Monday, September 27, 2010

Is Birth Control a Sustainable Technology?

Last year, the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (IEEE stands for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) devoted its annual conference to issues of sustainable development. One of the papers was presented by Jeff Robbins, who applied the second law of thermodynamics to the question of technology development. His point was that entropy always increases, and whenever you have a decrease in entropy caused by the production of ordered systems (as in technological development), there has to be a bigger increase in entropy elsewhere.

Robbins assumes that in order to survive, humanity must change its ways with regard to consumption of energy and technological activity. He says “. . . we are living unsustainably, our extravagant consuming feeding off coming generations.” He goes on to cite seven barriers that, as he puts it, stand in the way of “moving in the direction of where we know we have to go.” Leaving aside the question of whether a purely quantitative theory about mass and energy really applies to an issue fraught with social and ethical aspects, I would like to address what Robbins says about one of the “barriers” to sustainable development that he sees as a critical problem to be overcome.

Robbins titles this section of his paper, “Be Fruitful and Multiply.” He begins by saying, “When it comes to having children, few people think globally.” He shows how in religious groups such as the Amish or ultraorthodox Jews, where large families are both socially approved and encouraged, population growth is much higher than the average in their host nations. He then plays the Malthusian game of projecting what would happen if every couple had eight children instead of 2.07 or whatever the approved number is for zero population growth, and shows that one couple could produce 67 million offspring that way in only three centuries. And if that couple and their descendants happened to live in North America instead of the lower per-capita energy-use regions of sub-Saharan Africa, their energy consumption would eventually outstrip the planet’s ability to supply it.

In a way, I hate to pick on Robbins, because his fearmongering statistics belie a much larger global trend that he chooses to ignore. To his credit, some of his other barriers have stronger arguments to back them up, but I will reluctantly stick to his point about population growth.

The big news on the population front for the last couple of decades has not been overpopulation, but the coming population bust, which is already far advanced in countries such as Japan. With a birth rate of only 1.2 per woman, Japan is already experiencing the early consequences of a demographic collapse that may turn the country into either a “ghost nation” or a place that will be taken over by immigrants out of necessity. Either way, the dearth of babies has brought an unsustainable decline to the population which threatens Japan’s very existence as a nation.

The U. S. may be experiencing similar problems, though in a less acute way since this country has an exceptionally high birthrate compared to other developed nations. But it doesn’t take a Ph. D. in economics to figure out that if families are smaller, their need for housing declines, and eventually there are fewer families to buy houses in the next generation. There are many causes of the international housing-market collapse, but declining birth rates are certainly a contributing factor. And I’m saying nothing about the problems with social programs such as Social Security that depend on transferring wealth from the (presumably growing) younger population to retirees.

In fairness to Robbins, he may be aware of these trends, but in order to have something to say he picks on isolated groups where large families are the norm. If sustainable development means development that takes future generations into consideration, what about the very existence of those future generations? Before you can receive the benefits from the wise and sustainable decisions of previous generations, you have to exist. If the countries of the world contracept themselves out of existence and leave a clean, cool, pristine planet to the crickets, that may be very well for the crickets, but we have committed the most fundamental wrong possible against the future generations: we have denied them the privilege of existence. In all the discussions of sustainable development I have seen, the idea that birth control is anything but a beneficent technology with respect to sustainability never comes up. This is probably due to the deeply misanthropic philosophy espoused by the more extreme members of the sustainability contingent. They view people—other people, of course—as the problem, and therefore the idea of making fewer people in the future has to be part of the solution.

Robbins’ scary scenario of vast global overcrowding is almost certainly not going to happen. The United Nations itself (not exactly a hotbed of anti-sustainable-development activism) in its low range of population forecasts (which have historically turned out to be the most accurate) says that if the tendency of wealthier, more educated people to have fewer children continues, global population will peak at around 8 billion in 2040 and then begin a slow overall decline. So much for Malthus. In contrast to global warming, the end of oil, and other dire straits that Robbins cites as something to be feared in the future, the consequences of population collapse are already here and taking their toll on some countries.

