Michael Veale Reports on 2016’s Cumberland Colloquium, “Population Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Birth and Death”

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Michael Veale, Cumberland Lodge Scholar 2016 – 2018

A recent interdisciplinary Cumberland Colloquium, Population Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Birth and Death, raised a range of contentious questions. Population, the OED says, refers to ‘all the inhabitants of a particular place’. Three aspects of this simple definition were striking in relation to the day’s events — “all”, “particular” and “inhabitants”.

How should we think of ‘all’? In agricultural societies, population is thought to be kept at an equilibrium by mortality and fertility. Too few people, and more are needed to make the most of the land; too many, and the scarce food supply dampens their numbers. New technologies have complicated this relationship, as has the environmental pressure humans are putting on the planet. Demographers use national statistics to look back, and models to look forward. Sustainability scientists use useful metaphors such as our footprint, or ‘planetary boundaries’, and are concerned not about neat models of growth but unpredictable non-linearities and feedback loops causing catastrophic environmental change. Political scientists consider global institutions and markets. Ethicists consider utility — what is it to say the planet is happy? All these global world-views, and more, clashed and combined in weird and wonderful ways at the colloquium.

Discussions on what is interesting about ‘particular’ populations varied. Empirical studies raised key questions. Is the relationship between development and population a straightforward case of higher development means lower fertility? Or, are the most developed countries having more children again? Is fertility culturally inherited through social subgroups — such as Hasidic Jews — and what does this mean for future societal composition?

‘Particular’ populations, international or subnational, are going to have to negotiate with each other to work out a ‘global’ good. This has proven tricky in the past. Our modern environmental policy buzzword, sustainable development, is itself a portmanteau compromise of the 1970s international political environment. Richer countries, like Norway, pushed for ‘sustainable’, while for poorer countries any initiative without ‘development’ was unacceptable. The rights and duties of these different groupings surrounding population growth remain unclear. The densification of Africa, responsible for little of the global environmental harms of the past 200 years, was very highly contested.

This case of Africa framed many discussions that focussed on the last component of the OED’s definition of population, the ‘individual’. Are extraordinarily medical interventions such as ’nudge’-style opt-out contraceptives at birth acceptable on human rights grounds? Will covert contraceptive availability for women whose husbands want many children create enough systemic change? Would market incentives be effective, or are the side-effects of the commodification of children a societal path we don’t wish to tread? And where is the intrinsic good of families in all this? We heard of the stories and proverbs central to many African cultures which portray large numbers and big families as virtuous. More broadly, childrearing provides individuals with opportunities to exercise authority and find meaning. Who is allowed to take this away?

All in all, the vast distance in scale between the global and the individual — literally, the extent of our race — makes these topics some of the most ambitious that can be broached. Perhaps the only thing tougher is to talk about death. While it sat quietly in the title of the colloquium, almost no speaker mentioned it. Perhaps this is because fertility is the biggest driver of population, now most reach reproductive age, but it is illustrative of the broader difficulties of having frank discussions of ethical importance – not just in a colloquium but, more pressingly, in more public and global fora.