Sunday, February 22, 2009

Less People = Less Energy?

I have recently read Hot, Flat and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman, a book describing many of the problems arising in the twenty first century and how they are affecting the world, and specifically humans. Thomas Friedman sums this up in his own words early on in the book by saying:

“… it [is] obvious that it’s actually the convergence of global warming, global flattening, and global crowding that is the most important dynamic shaping the world we live in today.”(26)

Friedman believes these are “impacting our planet in fundamental ways” by altering everyone’s lives in a drastic, and potentially detrimental, fashion. From the literature I have read, and the focus of the media is on fixing the energy problem mainly by becoming more energy efficient and/or finding more sustainable methods of producing the energy that we require to function as we have become accustomed to living. Both platforms in the recent election had energy as one of the primary topics, and the New York Times reported “both acknowledge a need to encourage energy conservation and development of renewables” ( Later in Hot, Flat and Crowded, Friedman explains his views on saving the planet which focuses on “trying to change the climate system – to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable… [by] break[ing] a collective addiction to gasoline that is having not only profound climate effects, but also geopolitical ones.”(209)

Undoubtedly changing our current habits to habits of a sustainable energy environment is a daunting task for a conscious public with room to make sacrifices, much less a global population containing a significant percentage who have nothing to sacrifice.

Another major issue I feel is that everyone knows something needs to change, but no one has any idea where to begin changing. Paul Roberts in The End of Oil admits that “at present we have very little sense of what the ultimate climate solution will be” (129). The sense I get from Roberts section on the course of action is learn more about what we need to do before we begin to enact any sort of action because we would not want to invest in an action that was incorrect. As far as I can surmise, Roberts is not in favor of doing nothing; he understands that it is economically more intelligent to, and overall more effective “to go after the cheapest reductions first, regardless of where they are” citing China as a place where “a relatively small investment in energy efficiency would cut more emissions much faster than the same dollar investment in Europe or the United States” (130).

I believe we should start on every front, find the most effective and environmentally efficient, and use them to converge to a satisfactory result. I agree that many of the technologies need significant development to be effective and commercially deployable, but also have come across a topic no one is discussing as a factor that needs no development to help the situation: population reduction.

This factor of the equation seems pretty simple to me: more people = more energy. Less people = less energy. Jared Diamond cites human population as one of his 12 “most serious environmental problems facing past and present societies” (486) in Collapse, an insightful historical view of how a societies impact on the environment determined the collapse or success of that civilization. Of the success stories that Diamond includes, all have some form of population control. There is a fascinating account of Tikopia, a small Pacific island that has been occupied for 3000 years. Diamond names six forms of population control that have been used historically to keep this island’s society capable of supporting itself on the resources provided: contraception, abortion, infanticide, celibacy, suicide, and “virtual suicide” (which is described as going on dangerous expeditions with no real intent of surviving).

Now I am obviously not for killing our children (infanticide), nor killing ourselves (suicide) to control our own population. However, I do believe we have a moral obligation to regulate our population. I am definitely not under the impression we should have rules and regulation imposed upon us that prevent people from procreating, seeing as procreation is one of the few remaining instincts we still share with the animal kingdom. However, with no natural predators (other than ironically enough our own natural curiosity which builds unnatural killing agents), the human population is growing, and I fear beyond our capability to sustain it.

A question is will we be capable of seeing the peak of resources that marks the maximum sustainable population? Is it before we have a monumental collapse of civilization? This is why I propose that we begin to consider an individual responsibility of really thinking about our reproductive actions. Diamond found that “on Tikopia… people are explicit in saying that their motive for contraception and other regulatory behaviors is to prevent the island from becoming overpopulated… and prevent the family from having more children than the family’s land could support”(290). Although there is contraception in America, we also make celebrities out of Nadya Suleman (, and watch shows such as TLC’s “17 Children and Counting” (

Political enforcement may not be the right answer because that interferes with the mores and values that originally built America, however from an energy economical view, this many people per family just cannot be sustained. Suleman has recently started a website ( to accept donations to help support her new family of 14 children (she is the only parent), 8 of which were artificially conceived. The amount of energy those children consume is going to continue to perpetuate the problems we are already having, as well as, in my opinion, rob at least 14 children from impoverished areas of energy they would put to far better use in uplifting themselves to only a fraction of the wealth this woman’s children will get (at least because many people in Third World countries require far less energy). It is selfish and irresponsible. In addition, by supporting these types of actions, we give an economic advantage to the exact ignorance that is preventing our society from advancing away from the gluttonous uses of energy that is strangling us.

