Much digital ink has been spilled about the lifting of China’s longstanding one-child policy. Horror at government control of the womb has inspired a rash of tongue-clucking editorials decrying the very idea of state-sponsored population control. Too bad, because the whole world could benefit from following China’s example, though fairness and decency would require that it be implemented much differently than in China.
Before you sharpen your pitchforks, folks, I am NOT in favor of coercive and inhumane measures to enforce a worldwide one-child policy. Save your outrage for another Internet bogeyman, please. What I am saying is that population stabilization and eventual decrease are our species’ only hope for continued survival, let alone the many other creatures and living things with whom we share the planet.
Totalitarianism is abhorrent, and those who believed that opening China to capitalism would make for a freer and more inclusive society were clearly proven wrong by recent history. In fact, China stands as a cautionary tale about the dangers of government control gone mad, how it inhibits free expression for individuals, crushes collective bargaining for workers, and devastates the natural environment through state-sponsored greed and corruption. I don’t have much good to say about China’s approach to global trade, its bellicosity with its neighbors, its ethnic cleansing of Tibetans and Uighurs, its persecution of artists, and a host of other transgressions big and small.
But the one-child policy, as cruelly executed as it was, pointed the rest of the world in the right direction. It began the glacial process of getting human beings to look at the limiting of their numbers as essential to future human survival. Sanity’s biggest enemy on this point continues to be religion. All major world religions encourage their flocks to be fruitful and multiply, thereby increasing their denomination’s numbers.
While the Pope’s encyclical on environmental concerns was a welcome change from the Vatican’s silence on the subject for the last two thousand years, it rang hollow for me. The idea that the world’s numbers can increase astronomically year after year and somehow have no effect on the natural world is willful ignorance at best, cynical dissimulation at worst. We Homo sapiens cannot save the planet until we limit our numbers drastically.
Through most of human history there were not more than half a million humans total worldwide. During many points in our evolution there were only a few thousand across the entire globe. This planet was not meant to house seven billion of us, no matter what the faithful would have us believe; yet here we are. The question before us now is what we need to do as a species to insure there is a livable world for ourselves and the flora and fauna we rely on to survive.
Many factors besides religion play into overpopulation. Immigration deceives us into thinking that shifting bodies from here to there alleviates the strain, but high levels of immigration only exacerbate the problem. When those one-million-plus Syrians get through settling in Europe and reproducing over the next hundred years, do you think they will be content consuming what an average Syrian currently consumes, or will their habits come to resemble their European hosts’ consumption levels? When heartbreaking truckloads of Honduran and Guatemalan children are relocated in the United States, will they consume the relatively small amount they did in their impoverished homelands, or will they emulate their American hosts who gobble up more energy and food per capita than any other nation on Earth?
Some look to technology for an answer, when technology is the suicidal force that gave us climate change, air pollution, and widespread economic inequality in the first place. Those who are looking for a technological fix to overpopulation are barking up the wrong tree with no hope of success.
So how do we implement worldwide population control? I’m not optimistic we ever will, but a basic framework might look like this:
• Wealthy countries such as ours will incentivize people to have fewer children through the tax code. Instead of the perverse incentives now in place that give more tax breaks and government services to those who reproduce the most, we reverse the trend, giving tax breaks to those who do not have children. Those who choose to have children will see to their offspring’s maintenance without assistance from taxpayers.
• Two children per couple equals replacement rates (one dies for one being born) and will not be penalized. However, those who have more than two children will find their tax bills increasingly odious the more rugrats they choose to have. Irresponsible folks such as Rick Santorum who enjoy overpopulating the world so much they have eight children will pay dearly come April 15th, just to remind them that schools, roads, hospitals, and other public amenities aren’t free and that those of us who reproduce more moderately are refusing to pick up the tab for their excesses anymore.
• Immigration will be reduced to replacement levels as well. If 250,000 US citizens emigrate per year, then 250,000 citizens of other nations will be allowed to immigrate into the US. Let’s concentrate on improving the plight of the impoverished where they already are instead of pretending that they are simultaneously improving the places they leave while improving the places where they immigrate. This will also stimulate wage growth and full employment for working-class Americans after four decades of decline.
• Finally, religious institutions (that currently pay no taxes at all) and large corporations (whose accountants insure they pay very little) will be charged a surtax with the funds specifically earmarked for overpopulation education and prevention. Those who benefit from an ever-increasing pie need to recognize that the enlarged pie they continue to gorge on costs the rest of us dearly and the larger the pie gets, the more of their treasure will need to be plowed back into saving the planet we all share.
The implementation of such sweeping changes will be difficult and will meet with strong opposition from forces that benefit from the status quo. Sadly, there simply is no other option. For Homo sapiens as a species there is no more urgent cause than population stabilization and eventual decrease. Let’s hope the Chinese don’t turn out to be more prescient and disciplined than the West when it comes to solving this catastrophic problem.