Eighteen months ago I was having lunch with a well-known columnist and contrarian, when conversation turned to predictions. In particular, where the next front in the culture wars might open. Neither of us had foreseen the rise of militant veganism, nor the formation of a vocal lobby advocating transgender rights. So, he wondered, what engine of social upheaval was about to come puffing out of the darkened tunnel of our unknowable future? I gave him a blank look. But I think I may now be ready to un-shrug my shoulders.
Earlier this month the BBC World Service broadcast a documentary they’d asked me to present about family size. They’d liked a programme I’d done for them about how religious ceremonies help believers cope with bereavement. Did I have another idea in me? Yes, I said. I fancied revisiting a book I’d written in 2013, making the unfashionable case for larger families. I wanted to do so in light of the death of my wife last year, which seemed to confirm one of the theories advanced in the book: that children have a better chance of coping with the loss of a parent if they have siblings. “We’ve got the commission,” announced my producer. “But could you do it – as a Catholic – defending fecundity from the criticism that big broods amount to environmental vandalism?”
As a fence-sitting TV news presenter, I am wary of confrontational formats. I agreed to host the documentary and, if you have a spare 27 minutes and access to BBC Sounds, judge for yourself whether I managed to shed journalistic light without generating career-threatening levels of heat. However, the day before it aired, I got a call from another part of the Corporation. It was a guest-booker called Emma, from the PM show on Radio 4. Could I possibly do a live interview with Evan Davis in a couple of hours. Had they been bowled over by an advance copy of my documentary? No. The interest was caused by the breaking news that Prince Harry had suggested that there was such a thing as an optimal family size. He said that he and Meghan would be failing in their duty of care towards the planet, if they were to have more than two children.
Coward that I am, it had to be a polite “no” from me. The PM segment was intended as a live dust-up between a cheerleader for big families, and a spokesman for Population Matters, which argues that the world needs fewer new “emitters”. My place was taken by Nicola Horlick, once dubbed “Supermum” by the tabloids for raising six children while holding down a big job in the City. She spoke persuasively about the joys of a having lots of children, but it was clear that she was also in the dock.
In my BBC documentary I interviewed a Church of England adviser who chose to limit her family size for the sake of the environment. Her arguments were sincere and reasoned. We disagreed politely.
But we live in shrill times. There is an audibly angry lobby emerging which argues that the only way to help a planet with a population zooming towards ten billion is to make a personal decision to forgo childbearing at all.
Many of these “birth-strikers” would be surprised to learn that there is nothing original in the pose they strike. In the 1970s, in the wake of a previous moral panic about family size (spawned, in part, by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb), there was a similar spasm of childless-by-choice activism.
But this time around, are we looking at something less niche, more mainstream? After Harry’s comments a YouGov survey was published claiming that 53 per cent of Britons agreed it was necessary to limit family size for the sake of the planet. Another survey suggested one in ten young people were considering having no children at all for environmental reasons.
Is this then, a new front in the culture war? It is easy to mock it as virtue-signalling. Noel Radford, the father of Britain’s largest family – 21 children and counting – argued on Good Morning Britain that Harry was using environmentalism as an “excuse”. And maybe some parental down-sizers will cloak themselves in green to maintain their lifestyle. But it’s impossible to know whether somebody who elects not to have children, or to have fewer than they might, is doing so to keep those nice cream carpets clean – or whether they really do care about Planet Earth.
No, if we are to avoid the stigmatisation of big families it will be necessary to get onto the front foot. People like me, who have made a study of demography, need to help parents like Nicola Horlick appear on the airwaves armed with the tools needed to debunk myths peddled by critics who cannot imagine any good coming from a famille tres nombreuse.
To begin with, we have to be honest about which arguments work. I used to say that my large family was “green” because of economies of scale. Our carbon footprint – per capita – was less than a one-child family because we recycled clothes, toys, even bathwater. But there’s no escaping the pitter-patter of all those tiny carbon footprints. In time they’ll have children of their own and, because children from bigger families tend to beget bigger families themselves, my fertility decisions will ripple through future generations.
Nor is it enough to argue that having lots of children gives parents a unique standpoint when it comes to having a stake in the future of the planet. Harry and Meghan don’t need to expand their existing one-child family in order to avail themselves of the cliché: “we want a better world for our grandchildren”.
We must also be ultra-sensitive to those who cannot, through no fault of their own, have any or all the children they would wish.
Instead our approach must be liberal, empirical and global. Global because sometimes our critics can be parochial about fertility. Across the world reproduction rates are crashing. In Japan, where an entire industry supports the disposal of the bodies of lonely elderly people who die without anybody noticing, fertility has just plunged again, to 1.2. In the UK it has just fallen to 1.7. Comparatively healthy, but still a post-war low and not enough to support our welfare state and tax, worker and customer base in decades to come.
But what about the 10 billion? Yes, global population is soaring. But that’s an inevitable function of demographic momentum. Take Iran, where fertility is now sub-replacement. Its population is still growing because of a demographic bulge. After the current high-fertility cohort works its way through the system, its population will start to fall again – and quickly. As Jonathan V Last, an American writer on demography, makes clear, this is a story not of birth control, but death control. On current trends global population will peak in about 40 years – although in many countries, those which don’t embrace mass immigration, it is already in freefall.
Don’t Westerners – with their bigger-than-developed-countries carbon footprints – have a greater responsibility to cut family size? They may have a special duty to reduce emissions, but there are different approaches to doing that, starting with copying the way things are done in poorer countries. Because some analyses show that the environmental gains of plummeting family size in the west are lost by the fashion for solitary living. According to official figures last week, the number of people living alone in Britain has gone above eight million for the first time. Our family units may be shrinking, but we still hanker after a place of our own, whether that’s because of social atomisation, divorce or widowhood caused by increasing longevity. All those new houses and flats that I see going up near where I live in Salisbury are unlikely to be examples of intergenerational cohabitation. In Senegal or Somalia, granny still lives at home.
In the UK, the number of one-child families has doubled in a generation, as has the proportion of women who never have children. It’s fairly obvious why: expensive housing and childcare, and lost career momentum for a mother when she takes time out of the workplace. Some countries, those facing the most acute demographic crises, are trying to tackle this. In an EU member state like Hungary, anyone with more than four children now pays no income tax.
This kind of blatant pro-natalism disturbs liberals. They worry that blood-and-soil nationalism is inimical to women’s rights. But surely a true liberal should support women’s freedom to have as many children as they want. In many Western countries, this is what’s being denied. A report by the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research a decade ago, found that the gap between the number of babies British women wanted, and the number they were actually having, was running at about 100,000 births a year. A study from the US showed that 40 per cent of American women reached the end of their childbearing years without having all the children they wanted to have.
Against this backdrop – choice denied, declining familial diversity, unsustainable welfare models – the notion of encouraging people to have fewer children in the west for environmental reasons seems bonkers. But I suspect it’s an idea whose time has come. For those of us who dare to disagree it’s not going to be enough to point to our big, chaotic broods, full of love and levity, models of gratification deferment and schools of hard knocks. We will need to marshal arguments that will strike many as utterly counter-intuitive. If we don’t, small families and childless-by-choice adults will redefine childhood, the economy and society at large. As China is finding, now that its wicked one-child policy has been officially ditched in a demographic panic, it’s incredibly difficult to encourage young people who have grown used to lots of attention to have children. Not just one. But any at all.
As Paul Morland reminds us in his book this year, The Human Tide, the impact of these demographic changes will have a profound effect on which nations prosper and fail. Elsewhere, debate focuses on whether having children helps or hinders lifestyles and careers (During Theresa May’s campaign for the Tory leadership, a female rival questioned her childlessness). But should this really be all about the state’s viability, or adult self-realisation? My interest in this subject was sparked watching my toddlers in a park. They didn’t behave like “snowflakes”. They played together with limited adult supervision. Only-child parents, by contrast, seemed to hover anxiously around.
I started to look at the data. Generally speaking children with a brother or sister, ideally more than one, have fewer mental health problems and a lower incidence of obesity than their sibling-free peers. They are less likely to be bullied, more inclined to report early signs of delinquency if they see a sibling heading off the rails. Research from US psychologists proved that the most serious adjustment problems after parental break-up were suffered by children without siblings. My own experience has shown me that if the parental loss is caused not by divorce, but the death of a mother, kids do better if they can lean on siblings.
We could do worse than adopt the language of the vegans and trans campaigners, who argue from the perspective of their rights. The advocacy of “children’s rights” is growing. But it would be a brave Children’s Commissioner who talked about a child’s right to a sibling, even if having one is demonstrably advantageous.
Instead, and unlike many developed countries, Britain has actively cut sibling-subsidies like child benefit payments. As Oxford University’s Danny Dorling scathingly writes in his book Why Demography Matters: “The exception [to the global consensus that parents need help raising children] is the UK: the former chancellor George Osborne announced that no additional benefits would be received for the third or subsequent children in any family receiving tax credits or Universal Credit from April 2017 onwards, unless they can prove that child was the result of rape.”
Hitherto, the impetus behind such measures was fiscal austerity or a political calculation that voters don’t want taxpayers’ money splurged on feckless parents. But the next time I have lunch with my contrarian friend, my prediction will be that – before the next decade is out – there will be parliamentary attempts to use the tax and benefit system to penalise fecundity for environmental reasons.
When I was making my documentary, one activist told me that an environmentally-activist legislature should never adopt draconian measures to stop family expansion. But, he said, things like free university tuition fees for an only child might be considered. Will the state really set about stigmatising big families? It’s a question that would surely puzzle our current head of state and mother of four – if not her grandson.
Follow Colin Brazier on Twitter: @ColinBrazierSky
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