The Sunday Times carries an interview with the increasingly influential Green campaigner Sir Jonathon Porritt, CBE, Bart. In his role as a government adviser - he chairs the taxpayer-funded Sustainable Development Commission - he is about to release a new report urging radical population control as a way of saving the planet. He thinks that "contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming", that government ministers have been "dodging the issue", and declares that
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
For Porritt, it appears, human beings are first and foremost polluters. The fewer the people, the less consumption, the less emission of carbon - and, though he does not say it, the more space for people like him. He even claims that "having more than two children is irresponsible". And he recommends that "the government must improve family planning, even if it means shifting money from curing illness to increasing contraception and abortion". This, of course, would be doubly effective. Not only would fewer polluters be born, but more would die off in middle age as resources were taken out of front-line healthcare. Everyone wins.
It's a strangely dessicated sensibility that regards children as, first and foremost, a carbon liability, comparable to well-established environmental hazards such as gas-guzzling cars, coal-fired power stations or traditional lightbulbs. But he has the figures to back it up. A 2007 report for the Optimum Population Trust, a campaign group of which he is a patron, claimed that "Each new UK citizen less means a lifetime carbon dioxide saving of nearly 750 tonnes, a climate impact equivalent to 620 return flights between London and New York." The author, David Nicholson-Lord, described not having children as a "radical form of offsetting carbon dioxide emissions to prevent climate change".
The OPT - which has charitable status, although like an increasing number of charities it's basically a pressure group - isn't directly connected with the government, unlike the SDC. Yet OPT thinking undoubtedly lies behind Porritt's words today. The OPT website provides ample evidence of institutional misanthropy and eco-fanaticism. Their tone combines nanny state bossiness, alarmist doom-mongering, incipient authoritarianism and utopian dreaming in more-or-less equal measure. It is seriously suggested, as a long-term aim, that the UK population should be reduced to a "sustainable" total of around a third the current figure. To achieve this, they advocate public education campaigns, fiscal measures aimed at discouraging reproduction, and biometric ID cards. They wish to see "environment programmes that advocate using contraception to avoid unwanted babies and depict this as integral to being green – no less relevant, for example, than saving energy or recycling or bicycling."
I must admit I struggle to understand who Porrit is aiming to win over. The general population? In that case, his comments would seem to be redundant at best, dangerous at worst. Many people in this country - an increasing number - have no children at all; many others discover that one is more than enough to cope with, especially given increasing costs and lack of time. The birthrate in this country - indeed, in all of western Europe and the more developed parts of Asia - has been below the "replacement level" of 2.1 children per woman for years. The result, of course, is that the EU faces a demographic disaster of declining population and an ageing population with insufficient workers to support it.
Whatever might be said of birthrates in the third world (and even there rates of growth have peaked), in developing countries the need is quite the opposite. Far from being irresponsible, couples willing to have more than two children would seem to be performing a public service - not for themselves, but to make up for the children that other couples and single people are not having.
The OPT have thought of that one. They argue that
All responsible organisations need to counter pro-natalist pressures, notably pressure to increase the birth rate to improve the proportion of workers to non-workers – the age dependency ratio. This is hopelessly simplistic since more children now means yet more pensioners in 70 years time, greatly increasing the total population of the country while not, in the long term, improving the dependency ratio problem.
That's hopelessly simplistic too, though. The looming crisis is the result of the combination of more old people and fewer young ones. It has arisen because the postwar Baby Boom was followed by a declining birthrate; today's birthrate is almost irrelevant. In the longer term, what is important to reduce "age dependency" is that the birthrate should be relatively stable. Otherwise there will be a downward spiral in which each successive generation of pensioners is dependent on an ever-smaller working population.
Especially puzzling for me is why Porritt and the OPT see a need to intervene at all. It is almost an iron law of demography that with increased affluence and education, better healthcare, widespread availability of contraception, later age of marriage and a majority of women engaged in paid employment, birthrate declines sharply. It has happened throughout Europe and the Far East (ignoring China with its official one child policy); and without the help Jonathon Porritt and his "stop at two" campaign.
There are some social groups in this country where this rule doesn't seem to apply. For one thing, Britain has Europe's largest percentage of teen pregnancy. Even so, having babies remains a minority pastime for British teenagers, one closely tied to social deprivation, welfare dependency (with its housing prioritising and other perverse incentives) and poor education. Then there are some ethnic minority communities, where early marriage and large families remain community norms. Here, too, marginalisation is a major factor: people from ethnic minorities who are well integrated into the general community have fewer children.
If Porritt is concerned with tackling population growth in the UK he should be campaigning to stop immigration, which is overwhelmingly what lies behind the projected figure of 70 million within the next twenty years. Immigration boosts the population directly, and it boosts the birthrate. The Times notes that "the fertility rate for women born outside Britain is estimated to be 2.5, compared with 1.7 for those born here."
Coincidentally, the Times reported on Friday that the Muslim population in Britain, as recorded in national statistics, has more than doubled over the past four years - and the increase was most pronounced among the under fours. The paper quoted Ceri Peach, Professor of Social Geography at Manchester University, on the challenges this posed for society: "They have got extremely strong family values", he said, "but it goes together with the sort of honour society and other kinds of attributes which people object to." Such attitudes become more difficult to challenge as the community which holds them increases in size and political power.
Given that the problem, if there is a problem, is one of immigration rather than birthrate, why is Porritt urging reproductive restraint on people who are reproductively too restrained already?
Porritt clearly espouses some version of Malthusianism - the view that increased population produces disaster rather than opportunity. The Rev Malthus himself a couple of centuries ago saw increasing birthrates and predicted mass starvation. Instead, what happened - what was happening all around him, had be bothered to look - was the Industrial Revolution. A hundred years later, eugenicists were passionately worried about the decline in the "quality of the race" caused by the disproportionately low birthrate among the middle class. It was the white working class, rather than immigrants, whose fertility was feared by those who feared that bad genes would swamp the good. Their response, however, was to encourage the fittest to reproduce; and, in some cases, to prevent "undesirables" from breeding through sterilisations. Everyone knows where that led.
About forty years ago, Malthus's predtictions were being repeated by the likes of Standford professor Paul Ehrlich. In his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that billions of people would die in famines unless radical and coercive measures of population control were introduced. By 1980, most of the population of the planet, he thought, would be starving. He repeated the predictions six years later, in The End of Affluence, and again in 1985. In 1969 he pronounced that "I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000".
Like Malthus before him, Ehrlich failed to predict advances in crop yields and technology. Demographic doom-mongers always do. Has he learned his lesson? He has not. He continues to give speeches and publish books proclaiming that his apocalyptic scenario will come true some day, somehow. On the OPT website he's listed, alongside Jonathon Porritt (and chimp expert Jane Goodall), as one of the patrons.
Nice to know they get their ideas from such a reliable source.