Population, Climate, and the Ethics of the Future

The Economist had a piece today about rapidly falling mortality rates worldwide, particularly in poor and low-income countries. Health professionals writing for The Lancet “advocate the establishment of a global ‘sustainable development goal,’ in which countries aim to reduce the number of premature deaths by 40% by 2030,” a very laudable goal to increase lives.

A few days ago, there was a somewhat widely-publicized article in Science, which showed that contrary to popular belief, world population would not in fact peak at 9 billion in 2050, but rather continue to grow, reaching 11 billion by the end of the century. This rather sharply throws into relief the need for better family planning, sanitation, and water management.

And today, in the wake of yesterday’s climate change protests on Wall Street, is an article decrying the strain of thought that exhorts one to act “for the children” and only for the children who will inherit the earth. When we focus only on future generations, we continue to encourage waiting-for-the-last-minute.

Humanity, as a whole, doesn’t know what it wants. We fear inexorable population growth, stripping the planet of its every natural resource; yet we try as best we can to halve the global death rate. We talk about saving the future through climate change action and legislation for children whose very existence might exacerbate the conditions leading to that very global warming. We are walking, talking, breathing contradictions.

What’s the right course of action? We banned CFCs to preserve the atmosphere, which in turn gave pharmaceutical companies the opportunity to design new, patented, trademarked asthma inhalers – which could, of course, then be sold for obscene amounts of money. The world gained, a subset of people suffered.

We’re saving people today, but we’re not sure about the future. We don’t know who will exist, who our children will be or how many children they’ll have; our progeny remains mystery. We’re establishing a global existential rent control: saving today’s lives, very possibly at the expense of tomorrow’s. Making it easier for the people who exist now to keep on existing as they are, while making future existence more tenuous and a little meaner.

What we should do and what we must do and what we ought to do seem radically opposed to one another. Are we preserving lives now that would be better off lost? Are we permitting future humans who might be born into cruder conditions than their parents? Is that immoral? Is the uncertainty and doubt of an ominous future reason enough to worry about current and future populations?

We obviously don’t have any answers individually or as a society. Inertia, momentum, myopia prevent us from taking a longer view. But for now that might be okay – I’m not sure we’d like what we see up ahead.

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