Among the many ludicrous plans out there to "save the planet," the most odious has unexpectedly come from a seasoned and respected commentator. In a recent column, Diane Francis urged the governments assembled at Copenhagen to limit drastically the human growth rate by adopting China's one-child policy.
It's hard to take the proposal seriously, but it turns out Ms. Francis's call for a worldwide law that would forbid couples from having more than a single child fits in with the latest report of the United Nations Population Fund, which argues that slower population growth would help greatly in the battle against global warming.
It takes a stretch of the imagination to see a baby as nothing but a future producer of CO2, whose carbon footprint will further damage the Earth. But at least the UN body cautiously avoids advocating compulsory measures of birth control. Instead, it recommends two policies that are needed in overpopulated Third World countries: easy access to birth control and the education of women.
From that position, however, Ms. Francis takes a great leap forward, to use Mao's phrase for the absurd industrialization plan that resulted in a countrywide famine in the late 1950s.
"A planetary law, such as China's one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birth rate," Ms. Francis writes. And the picture she paints is gloomy indeed: "The world's other species, vegetation, resources, oceans, arable land, water supplies and atmosphere are being destroyed and pushed out of existence as a result of humanity's soaring reproduction rate." In view of this apocalyptic scenario, one wonders if it wouldn't be simpler, at least more ecologically sound, just to sterilize people. But Ms. Francis is charitable enough to allow one child per woman.
And she's realistic enough to assume that world leaders won't follow her advice. Of course they won't, and it's not mainly because of the powerful pressure of "the big fundamentalist religions," as she believes, but because nowadays, even outside the liberal democratic world, most governments would balk at such a totalitarian measure.
Has China "proven that birth restriction is smart policy," as Ms. Francis claims? Yes and no. Undoubtedly, the single-child policy greatly helped China's prodigious economic development, albeit at the cost of unspeakable human suffering. Nowadays, though, China is experiencing the downside of this policy.
In a country devoid of a national old-age security system, old people rely on their children for their livelihood - their sons mainly, since the daughters traditionally care for their in-laws. Unsurprisingly, many couples, especially in the countryside, chose to have a boy rather than a girl, with the result that there is now a huge lack of young women: According to the British Medical Journal, there is a surplus of 32 million males under 20. Many young men have to "import" a wife from poorer neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam.
Worse, China is rapidly becoming an aging society, with all the woes this entails. The number of Chinese over 65 will double in the next 20 years - and this, in a country whose prosperity is based on a young and active work force.
This also does not take into account the less visible damage being done to the social and cultural fabric of the country. China's admirable civilization rested on the strength of family ties, but it has become a country of single, often obese and egocentric children, who've grown up without siblings and nephews and who have been idolized by two sets of grandparents frustrated in their desire for grandchildren.
Notwithstanding Ms. Francis's pronouncement, China might have to take a second look at its demographics.
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