A recent opinion piece published in “The Hill” by the Cato Institute criticizes China for its two-child policy. China’s policy of regulating population with a one-child limit arose in the late 1970’s after rapid population growth and a fear of repeating the famine and starvation that killed tens of millions of Chinese in the 1950’s. After 35 years, China loosened its restrictions from one child to a two child limit in 2013 and, last year, the Chinese government suggested it could soon drop limits all together.
The Cato Institute, and almost any organization with a respect for human rights, justly believe that coercive governmental policies restricting reproductive rights are abhorrent and have no place in civil society. However, the author and Cato would like us to falsely believe that any institutional influence to limit population growth must involve coercion and violate individual human rights.
In addition, the author fails to recognize the peril we face should we ignore the role that smaller families can play as one of the most practical, potent and proven science-based weapons we have in our arsenal in the fight against climate change, deforestation, overfishing, aquifer depletion and a host of other environmental emergencies afflicting the planet.
The author further claims that our exploding world population, which the UN has just predicted will surpass the 10 billion mark by 2050, is not a global threat, and touts the Simon Abundance Index as “proof” that population growth reduces the per capita cost of resources. The index, named after business professor Julian Simon, measures 50 commodities in conjunction with global population to estimate the availability and increase or decrease in cost of those natural resources per person over time.
From 1980 - 2017, the population of the planet soared 3 billion people from 4.5 to 7.5 billion people. Of the 50 commodities measured in the Simon Index during that same period, 32% decreased and 68% increased in abundance per person, signifying an average net decrease in the cost of goods to an individual.
However, as any good physicist or energy expert will tell you, the Simon Abundance Index has one glaring flaw. It fails to take into account the role of energy in the equation. Energy, material consumption and global wealth rise and fall in conjunction with one another. Energy is required not only to grow but to maintain a civilization’s size. The more energy that is available, the more a civilization can access and extract the “abundance” of commodities from the earth and grow.
During the same 37-year period, from 1980 to 2017, global energy use increased at a whopping 109%, from 284 quadrillion BTUs to 595 quadrillion BTUs. (IEA)*, far greater than the increase in population for that same period. And that abundant energy provided the ample access to and delivery of the commodities measured in the index.
Population growth is actually an outcome from the additional capacity and abundance created by available (predominantly fossil) energy that procures, grows, and delivers the goods that sustain everyone of us. In the absence of that energy the entire Simon Abundance Index abundance of commodities flips and crashes as well as our human population.
Without an ample supply of cheap energy, the risks to our freedoms increase dramatically. All current energy models predict serious challenges meeting 7.7 billion people’s needs in the second half of this century. And as we try to meet those needs we are experiencing an increasing number of negative effects, including a heightened risk of ecological collapse and resulting conflict.
As human population continues to grow, as it is projected to do so for the foreseeable future, the environment will continue to degrade and climate change will worsen. The principles that the Cato Institute cherishes; individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace will clearly come under attack as a result of mass migrations due to large swaths of the world becoming uninhabitable due to a worsening climate, civil unrest, and lack of resources.
In civil society, individuals make choices about their lives, while in a political society someone else makes or attempts to greatly influence those choices. We must exercise our fundamental right to preserve our individual judgement and freedom of choice by recognizing the connection between our population growth and the environment. By promoting smaller families as a sign of parents who really care about the climate and the viability of future generations, we are not limiting our individual freedoms or those of our children, but are ensuring them in the form of sustainability, prosperity and peace. It is imperative that governments also see this connection, encourage and not fear growing small gracefully in order to preserve our liberties, improve our societies and restore our balance with the natural world.
*IEA energy data through 2015. 2016-2017 are estimated.