With 8 billion people alive on Earth, it may be reasonable to believe that the planet is becoming a little crowded and that it would be a better place for everyone if it were less populated. Nevertheless, we should not neglect the opposite opinion, that states we have resources and technologies sufficient to keep 8 billion people alive and reasonably happy, and perhaps even more. Neither position can be proven, nor disproven. The future will tell us who was right but, in the meantime, it is perfectly legitimate to propose that population growth should be slowed down by birth planning.
The problem is that we don’t have a discussion on population: what we have is a clash of absolutes. The position that sees overpopulation as a problem has been thoroughly demonized over the past decades and, still today, you cannot even mention the subject without being immediately branded as a would-be exterminator. It happened with Bill Gates, with the Club of Rome, and with many others who dared suggest that the world would be a better place if the human population were to stabilize at levels lower than the present ones or, at least, that wouldn’t keep increasing at the current rates.
The demonization trend is, of course, a knee-jerk reaction that finds no justification in what the demonized people actually said or did. But we need also to say that it is based on a real problem. Exterminations DID happen in the recent past on the basis of a wrong evaluation of the overpopulation problem. During the Nazi era in Germany, the idea that Europe was overpopulated was common and it was widely believed that “Lebensraum, “living space” available was insufficient for the German people. The result was a series of exterminations correctly considered the most heinous crimes in human history.
How was that possible? For the Germans of that time, the grandfathers of the Germans of today, it seemed to be the right thing to do, given the vision of the world that had been proposed to them. The Germans fell into a trap called “utilitarianism.” It is one of those principles that are so embedded in our way of thinking that we don’t even realize that it exists. But it does, and it causes enormous damage.
In principle, utilitarianism wouldn’t seem to be such a bad idea. It is a rational calculation of the consequences of taking or not taking a certain action based on the principle of generating the maximum good for the maximum number of people. So defined, it looks both sensible and harmless. But that’s the theory. What we have is a good illustration of the age-old principle that “in theory, theory and practice are the same thing. In practice, they are not.”
For a good illustration of the problems with utilitarianism in our current society, you can read an excellent post by Simon Sheridan, where he examines the psychological factors that led us to the current mess. Typically, an example that illustrates the basic feature of utilitarianism is the diagram in the figure.
You have to choose the action that minimizes the overall damage and, in this case, it looks obvious. You act on the lever to direct the trolley to the track where it causes a smaller number of casualties. Easy? Not at all. The example is badly misleading because it assumes you know the future with absolute certainty. In the real world, there is no such thing as certainty. Apart from rather special cases, you don’t know and you can’t know the exact consequences of your actions. There exists such a thing as a “fog of life,” akin to the “fog of war.” Just like no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no Gannt chart survives contact with a real calendar.
A good example of the damage caused by embedded utilitarianism in society’s decisional system is the recent Covid pandemic. To refresh your memory, take a look at this 2020 post by Tomas Pueyo
, which was one of the starting points of the disastrous ideas of “flattening the curve” and “Covid zero.” On the basis of models that predicted millions of victims, Pueyo proposed a series of measures that were supposed to be both short-lived and harmless, at most a minor inconvenience: lockdowns, social distancing, face masks (later), and the like.
I don’t have to tell you that all the assumptions at the basis of these ideas turned out to be wildly off the mark. The models were wrong and the pandemic was much less deadly than it was supposed to be. The “flattening of the curve” just didn’t happen, despite the measures lasting more than two years instead of two weeks. And the measures were far from harmless (for instance face masks)
. People were deprived of their jobs, their social life, and even the possibility of comforting their sick relatives: the psychological damage was immense, especially to children. And people died as a result of depression and lack of proper medical care. Just as an example, Sheridan reports
the case of “two infants in South Australia needed to be flown interstate for life saving surgery but were denied because the borders were closed due to covid. They died.”
This was real damage done to avoid possible damage. A classic case of misfiring utilitarianism: the trolley was directed along the wrong path.
Now, back to overpopulation, we are in a similar situation but more dramatic for several reasons. We have models telling us that a combination of resource depletion and pollution (especially in the form of climate change) could lead not just to millions of victims, but billions of them. If the models are right, what do we do? Unfortunately, if you really believe that billions are going to die if nothing is done, then you could make the case that killing some people now would save many more later. It is the same logic of the trolley dilemma — aka, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Would you bet that nobody, up in the higher spheres of power, is thinking about something like that? Go back to reading the history of the exterminations planned and carried out by the German Nazi government, and you’ll see that such an assumption is not farfetched at all.
The problem is not with whether the models are right or wrong. Models can be extremely useful if you understand their limitations. But if you use models as oracles, then doom is guaranteed. That’s exactly what happened with the Covid pandemic. Is it the same for the world models that predict humankind’s doom. Are they right or wrong? The answer is simply “we cannot be sure.” They might be completely wrong or perfectly right, or even too optimistic. They are not oracles, they are guidelines.
