The panel on ‘Any Questions’ this week were asked their views about a man with learning difficulties whom a judge had ordered to be sterilized. There were varying opinions as to whether this was or was not a good thing in a free and democratic society. Without knowing the full details of the case it is difficult to offer a balanced judgement, although there is something that makes one a little queasy about what was presumably a judicially ordered vasectomy.
It did though start me thinking about the whole concept of the right and freedom to produce children. In this country a couple wishing to adopt a child are required to jump through hoops. Not only do they have to demonstrate their personal qualifications and suitability to be parents, they have to prove their financial security and the stability of their home life.
Not so everyone else. Any man and woman, with no pre-conditions whatsoever, other than being physically capable, can produce a child almost any time they wish. The number of people on the planet has nearly tripled in my lifetime. Given that the resources of the earth are limited, it is clear that such an expansion of the population cannot continue indefinitely.
As long ago as the end of the eighteenth century, when the estimated world population was ‘only’ one billion, the rev Thomas Malthus recognized the problem in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Some of his proposed solutions were and are socially unacceptable, and as a result ‘Malthusian’ ideas have tended to be conflated with ‘Eugenics’ and the Nazi’s ideas of breeding a so-called superior race of human beings.
The problem, however, remains. Improved hygiene, food production and the astonishing successes of modern medicine have made the problem more acute. We are all living much longer, to the extent that there is now a major shortfall in most pension funds; previous actuarial analysis never anticipated that the age expectancy would increase in the way it has.
Governments, of course, have no alternative other than to strive for economic growth at all costs. How often in the last few years have we heard government spokesmen either crowing over the latest signs of positive growth, or wheeling out excuses why growth has not occurred. Growth means the increased production of goods and services which provide increased tax revenues; more goods and services need more consumers and more consumers mean more people.
Some time back, the Chinese government recognized the problems of population growth and instituted the ‘one child per family’ policy, with some fairly brutal decision-making on the ground. Pregnant women with one child already are bullied into having abortions. Those who refuse suffer severe financial sanctions. Clearly, such a policy could only work in a totalitarian state.
We in the so-called civilized west, are constantly reminded of global warming, which most informed people are convinced is either largely or entirely man made: the result of the ever increasing demand for energy. We are also presented with forecasts of the cost of food doubling or tripling in the near future mainly because of demand. Add to that the anticipated global strife over water supplies, as population increases demand more and more, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: they all have a common root cause. Burgeoning population growth. And that is the elephant in the room.
Governments are chary of discussing the problem since a) they need the growth for economic reasons, and b) almost any solution involving compulsion rather than persuasion is likely to be totally unacceptable in a liberal democracy. It seems then that we are content to stick our collective heads in the sand, and as with the national debt, pass the problem down to our children and grandchildren. I just hope they forgive us.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs