Population and Genocide

Discussion in 'Ethics, Morality, & Justice' started by orthogonal, Dec 12, 2001.

  1. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

    "Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 Rwanda had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per every woman. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes then set out to solve the overpopulation problem in the most direct possible way". Consilience, by E. O. Wilson

    If I had gone to Rwanda in the 1960's as an aid worker, perhaps to set up hospitals or to help improve crop yields, might I think myself partly responsible for the events that led to genocide in the 1990's?

    How might we best help limit the exploding populations of the third world?

    The most humane solution might be to raise their level of education and prosperity to roughly equal our own. Hopefully, their birthrate would then drop to the levels seen in Western European and North American. But Wilson points out a problem with this solution;

    "To suppose that the living standard of the rest of the world can be raised to that of the most prosperous countries, with existing technology and current levels of consumption and waste, is a dream in pursuit of a mathematical impossibility".

    We currently send food, medicine, and weapons to the poor countries, while the poor countries send refugees to us in return. Certainly our efforts of improving their nutrition and health make the lives better for those who are alive today, but given the model of Rwanda quoted above, are we actually harming them through our acts of compassion?

    To give aid merely because it makes us feel good about ourselves is a moral outrage if the end result is a boom and bust population cycle. I'm reminded that these are real people dying miserable deaths, not just theoretical numbers. Discounting some future technological fix, such as genetically modified crops, or desalinization of sea water to make the deserts bloom, what is today the most humane way to help these people achieve a sustainable level of population?

    Last edited: Dec 30, 2001
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  3. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

    Hmm...looks like I'm going to have to reply to myself

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    In the book quoted above, Wilson states that "Each year, more than the entire population of Sweden (13-18 million) mostly children, die of starvation or the side effects of malnutrition, or other poverty related causes".

    If I take an average of 15 million poverty related deaths per year, this works out to 41,095 persons dying per day. This is also just over 13 times as many people dying each day as died in the September 11th terrorist attack. I've repeatedly heard words to the effect that, "Everything has changed after the tragedy of September 11". I suppose we are simply used to the 41 thousand deaths each day, whereas the 3,100 deaths at the World Trade Center took us by surprise. Still, wouldn't one think that 41 thousand human deaths per day would be a huge catalyst for change?

    In the book, The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, K.C. Cole writes that an equivalent of 100 jumbo jets, filled mostly with children, crash each day. The math is roughly in agreement with Wilson's figures above. The result of a single commercial jet crash are special television bulletins and newspaper headlines. We all talk about it the next day. The FAA is called in to investigate what went wrong. Yet if the equivalent number of people die each day from hunger and preventable diseases that would die if 100 jumbo jets crashed, there is little mention of it in the media. No special investigation is made. It's business as usual. But Cole also points out that when it comes to saving a single child whom has fallen down a well shaft, no cost or effort is too great.

    But it bothers me. I often think about it. I wring my hands and wonder what to do. I really want to know if I'm crazy for worrying about it? Should I quit my job and join the Peace Corps? But if I work to help improve the life expectancy of a child in the Third World, am I not helping to set up an eventual Rwanda scenerio?

    My town expects that I share the responsibility for educating the town's children. While I'm happy to help out with the cost of educating other peoples children, I find it ironic that I'm forced to help pay for football helmets and piano lessons yet I have no legal responsibility to help prevent children in other countries from dying of preventable diseases. I've the choice of donating money to help these dying children, but a sheriff won't come to demand payment as would happen if I neglected my share of the football helmets. I have a moral but not a legal responsibility to help these dying children. Do you agree that this is a curious situation?

    The second topic I wanted to discuss are the moral ramifications of providing aid to the third world. Should we send food or should we send birth control? Their past response to the (mostly unused) birth control devices we have shipped to them is to accuse us of attempting genocide. From us they want food, health care and consumer goods, not birth control. But are we not duty bound to act for their own good rather than to do what merely makes us and them feel good?

    It appears as if we are in the midst of a vast experiment. We want to know how many fish can fit in the fish bowl before the fish population begins to plummet. In the year 1800 the population was roughly 1 billion. By 1960 it was 3 billion. In 2000 it was 6 billion. By 2050 we expect 9 billion. One estimate is that if we all became vegetarians the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land might support about 10 billion people. I am asking the question: Do we really want to find out if this is true?

    Last edited: Jan 1, 2002
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  5. mrk Wheel Rider Registered Senior Member

    The TV series Star Trek had a Prime Directive of non interference with 'developing' cultures. This brain child of Gene Rodenbury has VAST moral implications.

    1. IF we keep our noses OUT of other cultures completely, they develop on their own, in a way the suits them (OR NOT).

    2. If we interefere, then WE are responsible, and are OBLIGATED to assist.

    Mike your dilema is simple. IF you "wring your hands" wondering how to feed the worlds hungry, then YES you should go join some charitable outfit which does just that.

    Christ said two things which have always stuck with me (I am by no means a "christian").
    1. The poor are ALWAYS with us (without telling what to do about them)
    2. If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, if you TEACH a man to fish he shall eat for a life time.

    Now, when you do go join that outfit feeding starving Afghans, show them how to feed themselves while you are about it...
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  7. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

    Hey MRK,

    Thanks very much for the reply. I agree with you about the "The Prime Directive Of Non-Interference" as applied to alien worlds. But on this little planet there are no us and them. It's all "us". Besides, I'd think the crew of the Starship Enterprise also included Afghans (for example).

    If I were convinced that building infrastructure and helping to feed the hungry was the solution then it would be a no-brainer for me. I'd join the Peace Corps or I'd apply for a job at the UN's Humanitarian Relief Agency. My dilemma is that I'm not at all certain that feeding the impoverished masses or improving their longevity moves the world towards the goal of eradication of poverty and hunger. BTW, my favorite charities at the moment are; Planned Parenthood and Doctor's Without Borders.

    Your point about "teaching a man to fish" is sound advice, provided of course there are enough fish to go around. This is where a rational regulation of human population is called for.

    I agree with you about the practical wisdom of many (though not all) of Christ's teachings. I'm an atheist that believes in the utility of cooperation instead of contention. When in doubt, Christ's moral teachings supplemented by a bit of thought have come in quite handy.

    Thanks again,
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2002
  8. Bells Staff Member

    Orthogonal, to not supply aid to poorer nations would mean the probable death of many. There is no choice. A mother watching her child starve to death would prefer to have food for that child instead of birth control. We have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than us. Providing them with food wont make them have more babies. It must be remembered that many in 3rd world countries have numerous children in the hope that at least one of them will survive. It is the desperation of the parents that they must have as many children as possible to try to make sure that at least one of them will make it to adulthood. Infact it is well known that during the depression era and in times of war, many families in the now developed countries, such as the US and Australia, had numerous children even though they could not afford it to make sure that at least one would make it to adulthood. It is not uncommon for many of our generation to have parents and grandparents who came from families with more than 6 children. It was only those who were wealthy who could afford to have a "couple" of children as they could afford the proper nutrition and medical help for their children. They did not have to face the thought that some of their children would not survive.

    To force people in 3rd world countries to take birth control measures to lower their population so that they may prosper is one that is in my view horrendous. In one of your other posts orthogonal you mentioned China and their one child policy. We in the developed world find that idea vile. We are witnessing parents dumping or murdering their daughters because they would prefer to have a boy so it is better to get rid of their daughters until they can have a son. I for one would not be able to live with myself if I was providing money for charity and that money was going towards the enforced sterilisation of men and women to ensure that their country prospered and they became wealthy in western terms. I would rather feed them then to stop them from having children. I would sleep better at night. It is not for the wealthy nations to try to regulate the population of any other nation. No country should try to regulate its population. To do so would be immoral. No one wants to see the way it has backfired in China where the government is trying to encourage its people to keep their daughters as they are now facing not having enough females in the future. The male/femal ratio is now so skewed towards the males that it is causing great concerns for the government. The thought that a government has to encourage its people to not kill or abandon their daughters is ridiculous. That is the result of regulating a population and it is deplorable. We cannot and should not encourage any other nation to follow in the same path as China for that reason alone. The fear that we would outstrip the planet of all its resources in trying to provide for the whole population is a valid one but it is one that must be resolved without forcing people to have less children. People are born and people die, that is the way it has been since we inhabited this planet, its the same in the animal world. Who are we to force anyone to change the way it has always been. Its nature and we should not try to force it to change. To do so could have devastating consequences in the future. It could be a short term solution but in the long term, forced regulation of populations could see the world population greatly unbalanced with one sex outnumbering the other sex by such a great amount that the future of the human race could be endangered. This may sound far fetched but we are already seeing it happen on a small scale in China.
  9. orthogonal Registered Senior Member

    Hello Bells,

    In the woods near my house is an abandoned and overgrown farmstead. A small single family cemetary contains the headstones of two sisters: Emma and Mary. The stones are very touching, on each a small hand is carved clutching a rose. Emma was 9, and Mary 11 when they died within a few days of each other in August of 1864. When I found them some years ago I wondered how they might have died. I went down into the village (population 600) to look up their names in the "Birth and Death" archive. It turned out that they died of diphtheria, a terribly contagious infection. But I noticed that the summer of 1864 seemed to be full of entries for such a small town as ours. One family alone lost five children to diphtheria that summer.

