Natan Kohn-Magnus
Natan Kohn-Magnus

The Thanos policy debate

“This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.” These are the words of Thanos, one of the most notorious villains of the sci-fi genre. Thanos’s solution for “checking life” so to speak was to arbitrarily and summarily kill half of the universe’s population. His means were immoral and reprehensible, but he perceived his actions as the lesser of evils preventing a greater extinction.

Back in the non-marvel universe, Thomas Malthus famously argued that humanity was outstripping its ability to feed itself and would have to suffer a “correction” in the form of poverty and famine. Malthus’s central thesis did not come to pass (yet), but both he and Thanos strike as what appears to be a fundamental point. Endless human expansion in population and consumption will eventually outstrip the natural world’s precarious ability to sustain life itself. Surrounded by skyscrapers and malls it is easy to forget that we are dependent on our natural environment, but without it we would not exist. We often seem to take that reality for granted, stretching the natural world to its breaking point — and perhaps beyond.  It is critical then to consider where exactly we are in relation to that breaking point and what factors influence this relationship.

Studies have shown that one of the factors with the largest environmental impact is the decision to have a child. This is because any child born will grow up and consume everything that its parents did — cars, air travel, iPhones, etc. This reality is reflected in the longstanding formula for determining the impact of human activity on the natural environment is I = PAT (Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology).

There is a debate over the precise number of humans the world can sustain in the long term. Estimates have varied from under two billion (which we surpassed long ago) to hundreds of billions of people. But focusing only on the number of people forgets their level of consumption. Every family that brings a child into the world understandably wants that child to have the highest possible quality of life. Unfortunately, the standards of living that we currently seek are likely beyond what “mother earth” can sustain. Our quest to improve living conditions for all may well undercut those same living conditions in the future.

Is the solution then to have less kids? Well, not so fast. Let’s note a few cases of birth rate trends and policies across the world and consider their impact. The most notable example is China which recently amended its demographic policies to allow 3 children and is examining other policies to promote higher birthrates amongst its citizens. China is not alone, birthrates are declining around the world. The most pronounced case is in Japan, which has been suffering from a steep decline in birth rates for years leading to sights of deserted villages. While a decline in population is not necessarily a bad thing it does pose significant economic challenges as a smaller workforce must then support an increasingly larger aging community.

Israel is not immune to these dilemmas, given that it boasts the highest fertility rate of any country in the OECD by far, although this rate is declining slightly. It is not a coincidence that Israel is also one of the most densely populated countries in the OECD, and is on track to become the most densely populated OECD country in the coming decades. Israelis are reminded of this reality any time they travel — on a crowded bus with not enough seats or in a car stuck in another routine traffic jam (which by the way, costs Israel an estimated 25 billion shekels annually in lost productivity).

The full picture of fertility in Israel is a complicated one. The issue of childbirth is understandably a sensitive matter owing to the Jewish people’s experience with genocide. Contemporarily, demographics are also a touchy subject given the tensions and controversy surrounding Israel’s Jewish majority and the conflict between Israel and its Palestinian/Arab neighbors. Finally, the fertility rate in Israel is not uniform. While secular Israelis’ birth rates hover slightly above the replacement rate of 2.1, birth rates for the Arab sector stands at 3.4, at 4 for the religious population, and at a whopping 7.1 kids for the Ultra-orthodox Haredi population. Therefore, any Israeli child-bearing policy must be segmental in nature and will be idiosyncratic to Israel’s unique circumstances.

I am writing these words as a new first-time father to a beautiful daughter, which is undoubtedly the most life-changing and wonderful thing to have happened to me. Does this make me a hypocrite? I would argue not since I haven’t brought the average up yet but also because I am not advocating for humanity to abstain itself out of existence. I am saying that countries all around the world, including Israel, must take note of the dangers of unsustainable population growth and the pitfalls of a declining and aging population, and craft a coherent and comprehensive policy[1] to address these issues head-on. We can no longer bury our head in the sand about these issues (or plenty of other ones which we obfuscate and ignore). My daughter and our children will inherit the world we leave them, and it is for their sake that we must act now to ensure a sustainable and thriving quality of life for them, otherwise we run the risk of Malthus and other doomsayers proving us all wrong.

[1] I have not addressed the role of technology since it is beyond the scope of this post. Technology continues to progress in astounding ways, but not always in the way we expect and often with unintended externalities. Therefore, technology offers in my opinion an insufficient and partial solution to these challenges.

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, recently completed his master's degree in public policy and continues to try and contribute to the country that he loves. He is interested in things, and loves passionate but civil discourse.
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