Diane Francis’s Tuesday Financial Post column calling for a global one-child policy as the real answer to man-made global warming has become an instant classic in the art of antagonizing readers. The piece could correctly be described as half-crazy, of course. Even granting that we are willing to endow the state with monstrous population-control powers, and Francis is obviously willing, her praise for China’s population-growth measures as “simple” suggests a willful blindness to its demographic effects and to the inegalitarian way the policy has actually been applied.
In China, the one-child policy has been a class war that skewed the natural sex ratio, introduced chaos into the family-formation process, and condemned millions of men to lifetime service in a reserve army of the unmarried. It’s the biggest, cruellest biological experiment in history. The results aren’t really in yet. And even if it “works” by environmental criteria, a project that the Chinese can pull off will not necessarily be scalable upward to the entire species. I feel silly even having to point all this out.
What I like about the column is that it puts population growth front and centre in the emissions debate; it gets in our faces. When economists or environmentalists assemble projections of future global CO2 output, they sweat blood over the fine points of how economic growth will influence per-capita emissions… but the number of capita is basically treated as an axiom. This is probably appropriate: the interaction between economic growth and emissions is the part of the equation with the most uncertainty, the part that there exists a lively debate about. The problem is that when the scary hockey-stick diagrams are taken forth to the politicians and the public, no one ever mentions that population growth is part of the problem at the micro level—the level of “What can you do to change your personal contribution to carbon emissions?” We end up arguing nonsensically over whether we should buy an Escape or a Highlander to take the kids to hockey practice.
And meanwhile, we’re all left with the impression that we are a lot filthier and more sinful than our ancestors—that our exciting, affluent, high-tech lives are producing more eco-harm than theirs did. It’s mostly not true, in the countries that have been industrialized the longest.
Nobody is sure whether per-capita carbon emissions will, in the long term, hold steady in these countries or begin to decline. Pretty much everything depends on the energy technologies available to us. The environment has already benefited, as far as the developed world is concerned, from the abandonment of mass solid-fuel burning as a primary means of providing energy. We did that, not as a matter of environmental policy, but because cleaner alternatives to coal and wood stoves were also more efficient. The all-time peaks in per-capita carbon output in many countries are surprisingly far back in history. Canadians are thought to have reached a peak in CO2 output in 1948; for the UK, the worst year is said to have been 1913 [PDF].
In other words, mere economic growth might be part of the climate-change problem, or it might be the ultimate solution. Even granting that there is a man-made climate problem, trapping developing countries in the pollution-intensive phase of their history could easily be a huge mistake. The one thing we can be sure of is that fewer people will require less energy, however it is provided. I don’t advocate a one-child policy, or any policy at all that involves governments telling people how many children they can have, but I don’t understand why people who claim to be “passionate” about the environment of the future haven’t adopted zero-child policies for themselves.
Well, actually, I do understand it, because they all used to be big on Zero Population Growth as both a policy goal and a social ideal back in the ’70s. Diane Francis is singing an old song that environmentalists unlearned for strategic reasons. It made them look like she looks right now: authoritarian and nihilist and out of touch with the hopes and ambitions of ordinary people. And many of those environmentalists wanted to have kids themselves—i.e., they hypocritically put their personal desires above the interests of the planet when confronted with the biggest choice of all. Darwinian imperatives are not easily suppressed. It’s so much easier to nag the other guy about home insulation and bike paths, and, if necessary, take away his oilpatch job.