Overpopulation: The Key to the Human Predicament

By Roger Payne

At the root of humanity’s biggest problems is the fact that there are too many of us. Yet there seems to be an unwritten law against even discussing how to find ways that are fair to stop the population explosion and to work towards a human population that the planet can sustain. Whenever I’ve raised this point, the standard objection has been that any step that reduces the world population will put most of the stress on the poor—those who have only just become poised to experience an improved standard of living. We don’t have the right to diminish their opportunity to enjoy the same sized families that we’ve had and that have enriched our lives so much.

The weakness of this argument is the assumption on which it’s based: that everyone wants as many children as they have. All of us are better at justifying after the fact the things that disappoint us, when it would obviously be to our detriment to complain of them. Assuming that a pregnant woman always wants a big family ignores the fact that her feelings may be quite different before and after she discovers she’s pregnant— particularly different if it is her third or fourth pregnancy and her first two children are healthy. She may even find the idea of a third or fourth pregnancy abhorrent. However, once her child is born, it is overwhelmingly likely that she will love it unconditionally.

My first wife, Katy, and I had four children, and I have experienced personally how differently one can feel before a pregnancy and after the birth that is its outcome.

Katy and I married young. We were both still at University and we wanted to delay childrearing. But it was back in the bad old days before The Pill had become widely available. There were, however, four commonly-used methods of birth control at the time, and we tried them all. They all failed.

Method One was tricky; we were careless; pregnancy followed. But when our eldest son, John, was born we loved him unconditionally. His presence neutralized our previous thoughts about wanting to delay starting a family.

Nevertheless it seemed like a good idea to postpone having more kids for at least a couple of years. Surely, Method Two would prove better than Method One. But soon Katy was pregnant again and Holly was born, and she stole our hearts blind.

OK two kids; That’s fine, but no family needs more than that. We tried Method 3; it didn’t work; Katy got pregnant and Laura followed, and again our pre-birth opinion was silenced by our love for a third child.

Well… now all that was left was Method 4, and it damn well had to work! But soon Katy was pregnant with our fourth child, who turned out to be Sam, and he too was, and is, adored.

It was time to do something different; something that might actually work. For a woman to have her tubes tied required a general anesthetic, whereas the equivalent for a man (a vasectomy) only required a local anesthetic. It was clear that it was best for the man to have the operation. So I got one of the earliest vasectomies—so early, in fact, that even though we were living in New York City, I couldn’t find a medical doctor who’d do it. And in the end, I got a vasectomy from a veterinarian.

We now had four children under the age of 3 1⁄2 with three in diapers (that we had to launder—disposable diapers being too expensive and not reliably available).

Did we want each child before Katy got pregnant? No. Did we want each of them after they were born? Yes. Absolutely. Once they appeared, we wanted each and every one of them with every fiber of our beings.

And since their birth, how have we felt about them? We have loved each of them completely.

But Katy bore a major cost; it was 6 years after our first child was born before she had enough time to begin working on the songs of whales, and it took a decade more before she had the time to study elephants and discover their sub-sonic vocabulary. Before those triumphs her pregnancies, nursing and infant care had stopped her from finishing a postgraduate degree on ant behavior that she’d started at Harvard under E. O. Wilson.

I suspect that worldwide there are probably hundreds of millions (if not billions) of women who didn’t want to spend so much of their youths pregnant, nursing babies and in infant care, and who were introduced to poverty or kept under its thumb by unstoppable motherhood. I suspect that many of them would have been happier having fewer children (or even none) even though they love fully every child they had.

I believe that my theory is strengthened by the fact that when couples have access to free birth control and are taught how to use it effectively, and the women have access to education and see that there are things they could do that would interest them as much or more than raising yet more children, the result is always the same—falling birth rates.

