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Academic & Professional Books  Environmental & Social Studies  Economics, Politics & Policy  Economics, Business & Industry  Environmental Economics

Time and the Generations Population Ethics for a Diminishing Planet

By: Partha Dasgupta(Author), Robert Solow(Foreword By)
296 pages, 9 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Building a bridge between ethics and economics, Time and the Generation contains a challenging essay that explores what the optimum global human population might be on a resource-constrained planet.
Time and the Generations
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  • Time and the Generations ISBN: 9780231160124 Hardback Jun 2019 Usually dispatched within 4 days
Price: £21.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world? While demographers, moral philosophers, and environmental scientists have separately discussed the implications of population size for sustainability, none have attempted to synthesize the concerns and values of these approaches. The culmination of a half century of engagement with population ethics, Partha Dasgupta's masterful Time and the Generations blends economics, philosophy, and ecology to offer an original lens on the difficult topic of optimum global population.

With careful attention to global inequality and the imbalance of power between genders, Dasgupta provides tentative answers to two fundamental questions: What level of economic activity can our planet support over the long run, and what does the answer say about optimum population numbers? He develops a population ethics that can be used to evaluate our choices and guide our sense of a sustainable global population and living standards. Structured around a central essay from Dasgupta, Time and the Generations also features a foreword from Robert Solow, incisive commentaries from Kenneth J. Arrow, Joseph Stiglitz, Eric Maskin, and Scott Barrett, and a joint paper with Aisha Dasgupta on inequalities in reproductive decisions and the idea of reproductive rights. Taken together, Time and the Generations represents a fascinating dialogue between world-renowned economists on a central issue of our time.


In Memoriam: Kenneth Joseph Arrow (1921–2017)
Foreword, by Robert M. Solow
Random Thoughts on “Birth and Death,” by Kenneth J. Arrow
Birth and Death: Arrow Lecture

1. Economic Demography
2. Utilitarian Ethics
3. Ends and Means
4. Synopsis

Part I: Foundations
5. Genesis Under Total Utilitarianism
6. Death
7. A Problem Like Sleeping Beauty
8. Generation-Centered Prerogatives in the Timeless World
9. Generations Across the Indefinite Future

Part II: Applications
10. The Biosphere as a Renewable Natural Resource
11. Estimates of Globally Optimum Population
12. Technology and Institutions
13. Existential Risks and Informed Ends

Appendix 1: Socially-Embedded Well-Being Functions
Appendix 2: Common Property Resources and Reproductive Choices
Appendix 3: Notes on Rawls’ Principle of Just Saving
Appendix 4: Modeling the Biosphere
Appendix 5: Inclusive Wealth and Social Well-Being
Appendix 6: Valuing Freedom of Choice

Commentary on Birth and Death, by Scott Barrett
Commentary on Birth and Death, by Eric Maskin
Commentary on Birth and Death, by Joseph Stiglitz
Response to Commentaries
Socially Embedded Preferences, Environmental Externalities, and Reproductive Rights, with Aisha Dasgupta—Reprinted from Population and Development Review (September 2017)
Author Index
Subject Index

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Challenging, but long overdue
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 15 May 2020 Written for Hardback

    In Time and the Generations Dasgupta asks the thorny question: “How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world?” Given that I have previously called overpopulation the elephant in the room that few wish to address, my interest was immediately piqued.

    Intuitively, the answer to this question to me has always seemed: it depends. The IPAT equation is pretty clear about it, Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology. There is not going to be a single number, it depends on what we consider a good life. The more affluent we want our lifestyle to be, the fewer of us there can be before we require more natural resources than our planet can supply.

    So, superficially, this question does not seem like rocket science. But Dasgupta here turns it into something very much akin to rocket science. He writes for an audience of fellow philosophers and economists here and takes as a given a certain level of background knowledge and familiarity with the vocabulary. Below I will try to demystify some of this and hopefully not butcher it too much in the process.

    This book is part of the Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series, which honours the intellectual legacy of this economist. Dasgupta has revised and expanded on material from this and other lectures and turned it into a large essay, the Arrow Lecture, that sits at the heart of this book. It is driven by two questions. Given that our planet has resource constraints, what level of economic activity can it support long term? And can we deduce an optimum population size from this? To answer these questions, Dasgupta engages in a formal mathematical modelling exercise in both normative and population ethics. Normative ethics studies ethical action: how should one act, morally speaking? Population ethics studies the ethical problems that arise when our actions affect who and how many of us are born in the future.

    As his starting point, Dasgupta takes Henry Sidgwick’s version of utilitarian thought. As an ethical theory, utilitarianism says that we should act to maximize happiness and well-being for individuals involved. When applied in the context of population ethics, I think this means asking how we can maximize well-being for humanity as a whole. Dasgupta starts with a model of a timeless world in which goods are produced and consumed and asks what level of population maximizes well-being (so-called total utilitarianism). He then modifies this theory to construct what he calls generation-relative utilitarianism. He adds a component of time in the form of existing people choosing how many children to have and asks how we can maximize well-being in that scenario. The aim of this whole exercise? A model that offers potential parents a normative theory of, and ethical guidance on, reproductive decisions.