With all the talk of carbon taxes on industries and factories, I think maybe we should extend it to these baby making factories. This way the entire carbon cycle is taxed, and you cannot really lobby that the rules are unfair to any one sector. We could tax people who more than replace themselves, and then credit those who assume their replaces (in such cases as adoption; limit 1).

1. Friedman, Thomas. Hot, Flat and Crowded. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008
2. Diamond, Jared. Collapse. New York: Penguin Group, 2005
3. Roberts, Paul. The End of Oil. New York: First Mariner Books, 2005


Toby said...

Interesting and well-resourced blog. I agree with some of your points, but overall, I think you are treading on dangerous ground.
Personal responsibility (and the accountability of fertility doctors) must be applied to every facet of our lives. The young Suleman did, in my opinion, an irresponsible thing. Not only do the taxpayers of California fund hundreds of dollars a month in food stamps for her family, but she is also asking for donations on a website so that she can raise her children in a healthy environment. This is outrageous in my opinion. The unfortunate thing about our country's "I'll take care of you" government is that it removes personal accountability by victimizing individuals into a state of dependency. She knew she would be taken care of, and therefore, Suleman proceeded to do something irresponsible. I realize this is just one bad example among thousands of people trying to do the right thing.
Regarding population control: Any form (besides personal responsibility...i.e: "can we raise our children to become productive citizens) of population control is wrong. Depriving people of the right to procreate is immoral. The population of the world is growing at an astounding rate, but I truly believe that our energy demands will continue to be met through human ingenuity and innovation. I am optimistic about that.
Europe and N. America are already hovering around negative birth rates, but LDCs continue to make more babies. So, if population control measures are implemented, don't think the rules would be heeded worldwide. Plus, enforcing population control is nearly impossible (except for some government entity kidnapping and/or killing your child). I think adoption is great and I think that responsible decision-making is great. But, your proposal of taxing people or crediting people depending on the number of children sounds like a dangerous welfare state that fosters an anti-baby market. This is wrong.

Anonymous said...

One of the hardest parts about our energy problems is providing for the increasing energy needs. These energy needs don't increase solely because everyone has an iPod or a flat screen tv, but that there are just more people who need energy. It becomes even more frightening when you think about the energy demand that will come from the rest of the world who do not enjoy the luxuries we do today.

I'm not sure how one would go about limiting population, but I'm sure education couldn't hurt. If people (not just in the US) were aware of implications of increasing population, people might make their own choices about whether they want to have children or not.

Chesapeake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chesapeake said...

Nadya Suleman's children are not "robbing" anyone on the globe of energy, as a child born in the developing world has no more legal or moral claim to energy than a child born in Los Angeles. Nor do I think it's fair to suggest that children in the developing world would put energy "to far better use" than would her children. Does a child in Venezuela or Myanmar inherently use energy in a way that is significantly more productive, or morally superior, than a child in Southern California? My problem with Nadya Suleman has to do with the fact that she is casually commercializing multiple childbirths, not that her children are somehow selfish energy hogs. The only thing I would donate to her, by the way, is a tubal ligation.

Also, saying that many people in the Third World "require far less energy" is a bit of a murky claim. Areas without modern amenities and running water may use less energy than well-developed areas, but that's not the same thing as saying that they don't require as much energy, if they aspire to a standard of living that's comparable to the West's. There's a reason why China is scrambling to secure access to as much energy as it can.

As for a pregnancy tax: How would you achieve levels of taxation to ensure that a family is not being taxed too little or too much for the energy they consume? Do you stick a meter on a kid the moment after you cut his or her umbilical cord?

I agree with the general substance of Toby's remarks. While I don't know how a pregnancy tax relates to the tendencies of a welfare state, I do believe it would be an unmanageable scheme with a fistful of unintended consequences. We need to incentivize, not disincentivize, the birth and education of a robust labor force, so that we have the engineers, the scientists and the other professionals we need to stay competitive as a country, right here within our own borders. If anything, government should be lowering, not imposing taxes on lower- and middle-income families to help accomplish that.

One last thing: Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids taxing "articles exported from any state." So if a family lives in Texas, but the mother gives birth in Oklahoma and then returns to Texas, does her child count as an export? After all, the child was produced in one state and shipped to another. (And can we think of a child as a durable good?) If so, pregnancy tax avoidance might serve as a stimulus for hospitals located near state borders.

Toby said...

Very well stated. With regard to the welfare state, I was referencing (and agreeing with) Travis' comment about the drain that Suleman's children causes on the California taxpayers, not on energy consumption. Without the mechanisms in place in this country to help support poor parents of many children, Suleman may have decided against having a lot of children. If she knew she would have to rely on her own abilities to provide 100% of the funds necessary to raise her children, she may have thought twice. Yes, the pregnancy tax does not relate to my comment about a welfare state, and was not intended to do so.