    Vermont was effectively a third world country in those days. Though times were hard on these small hillside farms, hunger at least was rare. Of course childhood diseases such as diphtheria claimed a horrible toll. Other than abstaining from sex, there was no effective means of birth control. Families tended to be large and children tended to die in large numbers. Numerically all these births and deaths integrated to a fairly stable population. A stable population yes, but what about Emma and Mary? When I visit their graves on my walks, I look out at the overgrown field where they must have once played. In my typically sentimental and foolish way I've formed an attachment to these girls. They don't merely represent a statistically stable population to me, they represent an end to a promise of two happy lives. It's easy to forget when we speak of population numbers that we are actually speaking of individual lives.

    I suppose you've read what I've written above about the statistics of jumbo jets crashing each day full of children and the like. It's as though I'm cursed to think about these things. I think about girls little different than Emma and Mary who will die, perhaps of starvation, while I sit tonight at my nice dinner.

    Bells, I respectfully, though strongly disagree with your solution of sending food and then leaving their lives up to fate. Human populations react to environmental factors the same as do animal populations. Improved nutrition and reduced childhood mortality without a parallel program of well thought out family planning will nearly always result in a population explosion. If the improved food supply had been due to aid shipments of food, the shipments must increase to match the growing population. An interruption in the food shipments due to our changing priorities or a civil war perhaps, sends the population into a tailspin. We've seen this situation over and over in the past: Bangladesh, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. To improve the nutrition and medical care without adjusting the birthrate is an unmitigated disaster. It's not good enough to just throw up our hands and say, "Well, we just tried to help!" If by our actions we precipitate a population to boom and bust, we are guilty of mass murder, no matter how benevolent are our intentions.

    Animal populations regularly boom and bust. Squirrel populations rise in years of good acorn harvests, for example. But oak trees cyclically have lean years of acorn production, resulting in squirrel starvation by the thousands. While we might find this natural cycle acceptable in animal populations, must we be so complacent about the same cycles in human populations? Nature is amoral. Nature would not care if we all died tomorrow.

    To our credit, humans are endowed with a rational facility. We have identified the simple cause and effect relationships that affect population stability, yet in very few cases have governments seen fit to intercede in reproduction matters. A woman appears to have a right to bear as many children into a world of starvation and death as she pleases, as long as she doesn't throttle them herself.

    We have at least another 4 billion years before the fuel of the sun exhausts itself. This is time enough for a vast total human population to have serially lived. It might be that by limiting our population to reasonable numbers at any given time, we may maximize the number of humans that will have the benefit of life over the long course of human habitation of our planet. I'm for more people, not less! Just let's use our heads about it.

    The selecting of offspring due to gender is a nasty business altogether. I've read that every small village in India has an ultrasound clinic, in which rich and poor women alike determine the gender of their children. In the abortions that follow, the termination of a pregnancy of a girl is by far more likely. May I remind you that there is no "one child per family" policy in India. A boy is more likely to provide for his parents. Besides, a family pays no dowry when their son marries. This is a cultural and economic artifact due in no part to government mandates.

    Unlike the population in general, such practices might well be self-correcting in time, however. A generation of nearly all males will increase the "value" of a female dramatically. Perhaps in the future the pendulum will swing the other direction; perhaps boys will be aborted in disproportionally large numbers?

    A widespread governmental control on our population is nearly inevitable. It's only a matter of how much death on a massive scale we are willing to abide before we attempt to bring a rational control to the situation. Our first efforts to control our population might well backfire on us. A tweeking of our models might be needed to avoid dramatic negative effects. We might have to find ingenious ways to prevent humans from bypassing our efforts to bring a sanity to our reproduction. I don't argue it will be an easy thing; I argue that to do nothing is to be criminally negligent.

    Thanks very much for your kind reply Bells. I'm nearly certain you and I want the same end goal, we simply see the path to that goal differently. I'm a little happier just to be talking about it with you; anything to bring it on to people's "radar screen" is worth the effort to me.

    Last edited: Jan 20, 2002
  10. Bells Staff Member

    Hello Orthogonal

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    I read your response with great interest. The death of any child is one that goes to the fibre of all our hearts. For a family to lose a child is a devastating blow and one that stays with them till they too pass on. I know as I am the second child. My older sister passed away when she was a baby and my parents have never recovered from her loss. And even though I never knew her, I too feel her loss from my life.

    I understand your pain at the thought of children dying from hunger and disease in third world countries. I too feel that pain a great deal. I understand why you would think that having less children would mean that less would suffer. As having less would mean that the country could move towards developing its infrastructure so that it becomes more wealthy in western terms. I understand your argument on why we should want them to have less children.

    But one thing I cannot agree with you, and I am saying this with the utmost respect to your arguments, is the idea of enforced sterilisation. I was born in a country that would be classified as third world by many western nations. If there was forced sterilisation in my birth country, I probably would not be here. My parents would have had their first born and my mother would have been forced to be sterilised immediately after my sister came into the world. And after her child's death from a heart condition, that would have been it.... no more children. So you can see where I am coming from. I might be seen as being selfish in my thinking, but I like having have had the chance to be brought into the world. We all cry at children dying, but if we enforced population control, we would then cry at the children who were never given the chance because they were not allowed to come into existence.