Reciting such a result may make me sound to you like an arrogant prick who thinks that he’s dispensing candied drops of wisdom like jelly beans to the masses. But what I am fumblingly trying to impart is a fact that scientists have discovered that impressed me greatly, and as a scientist myself I’m likely to be somewhat ham-handed at getting it across, because one of the main tenets of science that you learn early and often is that life doesn’t operate and is not understood on the basis of absolutes it operates and is understood on the basis of probabilities. What you can deduce is not absolutely known it is known to some extent that you hope to measure and to take into account. When I describe the effects of offering women an education as well as free means of birth control I do not think that all the women responded by reducing their family size; I am confident that there was a huge variety of responses that probably varied across a spectrum that went from absolute rejection, through disgust to “well OK,” to gratitude. But speaking probabilistically the thing that fascinates me as a scientist is that if you provide women from the most diverse backgrounds (from people who live in felt houses on the Mongolian Steppe to ladies in haute couture, breezing down some of the world’s most sophisticated avenues) with an education and free means of birth control which someone who knows the uses and limitations of those means teaches them to use effectively, you get the same result: lowering birth rates. I find that a fascinating and useful outcome that could have a positive effect in alleviating what I consider one of humanity’s biggest problems. How different would it be if some non-scientific elders told a thousand young women to read an ancient text about raising sheep and gave them free condoms and told them how to use them most effectively, whereupon although some of them were disgusted and insulted that the elder’s texts were so out-of-date, just enough others reduced their family size that that the overall birth rate of the group of 1,000 women fell. Would you not be interested in that result? Would it mean that the elders were charlatans who were sticking their noses into things that were none of their business and thereby denigrating those young women? I would think that the elders somehow had an effect on people which, though I didn’t understand how it worked had resulted in a positive overall outcome and if none of the young women had been tricked or coerced I would think it was a useful technique to lower birth rates, even if I had no idea why it worked as it did.

I realize, of course, that men would also presumably benefit from being educated about the subject of family-begetting and family-raising, but whether they would benefit as much as they ought (or as women seem to) seems doubtful to me given that men have a far lower investment in their children than do women (men can beget hundreds of children whereas the record for women is in the low 20s). Because of that we men seem to spend much of our fertile years struggling with the effects of testosterone poisoning. And just as it is not very realistic to try to get socially acceptable behavior out of a male elephant in musth, I suspect that although it is useful to educate men that it will prove to be less successful in lowering populations than has been shown to result from educating women.

Another important aspect of this surprising path to reducing birth rates is the fact that it is voluntary, not punitive. As I have written before, it is not like China’s now-revoked policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. It works without anyone forcing anyone to do anything. There’s nothing mandatory about it. Each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use contraceptives. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The all too human reason this approach works is the natural inclination of women and men everywhere to want to do more with their lives than raising ever more children. So if young women get an education and have access to free contraceptives, it turns out that a significant number of them will use the opportunity to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the birth rate falls.

Another factor that contributes to the success of this approach is surely the satisfaction of being able to bestow greater benefits on each of your children if you don’t have to divide your resources among so many.

I realize, of course that one of the probabilistic aspects of the approach I am promoting is that the power to make decisions of many women is not equal to the power that men keep for themselves in their families and so, in many cases, women are culturally overridden by men and by religion. For example, it is known that the technique I describe doesn’t work in cultures in which men prevent their partners from using birth control because much of their street cred is based on how many children they’ve fathered. But in global terms such cultures are small and are under pressure to modernize. And anyway; show me any approach to any problem that works without exception and I’ll show you that you haven’t examined it closely enough.

It is also true that some backwards religions have major objections to contraception, thereby condemning their poorest parishioners to the consequences of uncontrolled fecundity. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two EU countries with the lowest birthrates are 99 percent and 90 percent Catholic.

I was raised in a culture that gave me all of the benefits of a healthy, well-fed, well-educated, comfortable, secure life. Nevertheless, I fathered more than my share of children. Whenever I suggest publicly that the human population is too high, I am laughed at, even by those who share my feelings that overpopulation lies at the root of humanity’s major problems. The laughter is based on the false assumption that if you have made a mistake, any advice you have to offer on that subject is worthless.

I have thought a lot about having had so many children and even though I love each of them entirely, I can see that having so many was in some deep sense selfish and shortsighted. But I can also see that my advice about having so many children is not laughable. I have spent a lot of my life at sea and I would much rather have advice about a dangerous reef from someone who put his boat on that reef, and who has since thought long and hard about his mistake and what he should have done to avoid it—and who also respects the reef because he knows how easy it would be to fail again (this last point being, perhaps, the best indicator of an opinion that may be of value). I find advice from such a source far more useful than advice from someone who has never gone aground on any reef and who thinks that reefs are easy to avoid, and that people who hit them do so because they conform to a careless, daredevil type.

Because having a child is such a profoundly involving and moving experience, one may greatly benefit from considering as deeply as possible the complex consequences of deciding not to have a child or of adopting a child who can profit so much from the support that family life provides.

I believe that by considering the question deeply and thoughtfully, one is likely to identify several paths to fulfillment in their life—and find several alternative answers to what can benefit the future, and that each such answer offers different advantages. That is the subject that I’ve attempted to consider in Part II of this blog.

© Roger Payne

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