Economist suggests reproducing our way out of climate change
Economist Casey Mulligan argues that population control is overrated as a solution to global warming:
The director-general of Unicef has been quoted as saying, “Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race.” And one of the benefits of reduced population, it is claimed, is reduced carbon emissions and therefore mitigation of climate change.
This statement takes technology for granted, yet technology itself depends on population. [NYT]
Mulligan's argument goes like this: i) only innovation can save us from climate change, and ii) more people equals more innovation, iii) population control would result in fewer people, therefore population control is bad for climate change.
Mulligan's first premise is dubious. The consensus at yesterday's UN Summit on Climate Change was that we already know how to prevent climate change but lack the political will to act. But let's grant Mulligan his first premise for the sake of argument.
The second premise is where Mulligan's argument founders. A larger population doesn't automatically translate into greater innovation. The two are probably correlated: The more humans there are, the more likely one of them will be the next Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, or Norman Borlaug.
The real question, though, is whether a larger population would generate enough additional innovation to offset the extra resources required to sustain it. Mulligan gives us no reason to think so.
More importantly, the innovators of tomorrow need to be educated and nurtured. Yet the most explosive population growth is taking place in the world's poorest communities. When resources are very scarce, rapid population growth may stifle innovation.
Untold human potential is squandered because of lack of reproductive choice. In a world where 200 million women lack access to contraception, unplanned pregnancies can derail women's education or employment. Family planning isn't just about having fewer babies, it's also about timing births to make the best possible use of resources. Ever wonder how many potential Marie Curies had to drop out of school because they got pregnant? The real Curie didn't have her first baby until after her first Nobel Prize.
Poor families with many children often pull them out of school to support the family. Children toiling in sweatshops are unlikely to become tomorrow's engineers and agronomists, no matter how brilliant they are. Game-changing high tech solutions won't come from shantytowns without running water, electricity, or primary education.
The world desperately needs scientific and technical innovation. For example, global food production will have to increase by 50% by 2050 in order to support the planet's projected population of 9.1 billion, according to the latest figures from the UN Agricultural Organization.
If we want to increase innovation, we should support family planning and cultivate the potential of the people who are already here. It's safe to assume that there are potential Curies and Borlaugs among the world's tens of millions of child laborers. Simply adding more mouths to feed without increasing educational opportunities won't produce the innovators that Mulligan is hoping for.
If Mulligan is serious about fostering innovation, he should support family planning because it gives women and children better odds of achieving their full potential.