To save the planet: should we reduce birth rate?


Antinatalism (reduction of birth rate) for ecological reasons? If the idea is not original, it comes back in force today, to the point of inspiring reports from important international organisations. This way the 2009 report of the United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa)1, published on 18th November 2009, insists in the emergency to help women to have fewer children. The growing birth rate of developing countries is indeed described as one of the main driving forces of global warming. 
 
Premium for contraception
 
According to some demographers, the global population should rise from 6.8 billion people to 9 billion in 2050, before to be stabilised, developing countries representing 90% of this evolution. This median scenario is accompanied by a low hypothesis of 7.9 billion people. Brian O’Neill, American climatologist of the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that banking on this last hypothesis would allow avoiding the emission of 2 billion tons of CO2. The Optimum Population Trust, an Anglo-Saxon though tank which pretends to calculate the "optimum" population of the planet, thinks that for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gas, it would be 4 to 5 more efficient to invest in the family planning rather than in the low CO2 emitting technologies. Thus, some recommend the allowance of premiums for contraception to women who would agree not to have children when others ideologically agree not to procreate, even to be sterilised. "We have to intervene where there are still tanks of demographic growth. And they are located above all in Africa and in Asia"2, affirms the demographer Henri Leridon, research director emeritus at the Ined and first holder of the chair for sustainable development in Collège de France. For the Canadian Yves Bergevin, coordinator for maternal health at the Unfpa, "it does not deal with controlling the number of births but to offer a free choice.[…] In all the countries where we develop the equality of sexes, the education of girls and the family planning, the birth rate reduces durably from six or seven children per woman to only tow or three, without coercion and without exception." Yet, some people do not hesitate to use the persuasion to reduce the birth rate in families. A monthly report Terraeco cites the case of India where the control of births and the contraception are considered in a negative way by the population. What makes say to a manager of the family planning of the State of Maharashtra: "Years of constant dialog with a family are needed to hope to convince it has interest to resort to contraception"3.
 
Reducing the ecological footprint
 
Does this mean that rich countries are not concerned by the necessity of this demographic "effort”? No, because if developing countries has a birth rate particularly high, the logic of consumption of rich countries makes the ecological footprint grown in a exponential way. To calculate it, we take the amount of population on a given territory and we multiply by the mean consumption per individual. According to Yves Cochet, French Green deputy, the birth of one European baby is equal, in terms of impact, to that of ten Congolese babies. James Lovelock, father of the ecology and director of the Optimum Population Trust, estimates that the ecological footprint is currently 30% too high compared to the capacities of the planet and that the optimum population would be around 3.6 billion inhabitants…a number greatly exceeded that according to Yves Cochet, should let abandoned occidental countries with their birth rate policies.
 
These theories come from the thought of John Malthus who defended a policy of severe control of pregnancies in order to satisfy the limits of Earth resources. "I think that Malthus was right, tells today Lovelock. At the time when he was written, in 1800, there were only one billion inhabitants on Earth. If we acted on his advice, we would not have all these problems now we have to face". 
 
Ethical perspectives
 
Henri Leridon mentions the risks to apply such policies in Occident: "If we would act strongly on the demographic variable like you advocate it, we would experience successive blockages and we would obtain an ageing of the population with loads even more severe than today". He notes: "We cannot consider that any newborn baby in a rich country is only a future polluter. In this case, adults are also polluters. And if we follow you, we have to kill the whole population of the richest countries". The Chinese model, often presented like a model for controlling birth rate, was made with forced sterilisations. Moreover it leads to systematic abortion of girls, which generates a lack of boys and has just lead Shanghai to soften its regulation. 
 
Then these ecological recommendations raise serious ethical problems because it deals with a conception of the dignity of the human person. In fact may we measure the value of a human life with its impact on the ecological footprint? Must the breath of life be sacrificed for the greenhouse effect? Finally, is the man made for the planet, or the planet for the man?

 

1- Le Monde (Grégoire Allix) 19/11/09
2- « Surpopulation. Faut-il arrêter de faire des enfants ? », Terraeco, octobre 2009, n°7
3- idem