How might we start to incentivise lower birth rates?

In response to the need to feed more people in the future – feeding more people, without any incentive to reduce birth rates, leads to population increases. This in turn leads to unsustainable resource use rates.

Are they doing something like this already? Do they quantify how much of a burden in food and environmental terms terms a person will be (providing water, housing, health services, food, energy, etc. to that person, minus the economic benefit that person will be (how much of those things he will contribute back towards to) and what the ultimate cost will be?

If the environmental cost of each additional child is quantified, then given societal acceptance, we could start incentivising people to have fewer children by applying those costs.

It is a tricky issue, because people highly value their right to have children and to not have this area of their lives imposed upon. In any case, if it was workable and done in such a way as to incentivise and not penalise, perhaps any children produced above the replacement rate would have to be ‘paid for’ in terms of the parents carrying the cost of extra infrastructure, investment in how to use resources more efficiently, and paying for the extra ecological burden. Perhaps this could be done by giving tax breaks to those people that do not have children, or those with one child or those that adopt – but if that was the case, how would one approach couples that have more than two children?

Governments tend not to place a cost on the things they do now, our system of accounting is not geared to incorporating the costs on future society, costs that will have to be recuperated in the future. Whether one has no children or five children, we all have to pay tax (given we work) to pay for the infrastructure that will service a growing population. Somehow, that seems at odds with the idea of capitalism, of each paying our own way in the world and being responsible for our own decisions.

I think part of the issue is presuming that a growing population has no costs, or that we work off the costs by increasing the size of the labour pool, that each person essentially pays for his or herself through their own labour and economic contribution, or even that an increased population would result in economies of scale. There is little acknowledgement of the idea that a growing population burdens the environment and drives environmental problems. There might be this idea that environmental problems are distinct from social problems, economic problems, policy problems, that the environment is not the base from which we sustain ourselves, somehow, and that all problems we experience fall outside of this…that somehow the environment is forests and farmland and wild animals roaming, and that there are enough wild spaces to sustain them already (isn’t that what nature reserves are for?). There isn’t wide enough understanding of the multiple threats to biodiversity and to ecosystems functioning, of how separating wild spaces through the imposition of cities and farmland, cuts off migration routes and closes genetic pools.

Most detrimental to humans, they do not en masse gauge the rising prices of food and consumer goods, employment, the erosion of how much their wage can buy, the increasing health threats, and other threats to their safety from terrorists, with a degraded environment and spiraling scarcity of resources. I will concede there are a multitude of factors, some political, but to miss the base on which all the others sit is a failure of our imaginations.

While consumption is the great driver of ecological collapse, I believe governments should be tactfully negotiating with cultural forces to start justifying incentives for reduced population sizes. It is a very Western mindset – there are too many people (as opposed to ‘I consume too much’) – but at the least deserves one blog entry.


2 thoughts on “How might we start to incentivise lower birth rates?

  1. So interesting! Just this minute I am reading The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, and his one argument (but its not what the book is about) is that to prevent future wars and scarcities we should either a)find other planets or b) listen to Malthus, and seriously reduce population sizes. Just interesting that the population issue arose within minutes, in an otherwise normal day! :)It would be interesting to know how the Chinese government structured the taxes around their one-child policy. In my understanding having second child can be financially quite crippling (or at least used to be). Another thought I had is about carrot or stick approaches to get people to have fewer children. I think carrots (incentives such as tax breaks, the prospect of a better lifestyle and retirement if one has fewer children) only really work when people are educated. In fact there is strong evidence that increased maternal education rates are correlated strongly with lower reproduction rates. Perhaps what we can draw from this is really that the only way the carrots can work is if people are educated enough to see the potential benefit of having fewer children, and that they are able to be economically more productive when they have fewer children. Those people (and there are billions I presume) who practice subsistence farming on the other hand, in practice wont be affected by sticks (e.g. taxes) and incentives wont really convince them to have fewer children. The reason is that children is a form of labour and a form of pension. While some may die, its prudent to have many children in order to ensure that there are people to work the land and to provide for the parent's old age. The very poor is also known to discount the future a lot – that is they place less value on some benefit that will accrue in the future, than a smaller benefit accruing in near present or very near future. This is for various reasons (basic needs to be met, high mortality rates etc). To convince these individuals that they need to have fewer children because the environment is being destroyed is a difficult task.I know the poor are not presently destroying the environment, but they are in the vast majority. With declines in war and more democracies it is likely that economic growth will increase the aspirations of these individuals. It is not a given that education rates will increase as their aspirations do – and i think that is a critical area for work 🙂


  2. Thanks for the post, interesting to learn more about the dynamics of population growth, and how a peasant farmer might think. I should have stated that this idea is more for the parents of those already in the dominant cash/urban economic system, whose children would grow up to be high consuming individuals, and I agree that it wouldn't work for the children of subsistence farmers and pastoralists. I agree with you that the poor and low-consuming are in the vast majority, but I am not certain of their opportunity for upward mobility based on declining oil + gas reserves, climate change and other constraints we face. In any case, it is a valid point that it is proverbial fuel for the fire regarding countries that are gaining new technologies. I wonder now if that is the incentive for governments to bring people into the economic system – in order that they may reduce their population and their burden, hmm – now there's a conspiracy theory.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s