Jonathan Porritt asks

And then ask yourself if there is one single, teensy-weensy residual reason not to sign up to the “Million for a Billion” petition.

Well, yes, actually there is.

90% of the changes in actual fertility come from changes in desired fertility, only the residual 10% comes from access to contraception.

Ramping up the spending on contraception therefore won\’t change desired and thus actual fertility much. It\’s people getting rich that does that…..

12 comments on “Jonathan Porritt asks

  1. Ah, the old puritan terror again. “Everybody else is breeding faster than us, like flies. Something must be done”.

    It’s quite interesting really, all this started in the nineteenth century when the anglosphere protestant (puritan) ruling class developed a class identity incoporating small families as a class marker. It was particularly acute in the USA, where the new aristocracy were furiously anti-catholic. It thus became a received wisdom that superiorly moral protestants control their sinful urges- indicated by small families- while catholics don’t, indicated by large families. We see this class distinction humorously depicted in Monty Python’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred”.

    Unfortunately that left them with a profound problem, which was the inability to sustain their numbers compared to rapidly reproducing other people, i.e. the Catholics who were swarming through Ellis Island. Hence, the birth control movement developed in an attempt to persuade everyone else to stop breeding. It’s interesting to note the two sides of the Protestant argument on this. BCAs like Sanger hoped that contraception would be taken up by the untermenschen, and thus promoted it. Censors like Comstock thought that the untermensch would ignore it, and it would be the already underfertile Protestant women who would have even fewer children and tried to suppress information about birth control. Comstock was more right than Sanger, in retrospect. It’s worth mentioning also that Beveridge proudly explained to the Eugenics Society (the whole eugenics movement was and is a response to this birth rates moral panic) that family allowance would reduce untermensch birth rates, since statistics showed that the better off a family were, the fewer children they had. He wasn’t much good at cause and effect and social analysis, Beveridge.

  2. Anyone know how many people the planet can actually handle before (1) the numbers start to have a detrimental quality on mean quality of life (2) people start starving to death on a regular basis?

    Thought not, but it’s obviously more than 7 billion (at this moment in time) and less than infinity.

    I’m not generally an advocate of the precautionary principle, but I’d hate for us to have to find the answer the hard way.

    Tim adds: Not an answerable question, the way you’ve posed it. For you’ve left out “using what set of technologies”?

    We certainly have more advanced technology than we did 300 years ago, we certainly have more people than we did 300 years ago yet the probability of someone starving to death now is less than it was 300 years ago.

  3. JamesV, I doubt that a meaningful figure could be calculated for that, though it’s relatively easy to produce impressive looking calculations.

    Besides all else, it depends how much land you’re going to allow into production or keep out of production as nature reserves, and how land is utilised and so on. Replacing inefficeint subsistence farming with efficient factory farming. New technologies. What foods people eat. All sorts of variables.

    Best guess is that we are currently far, far below maximal efficient utilisation of planet Earth.

  4. I’d reckon given a relatively modest increment in efficiency of resource utilisation 25 or 30 billion would be doable in the near term. If we went all-out and actively tried to maximise population you could probably support a trillion people, although probably not in a fashion anyone would want to live (you’d likely need to turn the planet into something like Trantor out of the old Asimov Foundation series, so you’d have the entire surface of the planet peopled to a density about one tenth that of New York.).

  5. My fiancee is a demographer and has studied this issue extensively. Family planning aid agencies have – with their gold – successfully bribed most of the third world to implement family planning policies. Many people in the third world have access to contraception, yet do not use it; because their husband disapproves, or their family disapproves, or they worry about the side effects, or they worry about the effect of this powerful western medicine on their bodies, or they still want children, or they reject small-family values.

    @ianb, thanks; I had no idea the birth control movement was so closely linked to puritanism.

  6. But this proposal would at least help make manufacturers and suppliers of contraceptives rich- so it might help. Always assuming that an ever declining birth rate is in fact a good thing.

  7. “…ask yourself if there is one single, teensy-weensy residual reason not to sign up to the “Million for a Billion” petition.”

    Here’s one: Porritt is for it. Therefore I’m agin it.

  8. kaytie…for once dilbert has it wrong…as no doubt Tim will elucidate….China has existing capacity to extract rare earths. Bur rare earths ain’t so rare…it’s a case, I believe of rare meaning strange rather than rare as uncommon.

  9. “for once dilbert has it wrong…as no doubt Tim will elucidate…”

    Actually, Dilbert has it right, as Tim has explained: there’s no shortage of ore deposits, but of refined metals (due to refining operations being limited).

  10. Tim, regarding technology, we could have a stab at a back of envelope calculation of a maximum carrying capacity for the planet based on everyone living in 20 mile-high tower blocks and all our land being used at 100% solar efficiency to generate the food (and other) energy we need, perhaps with a bunch of orbiting space farms and so on, and we’d probably be right within an order of magnitude, if we take the laws of physics as an upper bound for what is achievable.

    The really interesting questions are different however.

    Firstly, and rather hypothetically, would anyone ever want to live like this? Generally people want to be wealthy because being wealthy means you can stop worrying about being maximally efficient all the time. So there is a conflict between the desire for us all to be wealthy and perpetually increasing population. At maximum carrying capacity, quality of life will be low. You won’t have the luxury of letting food go off so you can bin it. Of course it goes without saying this conflict will also diminish wealth for very low values of population as well as very high values of population.

    Secondly, and rather practically, what are the chances of us avoiding a mass starvation event brought on by an excessive population? Personally I think the chances are good if only because the population probably won’t go much above 12 billion in the foreseeable future. And also, whatever the mean return-time for a severe global crop failure is, the severity (when it happens) is likely to be similar (proportionally) irrespective of the population size.

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