Overpopulation and Limited Resources – Should We Impose Control?

Just watched the movie ‘What happened to Monday (2017)’ on Netflix. It had some very interesting themes especially focusing on the crisis of human overpopulation and the moral issues this raises. These themes are of course by no means new.

Warning: The following contains spoilers.

The movie is based on a dystopian future in the year 2073. Climate change leads to a depletion of food and other natural resources. Overpopulation causes further stress on the resources leading to a dramatic global crisis and famine. This is then combated by using science and in turn a greater reliance on scientists to provide solutions. Biologists manage to modify plants to become more resistant to the harsh climate (GMOs). Food supplies are replenished but eating the modified food leads to an increase in multiple births, which starts to put further stress on the limited resources. Eventually, a renowned biologist lobbies and successfully convinces the government to pass an act which makes it illegal to have more than 1 child per family. This is enforced brutally so that any second siblings are taken away and apparently put in a state of suspended animation, awaiting better times when they can be brought back to life.

Overall this movie has multiple themes but the one which gnaws at you the most is overpopulation and the moral implication of its control. In fact, even in a recent article in NewScientist, there is talk about the notion of imposing population control as a way forward:

“Future generations risk inheriting an overcrowded, suffocating planet. Taking action may mean what was taboo is now common sense”

Given the resources on earth are finite we can safely say that we cannot go on increasing in numbers forever. The maximum limit to which we can sustain is debatable and depends on how efficiently we can live on the resources. Poorer societies have higher population growth rates but richer ones are more inefficient in resource utilization.

So whats the solution?

In the movie, they take dramatic measures. For them, population control is seen as the definitive solution. Furthermore, they go about this in a very brutal and deceiving way. The story fabricated on the media is that siblings are being put into a cryo-sleep state whilst in reality, we find out that in fact, they were being tranquilized and then burned to ashes. All this was done for the ‘higher’ purpose and obviously, the stupid public wouldn’t understand this so it had to be done secretly. In the conclusion of the movie, although this treachery is exposed and stopped the movie ends without having provided a solution to the overpopulation crisis. And the last words of the antagonist are that stopping her measures was a huge mistake.

This movie also hints at (like some others) the underlying distrust and disconnect between the ‘public’ and ‘scientists’. The people see these scientists as being fundamentalists and elitists, who think they know concrete problems and their concrete answers (and it is only they who know because of their intellectual superiority). The scientist, in general, sees the public as being too stupid to look at the broader picture and to understand the intricate details and complexities.

Having said that, for this post, I’m limiting my interest only to the overpopulation problem and its moral issues. Here’s how I see it:

Without directly going to population control measures, we should first look at living more efficiently. What should be ‘imposed’ is an efficient utilization of resources. Hence, as consuming meat is much more wasteful and environmentally damaging, reducing and eventually stopping this should be a bigger priority.

It should also be made illegal for food to be stored in warehouses or dumped into the sea (as food corporations do) to ramp up the price and maximise profits. Any excess production of food should be given to poor and starving countries for free. The economy should become more resource focused. Sustainable energy and agricultural practices should be employed. All the above should be imposed before we can look at imposing population control measures. Once we reach our maximum level of scientifically possible efficiency and if still, the earth seems to be unsustainable we may move onto population control measures.

Though, I think with proper resource efficiency the maximum sustainable number of people would be much higher than is anticipated today. Most of our estimates today get too tied in with the geopolitical and economic situation. Some scientists make a practical estimate of the maximum limit being 10 billion people but this is usually tied in with the practicalities. I think they should also look at the potentials unhindered by the economics.

If we eventually do have to think about population control, can we impose it?

This raises moral problems. Killing children certainly doesn’t seem to be in anyway justified. Furthermore, who gets to decide whether this should be imposed? We certainly can’t take majority opinion as the way forward because humans aren’t homogenous, we have all levels of group affiliations and predispositions.

Imposition seems too difficult to be justified. The best way it seems is to stick with ‘suggestion’. Perhaps there could be some minor benefits attached to having a smaller family which would further encourage birth control. However, even these benefits should be weighed against the resource efficiency of that family.

If we were to become very concrete and autistic about it (as society, in general, does seem to be becoming) then logically there is a simple straight forward equation:

Number of children = N/Resource Utilization Index

Where N would be a calculated constant. The higher the resources a family is expected to use the lower the number of children they can have. This would automatically mean more birth control for richer Western countries especially the United States. Even more so for the wealthiest families, who may not get to have any children at all.

Such a concrete system might actually lead to reduced strain on the planet and a more homogenous distribution of power and resources. But would such a system be fair? It would certainly impede personal freedom. But is that really avoidable in any other scenarios? I’m not so sure.

Let’s say we do impose some kind of a population control system and make it law. What happens when someone disobeys it? Do we punish them just for having children!?

Lastly, looking at the difficulties this issue raises, I think it might be one of the few legitimate reasons for us to explore the possibilities of inhabiting other planets. In doing so we may be able to avoid such a dystopian future. All this is assuming we continue to remain and become more and more civilized as a species. Of course looking at history we can’t be so sure.

So what do you think?