held up as examples to be emulated, fear of the demographics of an aging population elicits government programs to encourage women to have children. Elsewhere in the world, millions of children are sold into virtual slavery or prostitution by parents destitute and denied the opportunity to produce goods or exchange services for a living wage.
We need justice, to be sure. We also need time. As I look at the facts of how people are living, of the pace at which we are destroying the habitat of other species and exposing all life to numerous and frequent scourges, I am convinced we must undertake a massive global program of population reduction. The Chinese have had only modest success with the "one child per couple" mandate, adding 700 million people since 1950 and now strained to provide "goods" for 1.2 billion people. China is producing more and goods for export in exchange for goods its farmers can no longer provide. On the surface that sounds like specialization at work, the virtue of the market; unfortunately, there is only so much arable land in the world, land that can be farmed decade after decade without constant irrigation and the application of chemical fertilizers. So far, the world has not experienced anything close to global drought conditions, but we have already had some serious scares. With 3 billion people to provide for there is much more of a comfortable surplus capacity than with 6 billion (particularly so given existing socio-political arrangements and institutions).
We will get back to 3 billion people, I believe. If we do not make a conscious effort to do so, the earth will respond to all the stresses now imposed on its ecosystems and find its own way back to sustainability. It is very much like the so-called "business cycle." We know the business cycle is a political creation, fueled by shocks to the system. Widespread drought or melting of the polar ice caps are two such shocks that will not only create havoc with the business cycle but are certain to cause a diversion of enormous financial reserves, capital goods and human labor to the task of disaster relief. I do not know when the next big shock will arrive, or how many big shocks will occur simultaneously or in rapid succession. Hopefully, we have time enough to begin to change the reproduction behavior of our species. How best to do this?
I propose that the nations of the world contribute to a fund administered by specially-created NGOs (or the International Red Cross, or some such organization) that provides income supplements to people as in inducement not to have children. Ideally, the source of revenue could be a surtax on land values or some portion of the fees collected under the Law of the Sea treaty. The particulars can be worked out by an international commission.
The essential ingredient is to provide those persons who today are statistically destined to have more than one child a strong economic reason not to do so. I would even suggest that the financial incentive be increased for every year a person delays having a child. Another possibility would be to establish a trust fund that would be distributed to a person at age 21, provided that person has not given birth to or fathered a child. The fewer other restrictions on the receipt of this fund the better (i.e., the less additional social engineering the better, keeping this program directly focused on population reduction).
Ed Dodson is the headmaster of the School of Cooperative Individualism.
To email this article to a friend, click here
For more information on Georgists, try the Ask Henry search engine
What's your opinion on population? Is Dodson's analysis agreeable? What policy, if any, would you support? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?