14 Sep 2009

Fewer People and Less Stuff

EF sent me this story:
People want to save the planet but are unwilling to make radical lifestyle changes like giving up air travel or red meat to reduce the effects of climate change...
It's been obvious to me that two main adjustments are necessary to get climate change:
  1. We need to reduce the population consuming resources [on the extensive margin]
  2. We need to reduce resource consumption within the existing population [on the intensive margin]
As the poll points out, people are not interested in doing the "right thing." If they will not do it voluntarily, then the only alternative is to (involuntarily) induce them to do it. Besides radical interventions,* the alternative is higher prices on "bad" things, i.e., kids and consumption. Ironically, France is tacking the latter (through a carbon tax) while encouraging the former (through kid subsidies). Well, I guess we've learned not to expect consistency from politicians :)

Bottom Line: Most people do not care about doing the right thing when it conflicts with their other desires. They (the so-called "80 percent") need to face prices that help them make that "right" decision.
* I wrote this in April 2007:
Bangladesh's 145m people live on a delta twice the size of Ireland, 40% of which is flooded for three months of each year. By 2050, its population is projected to reach 250m. -- Economist Feb 8, 2007
There are many ways to (intentionally) slow population expansion, ranging from the draconian (forced adult sterilization, abortion, etc.) to the evolutionary (the demographic shift).

IMO, the most effective way is to sterilize one-half of all newborns, leaving half the people fertile ("Breeders") and the other half sterile ("Players"?).

The key element in this idea is expectations, i.e., the idea that Players would grow up knowing they were not going to have kids. That makes it easier to plan a life around other activities. Although Breeders might face some additional pressure to have more, they would not have many more, especially if they bear the full costs of raising the kids. (Although I'd maintain some subsidies for education, I'd end other subsidies/tax breaks/etc.)

Net result -- cut average births per woman by up to 50 percent.

There is the potential of one-nation expanding at the cost to another nation, but this only matters of nations invade each other and/or quality of life in the decreasing population country falls. The former is more likely, but not assured


  1. I would counter that wide-spread nuclear war is probably much more effective (and faster) than forced sterilization of newborns, but then again, neither are very market-based.

    In rehashing the faulty arguments that made economics the "dismal science" you seem to ignore the fact that the same industrial revolution which hastens climate change also created an economic disincentive to have children. The most effective way to curb population growth globally then is to promote economic development in poorer countries. (Until they're rich enough to decide they can have more kids, anyway.)

    French politicians are remarkably consistent from a non-myopic point of view: climate change may prove an economic disaster, but for France, a shrinking population could portend a much larger one.

  2. "IMO, the most effective way is to sterilize one-half of all newborns"

    You do realize that would leave the door wide open for corruption, eugenics, political upheaval, and kidnappings, right? Girl's education and financial/political equality for women has been shown as one of the best ways to reduce family size and delay childbirth -- while promoting rather than violating civil rights, that is.

    On a tangent, there was also a study somewhere showing people are at the most miserable while taking care of kids or on a stressful vacation - contrary to what we "think" we enjoy.... Read More

    Too bad so many would rather promote their own genes over improving the world. We are all animals, in the end :-)

  3. @Spencer -- Nuclear war would also damage the environment. Not cool. The demographic transition is no longer an all-good proposition (http://aguanomics.com/2009/08/speed-blogging_17.html)

    @DS -- I realize that the door is open, but I am talking *most effective*, not perfect.

  4. Nuclear war, coincidentally enough, would actually have a cooling effect on the climate in addition to shrinking populations. So again, from just a climate change perspective, makes total sense.

    But of course, the point of both my and DS' responses (as you well point out) is that there are large unintended consequences to such drastic and heavy-handed solutions, be it war or sterilization. And of course we both linked to the same Economist article re: birth rates.

    The politicians' job is not a simple one, because they must try to juggle the competing demands of a host of problems. Consistency on many issues is an impossible (and perhaps undesirable) outcome.

