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Our population is heading towards 10 billion - and Chris Packham thinks we might need a one-child policy to save the world

The i logo The i 14/01/2020
a man holding a baby © Provided by The i

It is the ethical dilemma that dare not speak its name, or even whisper it. But Chris Packham, admittedly not known for piping down, has decided enough is enough. The stakes, the survival of our species and of our planet, are too high.

The big issue? Population control. And Packham’s mission, with a one-off BBC programme broadcast next week, is to make having children as uncool as eating meat or drinking from a disposable cup. If you do have to reproduce, please stick to one.

The naturalist and broadcaster knows it will cause a stir. That’s his intention. “I’m not here to make friends,” he told reporters after a preview screening of 7.7 Billion People and Counting last month. “I’m here to make a difference... My duty is to pull people’s heads out of the sand.”

During Packham’s lifetime of 58 years, the population of the world has doubled. In Sir David Attenborough’s 93 years, it has tripled. There were only five million people on the planet 10,000 years ago. Today, there are around 7.7 billion humans walking the Earth.

'Sphere of destruction'

Chris Packham wearing a red shirt © Provided by The i

The United Nations predicts that our numbers will rise to almost 10 billion by 2050. They will need more space. They will need more to eat, resulting in more land being deforested for farms, which will need more water and risk exhausting soil. And they will need more energy, when we need to radically reduce and eliminate net carbon emissions. Can our planet sustain such numbers? If not, can anything be done about it?

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Packham calls the triangle of climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth a “sphere of destruction”. But where the first two are accepted causes of planetary devastation, and our overconsumption of meat and plastic is a fixture on the news agenda, discussing the birth rate is as risky as bringing up Brexit at a family meal.

His view is shared by the leading gerontologist Professor Sarah Harper, a founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. “We’re definitely at a turning point,” she agrees. “The next two or three decades are going to be crucial.”

Packham calls the triangle of climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth a 'sphere of destruction' (Photo: PA)

Coupled with birth rate is the spectre of our ageing population. “We’re so good at saving lives,” Packham says in the documentary, after introducing his 86-year-old father – who in previous centuries would have died from the heart attack he suffered, but is alive thanks to modern medicine. “We haven’t been so good at thinking about what to do because we’ve saved them.”

Despite rapid drops in the birth rate of many developed nations, globally the rate is still rising. Along with Sir David, Dame Jane Goodall and James Lovelock, Packham is a patron of the controversial charity Population Matters, which campaigns for a sustainable number of humans to live in harmony with other species and our environment.

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Are you starting to feel uncomfortable? As Sir David tells Packham in the programme: “It’s very difficult to talk about because the right to have children is one of the most precious rights that people have.”

And given that the biggest increases in population are happening in the developing world, some critics say that trying to stop it is racist – though Packham has angrily rejected this argument as “mis-informed”.

Social issues

On the one hand fears about population control can be smartly dismissed as Malthusian scaremongering. The 18th century economist Thomas Malthus predicted a soaring population, but wrongly yoked it to unavoidable poverty, failing to foresee rising living standards, disease prevention and contraception.

On the other, China’s one-child policy and India’s forced sterilisation programme in the 1970s are brutal examples of population control. These models failed, says Packham – but other countries, including South Korea, Thailand and Iran, have operated successful birth control policies. So successful that all three nations, along with many others, have since tried to boost their declining populations to revitalise their economies with a younger workforce. They have all struggled.

In England and Wales the birth rate hit a record low of 1.7 per woman in 2018. In Africa, that figure is four – high but falling. In his programme, Packham visits Nigeria’s largest city Lagos, which has 21 million inhabitants and a birth rate of five. Home to 200 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and at current rates its citizenship will double by 2050.

Lagos is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world (Photo: STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Globally the birth rate is 2.4, and we only need to lower the birth rate to 2.1 to stabilise population growth. How could this be done? “If you were to rub a lamp and give me a wish,” says Packham, “it would be the immediate emancipation of women all over the planet. In every example looked at, it significantly reduced the birth rate and improved the quality of life for both the woman and the family.”

Professor Danny Dorling is a social geographer at the University of Oxford. He explains that tiny changes in the number of births have huge impacts later. “What is happening right now,” he says, “is the first ever slowdown of human population in the history of our species not due to a disaster. Contraception helped, because given the choice, women would rather have fewer children to look after. The vast majority of women do not want a large family.”

