A Promise and a Challenge

I appear to have stirred up a hornet’s nest in my last entry The Market for Reproductive Rights. I sort of expected the reaction from a few people. Much of the reaction has been of the knee-jerk variety. So here is a promise and a challenge.

I ask that we reason this one out together. Give me a chance to explain why I believe what I believe and in return I promise to debate the topic with anyone willing to do so. I am willing to be persuaded that I am mistaken. I like to think that I am not intellectually dishonest. I will readily admit that I am wrong if it can be logically demonstrated. And for your troubles in demonstrating that, I promise to buy you dinner at a restaurant of your choice at a mutually convenient time.

(Disclaimer:Getting to the restaurant is not included in this offer. So if you want the dinner in Paris, for instance, you will have to get there on your own. I will pick up the restaurant tab but not the airline fare. Offer void where prohibited or taxed. Batteries not included. Some assembly required. Contents may have settled during shipment. Your mileage may vary depending upon weather and other driving conditions. Past performance is not a guarantee of future prospects. You get the idea.)

To make it fair, in case you do accept the challenge, you will have to promise to buy me dinner at a restaurant of my choice (I will pay my way to the restaurant) if I am able to bring you around to my point of view through the force of argument.

The problem we are addressing is a complex, multi-faceted beast. Nothing that is worth debating has simplistic and simple answers. Even an apparently simple question such as “How many people can the earth support?” provides serious challenges to thoughtful people and gives rise to substantial scholarly books such as the one by Joel Cohen who wrote a book with that question as its title. I invite you to read that book if you are serious about engaging in debate around a topic that is not only intellectually fascinating but also has enormous social, political, moral, ethical, and economic implications.

(Aside: Joel Cohen told me how that book came about. A reporter called him up and asked, “Professor, how many people can the earth support?” Joel replied that it is not easy to answer off the top of his head. Could he get back to the reporter by the end of the week? The reporter said fine. So Joel started researching the question and it took him three years to arrive at a tentative answer which occupies a book.

Edward Wilson, Harvard University, certainly one of the greatest living biologists says, “Count this the definitive work on the global population problem. Cohen, one of the foremost theoretical biologists in the world, has brought extraordinary analytic powers and humanitarian learning to the topic, and those who care about the human future will do well to read his conclusions.”

William Nordhaus, Yale University economist and Nobel laureate, writing in the New York Times Book Review said, “It would be hard to conceive of a better book for those interested in a scholarly and nonideological review and analysis of population issues. … Fascinating and lucid. … a gem of a book.”

If I had one wish granted, I would ask that I have the power to compel every academic, every political leader, every adult in India to read the book by Cohen because it will awaken them to the real problem that India faces. Compared to the population problem, nukes from Pakistan or China appear to be like an invitation to a arm-wrestling match. Compared to the population problem, AIDS seems like a minor cold.

I kid you not: if after considering the problem in some depth, you can sleep soundly at night, I would say that you are an enlightened being who is not disturbed by affairs that afflict the merely mortal. End aside.)

There is a payoff in engaging in this exercise, one of personal growth. Both of us, you and I, will be enriched by this inquiry and debate. I ask you to seriously consider my invitation to debate and further, ask you to take up my challenge. Email me and tell me if we are on, and whether you want to pick up this challenge publicly or not. If you do want to accept the challenge publicly, then readers of this blog will know who are on which side of the debate.

The game is afoot. Time to take up the questions that have been raised as comments to the last post, which I will do shortly. Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble to email me and to comment on the proposal.

Author: Atanu Dey


12 thoughts on “A Promise and a Challenge”

  1. Not for a moment I am debating the issues surrounding the growing population, however coincidentally, I read this piece in “The Bhagwad Gita for daily living. Vol 3″ by Eknath Easwaran, and thought this may interest you.

    ” In their book “Food First” Fraces Moore and Joseph Collins quote from “Road to Survival” in which one William Vogt wrote about a populous Asian country that it quite literally cannot feed more people” He predicted “Millions are going to die. There cannot be a way out…these men, women, boys and girls must starve as tragic sacrifices, on twin altars of uncontrolled reproduction and uncontrolled abuse of land and resources” We read and hear stories such as this, and feel they must be true. The graphs show population soaring and we know food supply is limited by land.

    Yet Mr. Vogt’ words, which seem so obviously true, were written about China in 1948. What has happened to Chinas population since 1948?….

