Contrarian Thoughts: Depopulation's Benefits

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/21/2013 11:38:00 AM
The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things - Alfred North Whitehead as quoted by Garrett Hardin in The Tragedy of the Commons

While doing research on an environmentally-related issue, it occurred to me to re-read the famous article concerning the tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin. Unbeknownst to many, he was not only concerned with collective environmental abuse but also overpopulation--on which he voiced many politically incorrect opinions. However, questions of demography remain foremost as the world's population has zoomed past 7 billion and the consequences of anthropogenic activity on the environment capture the world's attention.

In many recent posts, I have treated "Detroitification" as shorthand for demise. Fewer and fewer people implies lower and lower economic growth. But, what if we recognize the finitude of economic growth as a consequence of finite resources? It would follow that fewer people may be more desirable. What's more, overpopulating a country, town or what else have you may be a strategy of maximizing one's welfare while reducing that of the broader (world) community--precisely, a tragedy of the commons:
Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art. ... I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods.
Hardin's potential insight is that the more people = more economic growth equation does not hold at a global level given the proverbial limits to growth. Consider, also, the world situation circa 1968 when the article was written:
Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time, even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves that none has: there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of zero. Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes and remains zero. 

Of course, a positive growth rate might be taken as evidence that a population is below its optimum. However, by any reasonable standards, the most rapidly growing populations on earth today are (in general) the most miserable. This association (which need not be invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that the positive growth rate of a population is evidence that it has yet to reach its optimum.
In 2013 we have reached the point where there are any number of "prosperous" populations which have growth rates approaching zero in Western Europe as well as the East Asian tigers--Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. And then there's Japan which is already depopulating at a fairly rapid clip but remains the world's third largest economy.

Instead of feeling sorry for them or bemoaning their lack of growth, perhaps the environmentally and morally appropriate response would be to welcome their contribution to sustainability. In effect, they sacrifice national well-being by old metrics alike GDP growth for the sake of not lessening the world's carrying capacity.

Just a thought for you from a reading on Hardin.