They don’t? I read Cheaper by the Dozen over and over as a child. I had two older sisters already, but the idea of a house bursting with siblings was the most exciting existence I could imagine. You’d never be short of friends. Every weekday meal would be a celebration. Think of the parties!

While not fantasy, the novel by brother and sister Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey was so far-fetched you couldn’t make it up, and was indeed based on the authors’ lives growing up in a family of 12 children. But the jolly-hockey-sticks, make-do-and-mend, all-rubbing-along-nicely-together Gilbreth household is as far from contemporary standards as any.

When, in 2018, my baby became a toddler and people started asking when I was having a second, my feelings began to align with Dorling’s. I am not capable of sustaining a large family, emotionally or financially. Forget a dozen, I’m not sure I’m capable of sustaining more than one.

Sophie Morris and her husband Ben with their daughter Percy (Photo: Sophie Morris)

I bought all the books on raising an only child that I could find. There are two by Susan Newman which are practical, heartening and confidently debunk those myths of weird, spoilt, unsociable, slow to develop and lonely souls.

The Only Child by Jill Pitkeathley and David Emerson deals with the “legacy of burdens” you bestow upon your child by not providing siblings. But my favourite is by New York journalist Lauren Sandler, an only child herself. In One and Only, she guides readers through the reality of having more than one child for a working woman in the 21st century.

Society’s view of an ideal family hasn’t caught up with the personal and professional needs of emancipated women.Hopefully the future will reveal more positive ways of having one child, or being childless. But we need to get a bloody move on.

BirthStrikers go much further. They are a group of women who have vowed not to have children until significant progress has been made on climate change. You see, this isn’t only about the parents or the planet, it’s about the sort of world we’re bringing children into. Will we see a rise in anti-natalists, such as the odd case of Raphael Samuel, the Indian man suing his parents for giving birth to him?

Lifestyle changes

If our population continues to grow, our world might survive but our lifestyles will suffer. To illustrate this, Packham visits São Paulo where Maria lives in an apartment with her two sons. Last year she clubbed together with other residents in her block for a private well to be dug. Constructing a private water source is becoming commonplace in the Brazilian megacity, where there are frequent shortages. São Paulo has over 12 million residents; 13,000 of them built their own wells last year.

It is predicted that within 25 years, England could face water shortages – and might need supplies from Scotland to cope.

Packham is frequently portrayed as a misanthrope. He admits he often doesn’t hold the human species in high regard. He doesn’t have his own children but is close to his 24-year-old stepdaughter. Arguably he’s taking up more than his fair share of space, living alone with his dogs in a large cottage surrounded by woodland. He likes to think of himself as someone who doesn’t need much stuff, then confesses to owning 10 vacuum cleaners.

Is having one child the solution to climate change? In his recent book SOS: Simple Actions that Make a Difference, climate change researcher Seth Wynne found that only having one child reduces your cumulative carbon emissions by a whopping 58.6 tonnes a year. For context: living car free for a year saves 2.4 tonnes.

However, Professor Corey Bradshaw of Australia’s Flinders University modelled what would happen if the global fertility rate dropped from 2.4 to 2 tomorrow: the population trajectory would reduce by about 50 per cent by 2100, but we’d only get a 7 per cent decline in total emissions, because most come from developed nations where the rate is already low. If the birth rate goes down but everyone consumes like the average Brit, we’d need nearly two more Earths.

Packham believes we need to look at “measuring, understanding, and ultimately controlling” global population growth, but admits: “There is no simple solution.” That’s true, unless we all join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (yes, they are a thing). Lots of families will wonder where this leaves them. I’m confident there’s no evidence that only children are disadvantaged in any way, but that doesn’t assuage my urge to give my daughter siblings. Could anyone who’s seen Little Women this month disagree?

My husband Ben has been ready to get the snip for environmental reasons for months, though I joke that we might need his swimmers after the Third World War.

I agree with Packham – the conversation around population control should be amplified – and yet I feel less guilty about having a child than I did before. Education and female emancipation is the way to change things. Let’s get to it.

7.7 Billion People and Counting’ is on BBC2 at 9pm on 21 January

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