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Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore are being heavily criticized for their new documentary, “Planet of the Humans,” putting a focus on restraining population growth as the solution for many environmental crises. The criticism centers on a few themes: The focus on population distracts from more immediate solutions, such as radically reforming our energy policies and markets. That given steadily falling fertility rates, population growth has been sufficiently addressed. And most pointedly, that raising population growth as a problem in need of a policy solution invites draconian population control measures that will violate human rights.

Gibbs and Moore could respond to the criticism directly: Reducing family size by one child is the most effective way individuals can reduce greenhouse gas emissions — twenty 20 times more effective than other changes, to one’s diet or transportation, for example. How could this key factor be a distraction?

Also, arguing that the world has solved the population problem implies some general agreement on an optimal world population, baselines for environmental protection, levels of biodiversity, etc. In reality, despite a projected world population growth of billions in the next few decades, many are pushing to increase fertility rates and raise the population curve through cash payments, limits on abortions, and pronatal media rather than flatten. Why?

Population growth often means (albeit unsustainable) economic growth. One’s view of an optimal world population depends on one’s values, and amid the debate, there are wildly different ideals. Even simply focusing on survivability draws huge variances. Whether we have dealt with the population problem by flattening the growth curve in the past century or so is not the question. The question is whether we have flattened it enough or whether we will actually choose to reverse course. 

Finally, Gibbs and Moore have a ready response to the allegation that they invite violations of human rights: The most searching examinations of the right to have children have found the right is really the right to reproduce one’s self, rather than the right to a large family. The right to have kids, like the right to speak freely but not yell “Fire!” in a theater, is limited by others’ rights, including the right of our children to a safe, healthy, and biodiverse environment.

A Better Way to Solve the Population Debate

But is there a better way to resolve the debate? Population growth is preceded by the act of having kids, and perhaps we can find more common ground regarding the optimality of that.

Four value propositions lay a pathway forward:

• First, there seems to be common agreement that all children deserve some minimal level of welfare at birth, or the things we aspire to provide all children in the Children’s Rights Convention.

• Second, while economic equality is controversial, ensuring everyone equal opportunities in life is not, though the process for doing so remains elusive. What if we focused the process on family planning and leveling the playing field by training the redistribution of resources around the start and first stages of every life?

• Third, if we assume economies are preceded and limited by the rule of law and democracies that enable them, we can assume that family planning policies should be geared around producing citizens rather than consumers and workers. Developing future generations for democratic town halls looks very different from developing them to fill massive shopping malls, with the former calling for smaller families to create a future in which every voice could be heard and more investment in the education of each child to make their voices transcendent. 

• Finally, given the damaging impact of the anthropocene on everything from pregnancy to the threat of pandemics to wildlife extinction, the safest baseline for environmental protection — consistent with the precautionary principle — is a restorative baseline that values nature as biodiverse nonhuman habitat rather than a human resource. Valuing nature as nonhuman space is more about ensuring our species the nonhuman nature we physically crave and need than an abstract debate about optimal populations and the mathematics of utility far removed from the lived human experience.

And the pathway toward the highest standard of environmental protection starts with better family planning. 

All Policy Roads Lead to Family Planning

Combined, these value propositions promote a universal policy of smaller families achieved through incentives, delayed parenthood, and the equitable redistribution of resources to ensure every child a fair start in life. Regardless, given the volatility of future world population growth and all that risk entails, it’s simply not acceptable for anyone talking about the environment to not have a plan for family planning reform. Contrary to what some think, all polices involve people and hence family planning (or a lack thereof).

If we want to target consumption, we have to stop producing consumers and start producing free citizens, or what John Rawls called free and equal people, to comprise actual democracies. That may first entail changing the fundamental framework we use to assess these issues, including the concept of population. “Population” refers to people, and if we unpack the concept, we find something more qualitative than quantitative, dynamic than static, endogenous than exogenous, normative than descriptive, and multifaceted rather than one-sided and numeric.

The Guardian’s George Monbiot could reframe his thinking on this issue and further environmental values we all share much more effectively. Here are five questions that might help Monbiot and the rest of us start this process and move from a traditional family planning system focused on parents to one focused on future children. 

Regardless of whether Gibbs and Moore confront their accusers directly or choose to open a new dialogue, they have helped to bring back the population question at a time when environmental catastrophes, constant social distancing, a growing pyramid of inequality, and threats to our children’s future seem draped before us.

Let’s hope we can answer the question correctly.

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