  5. Ive listened to some variation on this argument for years. In the 1990s I saw a practical method of achieving lower population growth with full employment. I call it the Serbian Solution. Essentially the State (or another player of size) hires half the population to kill the other half. There is some disequilibrium in effecting the solution but after is is finished the goal of smaller population and better access to resources for the remainder has been achieved.

  6. You're an economist? Why are you surprised to find that people do what is in their individual interest?

    It's annoying to encounter this kind of arrogance. You're so certain that you know the "right" thing; I wonder what steps you wouldn't take to enforce it. Coercive taxes, obviously. What else?

    Your cure is worse than the disease. Global warming -- if, if, if -- is a manageable problem. Self-imposed poverty is not.

  7. @Tom -- the problem is related to environment, not resources.

    @Tom/Outsider -- What are your solutions, assuming that climate change is happening and will have the foreseen impacts? Or do you have none (except hope)?

    My goal, as always, is to be constructive with analysis and suggestions. What are yours?

  8. Impacts foreseen by whom?

    Regardless, my solution to the problems created by global warming is to make the world as rich as possible so people have maximum opportunity to adapt. I wouldn't pretend to know what those adaptations will ultimately be. My solution is not a bunch of top-down, coercive legislation that will have, by even its proponents' admission, negligible effect on climate.

    Maybe that sounds like just hope. I suppose it is, in a way. But it's hope based on the proven track record of the free market.

    The opportunity cost of enforcing the right thing seems pretty high. The Copenhagen Consensus compared carbon-cutting measures to other humanitarian opportunities and found it lacking. But I believe there's another, bigger problem: making the West poorer provides that much more room for anti-liberal regimes to operate. Western Europe, particularly, has bigger problems than climate change.

  9. @Outsider -- you do not appear to be engaging with reality here. Please consider the following:

    (1) China's one child policy reduced population by 300 million. Was that a good thing, given China's current enviro problems?

    (2) Do you think that richer people will spend $ on flat screen TVs or higher levees?

    (3) How does lower consumption make us poor? I see a lot of high consumption, poor Americans [true in other places]

    As you know, I am a libertarian, but free markets REQUIRE some government role.

    I agree with the CC, but note that finding is for LDCs (who need drinking water and economic growth and good govt and trade), not OECDs.

  10. 1) China's one-child policy strikes me as a terrible thing. Should the government really be able to dictate this? Even to the point of forcing abortions!? Evil.

    Now, you might really mean do I think the fact that there are 300 million fewer Chinese today than there might otherwise have been is a good thing. I'm not sure I accept the premise. It seems likely that birthrates would have declined naturally as China became wealthier and more urban, so the "savings" is probably not as high as that. Also, I am aware of serious social problems created by overly-male generations. So I don't know if the results have been good or not, I can't count all the costs and benefits.

    2) You're suggesting that rich people will buy more TVs and not levees. Why would that be? Are levees an inferior good? I expect that rich people will buy more of pretty much everything -- including levees, pollution control, wilderness space...

    3) Lower consumption is the definition of poorer. One of the things we may "consume" is reduction in carbon emissions, which makes us richer if the cost is lower than the benefit. I say it ain't.

  11. @outsider -- you need to spend more time on (1) the demographic transition (2) public goods and (3) utility (or happiness).

    We disagree NOT on the problem of poor government but on the role of govt.

  12. Well, that's certainly possible, I wouldn't claim I have nothing left to learn. However, assuming "demographic transition" means rich people having fewer kids, I'm already familiar with those three concepts. How would spending more time with them change my position?

    An interesting side question is whether (or how) to count the foregone utility of the people who were never born. Presumably each of those 300 million had a WTA of some number greater than zero. Does that matter?

  13. @outsider -- the key is that the demographic transition takes TIME. I'm not apologist for the PRC government, since that would probably have happened sooner if they'd had freedom from '49, but reality bites.

    Foregone utility? Sounds like angels on pinheads to me...

  14. Yes, I agree the transition takes time. My point is only that it would have had some effect, reducing the number of births prevented.

    One of my favorite sayings whenever somebody says he can't quantify a cost is, "Well, one number it definitely isn't is zero, yet when you ignore it that's what it's treated as." Ah, well.


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