How to Fix the Planet, the Easy Way

By Jon Austen | 20 September 2023

(Image credit: Jon Austen)

If you haven’t been reading the news in the last few years, you might be unaware that we’re in a bit of a pickle. A pickle that is unlike any other pickle any of us have known — and it’s getting rapidly worse. Scientists are facing the facts and reporting in their dry way that there is an existential threat to life on Earth. Climate-related disasters are coming a town near you, but we’re only looking at one side of the coin while ignoring the other, because it starts with the letter ‘p’.

We’re making token gestures to try to fix the climate but it’s increasingly clear that we’re not doing nearly enough fast enough to make any real difference. This year is set to be the hottest on record, unprecedented fires are burning and Antarctic ice is at lows never seen before. We need to expect the unexpected as new disasters will take us by surprise for the foreseeable future. The complacency in the news and media reporting is staggering, but not surprising. The latest climate disaster story gets a couple of days of news coverage then we move straight back to the humdrum trivia and pretend everything is just fine. Well it isn’t fine, we’re heading for disaster but our societal system is stuck and we’re unable to make any meaningful difference. Our mind-numbing ignorance, daydreaming and complacency is pushing us quickly towards disaster. We know where we’re heading, but we just shrug and move on.

The trouble is we can’t change. We’re pre-programmed to keep what we like and stick with the status quo. We like our flights. We like our beef. We like our cars. We like our air conditioning. We’re just not going to stop doing these things until real change is forced upon us and our choice is removed.

A small minority who follow what is actually happening and are prepared to give up the above, but for the majority it is business as usual. As part of The System we carry on regardless, unaware of the future Hell we’re actively creating. The fundamental flaw with democracy is that we vote for things that make our lives better in the short term, even if this means disaster in the longer term. We won’t vote to give up luxuries voluntarily. Instead we have token fixes like electric cars and solar panels and kid ourselves that this is enough. But it isn’t nearly enough and doesn’t scratch the surface of what is really needed.

Meanwhile the other half of the the world is still trying to catch up with living standards of the overdeveloped world and in doing so adds more to overconsumption. And why shouldn’t they?

There seems to be no way out, we’re going to carry straight on into the inferno. But there is one other way out, a way that has been airbrushed out of our collective thought — we reduce our numbers.

Before you jump to any genocidal conclusions, as might be your reaction, consider the facts. Managing our numbers is simple, effective, very easy to implement and is more cost effective than any other measure. Fewer babies being born is all that is needed. By reducing the global birth rate by an average of one child per family we would quickly see the benefits and those benefits would compound themselves as the years pass. Some people panic and argue that this isn’t going to fix the problem quickly enough. True, it isn’t a quick fix, but we’re not taking the measures needed to reduce CO2 nearly quickly enough as things currently stand, so why not do both? Long term problems require long term solutions.

The benefits of a smaller population are everywhere. Food production would be easier without a growing population to feed. Would you like to see an end to poverty and famines? Are you immune to the pleas from charities like the WWF and Save the Children because deep down you know they will always be there and people will always be in poverty? If we stopped and reversed population growth, we would solve famine for good. Food would become cheap and plentiful for everyone.

There are dozens more benefits of reduced birth rates. Reforestation could happen as need for soy and beef would reduce, fish stocks would recover as demand fell, there would be less traffic on the roads, less pollution. We are currently blind to the benefits a smaller population would bring. Everything would be better — except perhaps profit margins.

The benefits outweigh the costs a thousand to one. Number one on the list of benefits: it helps fix climate change. When you look at the positive effects a low birth rate has it is mind-boggling how we have airbrushed it out of our collective consciousness for so long.

A gradually declining population would help the planet immeasurably but we’re doing almost nothing to make it happen, we don’t even talk about it. With simple policy changes and public support we could easily change and make the world a far, far better place.

We don’t consider our numbers for a number of illogical, bizarre and totally spurious reasons. We are led by growth obsessed politicians and business people who are totally out of touch with what is happening to the planet and to the answers so desperately needed. Governments such as the UK have net-zero goals but they are farcical when they happen alongside the latest net immigration figures of 606,000 (2022), equivalent to another city the size of Bristol added. This totally wipes out the carbon reduction goals and overall adds more to emissions, not least from the hundreds of thousands more homes that need to be built as a result. This adds to a general frustration in the country, not least by stoking the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory of foreigners taking over, but in reality serving the government’s economic growth and low wages interests. By going against their own commitment to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, and then doing exactly the opposite, the government duped millions of people into voting for Brexit who were promised that immigration would be reduced but then got the opposite, the worst of both worlds.

We are still adding 75 million people a year to the planet, another Germany, all needing water, food and shelter. With fewer people being born, but the death rate staying as it is, we would see a very fast halt to population growth. A fertility rate cut to an average of 1.3 children from the current 2.3 would see population growth stop and then begin to decline. The immense pressure that a growing population has put on planet for the last two centuries would ease. Things would gradually get better, eventually getting much much better, for everyone and everything.

With 8 billion people and rising, all wanting decent lives, a vast amount of CO2 is being emitted. Estimates for the number of people the planet can support varies, depending on standards of living. 8 billion and heading to 10 billion is unsustainable at current levels of consumption, with overdeveloped countries taking far more than their fair share. The word ‘unsustainable’ is key, but under-appreciated. Optimistic estimates may say that 6 billion could be sustained if average consumption levels were slightly reduced, yet that still means that there are at least 2 billion more people on the planet than can be sustained in the longer term.

So either our consumption comes down or our numbers come down, or a combination of the two. We’re not changing our consumption habits and our overall numbers are still rising. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. One, or both, will reduce whether we like it or not. We will have to accept the reduced wealth that we currently take as the norm and we will also have to accept fewer people.

How the ‘fewer people’ part comes in to being is up to us and we have a choice. We can either continue pretending the Elephant in the Room of overpopulation doesn’t exist, or we finally face the fact that The Emperor Isn’t Wearing Any Clothes and pro-actively encourage fewer births until our numbers come back down from the currently dangerous levels.

The current silence on our excess numbers is the greatest and most cowardly collective tragedy and betrayal of modern times. Our numbers need to come down as quickly and humanely as possible before they come down the other way, which won’t be pretty. It is increasingly looking like Mother Nature has had enough of this invasive and wantonly destructive species and is slowly turning up the heat and extreme weather dials. We’re beginning to sit up and notice, but by the time the dial goes up to levels in the not too distant future it will be too late, the frog in the pot will be boiling and we will fight for our own survival, taking down more of the population and other species along the way. This isn’t the scenario anyone would want, but it is the default path that we’re currently on.

The smaller family option is the choice we must make instead. If we can reduce our birth rates further and faster than their current trajectory, we will see many benefits and not just with the climate. Many countries already have low birth rates and they are falling gradually in most parts of the world. This is often used as one of the excuses not to take any positive action. But when we can so easily manage our birth rates, why not do it pro-actively? We have the technology, Captain. All it takes is a condom, a pill or a vasectomy and bingo, no more babies for that couple. One entire lifetime of consumption and the consequences avoided at virtually zero cost. It really is that simple.

A change in mindset is needed. We need to think of the better world, the collective benefits, the space, the freedom, the fresh air that a smaller population brings. Talk about population has been taboo for the last few decades. When you ask people what is the single most effective thing you can do to help the environment, the answers given will be to stop eating meat, stop flying, recycle, or one of the many usual suspects. Only a tiny minority of people will ever give you the right answer, despite the fact that adding another person to the planet is the most damaging thing you can do, by far.

Of course having children is the most fundamental and enjoyable part of being alive and we wouldn’t last long without them. But for a relatively short time, perhaps the next thirty years, we should make a commitment and a sacrifice for those very people who will be alive at the end of this century. The positives of low birth rates are huge, but we don’t talk about them because we’ve never experienced them and so don’t appreciate them. For example, if we could stop population growth, we would be able to stop building, as we just wouldn’t need to any more. This in itself would reduce emissions massively whilst also freeing up millions of people to do more positive work. If our numbers reduced there would be more buildings than we knew what to do with and plenty of affordable housing for everyone. Currently our growth and profit mentality prevents this from happening.

The great thing about birth rates is that they are in our power as individuals to change. Just deciding not to have children, or just having one or two is all it takes, it is a personal choice.

Governments are increasingly taking the opposite view, seeing a decline in population as a fiscal issue that needs changing to keep tax revenues high. Some are giving couples financial incentives to have children, saying that we don’t have enough people to look after the elderly. Other countries like the UK are increasing the population through high immigration. But these are false arguments when you consider that only 100 years ago most of us worked just to produce food. Today it’s a tiny fraction, meaning there are plenty of people with the time to look after the elderly. Governments need to stop listening to the economists and listen to the scientists instead. The economy won’t do well on a dead planet.

Is it right to bring children in to the world anyway, given the ominous road ahead? Is it morally justifiable to bring another person to a world with a future of rampant climate breakdown which could even bring down modern civilisation? A terrible question to have to ask, but given the situation it is one that we should ask. Of course we can’t stop having children completely. The future may be fine, we may fix things and are worrying about nothing. But we should at least consider the future and not just leave it to fate.

Funding could be given to countries where people can’t afford contraception which currently traps them into a cycle of large families and continuing poverty as resources and land have to be shared between more and more people. A relatively small amount of funds could make the change, with the community and government taking combined action. Everyone on the planet should have free access to contraception, it should be a human right to be able to decide on your family size.

If a discussion were to take place and we collectively saw the long term benefits that smaller families would bring, birth rates could fall further and faster than they are already. Then as numbers stabilised and began to fall the benefits would really begin to be seen. A groundswell of opinion would build and the general consensus would agree that the choice of smaller families was a good one.

It’s so much easier to manage a family with one or two children rather than four or five. You’re still a family and can do everything that comes with it. The children themselves can have a much better upbringing with all the love they need but without the sibling rivalry.

The world is changing rapidly for the worse. Fifty years from now some cities will be under water. If we aim for a reduced population the coming breakdown will be much easier to manage and could even be prevented. A world of 6 billion people would be happier and more content than the one with 8 billion A world with 6 billion would see that 3 billion would be even better. We could still take a turn and avoid the iceberg, which is dead ahead. We could slide back down to safety instead of fall, but for now the Captain is still nowhere to be seen.

Originally published at on September 20, 2023.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jon Austen is a writer on environmental issues especially overpopulation.

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