    The Arrow Lecture is accompanied by other material that, fortunately, is quite enlightening. I would even go so far as to recommend you read it first to get a better handle on the book’s outline. There is a foreword by economist Robert M. Solow, some emails on the Lecture from Kenneth J. Arrow to Dasgupta, three commentaries with a response by Dasgupta, an epilogue, and a reprint of a closely-allied paper co-authored with his daughter Aisha Dasgupta. To make it self-contained, the last part of the Lecture actually borrows heavily from this paper, so there is a fair bit of overlap here.

    Where the modelling exercise was rather abstruse to me, the second half is where things get really interesting. He first offers the briefest of reviews of humanity’s impact on the planet, stressing repeatedly just how insanely fast, in just mere decades, we have increased our standard of living and, with it, extraction of natural resources. Then he applies his model to get some very rough numbers for optimal population size, with most estimates falling somewhere between 1.5 to 3.5 billion people. This agrees with earlier work by Paul Ehrlich and co-authors, as well as the recent limit of 3 billion championed by Christopher Tucker.

    Dasgupta is frank about the model simplifications made up to this point and the crudeness of some the estimates of our impact on the biosphere. But, as he points out, “What matters [...] is not the exact figure but whether the footprint exceeds 1. On that there should be little question” (p. 105). Indeed, and for a fuller picture I refer readers to Vaclav Smil’s Harvesting the Biosphere, the recent Humans versus Nature, and the forthcoming Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity.

    There are three other things that Dasgupta writes worth mentioning here. First is his invocation of the economic concept of externalities. These are positive or negative consequences that our actions have for others that are not accounted for. An example of a negative externality is global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. We, its consumers, are not paying the cost of global warming which is instead inflicted on both existing and future people. Dasgupta argues this applies just as much for reproduction: adding another human being to an already overburdened planet has costs for all future people. For most, life is so sacrosanct that nobody wants to discuss this, and applying this kind of cold calculus is still taboo. High time somebody broached that topic.

    Second is that the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the United Nations, which for example aim to reduce global wealth inequality, are silent on population and the burden increased affluence will have on the planet. One more reason why this conversation is so terribly overdue. Third – there is good news too – preferences for the number of children people wish to have are, what Dasgupta calls, socially embedded. They are subject to both people’s desire to compete with one another and to conform to a majority. Changing such preferences might be less costly than it first appears, though it will be none the easier for it.

    One thing Dasgupta, by his own admission, stops short of is formulating policies how to achieve optimum global population. Luckily, others are starting to be willing to discuss this (see my review of Should We Control World Population?). Equally important will be the tough discussion on how we can change our behaviour so as to live lighter on our environment, something I will cover in an upcoming review of Planetary Accounting.

    Time and the Generations takes no prisoners where its level is concerned, being primarily written for an audience versed in economics and philosophy. Though I struggled to get to grips with parts of the book, I found it refreshing and uplifting to see an economist champion something else than endless growth.
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Partha Dasgupta is the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, and visiting professor at the New College of the Humanities, London. His books include Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment (2001) and Economics: A Very Short Introduction (2007).

By: Partha Dasgupta(Author), Robert Solow(Foreword By)
296 pages, 9 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Building a bridge between ethics and economics, Time and the Generation contains a challenging essay that explores what the optimum global human population might be on a resource-constrained planet.
Media reviews

"With this wonderfully wide-ranging, brilliant, and generous book, Partha Dasgupta joins his admired mentor, Kenneth Arrow, in the elite band of economists who have appreciated and contributed to the philosophical underpinnings of their subject. The relationship goes both ways, for by bringing in an economist's sense of ecological and biological realities, he is able to modify and transcend the contributions of philosophers such as Mill, Sidgwick, Ramsey, Rawls, and Parfit. The result is an astonishing monument to a lifetime of hard thought about population, sustainability, savings, and human welfare."
– Simon Blackburn, Bertrand Russell Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge

"What a book! Written with pellucid refinement and compelling responsibility, it incisively appraises humankind's numbers in tandem with assessments of ecology, time, personal decisions, and varied social and economic circumstances. Composed at the frontiers of norms and methods, philosophy and economics, demography and social analysis, Time and the Generations offers a systematic and bracing homage to heterodox reason in the spirit of Ken Arrow."
– Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University

"In recent decades, we've seen human impacts on the biosphere surge far beyond sustainable levels, raising deeply vexing questions about the path ahead. With intellectual elegance and insight, Dasgupta delves into the moral, economic, and environmental dimensions of global population and living standards. This rigorous book opens a normative approach to the fraught choices confronting all of us."
– Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor of Environmental Science, Stanford University

"A brilliant and original analysis of the population-consumption-environment nexus that will determine the quality of human futures on this troubled planet. This book will set the standard with which future discussions on this vital subject are conducted."
– Peter H. Raven, president emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden

"Time and the Generations is a fascinating and enlightening work. Partha Dasgupta and his interlocutors have created a captivating and challenging book."
– Menahem Yaari, S.A. Schonbrunn Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Economics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

"[Dasgupta] uses unique and original analysis of the link between environment, population and material consumption."

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