It can’t have escaped your attention that there are now more than seven billion of us sharing our increasingly burdened planet. What could have escaped your attention, however, but I hope not, is the shocking story of a ten-year-old girl recently giving birth to a baby boy in Mexico.
Two things troubled me about this: the girl’s age, obviously, and that, under state laws, mothers are not allowed to have abortions unless they can prove they were the victim of a sexual assault. They face a fine or imprisonment if they break this law. The state’s minimum age of consent is, amazingly, just 12.
The main thing is, and thank God if you believe in him, that the premature baby boy, who weighed little more than three pounds and was born by Caesarean section, is said to be doing well.
Now, I’m not at all casting aspersions on (one part of) Mexico when my own homeland is hardly void of similarly shameful and suspicious episodes (keep reading for those). I will continue to doubt the wisdom of the Roman Catholic Church, though, as I wonder about the validity of feeding chemicals to livestock in order to bring about early maturity. I dread to think how many other children will themselves bear children in future, and all the while I wish more and more that I could just make for the hills and live like a hermit on a mountainside with only dogs and a wind-up radio for company, so increasingly dispiriting are the tales coming from every angle.
This story isn’t quite as unusual as you or I would like to believe. A Romanian girl, also aged ten, gave birth in a Spanish hospital last year. The father, at 13, was also a minor and barely a week after the birth it was reported that the couple (gosh, it seems so very wrong to use that word) had separated. Not to worry, the girl’s family were ‘ecstatic’.
I don’t know about you, but at the age of ten, I was playing kerby and collecting trading cards which smelt of bubble gum. What is it with some people today, what is wrong with our society, what are we doing to our children? The sexualisation of youth continually astonishes me, but my despair is aimed only at teenagers aspiring to look like their favourite celebrities and exposing too much flesh in the process, I don’t consider the dismal consequences of small children actually having sex. The thought of being a parent at that age revolts me. The thought of my family being ‘ecstatic’ at the prospect revolts me almost as much. I can find no joy in my heart for these two girls, only sympathy.
(Perversely, the youngest ever recorded mother was a five-year-old Peruvian. She still lives in poverty in the city of Lima and despite her financial circumstances, refuses to speak to the press and has never identified the father.)
I suppose we should heave a collective sigh of relief and be thankful that the Romanian girl belongs, it would appear, to a tight-knit community and has the unrivalled support of a strong family unit, and reassure ourselves that all this probably means that the baby will be brought up well. Yet try as I might I cannot understand how encouraging – for is the grandmother not encouraging others by exaggerating her joy and minimising the event’s seriousness? – children to have children, before they themselves have had a chance to be children, is in any way a good thing for anybody. Will there be a second or third child born to this child before she is even a teen? How many more children could she potentially bring into the world during the course of her life? It beggars belief. Quaint traditions and accepted community norms are all well and good, if you care for them, but children having children is just too much for me to stomach.
Then there’s the not very small matter of our rising world population. I’ll get to that in a moment.
As you’d expect, cynics questioned whether there was a financial motive involved, the baby being born in Spain and thus a Spanish national. Not so, it seems. I recall how Britain’s youngest grandfather, aged 29, was branded a ‘scrounger’ earlier this year; his fourteen-year-old daughter the same age as he had been when she was born. His mother, the baby’s great-grandmother, has not yet reached 50.
“She was 18 when she had me. She was shocked when I told her the news, but she is happy now. Her own mum is alive, and so too is her grandmother, who will become a great-great-great grandmother. There can’t be too many families with six generations alive at the same time.”
No, indeed – and I’m glad. There are seven billion of us now, for goodness sake.
The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Britain’s youngest parents became parents at 14, Britain’s youngest father at 12.
There is nothing more disheartening than the case of Britain’s youngest mother, who hit the headlines in 2006, also aged 12. Both she and her baby were immediately taken into foster care before being separated, then two years later the awful truth was revealed: the young mother’s own brother was the baby’s father, aged 16. He had been abusing his little sister since she was seven.
“I don’t regret it because if I didn’t have sex with him I wouldn’t have my baby. I knew straight away that I couldn’t have an abortion because that’s something I don’t believe in.”
Now estranged from her family, her baby adopted with access denied, and recovering from assorted addictions (drugs, alcohol, self-harming), this poor girl was most recently found telling the tabloids that she’d like another baby and fretting over claims that her good-for-nothing family were likely to make on the compensation she was due to receive for the unimaginable anguish she has suffered in her short, sad life.
This, like the others previously mentioned, might well be a most exceptional case, each one as rare as it is appalling to us to comprehend. Much can be said about the indisciplined and feckless; parents clearly failed their daughters miserably, as did schools and the care system. As did their faith, I dare say, for not allowing them to entertain ideas of an alternative conclusion to their predicament. Yet these aren’t impoverished farmers needing a large family to support the land and its elders into old age, grateful for any additional numbers and praying that they will survive infancy when so many do not. This is happening in the First World. What is it with our child-rearing obsession? It seems to be valued more highly than protecting the children who have already been born from enduring clear abuse.
It’s happening in the Second World, too. In China last year, where sex with a child under the age of 14 brings an automatic rape conviction and lengthy jail time, a nine-year-old gave birth. A hospital in Shanghai announced that about 30 per cent of its abortions were on schoolgirls.
Under Spanish law, the age for consensual sex with an adult is 13 – one of the world’s lowest. If a Spanish judge believes there are exceptional circumstances, you are permitted to marry at 14. Marriage legitimises childbirth. In Bangladesh, half of all girls are married before the age of 16 and this statistic remains even though fertility and mortality rates have declined as the level of girls’ education has risen. It’s been that way for 35 years: fifty per cent of girls married by 16.
By the age of 16 in low- and middle-income countries, almost 10 per cent of girls are mothers, claims the World Health Organisation. Girls aged between 10 and 19 account for 11 per cent of all births worldwide.
Returning to that alarming figure of seven billion and rising (it’s 7,005,166,131 now), noting the obvious (that young mothers have the greatest potential to bring many more children into the world), I wonder whether we, as a global society and shared custodians of our planet, irrespective of our conflicting religious views, cultural norms and varied degrees of prosperity, are truly fit to bring so many children into the world, never mind wise to do so? I think not.
Like it or loathe it, and thinking of middle- and high-income countries here, all this does raise questions about our dysfunctional tax and benefits systems, as well as how we administer financial aid to the less well off. In essence, we reward people for having children and there is a bias in favour of those who have children, in terms of time off work and other concessions denied to those who do not. Wouldn’t the opposite be wiser in certain countries, all things considered? Peter Preston thinks so: “Child benefit is the absolute logical opposite of what’s needed.” (He also notes that family planning is the cheapest way to abate a tonne of CO2. It costs three times as much to do so with wind power and twice as much again by using solar power. It’s a valid point.)
Perhaps we do need benefits systems to be geared towards the ideal two-child family. (You can make a Two or Fewer pledge, as is the done thing these days, if you wish.) Governments insist that austerity measures are vital at this sombre time, so why not boldly announce that in the not-so-distant future benefits will only be paid for your first two (three, four…) children, irrespective of family income, in order to discourage large families for a year or two (three, four, if not for ever), until the national figures are more preferable, with no limit to the number of children you can adopt if you really want a large family that much.
Whilst I doubt that payment for not producing children, thanks all the same, would be as beneficial to peasant farmers who need an agile workforce to help tend to their plantations as it might be tempting to the less-well off (and a thoroughly welcome bonus to the genuinely maternally and paternally disengaged), I see this idea as a possible bit-part solution to what is a First World problem purely because the children of the wealthy weigh heavier on the planet than those of the poor. They consume far more, they live longer because they have access to a better diet, better healthcare and better living conditions. I’m with Peter Preston: an incentive not to is much wiser than an incentive to have children in the West.
In many societies, those who choose not to have children are deemed to be somehow socially and morally deficient. This is very worrying and, writing as someone with no children, a bit of an insult.
It raises the question: Is it selfish to be a parent or not to be? Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argued, and maybe still argues, that those who do not have children are the selfish ones. I beg to differ on the grounds that I cannot think of many more effective ways of contributing to climate change than breeding. Choosing to tread as lightly as possible along life’s increasingly eroded pathways seems incredibly unselfish to me.
Then there was Tory numpty, Howard Flight, a multi-millionaire banker (that’s spelt with a ‘b’, not a ‘w’) who came out with this beauty:
“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”
Well, when people come out with such incendiary comments, it always makes me wonder for a fleetingly evil moment if perhaps the world would be a better place today had more mothers had a ‘right to choose’ in days gone by. But he, too, has a point.
