The cry should go up in Europe: more babies, please

Of all the bogeys you might have thought well and truly nailed in the past decade or so, the population control movement seemed most obviously to have a stake through its heart. At a time when we – I mean, anyone over 35 – are all horribly conscious that there won’t be enough taxpayers to support us in gin and cigarettes in our old age, the very last thing we need to worry about is excess population growth. On the contrary: as seen from the dinner party circuit, the real crisis is the difficulty for female graduates in getting anyone to breed with. Forty per cent of women graduates don’t have a single baby at the age of 35.

But, against all the odds, the population control lobby is back and trying to make the breeders feel guilty. The Optimum Population Trust – a wonderfully loaded title – made a call this week for families in the UK to limit themselves to no more than two children. It was like stepping into a time warp, back to the Seventies. Britain’s birthrate, growing at its fastest for nearly 30 years – at 1.87 children per couple – is, says the author of its report, Professor John Guillebaud, an environmental liability. “Each new UK birth, through the inevitable resource consumption and pollution that UK affluence generates, is responsible for about 160 times as much climate-related environmental damage as a new birth in Ethiopia.” He wants the Government to appeal to families to “stop at two children”, with particular reference to fecund teenage girls. Funny, I dimly recall Patricia Hewitt, as Health Secretary, opining that couples ought to have three children – one for each parent, and one for the State.

And there is the hint – but just a hint – from the Optimum Population people that if voluntary restraints do not work, governments will bring in coercive measures. The example that springs to mind here is, of course, China and its compulsory one-child policy. I’ve come across some distinguished academics myself who wouldn’t dream of trying to impose coerced abortion here but have made it quite clear, in private conversation, that we should all be grateful on environmental grounds that it happens in China.

Most environmentalists are more sensitive, at least in their public pronouncements. But undeniably, population control is back on the public agenda. There was a nuanced BBC radio discussion on this subject to coincide with the Live Earth concert between the writer George Monbiot and Chris Rapley, the head of the British Antarctic Survey, in which Professor Rapley declared that population growth was the “Cinderella subject” in the environmental debate. More people equals more carbon emissions: simple as that. Monbiot agreed that the subject was not talked about as much as it should be and emphasised that if we’re talking about population control, we have to worry not just about the developing world but about the breeding habits of the affluent West. About us.

That sounds dandy. The nice approach to curbing population growth is by making family planning more freely available in the developing world and in particular, to educate girls, who then marry later and have fewer children. The complementary route is to increase economic growth in developing countries: when people don’t have to rely on children as their seed corn for old age, they tend to have smaller families. Trouble is, increased economic growth also means higher carbon emissions. You can’t win.

But when it comes to the suggestion that in Western Europe, and especially Britain, we should be cutting back on babies, especially among the indigenous population, well, the family planners have got to be nuts. Do they all have private pension provision, own homes and health insurance, or what? The rest of us – including those, like me, who are eco-puritans – have a vested interest in ensuring that the Continent does not shrink out of existence. We’ve got our old age to think about. The price of family homes in Britain and Ireland is already the most effective contraceptive measure ever known.

Don’t the environmentalists get out at all? Don’t they realise that there are only two classes in Britain for whom three or more children are an option – the rich, for whom mortgages don’t matter, and the poor, whose children are supported by the benefit system? The increase in the birth rate this year was largely accounted for by immigrants and older, richer mothers. One reason why there's such resentment – articulated by the Labour minister Margaret Hodge – among white working-class Britons about asylum-seekers with children getting social housing ahead of them is that the system seems to discriminate against couples who postpone having children until they can afford them in favour of ethnic minority communities with large families.

Europe needs more babies – the average continental family has a mere 1.37 children. Cutting back non-EU immigration to limit pressure on housing stock would help. So would state cash handouts. In Portugal, where the birthrate has fallen to 1.7 children per couple, the Government has considered giving tax breaks to people who have more than two children and levying higher taxes on those who have fewer. Germany is similarly concerned – it could lose the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany within 50 years. Russia’s population is contracting at the rate of three quarters of a million a year: the resourceful Mr Putin is paying mothers to have a second child.

The last thing we should be doing is bullying people to breed less. The population controllers have to be put back in their box. You know, Augustus Caesar had a tax on Roman bachelors. With due allowances for gay men and professional celibates, there’s lots to be said for the idea.

Melanie McDonagh