Monday, 2 February 2009

I'm a fourth child: so shoot me

Timed perfectly to coincide with the society's second event this term, there was an article in yesterday's Times under the headline, 'Two children should be the limit, says green guru':
"COUPLES who have more than two children are being “irresponsible” by creating an unbearable burden on the environment, the government’s green adviser has warned.

Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming. He says political leaders and green campaigners should stop dodging the issue of environmental harm caused by an expanding population...

“I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,” Porritt said."

The implications of this green fanaticism is deeply alarming and should be rejected by any humanist mindset. Porritt is not objecting to population growth because he fears it will lead to a diminution in human living standards, but because the impact of an increased number of individuals will harm the earth - whose preservation he treats as an end in itself. By some unexplained metric, Porritt has decided that 2 children (conveniently the number that he himself has) is an acceptable burden for the earth, but that 3 is intolerable and deserves ostracism. We find some of the evidence upon which he based his calculation in this excerpt:
"The Optimum Population Trust, a campaign group of which Porritt is a patron, says each baby born in Britain will, during his or her lifetime, burn carbon roughly equivalent to 2½ acres of old-growth oak woodland - an area the size of Trafalgar Square."
EV[2 children] > EV[5 acres of old-growth oak woodland]


EV[3 children] < EV[7½ acres of old-growth oak woodland]
where EV is a measurement of the ethical value of inanimate trees and conscious humans. He enables us to add some additional constraints with this snippet:
"Many organisations think it is not part of their business. My mission with the Friends of the Earth and the Greenpeaces of this world is to say: ‘You are betraying the interests of your members by refusing to address population issues and you are doing it for the wrong reasons because you think it is too controversial,” he said."
[emphasis added]

Whence we infer that the desire of people already living (in particular, a certain subset of that category: Greenpeace members, Friends of the Earth members, & Jonathan Porritt) to enjoy a certain environment and moral smugness trumps the right of as yet unborn people to live. QED.

In reality, the most dangerous thing about this type of public statement is that it stretches the boundaries of acceptable discourse, and makes it ever more realistic that what begins as a 'moral duty' turns into a legal duty, with government subsidy (which Porritt's report advocates), and ultimately Spartan birth control policies. Not only are these ethically incomprehensible claims, but their supposed justification finds no support in the empirical social sciences. Professor Nicholas Eberstadt, an expert in demography, analysed the claims of overpopulation - and the proposed solutions - in his 2007 Sustainable Development Network paper, "Too Many People? Addressing the assertions that world population will unsustainably double over the next century,
"the grim and inescapable connection between population growth and mounting economic problems that is posited by today’s anti-natal doctrine is hardly faithful to the actual record of global demographic and economic development over the past century . But the apparent anxiety that some proponents of “stabilising world population” experience in contemplating a future with 11 billion, 14 billion, or more human inhabitants of our planet may also be misplaced for a more prosaic reason: to judge by current trends, such levels may never be achieved.

To be sure: long-term population projections are extraordinarily problematic. No robust scientific basis exists for anticipating desired parental fertility in any locale – much less for the world as a whole – very far in advance. Since it is fertility levels that largely determine future population trajectories, this is more than an incidental inconvenience. The experience of the past four decades, however, is worth bearing in mind. In the four decades since the early 1960s, global fertility levels are thought to have dropped by almost half: from a “total fertility rate” (TFR, or births per woman per lifetime) of around 5 in 1960/65 to one of about 2.6 in 2000/2005. Over that same period, the average TFR for “developing countries” is thought to have dropped by over half, from 6 to under 3. Although there is a well-known and general correspondence between increasing affluence and lower fertility , material progress alone does not account for this tremendous decline in birth rates in low-income countries. Equally important has been the largely overlooked fact that parents still caught in Third World poverty have been choosing to have ever-smaller families."
If this trend continues, there is no reason to have any faith in catastrophic population projections - either as a cause of poverty or environmental destruction - and to correspondingly eschew the paternalistic recommendations of the Sustainable Development Commission. As Eberstadt points out,
"Advocates of anti-natal population programs must make a fateful choice. They must either opt for voluntarism, in which case their population targets will be meaningless. Or else they must opt for attempting to meet their population targets – in which case they must embrace coercive measures, like China’s one-child policy. There is no third way."
Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked and co-founder of the Manifesto Club, will be speaking at the society this Wednesday (4th February) on green restrictions on freedom, of which population is only one component; the title is, 'Why Environmentalism is the Enemy of Liberty.' The event is at 8pm at Christ Church - entry is free and all are welcome.

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