There is an alternative to utilitarianism. It is called “personalism.” It is both a religious and a philosophic stance that sees the human person as the basic value, not exchangeable with anything else. It is the principle of “First do no Harm” (“primum, non nocere”) that we derive from the Hippocratic Oath. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything against the emergencies that will surely strike us in the future, but blind faith in science must be tempered with moral sense and the capability of understanding the value of the human person for itself. If you are in a condition of uncertainty, then try at least not to worsen the situation by taking hurried and unproven measures. It is a point forcefully made by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick in a post titled, “Don’t just do something, stand there!
” His point is that physicians are often overtreating their patients in their hurry of “doing something.”
Applied to the pandemic, the approach based on personalism would have avoided drastic and harmful actions in a moment of great uncertainty. Sick people would have been cured, but those who were not sick would have been left in peace. Vaccination would have been recommended, but not made mandatory. It is what was done in Sweden, which didn’t suffer more damage from Covid than countries which, instead, took drastic containment and vaccination measures.
How about climate change? In this case, the risk is “existential.” That is, the dreaded climate tipping points might well kill us all. Even without tipping points, we have plenty of negative effects of ongoing climate change. Droughts, sea acidification, seawater rise, melting ice, extreme weather, and more. This said, it is also clear that the system we are modeling is hugely complex and hard to predict. We have no idea of when, where, and how fast, a climate tipping point could manifest itself, despite the dull certainty of people who define themselves as believers of the “near term extinction” concept. Humans may well go extinct in a non remote future, but there is no reason to hurry in that direction.
In a personalistic framework, we deal with climate change applying the principle “first do no harm.” It means first of all avoiding panic. There are hasty actions against climate change whose consequences are unknown and could cause more harm than good. Apart from mass exterminations (obviously!) geoengineering, or CO2 capture and storage are good examples. Then, not doing harm does not mean “do nothing.” It means taking those actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change which we believe are effective but also that do not harm people. For instance, assuming that fossil fuels are one of the most likely causes of climate change, as it is highly probable, we should make sure that phasing them out doesn’t harm people. A lot of people, everywhere, are living at the edge of survival, forcing them to stop using fossil fuels without offering substitutes is tantamount to killing them. They need alternatives for their energy needs: more efficient living arrangements, PV panels, wind turbines, and the like.
Should we also do something to reduce population growth and gradually reduce it? Why not, as long as we don’t harm anyone? The Chinese government did that with their “one-child” policy. You may argue that it was not a good idea, but nobody was killed and nobody was harmed. The policy may have been the main factor that contained the Chinese population to manageable levels. (I tell the story in some detail in a previous post
Unfortunately, given the way the pandemic was managed, it is perfectly possible that we will soon go into “panic mode” about climate change. That may well lead humankind make truly horrible mistakes. But this is the way humans are. Maybe one day we will learn, but that will take time.
Many people could recite the most basic formula of Utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is a form of what is sometimes called consequentialism which just means that the ethical value of actions should be judged by their consequences. If you, purely by accident, blundered your way into creating the greatest good for the greatest number, your action is deemed of higher value than if, with the best of intentions, you failed to create anything good.
Now, of course, Utilitarianism is a big topic and there are numerous sub-variants which are attempts to answer the objections made to the doctrine. Probably the main objection has always been that Utilitarianism implies that killing an innocent is justified if it saves the lives of others. This is one of those classic arguments that always seems confined to university faculties at universities and can usually be counted on to draw the cynical response that it’s “just semantics” and “nobody would ever have to make that decision in real life.”
Well, during the last three years, exactly these kinds of decisions were made. To take just one of the more egregious examples, here in Australia two infants in South Australia needed to be flown interstate for life saving surgery but were denied because the borders were closed due to covid. They died. The justification given, not just by politicians but by everyday people on social media, was the utilitarian one: we couldn’t risk the lives of multiple other people who might get infected with a virus. The greatest good for the greatest number.
(This raises the other main objection to Utilitarianism which is that it must rely on speculative reasoning. We can only predict more people will die based on some model. But we can never know for sure because, despite what many people apparently believe, we are not God and we do not control the future).
The death of those children was a low point even for the corona hysteria and is, in my opinion, one of the lowest points in this nation’s history. Combined with the countless other episodes of people being denied urgent medical care, the elderly residents of nursing homes left without care for days because one of the staff tested positive and all the staff were placed in quarantine, the people unable to be at the side of loved ones who were on their death bed, the daily cases of police brutality, or any of the other innumerable indignities and absurdities, for the first time ever I found myself being ashamed to call myself an Australian.