Emission rights for women

One fact which is occasionally trotted out is that the current population of the world, at six billion, is five times what the world can cope with, if all of them had the same standard of living as the West. To be sure the six billion figure quoted is several years old, and the actual figure today is about 6.8 billion. And not everybody needs to live in quite the wasteful way that is meant in the reference to the Western standard of living. But even so, if we are really to bring everyone up to a reasonable standard of living, with clean water, enough food, a good infrastructure, and connection to the Internet, then I think we can agree that we’re going to put a strain on the resources of this little planet.

I remembered this when I saw an interesting article in the debate column of one of our local newspapers recently which carried the title “With today’s birthrate we will soon be 134,000 billion”. Soon in this case was the year 2300.

Of course one could never actually reach that number. Thomas Malthus’ four horsemen would see to that, long before we even reached a trillion. But the shock effect was probably successful in getting more people to read the article than might otherwise have done so.

The author’s main point was that the global birthrate, currently 2.6 children per woman, according to UN statistics must be reduced. If the birthrate were reduced to 2.35, the global population in 2300 would only be 36 billion, still unrealiseable. A birthrate of 2.1 would give us a global population of nine billion in 2060, after which it would level off. And finally a birthrate equivalent to that in Sweden and the UK, 1.85, would, according to the author, reduce the population to 2.3 billion by 2300, still double the number the world can support, but nonetheless only a third of what it is now. (I must admit I have my reservations about the arithmetic.*)

But reducing the birthrate is going to meet with opposition from a great many directions. Most notably, of course, from a silly old man who lives in twenty-first century Rome, but thinks he lives in first century Galilee. As long as the catholic church makes it a sin to restrict one’s family size, we have a big problem on our hands. However, the pope is not alone in his anathema for family planning, of course, The same can be attributed to all of the three world religions which stem from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of them want to conquer the world by overwhelming it by sheer force of numbers. The problem is that they might just succeed, if we can’t persuade them to listen to reason.

A milder form of the opposition to birthrate reduction was a proposition weathered by the local Christian Democratic party here in Sweden a year or two ago which, if I remember the details correctly, would give families a state subsidy of 10000 crowns (at today’s rates about $1400) for each new child. Whether it was a one-off payment or a yearly one to age 18, I can’t remember, and it is irrelevant since the idea was quietly buried, but not before it had been discussed on the television sofa. I vividly remember two of the panelists that morning pompously consigning the plan to the waste basket, but, in the next breath proclaiming that “we need a larger population in this country, but that’s not the way to go about it”.

I wondered which “we” it was who needed a larger population, and how they had the gall to see the citizens as some kind of tame resource, like the slaves of the American south, to be bred for “our” purposes. Assuming it had something to do with industrial production, it fell short of rationality, for at the time there was near record unemployment, so that one could say that what “we” wanted was actually fewer resources. And if “we” really needed a larger population, why not offer the chance to, say, a million Chinese farmers, who would probably jump at the chance to move to the freedom of the West, and improve their own welfare at the same time as they generated value for the local population. China would never notice the loss.

It occurred to me that some present or future Dan Brown or John Grisham could write a story about a lone campaigner for the idea of emission rights for women, whereby all women had the right to give birth to one child, but must persuade another woman to abstain, if they wanted a second, or third child. Presumably money would change hands, which would give a new meaning to human value. And if the woman who abstained subsequently decided she wanted a child, she, too would have to negotiate with another woman to give up her “emission right” in order to restore the abstainer’s original right. The problem is one can see that the hero of the story would probably have been assassinated before page eleven, and where is your story then?

* I can see that, if two people produce 1.85 babies, then the population should eventually reduce, when the parents die. My problem with the maths is that China, with it’s modified one child policy, claims to have a birthrate of 1.8, and yet the population of China has increased from just under one billion in 1978 when the policy was introduced to 1.35 billion in 2008.

© James Wilde 2015