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Sarah Conly is the Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Bowdoin College. 

Bowdoin College philosophy professor Sarah Conly has a radical idea to address the growing problem of overpopulation — adopt a “one couple, one child” rule here in the U.S.

Speaking at a lecture called “Personal Liberty in the Contemporary World,” at the University of New England in Portland last Monday, Conly said that it’s “morally wrong” to have more than one child in the face of threats like climate change and overpopulation.

“As an old person, there are too many young people,” said Conly to a small crowd of students and educators. “I think one man and one women should only be able to produce one child. I know that may sound horrible, but I would ask you to justify your right to procreate. I can see a right to procreation, but a right doesn’t necessarily mean you have a right to as many of that thing as you want.”

There are about 7.53 billion people in the world, and that number is rising dramatically. About nine babies will have been born by the time you finish reading this sentence — according to global birth rate data 250 babies are born each minute of every day. Despite decreasing fertility rates, projections from the United Nations say that Earth’s population will actually increase to 9.6 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100. (This is because of a myriad of factors, but scientists typically explain the phenomenon by pointing to the rising the number of women of childbearing age and increased global life expectancy.)

Conly — who wrote on this controversial topic in her 2016 book One Child: Do We Have A Right To More? — echoes the warnings of scientists who say that between dwindling resources, a shortage of arable soil, civil unrest, and climate change, the Earth cannot sustainably support more than 9 billion people.

“When we’re talking about that large of a population in 2100, it’s not clear to me that those people would be happy to be alive,” said Conly. “I think we have an instinct to keep ourselves alive but when we look at this potential reality, it won’t be a life minimally worth living.”

On the back of scientific projections around overpopulation, Conly poised a question of philosophical ethics: Is it worth it for the government to infringe upon deeply personal individual liberties for the greater good of a collective? Conly says yes.

“I’m going to favor government regulation,” said Conly. “There is sometimes a reason for state coercion.”

To be fair, Conly envisions achieving this future democratically, and doesn’t endorse authoritarian measures like China’s recently ended “one child” law, which in some cases resulted in forced abortions and sterilizations, an outcome that Conly described as “mean and dumb.”

“It wasn’t really a one child policy; it wasn’t done in an egalitarian or democratic way,” she said. “I’m not looking for that. When we create laws we don’t ensure 100 percent of people are obeying them. Instead we disincentivize a certain activity so that most people obey. What we look for is general compliance.”

How does Conly propose we get there? Three ways. Increase the availability of cheap birth control worldwide. Mandate education around safe sex and climate change in public and private schools. And create financial incentives and disincentives around the issue, like tax breaks for having one or less children and a tax penalty for having more.

After the lecture, a Q and A session was held where about ten students challenged Conly’s policy suggestion from a number of angles. Some remarked that it would be difficult to decouple implementation of the policy from the stigmatization of religious people, in consideration of the people who follow a faith which encourages they “go forth and multiply.” Others asked how the policy wouldn’t disproportionately impact the poor, pointing to research from Oxfam International  which found that the world’s richest 10 percent produce more than half of global carbon emissions, and a 2017 study from the Climate Accountability Institute which found that just 100 mega-corporations are responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions.

“We know that the top percentile is taking up the most resources,” said Josh Waterman, a philosophy student at UNE. “Wouldn't this be more detrimental to the common person? Stopping a wealthy person from owning a fourth corporate jet might be more important.”  

And others, including UNE’s president James Herbert, suggested that Conly’s “one child” idea might be a political non-starter, due to the fact that so many people in the U.S. are already deeply concerned with the perceived "invasiveness" of government. 

“I’m generally not one to worry about slippery slope arguments, but if we can incentivize everyone to become vegans, or run five miles a day, that would be good,” said Herbert. “There are a lot of things following your principle that would benefit the collective good. Where do you draw the line which liberties we sacrifice?"

Conly returned each question with a different version of the same conviction: class and cultural differences between humans won’t have as detrimental an effect on the environment as the sheer growing number of those humans.

“None of those things add up to the consumption of an extra child,” said Conly. “We do need to address our lifestyle, but the I think the primary thing we need to do is reduce our population. 


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