Environmentalism & the One Child Policy

Could you accept a One Child Policy in America, or your home country?

That’s the suggestion of Roger Short :

As Global Warming makes its presence increasingly felt all around the world, more and more people are beginning to accept it as a reality. But there remains a major credibility gap; people have yet to draw the obvious conclusion that since Global Warming is the result of human activities, too many people will only exacerbate the problem. Thus, the developed world must curb its profligate use of non-renewable energy and the developing world its exponential population growth, if we are to arrest Global Warming in the years to come.

Although [the One Child Policy] has been condemned by most of the Western world for denying couples their reproductive freedom, it has had spectacular benefits for China as a whole. Not only did it halve the birth rate, but there were amazing reductions in maternal and infant mortality. With excellent availability of Chinese-made oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices, no-scalpel vasectomies and condoms, and safe back-up aspiration abortion, China has led by example. If only India, or Pakistan, or Nigeria, or even the United States could follow suit, the world would breathe more easily in future.

The trouble is — once we get beyond the brooding apocalypticism — there is a raft of evidence that anthropogenic global warming — historically, from agriculture, and more recently from industry — has had a flurry of benefits.

From the BBC:

Human emissions of carbon dioxide will defer the next Ice Age, say scientists.

The last Ice Age ended about 11,500 years ago, and when the next one should begin has not been entirely clear.

Researchers used data on the Earth’s orbit and other things to find the historical warm interglacial period that looks most like the current one.

In the journal Nature Geoscience, they write that the next Ice Age would begin within 1,500 years – but emissions have been so high that it will not.

Now, staving off the threat of huge glaciation broadly looks like a good thing. And if we absolutely need to reduce CO2 emissions  — just high enough to prevent another ice age, just low enough to prevent a runaway spiral of global warming — then surely there are much, much better ways to stabilise the CO2 levels in the atmosphere than forcibly reducing population. Carbon-scrubbing trees are one viable solution. Another is biochar. So too is reforestation, and urban forestation.


And if we do ultimately require legislation, surely a law to enforce tree-planting is preferable to a law that obliterates reproductive freedom — surely the most basic of human rights?

Not to mention the various benefits of a higher human population. More people means more potential output — both in economic terms, as well as in terms of ideas. Simply, the more people on the planet, the more hours and brainpower we can put into inventing and producing cleaner technologies. After all, the expansion of human capacity was precisely how humanity overcame the short-sighted and foolish apocalypticism of Thomas Malthus who wrongly predicted an imminent population crash in the 19th century.

Those calling for One Child Policies are simply suffering from a lack of imagination, and an astonishing naiveté. America’s drug laws have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities — four times as many blacks are jailed than whites for drug offences, even though whites use illegal drugs just as much as blacks. Can we honestly expect that a One Child Policy would not be applied in just as racist a way as the drug laws, and just as racist a way as America’s eugenics laws once were? After all, China’s rich and her political insiders routinely flout the One Child Policy. Wouldn’t an American one child policy just be an assault on the reproductive rights of the poor and ethnic minorities?

Yes — we should think about the manner in which we interact with and impact upon our environment. But more restrictions on freedom are not the answer — technology and development is the answer.

23 thoughts on “Environmentalism & the One Child Policy

  1. Populations naturally are placed in check by increases in knowledge and choices for women. 6 years ago I spoke to a wealthy Indian family, who said, 2 children families are now fashionable, as it is seen as a primitive aspiration to have many children (He was saying the poor have many children) With rises in safety nets for the porr and elderly, families have fewer children to “rise the social strata”

    Look at Western countries. Who has children these days? We are all so busy. By the time we have the urge to marry and have children the women in their 30’s have maybe 1- 2 children. Or none at all because of infertility and years of abuse on their body through the contraceptive pill.

    My farm has trees growing again, after just 2 years of keeping ploughing and sheep out of the equation. It is wonderful how nature reclaims the land if left alone.

        • Hi, I emailed you a photo of my local sheep farm. I hope you got the email, because I sent it through iPhoto, and I’m not sure it went. If you didn’t get it I will send it again.

        • Don’t see it. BTW the UK had some of the best pasture I have seen. My property was experiencing a boom in the rainfall that season. I actually lost fences from floods caused by a tropical downpour which was unusual (100 year records never experienced it)

          I have to water my olive trees and grapes today it is 35 degree c for the next week!

  2. Pingback: Environmentalism & the One Child Policy « azizonomics | theenvironmentalisms.org

  3. There’s a hot discussion in American now regarding contraception, religious freedom, and the federal government involvement in health care. If the present federal government administration got its way on this, that’s one step closer to the environmental religion’s position on mandatory limits on the number of children a couple may have.

    I don’t think that power is appropriate.

  4. Notice how malthusians always suddenly stop after insisting we should ‘curb the population’? They rarely ever say how this should be done. They also insist the higher population peaks of 10-11 billion people rather than the lower predictions of around 9 billion people.

    Not only on the substantive grounds of the human right to reproduce, but the idea that we must avoid a population crash by enacting genocide or similar in advance, is totally abhorrent.

    Those who have more children that they can feed run the risk of not being able to feed them, funnily enough. It’s still Infinitely better than such a decision being made by a bureaucrat, or worse, a politician or judge.

  5. I can say for sure that China didn’t impose the One Child Policy because they cared about the Planet. They were afraid for many other reasons: fear of social instability if they’d be unable to feed the population, fear of the inability to place a rapidly expanding population in a rather unclear evolving complex social/economic order etc.

    It would be rather silly for USA to impose a One Child Policy because they couldn’t be farther from China’s worries. If anything, it’s the projected population increase that will save them, according to many.

    But I’d like to address this paragraph of yours: “Simply, the more people on the planet, the more hours and brainpower we can put into inventing and producing cleaner technologies”. I’ve heard this from other economists some years before, but only after I became wiser it dawned on me what a silly idea this is. You might not see things the way I do, I know there’s pretty much a clash of cultures between Western Europeans which have been ingrained with a narrative of perpetual progress and Eastern Europeans which are more familiar with a narrative of perpetual decay. But going beyond these cultural issues, addressing this idea from a purely scientific point of view, I would say that any theory regarding the shaping of our future that relies on *hope* and *faith* (even if the faith is in such noble ideals as “human ingenuity”) should be promptly discarded as being obviously unrobust and risking the destruction of the human species.

    • Yes. The economic geography analysis shows America needs a higher population.

      As for the Malthusian stuff, I’m being empirical. The number of extinction level events in the history of human civilisation is 0. No Malthusian has ever made an accurate prediction about population. Joe Wiesenthal of all people had a good post about this earlier — “human ingenuity” is not some magical property but a real variable that can be mapped and measured, and is the single biggest factor in proving Malthus wrong in the last two hundred years.

      I know where this is going: proving Malthus wrong is mostly down to petrochemical agriculture, which is about to fall off a cliff. That could happen, but we have a great chance of making the technological transition I have talked about in the past.

      Nothing is set in stone — not even resources. Our solar system is replete with asteroids full of resources. And beyond that, so is the wider universe.

      • I think we found some common ground here when you talked about “a real variable that can be mapped and measured”. But I can’t for the life of me see how this is one. Otherwise, I’m all for talking about things that can be unequivocally measured and mapped. But… I’m afraid that when you’re talking about “a real variable that can be mapped and measured” you’re talking about extrapolations to the future… and this is where we leave the territory of science for mysticism – which is dangerous for our species.

        Actually, I’m not going anywhere with this discussion (I don’t care at all about asteroids and petrochemical agriculture; I don’t even care about Malthus or about the adjective “malthusian” – whatever it may mean and it certainly means a lot of different things to a lot of different people), I’m merely invoking some very high level concepts and I am responding to a worldview that I find dangerous.

        • I’m just talking about the past, which is where ingenuity can be mapped and measured. The future is open season.

          You think by optimism I mean “don’t worry and everything will be alright?”. If that’s the case, you’re misread me. I think people should worry. I just think they should turn their worrying into positive solutions, rather than turning it into an excuse to curtail basic liberties.

        • Well then we find common ground again, but I’d view China’s policy not as an excuse for curtailing basic liberties but the result of true fear. I mean, c’mon, evil people can find other liberties to curtail if they had the means and an end for personal gain.

        • Curtailing civil liberties is almost always a result of true fear, whether that is a one-child policy, or full-body-scanners at the airport, or the war on drugs, etc.

          In the article, I was merely commenting on a fashionable idea born out of fear, that I don’t even think would be very effective in achieving the aim of stabilising the population growth. All of the evidence shows that the best method for stabilising population is giving women (voluntary) access to contraception.

        • “an excuse for curtailing basic liberties”

          Or maybe I misread you again, and you didn’t imply evil intent. But then I’ll say that it’s a (scientific) fact that sometimes there are no “positive” non-painful non-liberty-affecting solutions. You just look at facts, probabilities and take the best decision you can.

        • Right, and as I pointed out above not only does the one child policy curtail civil liberties, but it’s also much less effective than the (totally voluntary) method of giving women access to birth control.

        • OK, then where we diverge again, I think, is where I think that sometimes the best solution in some circumstances is the curtailing of (some) liberties whereas you think this should be avoided no matter what the evidence is saying (of course, what a “liberty” is and what the “evidence” is saying can be rather fuzzy things). Fear is a good indicator and should not be dismissed. What I’m ultimately saying is that I have faith in no fixed ultimate prescription for a problem. Certainly the war on drugs is causing a lot of harm and there are a lot of solutions (but frankly I wouldn’t want my country for example to be the Petri dish for testing some of Ron Paul’s ideas, though as you know, I generally like the guy).

          As for the evidence saying that birth control would have been better than a state-imposed policy, I don’t know. We have to look at the particulars of China’s predicament back then. I hear they’re now starting to relax this practice, and I’ve also heard that most of the population supports it (so much for curtailing the liberties – that’s why I said these are fuzzy things). And that’s why, because these are fuzzy and complicated things, I would always choose to attentively look at the particulars of each situation and then decide what should be done (explaining this to the population in a clear language if I were the leader) and I’d definitely never blindly follow some predefined policy based on its high-level interpretation as being more liberty-friendly.

        • “and I’ve also heard that most of the population supports it”

          Of course, you might say that the idea of individual liberty is definable independently of the popular (majority) support, but this is a minor quibble in my above text and doesn’t affect my general message (opinion, option).

        • I think that sometimes the best solution in some circumstances is the curtailing of (some) liberties whereas you think this should be avoided no matter what the evidence is saying.

          Well, my position is that the evidence of history shows that curtailing basic freedoms is generally ineffectual and damaging to society, whether it’s regarding population stability, or most other issues. The whole of the Western world has drastically slowed its population growth not through some centralised Orwellian control program, but through offering women voluntary birth control. The same thing tends to occur wherever the means for birth control arises. My Dad was one of 10, and my Mum was one of 4, but I only have 1 half-brother.

          Now China has a huge demographic problem: four grandparents are now producing one grandchild. China does not have a welfare state, so the grandchild is supposed to support all the grandparents into old age. This ultimately will cause a lot of poverty that could have been assuaged by more slowly stabilising population through voluntary birth control.

          In India, Indira Gandhi’s government tried even more extreme measures — forced sterilisation. This has caused even bigger problems — instead of one garndchild to care for four grandparents, often, there are no grandchildren.

        • “Well, my position is that the evidence of history shows that curtailing basic freedoms is generally ineffectual and damaging to society”

          Yes, whatever history says should be taken into account as we’d be able to take more informed decisions, but as I said, this (though of course looking at history we may find things are more complex than expected) will never stop me from supporting some policy that some liberal/libertarian will deem as “curtailing basic freedoms”, if this policy is what I think will ensure the long term stability/prosperity of a nation or of the entire human species.

          You’re now offering the example of China and India and saying that there are bad things there as a result of “curtailing the basic freedoms”. But there are always bad things in the world, we can never know for sure what would have happened if some alternative policy would have been followed (during a specific time interval in our history) and how bad the alternative outcomes would have looked. I’ll offer the example of my country where the opposite policy was followed during the Communist regime (no abortion – this is something that Ron Paul supports AFAIK but somehow this still fits in a libertarian worldview), and despite that, the country still suffers from poor demographics and there’s something like 1 legally employed person supporting 1 pensioner (or worse) because the “superogranism” of the country chose “self destruction” through voluntary birth controls when the Communist regime ended (I’m exaggerating a bit here, but just trying to make my point, that I don’t trust liberty to magically solve any problem – though of course, I prefer what most would deem as “individual freedoms” where possible).

  6. Well this is a cause for celebration then. Now I have a good sceuxe to open up a bottle of Pino Grisio, I’ll lift my glass up to you guys for quelling my fears of losing out on joining the party after all. Thanks fellas and cheers.

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