As Steven Mosher points out in his Population Research Institute website, you can’t turn population collapse around easily. Once the number of childbearing-age women declines significantly, the demographics reaches almost a point of no return and even if the few women left have much larger families than previously, it’s basically too late to fix things. Of course, neither the Malthusian exponential growth nor the population-collapse exponential decline ever happen exactly in accordance with the math—societies are simply too complicated, and immigration, political changes, and other factors always intervene. But to the extent that the demographics proceed without major interruptions, it is a near certainty that population collapse will occur in a given group with something like the predicted intensity. Much of Western Europe is in the same sinking boat, by the way.

So the next time anybody lists a bunch of technologies that threaten future generations, I want to see birth control in the list. If it’s not included, then we are missing one of the most obvious ignored facts about sustainable development.

Sources: Jeff Robbins’ article “Standing In the Way: Sustainable Future vs. Sloth, Genes, and Entropy” appears in the Fall 2010 issue of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, pp. 14-21. The website of the Population Research Institute is and has a link to its “Overpopulation Is a Myth” project at, where the statistics about Japan and the U. N.

1 comment:

  1. It doesn't take birth control to reduce the number of children per household - it only takes a reduction in rapes and forced marriages. Wealthier, more educated women have fewer children because a) the process of education is time consuming and therefor childbearing begins later, b) in wealthier nations children are an economic liability, often severely so, and c) such women are not forced by culture or violence to continue having children despite health or personal reasons not to. The last point is by far the most important as it is what enables the first two.

    Alternatively, large families occur in cultures which either a) value childbearing as the most important activity a woman can spend her time on (such as the Amish or ultra-orthodox Jews) or b) value nothing about a woman except her ability to bear children.

    Where childbearing is highly valued the entire social organization is focused on providing support and approval to both the women and the children. Where it isn't, it isn't. And it isn't in the US.

    You want to increase the birthrate amongst wealthier, more highly educated women? Provide the supports which the lack of causes such heavy economic consequences to women having children. Free, quality, neighbourhood based childcare (like grandma used to be); a clothing industry that sells children's apparel at well below cost, perhaps subsidized via adult apparel; free health care for mothers and children. Healthy food that costs less than junk food.

    Impossible? Costs too much to the general public? Yeah. Think how much it costs the individuals, then! And these are the simple costs! There still needs to be emotional and social support to couples, like extended families and villages used to do, and support for the supporters, like fathers and grandparents. The entire social organization needs to be focused on it.

    Forget birth control; it neither created nor significantly contributed to the situation. Birth rates in wealthy nations were dropping well before the pill, never mind socially acceptable condoms. The only reason it wasn't so obvious is because the wealth range wasn't so great.

    As for population collapse, it's like any other potential disaster in any economy: if it's planned for appropriately, it can be heavily mitigated. Canada has lost most of it's large manufacturing business, either to cheaper labour markets or as a consequence of US economic collapse. And nearly all of us still live indoors and eat regularly. Adaptation has largely taken the form of micro-industries, high tech specialization and e-commuting. And in the regions where it's been harder to do that (such as southern Ontario and Quebec) we've been harder hit by the world economic picture. But do you know why it's harder to adapt to the new technologies and industries there? Because the population is too high. Infrastructure investment is too great. So Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC (to a lesser extent), Nova Scotia, and even Newfoundland start these little "projects," and the population migrates from Ontario and Quebec to take advantage. And their birth rate drops. A miniature reflection of the world.

    We don't need more people to maintain technology or wealth: we just need to redistribute people, technology and wealth. And it _is_ going to happen whether we like it or not, and whatever it costs in the short term, because its as much a natural force as gravity. People go where the wealth is, thereby locally decreasing wealth and globally increasing it. The "entropy death" of the universe will be when all matter and all energy are spread evenly throughout all space. If wealth is distributed evenly all over the globe, then everyone gets to sleep indoors and eat regularly. But the process _depends_on_ significant population inequities as long as there are wealth inequities. It's rather fortunate, really, that populations _do_ decline when wealth goes up.