Scholars Talk Pronatalism and Population Engineering

population engineering

Michael Cook has an interesting article on “Let’s fight climate change with population engineering.” Yes – “population“engineering.” What is it? Check it out.

Population Engineering

Cook summarizes the article,”Population Engineering and the Fight against Climate Change” in the journal, “Social Theory and Practice.” Authored by Colin Hickey and Jake Earl, two philosophers from Georgetown University, and bioethicist Travis Rieder of Johns Hopkins University, it argues that “people must be persuaded to produce fewer people,” and resurrect “the idea of population control,” or as they call it, “population engineering.”

As they write in the article’s abstract,

“…we argue that the threats posed by climate change justify population engineering, the intentional manipulation of the size and structure of human populations. Specifically, we defend three types of policies aimed at reducing fertility rates: (1) choice enhancement, (2) preference adjustment, and (3) incentivization. While few object to the first type of policy, the latter two are generally rejected because of their potential for coercion or morally objectionable manipulation. We argue that forms of each policy type are pragmatically and morally justified (perhaps even required) tools for preventing the harms of global climate change.”

They emphasize that “policymakers and moral theorists alike have been reluctant to wade into discussions of population policy” but that this “reluctance is unjustifiable and, ultimately, irresponsible” in today’s overpopulated world faced with climate change.

Choice Enhancement

Choice enhancement policies involve mostly what we see being implemented right now – education (e.g., contraception, impacts humans have on climate change) and efforts to increase reproductive health care access.

Preference adjustment

Preference adjustment policies seek to address “procreative behaviors in the direction of lower fertility” by influencing change in beliefs and cultural norms. Implementation strategies include things like mass media, such as radio, TV, billboards, poster campaigns, and public lectures.

Empirical research has shown that these kind of strategies have led to more people to engage in family planning, and reduced or delayed childbearing. The organization, Population Media Center, has seen much success in preference adjustment strategies. As they sum up what they do, “PMC changes behavior to improve the health and well-being of people around the world using entertainment-education. Soap operas, it turns out, can change the world.”

President William Ryerson claims that “in terms of birth averted per dollar spent, mass media communications are probably the most effective strategy for reducing fertility rates.” Now, some might argue that this strategy influences attitudes and behavior to the point where it can impact our individual liberties. But as Hickey, Rieder and Earl make clear, “we accept this way of shaping values and opinions all the time—in public health contexts, in advertising, in personal relationships.”

While it can be argued that these strategies can be “manipulative violations of autonomy rights,” like the authors, I would also argue that preference adjustment strategies to reduce fertility can actually enhance autonomy.

As they write, “Most people live in pro-natalist cultures, in which the social value of having children has been reinforced over centuries.” Pronatalist beliefs have driven how people think about parenthood and reproduction for so long that people think they reflect ‘truths’  – when they are not.  Preference adjustment strategies can foster freeing people from long-held, outmoded and untrue pronatalist beliefs so that they can make the best reproductive decisions for themselves and our world.


These kind of policies would be designed to provide incentives to reduce fertility. Policies could provide positive and negative incentives connected to whom it is offered, the behavior to be incentivized, the type of benefit, the timeframe, and for whom it will benefit (the person, the larger community).

Criticized as coercive (such as China’s one-child policy) Hickey, Rieder and Earl contend the coercive component can be “ameliorated or avoided entirely” with:

1) greater political transparency about the goals, methods, and outcomes of those policies.

2) offering incentives to government officials, health professionals, family members, or other actors, rather than directly to would-be procreators.

3) consideration of the “special vulnerabilities of groups such as children, the poor, women, the disabled, or racial/ethnic minorities.”

One area of incentivized policy involves tax benefits. In The Baby Matrix, I discuss tax policies that reverse the current tax benefits associated with having children. The current policies provide incentives to have children, and more of them. To address population reduction goals, these policies could change to provide tax benefits to those who have one biological child or less, and those who adopt.

In their paper, Hickey, Rieder and Earl close by outlining a global population engineering program, and why population engineering policies need to be addressed – now. Why? Because current approaches “might turn out to be too little, too late.”

Please share this important article by Hickey, Rieder and Earl. Unlike many scholarly articles, lay readers will find it accessible, and learn a lot about why the answer to the question, “Is population engineering a practical and morally justifiable means to help ameliorate the threat of climate change?” is Yes.


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