How much is enough?

  • An enquiry into the ethics of the human population
- Amulya R Tuladhar , Kathmandu

Nov 7, 2018-

Currently, demographers estimate that one fifth of all humans that ever are alive right now, and the numbers stand at 7.6 billion. In other words, some 38 billion have been born so far, since Homo sapiens walked this earth for nearly a million years (ball park figure).

For more than 99.99 percent of our time as human species, we have struggled to stay alive, to live long—all the way from our Stone Age days, right through the Agricultural Revolution and to a greater part of the Industrial Revolution.

But it was only less than half a century ago, in 1972, at the Club of Rome and the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, that global human numbers were accepted as global human problems; and deliberative global human actions to limit human population on Earth commenced to gather momentum and effectiveness. Indeed, demographers now posit that the world population could stabilise by 2050 and stand at 10 billion.

In other words, a limit to world population is a distinct possibility in the near future. But should there be a limit to the ethics of limiting human population? Are these global deliberative actions of limiting human population not antithetical to all religious and civilisational core ethical values? Is there a religion that normatively calls for human deaths; does not celebrate child births, sanction moral strictures against abortion, masturbation, family planning and contraception, sex outside marriage, sex for purposes other than child birth; or, not promote the sanctity of marriage, even polygamy and polyandry? 

What is a’good’ human population number? Less or more? The reasons proffered for limiting human population numbers accept that a big human population number can have  horrendous effects on earth, and on the population itself. This  effect will be mostly ecological, and thus  the ethical argument for limiting population number hardly gets a mention. The world cannot support so many human numbers, it is argued.

But dig this argument a little deeper, and you will find a tail. The world cannot support so many people, especially at the rate humans are consuming resources, especially if you look at the American standard of living. Indeed, it is said that if Lord Shiva declared that all humans living on this earth could now enjoy American standards of over consumptive living, we would need at least two to four earths to fulfill the amount of resources people would need. But  this privilege has not been granted to all human beings, except the richest 20percent who consume almost 80 percent of all Earth’s resources.

Instead of living like Americans, what we all can do is live like Gandhi ji: tread the earth lightly, with one dhoti, one latthi, and dui roti. With frugality, studies say that the Earth could support up to 44 billion human beings. But no one likes to live like Gandhi ji, despite pious calls for sustainable development through Buddhist Ecological Ethics. Take the minimum from the environment and respect nature like your own  are values echoed in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethics, and Arnae Naess’ Deep Ecology, and despite this movement being revolutionary, it has not made meaningful, world-scale impacts.

So, which is more ethical for human numbers on Earth: 44 billion or 2 billion?

If human lives are the sole metric of human ethics, then, unquestionably, 44 billion human beings able to live on this Earth is more ethical than 2 billion. But there is an important catch in translating this ethical norm to practical reality. The world can never reach a population of 44 billion humans, solely on Gandhian farmer style ethics of agricultural civilisation. The world tried 10-12,000 years of Agricultural Revolution before the Industrial Revolution, and the world population reached only 1 billion by the 1800s. The world population could not be more because of periodic draughts, famines, pestilence, etc, which wiped out up to half of the European population due to the Bubonic Plague in the 13th century.

Thus, it can be concluded that the current ethics that support 7.6 billion people is the most practical ethical system designed by humans to support the most number of humans on this planet so far. The practical caveat allows for the inclusion, experimentation and modulation of what would seem to be antithetical ethical values to allow greater numbers of human to survive and thrive up to 10 billion by 2050. Such modulation would incorporate more sustainable development values and programs, informed and affected in scale and intensity by ethics that are not so explicitly anthropocentric as the Judeo-Christian Genesis exhortation: “I (God) give you Humans, dominion of all the fowl that fly in the sky and the fish that swim in the waters..”, but with more biocentric or ecocentric Eastern ethical values, from Buddhist to Taoist ethics that undermine the privileged notions of humans over all creations, the call for more respectful coexistence from deep ecology to land ethics that undergird the science and policies of Biodiversity Conservation and Green Economy of Ecosystem Services, would yield an ethically maximum human numbers, practically.


Tuladhar is a professor of environmental sciences. 

Published: 07-11-2018 07:44

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