Will Meghan Markle stop at two children? It’s a question raised by an interview her husband, Prince Harry, gave in the summer of 2019. He told Vogue magazine then that the Sussexes would have “two, maximum”. Any more than that, he indicated, would be to put an unnecessary burden on the environment. His words at the time were welcomed by anti-natalists, who were delighted to have secured such a high-profile convert to the Malthusian cause.
Population Matters, which campaigns for smaller families, rhapsodised about “a fantastically responsible and effective choice that Harry and Meghan have made”.
By way of background, the organisation noted that population growth in Britain “means more pressure on the NHS”. In the immediate term this is undeniably true. But it is also a bad case of reductio ab absurdum. Britain’s birth rate has recently hit a record low and is now well short of what’s needed to replace our existing population. On current demographic trends, the tax and worker base needed to fund the NHS of the future is in serious jeopardy. Our health service will struggle, not because we have too many babies, but too few.
None of which seems to bother Population Matters, which asserts that a rising population means “more land being consumed for more housing that is more difficult for people to afford”. Again, it’s superficially true that we have a housing shortage, but to ascribe this wholly to population growth (largely a function of immigration) is monomaniacal. It might just as easily be blamed on the unquenchable thirst for solitary living in Britain, a country where the number of people living alone has now passed eight million for the first time.
Some of these Britons are older and widowed — and lengthening life expectancy is another reason for population growth — but many are not.
There is a cohort of younger people and middle-aged folk who, for whatever reason, aspire to “a place of their own”. Some will never marry, others have cohabited but found it not to their liking. Whatever the cause, many of the economies of scale that flow from sharing a home are obliterated by solitary occupation. Think about it: eight million households, lit, heated, built, maintained – not for a family of several souls – but for one.
It’s not easy ordering people to shack up with someone with whom they don’t want to live; or that they ought to consider inter-generational living with parents or grandparents. It’s far easier to urge them not to have kids “for the good of the planet”. It is claimed to be a message resonating with a growing slice of the British population. According to one poll, half of Britons say they agree “it is necessary to limit the number of children you have for the sake of the environment”.
Maybe nobody thought to ask if we should limit the number of single-person households. As things stand right now, one fifth of Britons will never have children. That’s up from a tenth a generation ago. How many of this massively and rapidly expanding fraction of our people will put their choice down to the acquisition of an environmental conscience, rather than say, the willing surrender of freedom in pursuit of the equivocal benefits of parenthood?
None of this is to underplay the tragedy faced by the many thousands who are not childless by choice. Merely to wonder aloud if environmentalism might sometimes be a more socially acceptable cause to advance than the retention of nice clean white carpets, or bi-annual skiing holidays.
For most people of child-bearing age in the developed world, family expansion requires painful choices, the pain of which is among the main reasons they curb plans for family expansion. Interrupted career momentum, costs associated with bigger houses and cars, the loss of ‘me time’. When someone approaches them with a questionnaire, half of Britons may say they want fewer children because they want to be green, but I have more than a sneaking suspicion that reason is rather a long way down the decision-making tree for the vast majority of them.
Somewhere well below “difficulty in finding a suitable life-partner” and “potentially unalterable changes to body shape in a body-conscious culture”.
In any case, the decision to have – or not to have – another child is complicated and not a little bit emotional. Forget calculations about the pitter patter of an extra pair of carbon footprints, or the impact on global warming of another pair of lungs. The reality is that getting pregnant and having a baby is not always the stuff of rational choice.