“The world has too many people.”
I know a handful of friends who have made that comment as a way to justify not having children. What does it mean for the world to have too many people? Would the world be a better place with less people? I don’t think my friends have thought this question through, which is troubling, considering how important the decision to not have children is. Just how important is that decision, you ask? Well, the value of child-bearing is too subjective to study (try Googling “childless regret”), but there are at least some people who massively regret doing so. At the very least, then, your baseline assumption should be that there is a non-trivial chance that you will regret childlessness too.
For the sake of argument, let’s take the notion of overpopulation to its logical conclusion. Let’s consider what would happen if half the world’s population disappeared overnight. Furthermore, let’s fast-forward a year to skip over the mass hysteria and sorrow that would ensue from 3.8 billion people vanishing. How does that world look? Sure, a Half World has fewer carbon emissions, less traffic, less noise, and fewer endangered species. But are there any negative consequences? I think we all take for granted how many of the things we love wouldn’t exist without the economies of scale that comes from 7.7 billion people.
For example, consider my favorite sandwich shop in San Francisco, Turner’s Kitchen. The place is a niche, high-end sandwich shop, which means it can only stay in business with a critical mass of consumers. Even if just 20% of its customers stopped coming, it would likely go out of business. Can you imagine what would happen with a 50% reduction? That’s how tenuous the economics are for specialty goods and services.
On the other hand, mass-market restaurants like McDonald’s would be fine. Likewise, other large companies like Google or Uber would likely survive and thrive in Half World. Large-scale, commodified products and services would dominate, whereas specialized offerings would become the new endangered species. The result would be cultural decimation, most of which would be felt in big cities.¹
Admittedly I chose a petty example. But imagine if half of your favorite bands didn’t exist, or if half of your favorite favorite movies hadn’t been made. The cultural decimation argument would still be valid.
Or maybe I’m completely wrong, and culture and society would become better! After all, everybody complains about not knowing their neighbors. A sparser world means we’ll finally reach out and talk to one another.
The point of the Half World exercise isn’t to assess the marginal utility of one less or one more person. Instead, the point is to take more than five seconds evaluating what it means for there to be “too many people.” In general, if you are a fan of humans, your baseline assumption should be that one more person would make the world a better place.
Isn’t it strange that saying you want to forgo having children for the sake of the planet comes across as noble? Instead, imagine if you had said that you want to have more children for the sake of the planet. Wouldn’t that come across as egotistical and bizarre? To me, the more bizarre thing is that we favor misanthropy that masquerades as humanitarianism. Perhaps it’s this bias that explains the fertility crisis.
¹ This is standard urban theory from Jane Jacobs