Hannah McGill: Nanny state no match for nature

NANNY state can’t quite keep up with mother nature, writes Hannah McGill

China is considering scrapping its Draconian one-child policy, just as Britain introduces disincentives to creating bigger families. Picture: Imaginechina/REX

Who cares how many kids you have? It might seem like the most personal of decisions, but the fact is that various parties have both an interest in the volume of an individual’s reproduction, and influence to bear upon it.

Depending where you happen to live, your government might either incentivise or penalise the having of more than one child. Your religion might also take a strong position on the size of your family – possibly a directly contradictory one (ask a Chinese Catholic). Should you be seeking a mortgage, today’s ever-stingier providers will want to know how many dependents you might prioritise ahead of repayments, and tailor their offers accordingly. And whatever flag, creed or roof you live under, certain environmentalists are in no doubt as to your obligations to the planet.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Whatever moral case one might make for or against the Conservative government’s newly announced reduction in child tax credits – and the audible undercurrent that they’d really quite like to slash child benefit back too, but can’t quite face the fallout yet – it emphasises the fact that it suits the current political climate in the UK to present breeding as a drain on collective prosperity, rather than a contribution to the nation’s future competitive potential. Conversely, last week brought news that China may finally scrap its long-controversial one-child policy, in response not only to public opposition, but to an ongoing and potentially disastrous drop in its working-age population.

More babies? Isn’t the planet straining to provide for those it already hosts? Depends who you listen to. The notion that responsible stewardship of our world necessitates limited reproduction was championed at the dawn of the 19th century by Thomas Malthus. Paul R Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted apocalyptic social and ecological consequences to unchecked population increase.

While Ehrlich’s crystal ball had a few flaws – “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people,” he said in 1970 – many environmentalists continue to regard restricted baby-having as a moral and practical imperative. “Whether the average person alive today has between one and two children or between two and three children will largely determine whether our children live in a world that is safe, healthy, and sustainable, or crowded and polluted, with little if any nature, fewer resources and more crime,” says the campaigning organisation Uncrowded.

A similarly-minded individual wrote in the Guardian last year on her personal decision not to have children: “As a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room… Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any Mini-Mes into the world.”

Setting aside the thought that it might indeed be advisable for people who think children are going to be “Mini-Mes” not to have any, there is another strain of thinking. Some ponderers on the condition of our planet have come to reject the focus on population growth as a misdirection of blame. To Ian Angus Simon Butler, authors of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, And The Environmental Crisis, “Those who claim slowing population growth will stop or slow environmental destruction are ignoring the real and immediate threats to life on our planet. Corporations and armies aren’t polluting the world and destroying eco-systems because there are ‘too many people,’ and they won’t stop if the birth rate is reduced.”

Still, one financial power that does have significant influence on birth rates – the Vatican – may be altering its outlook. While he has not gone so far as to oppose the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception, Pope Francis did state earlier this year that Catholics were not required to breed “like rabbits”, adding, “God gives you methods to be responsible.” Most read this as a tacit endorsement of the rhythm method – which itself rather raises the query of why he didn’t OK the use of a method that actually works.

One small but interesting factor in population increase is the rising incidence of multiple births – partly the result of reproductive technologies, but also a consequence of women tending to have children later, which increases their chances of having twins or more. My direct personal experience of the latter phenomenon will turn two next week. Through them, I have become aware of the following irritating detail of the UK’s current child benefit system: the fact that if your first birth is twins, the second-born child receives the lower amount of child benefit that is afforded to a younger sibling, even though to all practical intents and purposes, you take home two firstborns.

None of the presumed savings of expanding your family one child at a time – hand-me-down clothes and equipment; multiple maternity leaves; staggered periods of paid childcare – apply. Given that the principle of the state awarding any child benefit at all may require defending in the coming years, it hardly seems likely that it will be increased for anyone any time soon; but first-time parents of multiples will be aware of a certain sense of injustice when they read the small print.

The three minutes that separated my daughters’ births didn’t really allow for much stockpiling of outgrown clothes; and since I didn’t expect or request to conceive twins, I could hardly have planned the whole thing with my eye on extra benefits. Never mind the fact that if I’d just been hard-up, robbing a bank would have been an infinitely easier and more restful solution than acquiring two infants at the same time. (No offence, girls. Happy birthday. Love you.)