Haven’t the rich imposed population control on the poor for decades, though? The rich who consume more than anyone and whose carbon footprints continue to tread ever deeper thanks to their reliance on travel by, and fondness for the conditioning of, air? The poor, particularly those in the developing nations, are seen as a grave threat to the capitalism of the developed world, which does not like sharing anything equally. It’s why President Johnson, in 1966, made US foreign aid dependent on countries adopting family planning programmes. The UK, Japan and Sweden all followed suit. Yet, in the 1980s, President Reagan put a stop to financial support for any programmes that involved abortion or sterilisation in the USA. But then, I suppose it’s different if the babies are going to be mostly white and dressed in adorable designer clothes with those cute little bracelets serving as wholesome reminders to ask what Jesus would do in times of uncertainty, even if every one of those babies born in the land of the free will consume as much as, say, a dozen Indian babies. Better sterilise more Indians, I guess. For the sake of humanity, naturally.
In 1975 alone, some eight million Indians, the majority of them poor and male, were sterilised as part of a mass campaign. The head of the World Bank at the time, Robert McNamara, was impressed. He had earlier declared that countries promoting birth control would receive preferential access to resources. Result.
The idea had gained widespread support courtesy of American biologist, Paul Ehrlich, and his 1968 book entitled The Population Bomb. In it, he suggested that governments should concentrate on reducing population growth and grant financial assistance only to those that would reduce birth rates. He now concedes that, instead of focusing on the poverty-stricken, “I would focus on there being too many rich people. It’s crystal clear that we can’t support seven billion people in the style of the wealthier Americans.”
We absolutely cannot. The populous, privileged, post-industrial countries are by far the main offenders in our assault on the planet. I recall watching the inimitable David Attenborough explain that if the productive capacity of Earth were shared fairly, we would each be allowed two global hectares. The Chinese have this spot-on (more on them later) and use no more than they ought to. Most Africans use little more than half their share, Indians less than half. The average European, however, uses twice as much (those semi-Europeans in the UK use more still) and the USA, four times as much. If we all consumed at Indian levels, the Earth could sustain 15 billion people. Stick a decimal point in the centre of that number to see how many people the planet could cope with if we all consumed at US levels, a figure we’ve already surpassed by some considerable way. It’s no small wonder that people in the developing world are allowed to starve and perpetually kept in relative poverty.
Maybe the problem isn’t about overpopulation at all, purely one of unfair distribution and deliberate misallocation of resources instead. Regardless, the allocation of resources isn’t going to become any fairer with a greater number of rich people. On the contrary, as population increases, so does inequality.
More than one billion people currently lack access to safe drinking water and rich nations are striking deals with the poorest to acquire their land and labour cheaply to grow food for the wealthiest of Earth’s inhabitants to gorge themselves on. So that’s food grown in Ethiopia by the hungriest people, where nearly three million rely on food aid, flown across the world to those that least need it. It’s tragic. Never mind ‘Do they know it’s Christmastime?’ Do they know that you can’t eat money?
Visualise, if you will, another type of tragedy: the sprawl of concrete, the high rise flats reaching ever-higher, the green lusciousness being dug up and replaced with twisted metal, glass and standard block work that is needed to house all these new people jostling for space in our finite world with its finite resources, where it is estimated that, on current trends, we will lose half of all species of animals and plants over the course of the next century. This scenario breaks my heart more than anybody’s personal desire for additional children they cannot and perhaps should not have. Through our selfish and careless consumption of resources which cannot be replaced, we have endangered the 10 million other species with which we share our beautiful blue planet. Shame on me, perhaps, but I want there to be rhinos and sea turtles more than I want to be surrounded by an even greater number of greedy, selfish people.
The world’s population has doubled since 1968, as birth control was legalised and the contraceptive pill became more easily available. Around the world, two babies are now born every second. That’s 200,000 born each day (graphically illustrated here, if you want to feel overwhelmed). By 2050, it is predicted that there will be more than nine billion of us. India will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation and most of sub-Saharan Africa will double its numbers. Ethiopia could see a rise from 80 million to 145 million by 2150. (Of course, maybe that’s considered a good thing to some, as it will mean more hands to turn the soil to feed the increasing numbers in the wealthy countries.)
