This post is long and controversial. Have at it.
MR writes: So I read this book, and I have no recollection of what it was called, but basically it was a deep ecology type economic treatise, and the gist, as I distill and remember it, was basically that a lot of things we do to help the poor, both here and abroad, are really bad for the environment. One harsh take in the book was that by helping keep people fed in areas where people are starving we in effect discourage self-regulation of population, thus leading to further destruction of natural resources, etc.
Very true. The problem with the Green Revolution, etc. is that we have more people to eat the increased food supply (think Bangladesh). Just like building wider roads leads to more cars (back to traffic jams), the way to reduce population is to make kids more expensive. One reason OECD women have fewer is that the cost of kids (in time, lost career, education, etc) is so expensive. So -- get rich and population drops.* It's MORE ironic that cheap food programs make farmers POOR and lead to greater urbanization.
Thus: End food subsidies (more people) and price controls (less food).
The other point I remember is how all the US tax breaks, etc for having kids encourages people to have kids, and that if we are serious about population and the screaming negative impact it is having on our environment we would economically disincentivize reproduction.
This is the nationalistic (religion too) argument for having kids of the "right blood". Seen that one before, right? If you think that US tax credits for kids are bad, you should see the French, Italians, et al. as they try to encourage kids from the "right people" instead of "dirty" foreign migrants; see this article on foreigners and disease.
As an economist, what are some possible economic solutions that both help address world poverty in a meaningful way and also encourage a shrinkage over all in population (both globally and locally where it is contributing to local deforestation etc) and resource use?
If more resources (fish, trees, etc) were taken out of the commons (where they are abused by all) and put into private hands, they would get protected (=more expensive) and people would be more careful with them. The poor can benefit from the income stream as well as a larger resource base, but politics (esp. abuse of power) doesn't always lead to that outcome.
There are many ways to (intentionally) slow population expansion, ranging from the draconian (forced adult sterilization, abortion, etc.) to the evolutionary (the demographic shift).
If you are a dictator in search of a truly radical idea, try this: Sterilize one-half of all newborns, leaving half the people fertile ("Breeders") and the other half sterile ("Players"?). The key element in this idea is expectations, i.e., the idea that Players would grow up knowing they were not going to have kids. That makes it easier to plan a life around other activities. Although Breeders might face some additional pressure to have more, they would not have many more, especially if they bear the full costs of raising the kids. (Although I'd maintain some subsidies for education, I'd end other subsidies/tax breaks/etc.)
Net result: Cut average births per woman by up to 50 percent.
So easy to figure out what to do for ones self (have one or, preferably, fewer kids; consume little in all material respects, enjoy life and community, live fully, etc), so hard for the layman to have any idea how to manifest positive results quickly enough (if indeed quick is necessary) in the world at large. I would be a horrible world dictator, I know that much, causing a worst case scenario (my subjects, limited to one child, no animal protein, and only renewable energy would revolt within 2 days, pouring gasoline on my grave and running over it again and again in Hummers, while eating raw beef and using fertility drugs to conceive triplets, whom they will teach creationist theory and human superiority...)
Sad but true: The point of the tragedy of the commons is that the "invisible hand" strangles all of us....
* An article in the current JEP says that fertility follows a "U" shaped path, noting that fertility is rising again the US and Scandinavian countries.
Also at Aguanomics today: