In 1979, China did the unthinkable: they decided to limit the number of kids a family could have to one. 1 child. This, when the average number of kids per family was around 3.6 (that’s globally). The world’s largest country was trying to stymie it’s growth, which seemed strange in an era of increased militarization, where more people in theory meant a bigger, more powerful military. So, why exactly, did China try to limit the number of kids per family?
It’s all about resources. China’s government had a realization that if their population continued to grow as fast as it had been, they had a good chance of not being able to provide for the next generations. No matter how much land or money you have, trying to feed 2 billion people adequately is pretty darn difficult, and China wasn’t prepared to do that (they will get there by 2050, however).
Humans, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, didn’t really know much about limits on resources. There was no resource that could run out, because there weren’t enough people needing one given thing. On top of that, people were still fairly spread out and weren’t all trying to get food from the same places.
Once the industrial revolution began, everyone was so excited about all the new stuff that could be made that they didn’t really pay attention to how much of it they were using. People started killing more and more animals, without leaving some around to repopulate. For the first time, species started to go extinct because of human overconsumption. And yet, we kept at it, consuming and consuming.
We’re almost in a crisis of critical resources. Putting aside the concerns of climate change, we could simply not have enough food to feed everyone, we could not have enough water to keep everyone hydrated, we could not have enough electricity to power our lives. (Note: climate change only worsens this).
When looking at ecology, the growth of a population is exponential and has a limit. Humans reached 1 billion only about 120 years ago, and we’re already over 7 billion. It took us tens of thousands of years to get to 1 billion, and we added 6 times that amount in just a century. A population can no longer survive when it reaches its carrying capacity, the point at which there are too many of the given species for all of them to survive. Estimates have put the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans (in our current consumption rates) anywhere from 650 million to 95 billion. While neither of those two far-end estimates are likely correct, it’s generally expected to be anywhere between 8 and 10 billion. We’re going to hit 8 billion by 2021.
When a population goes over its carrying capacity, it hits a point where it can’t go any further, and a drastic, rapid decrease in population ensues before it levels out at a safe point.
In other words, we’re going to hit our carrying capacity soon, and then a bunch of people are going to die.
Now, my current understanding of the speed at which humans are growing as a species would put us at beyond recovery for the current concern. We will likely still go over our carrying capacity, and there will be deaths due to a lack of resources. But at this point in time, we can limit how far over that capacity we go, and how many lives are lost due to lacking resources.
It starts with a limit on the number of kids per family, just like China tried to do. If two people (a couple) have one kid, and every couple has only one kid, we, in theory, begin to shrink our population size, in half the next generation, into a quarter the generation after.
I don’t necessarily believe that it needs to be a permanent limit – rather, just a limit that sets the population at a safer point to not run out of resources first. Once we cut population enough, we can go to 2 kids per family. This then leads to a net-neutral growth in population.
I know it’s hard to realistically think about having limits on human reproduction. But we need to within the next year or two. We’re up against a ticking clock that speeds up with every newborn child. Our population gains a net one person every 7 seconds (2 births to 1 death). That’s 12,400 new people every day. New people we need to feed, house, hydrate, and medicate for another 80 years.
It’s an impending crisis, just like the government hitting the debt ceiling or running out of funding. It’s not appealing to most people. But it’s necessary.