Such demographic changes will impact upon everybody.
Right now, there are more people alive of child-bearing age, more children surviving infancy thanks to better health care, and more people living longer into old age. In spite of this, global fertility is said to be falling. In 1950, people had on average five children whereas now that figure is down by half. The falling birth rate in Japan and Germany, to give two examples, has created serious national concerns. (Germany’s population, similar to Ethiopia’s, is expected to fall to 75 million by 2150.) Take Macedonia as another example, where village populations are down by half because today’s parents choose to have just one or two children, unlike fifty years ago when most had more than four. Combined with a rising elderly population, it is predicted that this country of two million inhabitants could lose 15 per cent of its population in the next 40 years and this in spite of government incentives to procreate. There are already 150 entirely abandoned villages, with more than 450 at risk of becoming totally deserted.
But still, seven billion…
I wonder which Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would consider most selfish: the ones waiting to be born or the ones not dying quickly enough? Life expectancy, according to the United Nations, is projected to increase across all countries. Obviously, the average life expectancy is lowest (just 56 years) among the poorest, which also happen to be the high-fertility countries, mostly concentrated in Africa. Because of medical advances, however, mortality rates are expected to continue to decline. Therefore, by 2050, in high-fertility countries, life expectancy will rise to 69 years and to 77 years by 2100. For intermediate-fertility countries, such as the USA and India, the same will be true: the average life expectancy of 68 years is projected to rise to 77 years by 2050 and to 82 years by 2100. Low-fertility countries (China and most of Europe) tend to have higher average life expectancy. This too will rise. It was estimated at 74 years in 2010 and is projected to rise to 80 years by 2050 and to 86 years by 2100.
As I doubt that many would favour euthanising instead of aborting, and accepting that a strong economy is of little use when the planet has been damaged beyond all repair, the assumption that only increasing numbers of heroic, determined children can offer a solution to the problem of how to support a growing aging population dependent on the state pension for longer than ever imagined, seems to be a load of old guff.
China’s population stands at around 1.3 billion today, having doubled between 1950 and 1980, and its infamous “one child” policy, introduced in 1979, is estimated to have prevented 400 million births. Although there is no doubting the huge cost in terms of human misery, the probable alternative would have been death by famine, a fate we all face if we continue to consume ao excessively. The world’s population would have exceeded seven billion long ago without China taking such controversial measures to curb its growing numbers.
Because we’re not supposed to use the term ‘population control’ due to its insensitive, authoritarian connotations, we now speak of ‘reproductive rights’ instead. Abortion, prohibited almost everywhere up until 1967, is now legal in many countries although still a highly contentious and emotive issue and a practice widely considered immoral. In India, many families with a first born girl are aborting their second child if told that it too will be a girl. It is estimated that as many as 12 million girls have been selectively aborted in India over the last three decades.
Abortion is a horrible word. Contraception isn’t so bad, though.
For me, quite clearly, the negatives of a rising population far outweigh the positives. We must undoubtedly reduce our impact on the Earth’s resources and reducing the population is one key way of going about this.
(Oh, and I’ve been assured that we shouldn’t panic about lack of space because apparently there’s room for the entire world population in France – with room to spare. So, all you claustrophobics, be sure that it’s not loss of space that we should all live in morbid fear of just yet. Besides, we can always move to Macedonia.)
What do you think? Would you pledge to have no more than two children? With respect to those that would, would this be as ineffectual as all the other pledges dutifully taken and as such need to be enforced by the state, as in China, to ensure that people only brought two children into the world? Should governments intervene by offering incentives to prevent people from having children instead of financially supporting those that do? Should foreign aid be withheld from the impoverished Third World or provided only with contraception and strict instructions on how to use it, for the good, not of its precious arable farmland now owned in wide swathes by the rich, but for the environment and the many magnificent species that have in no way contributed to man-made climate change and are doomed to extinction because of mankind’s unchecked overindulgence? Or is this, as ever, yet another case of the West needing to practice what it preaches first and to stop dictating to the poor?
Lots of questions, I hope you can provide your views on at least some of them. May the conversation spill like crude oil from a tanker, or trickle like vomit down a high chair if you prefer, into the chatroom, which opens tomorrow – Friday – at 1pm (UK). Hope to see you there.
Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving.