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Focus on technology, not population

This is in response to Holly Moeller’s April 27 article in The Tech, “Breaking the silence,” in which Holly uses Malthusian arguments to predict global woe. Malthus has long been discredited by developmental economists, and I’d like to clear up some myths that Holly perpetuates.

The environmental crisis was caused primarily by overconsumption by the rich and not excessive reproduction by the poor. According to Foreign Policy magazine, Sub-Saharan Africa, with nearly a billion people, accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The United States houses approximately 310 million people but produces a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases. If the whole world was as poor as sub-Saharan Africa, there would be no climate change to speak of. Making people poor is obviously not a viable solution, and neither is emphasizing birth control over the development of green technologies.

Birth control should certainly be made accessible to as many people as possible in the developing world. However, this is no longer a political issue at all. As Bill Gates pointed out in his recent speech on campus, the poor actually want to have fewer babies and are seeking out birth control measures — the bigger focus is the logistical challenge of getting them access to such solutions.

Declining fertility levels worldwide mean that overpopulation just isn’t as serious a problem as it was once made out to be. Between 1960 and 2000, fertility rates fell in 183 of the 187 countries for which Foreign Policy had data, with an average decline of 42 percent. Half the world will reach replacement-level fertility — when a population has only enough children to replace itself and not expand — sometime in the next few years. This has already happened in places like Brazil, Indonesia, China and south India.

Due to the success of family planning measures and rising income and education levels in the developing world, the global population will stabilize at approximately 9 billion around 2050. This isn’t a scary figure at all. As Holly herself points out, Malthusians of the 1970s were predicting certain destruction when the global population was half what it is today — and yet as a race we are still very much alive. We already produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, considering that our planet contains more overweight individuals, about 1.6 billion, than undernourished ones, about one billion, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

We won’t get very far even by further improving birth control prevalence. Economists estimate that if birth control was available to everyone who needed it today, our population would stabilize at 8.5 billion instead of 9 billion by 2050. Reducing that number further would require politically unfeasible coercive measures like forced sterilizations. Clearly, having 500 million fewer people is not going to save the world.

The root cause of the environmental crisis is therefore increasing consumption by the people who already exist on this planet, not people who haven’t yet been conceived. By routinely upgrading our iPods, laptops and cars, we have created consumer-driven lifestyles that are environmentally unsustainable. Since we can’t (and shouldn’t) get rid of consumerism altogether, we should aim to make it more sustainable by developing green technologies. Our main focus should therefore continue to be the development of alternative energy, greener batteries and other areas that MIT is known for, in addition to reducing wastage and encouraging conservation.

So while the poor are gradually reproducing less, the rich are consuming more. Fast growing developing countries are now catching up to the lifestyle that we have enjoyed for decades. We can’t blame them for becoming richer, just as we can no longer blame their overpopulation (due to their declining fertility levels). Movements like the Industrial Revolution and the Green Revolution were pioneered by developed countries. Similarly, moving towards sustainability will benefit the whole world. American politicians often conveniently shift the blame for the environmental crisis to the world’s hungry masses, wrongly perceiving that they are reproducing faster. Students at MIT should not be swayed by such beliefs.

Nikhil Sud ’11