Old myths die hard. If not aggressively challenged by the demands of logic and science at the onset, they tend to gain an irresistible momentum until they become too deeply rooted in the collective consciousness to be dislodged, even by irrefutably contrarian research.
Such has been the case with “The Theory of Demographic Transition”. Despite a head-on collision with the facts, it still reigns as conventional wisdom and persists like genital herpes immune to empirical medication. So the broadest spectrum of people from editorialists to taxi cab drivers alike parrot the cliché that rapid population growth will eventually be cured by economic prosperity. So the answer then is to ruin the developing nations with economic growth, depleting their natural capital and despoiling their environment to the point where the fertility rate drops.
It’s fundamentally a “General Westmoreland” strategy of achieving population stabilisation and ecological equilibrium. Just as he endeavoured to destroy Vietnam in order to “save” it, growthists would destroy the environment in order to save it by making environmental clean-up “affordable” and convincing parents that a robust economy is a better guarantor of their security than having more children would be.
Fine theory - except that there is no proven correlation between economic standing and fertility. But try telling that to the media or the business and commerce departments of any university. One might as well try to tell them that the Law of Gravity is a falsehood. Or that pension income can only be sustainably supported by a demographic pyramid scam of generous birth incentives and mass immigration.
Equally vexing is the durability of the myth surrounding the “only” child. The stubborn notion that children of that kind are destined to be spoiled, lonely, maladjusted, narcissistic and bratty continues to trump 100 studies that contest it. (Refer to the survey done by Dr Toni Falbo of the Univerisity of Texas.) The conventional wisdom is still in accord with the view of G. Stanley Hall, the founder of child psychology, who concluded in 1896 that being an “only” child is “a disease in itself”.
In fact the “only” child is just as equipped with maturity, emotional stability and social aptitude as his peers with siblings. They may even be more motivated to acquire social skills as they are more likely aware that companionship is not a given, and pre-school, play centres and team sports offer abundant opportunities to develop them.
More than that, “only” children prove to be slightly superior in verbal ability, academic accomplishment and self-esteem. The reason is simple. Parental resources are finite. Money, books and above all, time, exist in limited quantities. Additional siblings siphon off a share of parental involvement that otherwise would have been available to the one child instead. It is not surprising therefore, that “only” children exhibit higher intelligence and pursue more education than children with brothers and sisters. Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers, attributes the higher scores and higher educational attainment of “only” children to their monopoly of parental focus. “They have all their parents financial resources to [buy] them extra lessons, to get them SAT training, but more critical is the one-one time at the dinner table.”
This is good news for the 20 per cent of families (more than double the percentage of a generation ago) that now raise but one child, who on average costs between $200,000 to $300,000 to rear by the age of 17, and substantially more if college is his or her ultimate destination. Yet amazingly, only 3 per cent of Americans recently polled believe that one child is the optimum number for a family. Apparently the myth still persists.
If it is any consolation, the people of China share America’s view. Despite the crucially enormous dividend that their government’s stringent family planning policy of one-child-per-family has paid in saving the environment from an additional 400 million surplus consumers, research reveals that 70.7 per cent of women would like to have two or more children. And fully 83 per cent desire to have both a son and a daughter, which together coincidentally translate into “good” in Chinese characters.
Should the Chinese government lose its resolve to resist this ambition, and to continue to grow its population, our species is in even bigger trouble than it is presently: 1.36 billion people is surely a problem for China. But 1.36 billion rich Chinese people are everybody’s problem. That many formerly poor but suddenly prosperous Chinese now determined to chase the California dream would be a global calamity of the first order.
Consequently it is commonly thought the one-child-family, while an ecological necessity, is nevertheless a sociological tragedy. Now that we know that science has demolished the empirical falsehood of this fatal prejudice, there should be no inhibition in aggressively promoting the Chinese solution in every industrialised country, beginning with our own. We can debate alternative mechanisms for imposing birth limits and endlessly navigate the moral ambiguities and relative merits of public education, moral suasion, fiscal incentives or government fiats backed by draconian measures. But however we manage it, we must manage it and follow through with it post haste.
Even if from this moment forth, no female conceived a child, our planet would still be burdened with more than 3 billion Homo sapiens in four decades, barring of a pre-emptive die-off. Three billion is far, far, more than is sustainable. Forget climate change, water shortages or renewable technologies, our soils, mined to exhaustion, will simply not carry the weight of those numbers when fossil fuel-based fertilisers are unavailable.