    Limiting population is high prirority. But it is easy to lay blame on population and miss the deeper problems. ….

    Easwaran, goes on to talk abt the core issues surrounding this problem and giving solutions in his own style.

    Vol 3, page 227 to 230


  2. Atanu,

    Since I’m in Singapore, and cannot afford the airfare, I’ll resist the temptation to take you up on your offer.

    However, I’m all ears. Academically, what you propose may be workable (given an infinite number of highly qualified economists); but I’d like to know what in your proposal is can be realistically implemented without dehumanising people. In particular, how do you get around the issue of obligatory sterilisation?


  3. An experiment in population control using only economic incentives is reported in The Pioneer. I think that looking at this issue from the point of view of personal freedom alone is not correct since it affects society as a whole. Looking at the political situation it is highly improbable that a sterilization program would be accepted (even though I personally think it is a good idea). It would be more fruitful to discuss other alternatives. A program of economic incentives is a good idea provided it does not penalize already poor people if they happen to have a large family, ie., it should be a program of extra incentives and should not take away existing benefits.


  4. Dear Atanu,

    Bill Nordhaus is not a NOBEL prize winner. He might win one one day but hiterto he is not won one.




  5. I think this is an intellectually sound argument, not a real life one. Tell me one person in India who will surrender his right to reproduce. How will you enforce it? Through a cabal of morally and intellectually dishonest political and police forces?

    I can see the beginning of a vicious cycle. Make a constitutional amendment to override fundamental rights. If you are economically disadvantaged , you cannot have children. Too bad. Surrender or be castrated. You give up your right to reproduce to some guy further up the chain who will have bought the right to have more children.

    Are rich parents better than the poor ones? On what basis are you arriving at such a conclusion? How does the ability to ‘buy more’ confer on people beter values?

    I don’t work for an NGO. I work for the most material of professions – an advertising agency. One that defines the attractiveness of people by their ability to buy. As much as they can of whatever we are peddling.

    What you are suggesting is tantamount to genocide. If you are poor, you have no right to propogate. So your lineage will die out. The only people left in the country will be those who can ‘buy’ up their right to repoduce further.

    These values in turn are passed on to their offspring.

    A famous actor ran over four people sleeping on the footpath because he was drunk. Isn’t it just wonderful that he can buy his way through and never have to spend a day behind bars?

    The tricky part is, someone has to be at the bottom of the chain. The price of the ‘Right to Reproduce’ will grow all the time. And the middle class which can afford it now will no longer be able to do so.

    I know what your counter to this will be. Once we have stabilised the whole population problem, we can repeal the laws and allow people to get their fundamental right again.

    Yeah. Just like reservations. Fifty years into our independence, not one politician is willing to say a word about doing away with it. Instead they have found a fabulous compromise. Include more and more castes under the reservation scheme every year. Then we can ‘reserve’ the whole of India for all castes! Finally there will be justice.


  6. Dear Atanu ,

    I accept your offer unconditionally. I stay in kolkata and Restaurants, even the best ones don’t cost a lot. But before taking on I would like to lay down the axioms so that none of us have trouble in accepting each others point ( inspite of so much blah blah about intellectual honesty ) :-

    1. Mere desire is no demand until you have the purchasing power. Any thing which is a mere wish but can not be translated into action ( inspite of how so ever hard you may try) remains outside the perview of economics.

    2. Basic intention of your idea is that it would increase human happines over a long period of time , calculated as sum of happiness of each individual born till the dooms day ( if it ever was and you feel if your scheme is implemented it would never be )compared to present system.

    3. “Experts” in One field will not automatically qualify for experts in field outside their area of expertise (Biologist can not be trusted with predicitions which will require insight into human psychology , economics , genetics, environmental science , astro physics et al.)

    Hope you will accept the challange.

    Rajeev Kumar
    Flat #2,
    34 Park street


  7. Dear atanu ,

    I am still waiting for you to accept the challenge ( originally thrown by you) .

    I have “Q.E.D” paper ready to counter your “brilliant idea”. I am waiting for your reply …

    Rajeev Kumar


  8. Rajeev,

    There is nothing for me to accept. As you already noted, I made the offer and you accepted. The contract is complete, the wager is on. At some point, one of us will have to concede. Until then, the outcome is undecided.


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