Back at the end of November, Martin wrote a post on the ethics of overpopulation, in which he offered these assertions:
- It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
- It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption.
- It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation and adoption instead.
I understand the spirit in which these assertions are offered — the human beings sharing Earth and its resources have an interest in creating and maintaining conditions where our numbers don’t outstrip the available resources.
But, there’s something about Martin’s manifesto that doesn’t sit right with me. Here, I’m not trying to be coy; I’m actually in the process of working out my objections. So, I’m going to do some thinking out loud, in the hopes that you all will pipe up and help me figure this out.
The first thing to notice is that Martin’s manifesto touches on individual ethics and matters of public policy — what choices should (or should not) be on the table for any given human, and what kinds of support (or restrictions) should be provided (or imposed) by societies. The hypothetical individuals in these hypothetical societies might be assumed to be more or less interchangeable; what’s good for one is good for another, so providing them with the same options looks fair.
Of course, there are many, many ways that real individuals in real societies differ from each other. One of those is wealth. (Another of those is desire for children — or for no children.)
I take it that the second point of Martin’s manifesto is calling for universal access to affordable family planning options (as well as to adoption of children already in existence — we’ll get to adoption in just a moment). Given disparities in wealth, it is worth pointing out that there are circumstances in which “affordable” means “free”. I’m pretty comfortable with this point in the manifesto, as I’m inclined to think no one should have to have a child who does not want to have a child. Once you have a child, there are many duties you have as her parent, but while the child is still hypothetical, you are under no obligation to become a parent and thereby take on those duties.
However, children do not just impose obligations. They create benefits as well as costs, and some of those benefits are difficult to capture in quantitative terms.
And here’s where I run into problems with the third point in the manifesto, where infertility treatments are reserved for those who can pay for them. Assuming that people of all socioeconomic strata may struggle with infertility, this would mean those with wealth are able to partake of the benefits of parenthood while those without wealth cannot.
Here, adoption is supposed to be the equalizer. But as things stand now (at least in the U.S.), adoption is not what one would describe as an affordable way to have children. Adoption is time-consuming, expensive, and not covered by medical insurance the same way pregnancy and childbirth are.
In other words, people with wealth have the option of adopting children. People without wealth have to hope that their reproductive machinery is in good working order.
Now, in Martin’s ideal world, adoption would be available without restriction — an affordable option available to everyone. Let’s assume issues of cost could be worked out. Would we really let anyone adopt a child?
We’re not talking hypothetical children here, but children already in existence. Whichever authority is overseeing the placement of these children will want to ensure that adoptive parents are able to take care of the children before putting the children in their care.* In looking out for the interests of these kids, that authority would prefer placements with people who have the skill set to manage crises, to provide structure and discipline but not abuse, to get healthy meals on the table, and so forth.
That authority might also opt for placements in households with substantial financial resources over those whose wealth would be stretched almost to its limits by a child.
Here, I know that there are people who will argue that one ought not to have kids if one is not in a financially secure situation. But this is the kind of view you can only impose on people you think aren’t well-off enough to have kids if they happen to need fertility treatments or adoption to have those kids and you decide to restrict their access. No one does a means test on people having babies the old fashioned way. Moreover, having the wealth to pay for child-related expenses does not ensure that parents will have the mental or emotional wherewithal to be good parents.
Rich parents aren’t necessarily better parents. And, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the attitude that the experience of being a parent is something to which only rich people are entitled. (To be clear, I’m not attributing that attitude to Martin. However, I worry that his manifesto might create a situation where only rich people have reliable access to that experience.)
While we’re on the subject of rich parents and poor parents, the children of the wealthy in developed countries probably consume more resources per person than anyone else. Strictly speaking, the issue with population isn’t the total number of people on the planet right now, but the impact those people have on the resources upon which we all depend. There’s a good chance that some of us with fewer children constitute families with higher environmental impact than most of the families in the world with more children.
In which case, arguing for a two-child limit might be missing the point.
Yes, there are situations we can point to in the developing world where families with many, many children live in horrifying poverty. Verily, I can imagine that some of these mothers would choose to have fewer children if they could, and that this choice might make life better for the whole family. But we should acknowledge that sometimes these large families are seen as an economic necessity. If your medical care is non-existent, how many kids do you need to have in order than any of them will survive to adulthood? In the absence of modern infrastructure, how many extra backs and pairs of hands do you need to fetch clean water, haul firewood, forage or herd or grow food?
Are kids more or less resource-intensive than driving a Hummer, eating meat, jetting around the world? Undoubtedly, it depends a lot on how you raise them. The way we’ve been doing things so far, a first world standard of living sucks resources faster than a third world standard of living. The problem may not be how many kids we’re having but how resource-greedy we are raising them to be.
And lest we forget, kids are not only consumers. They will also become grown-ups who contribute to our world in various ways (e.g., by developing green technologies or new vaccines, by growing food, by providing care for others, etc.) If we cut down on kids in order to cut down on consumption, what will the other longer term consequences be? Who, as Zuska so eloquently puts it, will wipe our asses when we are old and infirm?
Will we rely on robots to care for our geriatric populations? Or on immigrants from high-population countries?
Given that the U.S. burns through a huge amount of resources, I’d be disinclined to say to the people whose natural resources our multinationals are grabbing to produce more crap for the rich, “Hey, let’s make your lives better by sterilizing you.” We kind of have a bad history going down that road. Shouldn’t the first world folks (who consume so many resources per person) be at the front of the sterilization line?
My impression is that once your kids are more likely to survive to adulthood and less of an economic necessity (whether to bring in the harvest, haul firewood and water, work in the sweatshops, etc.), the imperative to have lots of kids is significantly decreased. Conditions in which women are valued as real human beings rather than as factories to make more members of the labor force might also lead to lower birthrates.
People shouldn’t be blind to the environmental impact of a growing human population, but it is not a simple numbers game. The humans in play do not consume (or produce) resources uniformly. And, whatever sensible system you impose to address population pressures, the rich will probably find a way to buy out of that system. My hunch is that an individualistic approach to the question of how to live sustainably on the planet we have isn’t going to work.
This isn’t a problem to be solved by individual ethics, but rather by working together as a human community. In other words, taking the well being of humanity seriously will demand more of us than limiting the sizes (and resource consumption) of our own families.
*It also makes sense to provide all parents — adoptive or not — with resources to help build their parenting skills, not to mention creating societies that acknowledge of the value of parenting duties while helping parents balance those with participation in the work place and in civic life.