    Can we really afford to let it backfire on us? You say that some "tweeking" might be needed. Can we really take that risk? To what level would we allow things to be "tweeked"? If we start to enforce sterilisation of women and men (we need to be equal here) after the birth of their first or second child, can we be sure that we would not move further in our efforts to control the population? We are seeing it in China where officials are killing the "extra" children of farmers because these farmers broke the rules by having more than they were allowed to. How can we be sure that it wont move to that level in other countries? How can we be sure that over zealot governments wont become so strict in their rules that they would murder children who are born from parents who were not sterilised after their first born? Enforced sterilisation could lead to a change in values that we hold dear now. It would lead to a change in basic rights that we value above all else. The decision not to have anymore children is one that should be taken by the parents/family. It is a right that I think is fundamental and should not be forced upon any person by any government.

    I agree with you that just sending food is not enough. The aid that must be sent to those in impoverished countries must include financial aid to improve their education and to help them develop a system which would, one day in the near future, allow them to help themselves. We need to help them develop better health care systems and with financial help we can do that and so much more. For example we can help them develop better irrigation systems and help them find better crops that would yield them with not only food but also income on the world markets. There is so much that can be done to help developing nations. I just think that forcing them to have less children is not the way to go. We should never allow the right to have more children to be taken away from any person.
  11. Riomacleod Registered Senior Member

    And we all know how well the Prime Directive served the Federation.

    I also am not familiar with those quotes coming from the bible or anything that was ever attributed to Jesus. Can you give us the reference to the sayings?
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2002
  12. orthogonal Registered Senior Member


    Thomas Percival, writing in the 1780's mentioned that roughly half of the children of Manchester, England died before the age of five. Another source from the same period stated that half the children of Paris had died by age two. The situation is not much better in some parts of the wold today. My point is that the decision to have a child should be carefully considerd. But once the child is born, it deserves the best care we can give it.

    Ghandi's quote that, "The earth can provide for every man's need but not every man's greed", was true in his day; but eventually the earth will be sorely taxed to provide enough to cover even the basic needs of every man. While 2.5 meat-eating Americans require the same arable land area as do 10 vegetarian Indians, there are already roughly four times as many Indians as Americans. In other words, the vast present and coming third world population consumes little per capita but their individual frugality is counterbalanced by their numbers. Despite an austere reproduction policy, the Chinese government itself predicts they won't have the resources to feed their own population by the middle of this century. But well before then the population is increasingly at risk of famine due to crop failures. It is irresponsible for thinking beings to populate their habitat to its absolute carrying capacity. As the world population continues to expand we have every reason to feel less secure in our own lives.

    I'm very sorry to hear about your sister. Of course it's true that you'd never have been born had your parents not been able to have more children. But in a like manner I can think of countless reasons why I might never have been born. Think how little it would have taken that my mother and father had never met? What if my father didn't like the shape of my mother's nose? What if my grandfather had been wearing stripes with plaids when my grandmother met him? We might make an endless game of considering the countless "what if" scenarios of why we might not be alive today. However, wouldn't you agree that a policy encouraging a rational limit to the human population of our planet surely has more gravitas than does the shape of my mother's nose? I might more easily accept that I were never born so that others might live better lives, than for the reason that my father acted like Homer Simpson on his first (and last) date with my mother. But when considering what might have been rather than what is, I think of these simple words by Piet Hein:

    The universe may
    Be as large as they say,
    But it wouldn't be missed
    If it didn't exist

    I probably should not have used the word "tweak" in my last post. That word suggests a careless indifference to the effects of our tinkering with the birthrate. In fact, the continued existence of the human species will depend, among other things, on our ability to apply proper checks to our rate of reproduction. This is a serious business in which we must take care to get our math straight. Hmm...I'm reminded of a memoir from an American mathematician whose name I can't recall at the moment. One morning during WW2 another fellow popped into his Los Alamos office to ask if he wouldn't mind double checking the validity of some equations. So he worked through them that afternoon, found them correct, and returned them to the office of the other fellow. Before he left he casually asked what the equations were for. The other guy said that they represented the likelihood that the heat produced by the first atomic bomb might ignite our earth's atmosphere resulting in a cataclysmic fireball, which would snuff out most of the life on our planet! The stunned mathematician said he didn't sleep that night. Instead he paced up and down the hallway next to his office worrying if he might have made a mistake in his calculations. I think our calculations and policies concerning the population should be taken no less seriously.

    BTW, an excerpt of Edward O. Wilson's wonderful new book, The Future Of Life has appeared in February's Scientific American Magazine, and may be viewed at;


    Last edited: Jan 25, 2002

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