SPUC Director John Smeaton has drawn my attention to an article I missed in last weekend’s Observer titled ‘Beckhams a “bad example” for families’.
Now you might wonder why the Beckhams are a bad example. Is it for calling their daughter ‘Harper Seven’? Or their expensive tastes? Or their choice of friends?
It’s actually none of these. According to ‘population experts’ they have joined the ranks of the irresponsible by having four children.
Apparently the world’s population is about to pass seven billion in the next few days and so environmentalists like the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and zoologist David Attenborough are using it as an opportunity to call for the UK to open a public debate about how many children people should have.
This is a recurring theme for Britain’s liberal elite and drives much of the obsession with population control in developing countries. Back in February 2009 Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, said that curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of efforts to combat global warming, and that couples who had more than two children were irresponsible. This idea - that our planet is heating up as a result of people in developing countries breeding too much – seems to be gaining more adherents amongst the Western intelligentsia.
Simon Ross of Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) is quoted in last weekend’s Observer article as saying:
‘[F]amily planning is cheap, yet many people don't use it properly and accidental pregnancy rates are very high. We need to change the incentives to make the environmental case that one or two children are fine but three or four are just being selfish. The Beckhams, and others like London mayor Boris Johnson, are very bad role models with their large families." [Smeaton’s emphases]
Smeaton identifies the coercive element in this statement:
‘Excuse me? For all my adult life, supporters of "family planning" have claimed - repeatedly and in no uncertain terms - that "family planning" is all about choice, that no one (especially not men) has a right to tell women what to do with their bodies and that one should never, ever be judgmental about another person's private reproductive decisions. Mr Ross' chutzpah shows that population control extremists are as bendy as a Beckham free-kick.’
But is seven billion people too many? Whether the world is overpopulated is debatable. All the world's buildings would fit in Scotland or Ireland alone and the world's population could currently stand shoulder to shoulder on the Isle of Wight. World per capita food production has more than kept pace with population and Europe's own past demonstrates that fertility can be managed effectively - even without contraceptives - as living standards improve.
Furthermore citizens of the developing world choose large families for good reasons, as insurance against an uncertain future in circumstances of high infant mortality, low and insecure income and labour intensive farming.
Family planning combined with economic development allows couples to plan the number and spacing of their children in the light of their own circumstances and beliefs. On the other hand imposed population control, with all that involves, coupled with mounting developing world debt and economic austerity measures which slash health and education budgets, actually causes huge damage to poor indigenous populations.
Our stewardship of the earth is not a licence to exploit but to govern wisely. We cannot impose solutions on the world's poor without addressing our complicity in unjust economic structures, environmentally destructive technologies, and consumptive lifestyles.
I have previously argued that, regardless of what we might believe about the importance of global warning, those countries which are amongst the biggest contributors are not those in the developing world with rapidly growing populations but those in the developed world with relatively static populations.
In other words carbon footprint is much more about consumption per capita than about population. It is not how many children the Beckham’s have, but how much resource each one consumes. That is the real issue.
Sodom came under God's judgment, at least in part, because she was 'arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; (she) did not help the poor and needy' (Ezekiel 16:49).
This description fits our Western World well. Let’s not simplistically condemn people for having children without addressing the real problem – consumption of more resources than one needs coupled with neglect of those in real need.
The real challenge is how we can live more simply in order that others might simply live.