David Mitchell, as usual, wrote a very funny but also very wise column in the Observer yesterday about the Daily Mail’s ridiculous wheelie bin campaign, and about how our heightened sensitivity to injustices against us has overridden our sense of responsibility to society.
Our fear of being encroached upon has made us forget that there are few freedoms that can be fully exercised without impinging on someone else’s. The freedom to stab has long since been subordinated to the freedom not to be stabbed. But we still have the freedom not to recycle and to borrow or lend money recklessly, regardless of others’ freedom to live on a habitable planet and in a functional economy. We’ve hugely prioritised our rights over our duties because it’s only the former that tyrants try to take away.
A reader called Memoid posted a comment saying:
There’s not even been a hint of discussion about the right to have children yet, and that’s the debate we really need to have. And the world needs the vast majority of us to lose the debate.
He’s right, so let’s start the debate. There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. At the current rate, there will be 9.1 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will happen in developing countries, but even Britain’s population is expected to increase by 16 million in that time. And yet you rarely hear anyone talk about whether everyone can continue to have as many children as they like.
The Earth simply cannot provide enough food, energy and resources for that many people. And just think about the impact on the climate. How can we expect to make dramatic cuts in our carbon emissions if our population continues to grow?
People need to see having lots of children as the environmental sin that it is. You can turn all your lights off, cycle to work and insulate your house but having kids makes you more of an eco-criminal than the childless bloke next door who drives a gas-guzzler and takes 10 flights a year.
The idea of limiting one’s procreative activities will be very difficult for many to accept, for Darwinian as well as societal reasons. Surely having children is the most sacred of all human rights? I’m not advocating any government intervention in how big a family people choose to have. But I think the public needs to be more aware of the seriousness of the environmental ramifications of having children. Perhaps then more people might realise that this is one instance when our duty to society should take precedence over exercising our rights.
The Optimum Population Trust, of which David Attenborough became patron in April, runs a ‘Stop At Two’ campaign, and has a pledge that you can sign on its website. The idea will still seem outrageous to some, but I think signing the pledge is an absolutely reasonable step towards remediating unsustainable population growth.
(Incidentally, even if you plan to stop at two, it doesn’t always work out that way. My Dad found this out the second time my mum got pregnant: the egg that became me wasn’t the only one that got fertilised. As a result, my mum got her wish for three kids.)
This is all very easy for me to say. I’m 22 and single, and the prospect of having children feels almost as remote to me as arthritis. It could well be that in 10 years’ time I’ll turn out to be a massive hypocrite with three kids. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that I will be able to restrain my reproductive urges in light of the bald truth: there are too many people on the planet already.