When I posted Prof. Bartlett’s lecture last week, I tried not to spoil it with my opinion to leave those of you who didn't know it curious to watch it. I do agree with him that "zero population growth will happen" in any case and that we better take steps that it doesn't come with a cataclysm when the natural resources on our planet are depleted and the world’s ecosystems destroyed. Populations and economies might grow, but the planet doesn't. Cataclysmic outcomes as how Prof. Jared Diamond describes in his book 'Collapse' (here on TED, and here on vimeo) have happened to human populations locally before, famously for the Easter Islands but also other places. The warnings of the Club of Rome in their study from 1972 'The Limits to Growth', still hold and have been affirmed in a recent study sharing the view that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book's predictions of economic and societal collapse in the mid 21st century. This does press us to urgent action, but the question remains which is the feasable strategy, so following are my thoughts on how the MDGs and the struggle against overpopulation are related.
The video of Hans Rosling at the gapminder-foundation posted by Jodi shows us that 'to let people die' is not 'just' unethical, but also not a solution to the problem of population growth. What I don't like about Roslings 'moving dots' is that many people might be encouraged to think that the problem goes away 'by itself'. This can play in favor of 'problem denial', like most self-serving delusions very strong (related: "Technology will save all our problems! It's not invented yet but we can count on it for sure!). A common fashion as well is to smear all those that warn of the population problem as being in favor of 'sterilization', 'eugenics', diseases etc., in short - to be in favor of death instead of life.
I want to show that on the contrary, an 'optimum population policy' is a necessary part of a global strategy to maintain lives and survival of mankind in peace and dignity and to avoid the mass-starvations and mass-murders that usually accompanied the allocation of scarce vital resources in mankind’s history.
So I think Bartlett’s table of options is mistakable if one doesn't realize that he wanted to shock his students to think beyond the traditionalist culture by which most people are still strongly affected. I think however that if we look properly at the options we have, we will see that doing the morally right thing is also doing the right thing for the planet and the future of mankind, that to achieve the Millennium Development Goals is a necessary precondition to stop population growth and thus avoid global economic and ecological cataclysm.
Procreation vs. Abstention
You can't really beat the sex drive; it's 'hard wired'. Attempts to promote 'chastity' usually lead to hypocrisy esp. when accompanied with shameful silence about the fact that sex makes babies (and how exactly that works). Sexuality education helps young people to make the right decisions, so let's campaign for universal sex-ed. Relevant are MDG 2 universal primary education and MDG 5, Improve maternal health, esp. target 5B: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health .
Motherhood vs. contraception/abortion
Strange equation of contraception with abortion, sounds so, well, outdated. Concerning motherhood: in (West-) Germany up until the beginning of the 21th century working moms that gave their toddlers into the day-nursery were defamed as 'Rabenmütter' (raven-mothers) stating them being worse mothers than the 'Hausfrauen' (housewives) that would stay home to take care of the children as part of a traditional marriage where the man would be the sole provider (the 'Fred Flintstone model'?). Turns out this model was neither political nor economically feasible or sustainable, with former socialistic women-employing East-Germany carrying deciding votes and 'demographic changes' that made it necessary to encourage young female academics to have kids instead of having them to study and work themselves silly until menopause kicks in. So how does the government, dominated by the conservatives, now try to do that? By financing the collectivist menace that brings the downfall of the occident - nurseries! It took a couple of decades to get the point but still...
Further, what about Fatherhood? Don't children deserve to spend time with their fathers and wouldn’t those be glad not to just hand over money? And wouldn't to be able to spend more time with their children hugely improve also their quality of life? This might not appear in the newest statistics as growth of the GDP though, but might instead be good for the environment and personal health. Sweden f.e. is quite good in enabling their citizens to have this.
It's obvious that a progressive culture of 'parenthood' -let children be the result of family planning, true partnership and love and not of shame and ignorance shielded by traditions and superstitions- and as part of a societal effort, will help solve the problem in the direction of human lives in 'quality instead of quantity'.
About abortion, I think Tiziana said here everything there is to say, a line has to be drawn somewhere so let's be rational about it.
Anyway, those are already many things to campaign for, no? This is basically about MDG 3: Promote gender equality and empower women and MDG 5: Improve maternal health. Interestingly those goals might be related to questions of quality of life when connected with MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.
Large vs. small families
What's family anyway? Only those who are genetically similar? What about those relatives 'a bit further away', as f.e. children of cousins of mothers and second cousins of grandfathers? What about friends or 'best friends of sisters'? Or that forlorn kid on the park bench whose mother just died? And if you feel your family is still too small and you have love to give, why not adopt a child?
So I doubt we need population growth in order to enjoy 'large families', it's a question of how inclusive you are with invitations to your meals and feasts and with your affection for others. So what about communities? That's something all those who feel they have a divine mission should care for instead of promoting traditionalist biopolitics: let's be social instead of clannish, we might realize that the kids of our neighbors are not so different from our own. (Martin Luther King understood the dangers of overpopulation, why not the Vatican?)
Immigration vs. stopping immigration
Now that's a controversial theme that it actually deserves a thread of its own. Why is it so controversial? One reason might be that large parts of our elites for decades thought that fighting racism, bigotry and narrow-minded ethnic tribalism with political correctness (or not at all) is a good idea, in short that by relabeling and not talking about a problem it will go away. Well, *surprise*, it didn't and it spawned new ones. So for now just let's remember that every immigrant is also an emigrant and that for all problems that are created by relocation to a new land some problems probably stay unsolved in the old one (and new ones are created like brain drain). All the BS about 'demographic problems' being 'solved' by immigration is by the way nicely dealt with here.
In a better world in my opinion this would of course work in a way as in the EU today: international cooperation and freedom of movement for everybody, but I think we would need to achieve a global economic equilibrium and similar standards before that happens, let's keep this in mind when we avoided the cataclysm. Anyway let's discuss this.
Medicine/Public Health/Sanitation vs. disease
Well dealt with by Johan and the video by Hans Rosling: reduce child mortality and mortality overall and suddenly people have a different outlook on life. Similar: Accident prevention, clean air vs. accident/smoking, in future as well the fight against obesity. To campaign for MDG 6: ‘Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases’ is thus to indirectly help societies to develop sustainable institutions in which individuals have the choice and the will to reproduce much less and to make use of their time differently. Given the chance, most will do the right thing as Rosling and others show.
Peace vs. War/Law and Order vs. Murder & Violence
Prof. Bartlett, just like Jarod Diamond certainly doesn't suggest solving the problem of overpopulation by war and murder, both emphasize the results that overpopulation had historically. Further countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and others got and will get into vicious circles of tribal wars over dwindling water resources and shrinking pastures and soil washed away thanks to deforestation and desertification. In those situations the various clannish institutions are a cruel joke of history turning traditions that aided group-survival for centuries into a curse and danger for future generations.
Also the danger of war between the world’s great powers is still very real and those between their 'pipeline proxies' more (I think here f.e. of one between North and South Sudan after the independence referendum 2011 as well as 'Karabach reloaded' in the Caucasus). And what about the ongoing slaughters in the Congo?
So there is much more to campaign for here than just 'peace'. Humanitarian interventions will be faced with difficult decisions and are highly unpopular but the alternative is to wait until the problems become even worse and spread (as in the cases Afghanistan as Somalia happened and actually also Ruanda whose civil war sparked the ongoing conflict in the Congo).
A good choice in any case is to invest in prevention: why not spend more money now on reforestation and the fight against desertification and sustainable forms of agriculture (and to stop using those countries as dumping ground for EU and US state-subsidized agricultural overproduction) than in military interventions and border fences later. With the current solar technology there are devices available that do not require to burn wood for cooking or to use diesel generators for electricity, this is good for health and environment, investments in the education of local people to use, produce and adapt those technologies will reap great benefits for all.
That's basically MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability and MDG 8: Develop a global partnership for development! How about that?
While at it, a commitment of the local elites to profound cultural and political changes will be necessary (as Anne Applebaum asks from Haiti), let it be accompanied by serious commitments of the elites in the 'developed states' to allocate the money to the benefit of the local people and not reroute it to beneficiaries with Swiss bank accounts, be they corrupt but useful leaders or international corporations.
Let's further stop fetishizing 'Culture' and recognize that culture is 'what people do' and not 'who they are'. Culture always has changed, can change and now definitely has to change, in the East as in the West, North and South, towards a common culture of sustainability and humanity. To fight together in a global struggle against poverty and all agents that are causing it is a good start to become aware of all the problems we are facing as mankind together. Hey- isn't this MDG 8 "Develop a global partnership for development" as well? I say, let's not leave this to the states and their interests and make this even more a matter of an international civil society.
Scientific Agriculture vs. Famine
Prof. Bartlett emphasized the dependence of modern agriculture on oil. I know there are projects to gain the energy needed for industrial agriculture from sustainable energy sources. A growing population means however not only to find sustainable ways of producing food but also to raise production and this while the oceans run out of fish and massive soil erosion due to deforestation and desertification (yes I needed to repeat that) as well as problems like soil salinity due to irrigation and water crisis and effects of climate change.
What we should be aware of in any case is that we are running an experiment here with an uncertain outcome, with the planet as a laboratory and billions of people as lab rats.
It's also now widely known that a lot of grain is used on producing meat and that more people could be fed with just the grain. That is obviously true, the problem here is indeed global inequality and the rule of 'immoral' and distorted markets that make it economical to feed grain to livestock or convert it to biofuel while at the same time people are starving. That doesn't take away the problem though that most of the grain nowadays is produced industrially within the unsustainable oil-economy.
Ignorance & Education
In his frustration Prof. Bartlett put education on the side that increases the population-problem, I think it is ironically his experience in academia that makes him doubt the power of knowledge. Don't also forget he held this lecture 1600 times and had the permanent feeling that nobody listens to him and that the world had gone insane on the ideology of indefinite growth, and that decision makers and their constituencies would either not understand simple arithmetic or deliberately ignore it.
Certainly to achieve MDG 2 'universal primary education' will help to reduce the number of those women caught in domestic slavery, combined this with health and school feeding programs to help tackle the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (MDG 1) and the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women (MDG 3).
I still harbor the idea that proper education is actually not just about learning the things that bring one 'forward' in life but rather about finding the truth, being able to distinguish it from bullshit or lies and acting upon it to do what is right. That would definitely place it in the right side column.
MDGs help against overpopulation
So even if it might look counterintuitive at a first glance, the MDGs bring us forward towards achieving global stability, saving lifes and helping the poor in the right way will help reducing population growth. Mankind’s problems might be severe but we also have the capacity for solutions. The global crisis is a challenge that we can master if we collectively find the will to do it. For this it is necessary that we face many very unpleasant facts, question traditions and life-styles held dear by most of mankind, be it the modern one focused on consume and economic growth or the pre-modern one based on fertility and superstition. This might not be as unpleasant however as many believe, as we can combine the morally right with the necessary for the survival of all.
What we can offer thus is a better life for all mankind in a world with everybody more social and smart living up to the full potential of what it can mean to be human.