The pitter-patter of tiny ‘footprints’

Women in Britain are having more children. And for some green miserabilists that can only mean more mouths to feed and more carbon to clean up.

Neil Davenport

Topics Science & Tech

Last week, the UK Office for National Statistics released the latest figures for live births, revealing that the fertility rate – the number of live births per 1,000 women – is at its highest level for 26 years.

The number of babies born rose from 1.8 babies per woman in 2005 to 1.87 in 2006, the fifth annual rise in a row (1). While young, British-born women are having fewer children, older women and immigrant women are more than making up for it. The ‘mini-baby boom’ is perhaps all the more remarkable given the relentless dire warnings about the ‘risks’ for women in having children (2). And yet, the fact that most women are still choosing to have babies is, for some commentators and professionals, problematic and even ‘irresponsible’.

We can look upon the increased fertility rate as positive for a number of reasons. For one thing, the fact that women are choosing to have children later in life reflects the improved position of women in British society. The postwar peaks in the fertility rate depended on keeping women at home. But as society’s attitudes have changed, women have been able to carry on into higher education, establish careers and gain economic independence, too. Of course, even today, women will still be expected to shoulder the burden of childcare, reflecting the market’s inability to provide collective assistance in child rearing. But the fact women now plan to have children around their careers, rather than motherhood being the only ‘career’ going, is a development surely worth celebrating.

Not everyone is of the same opinion. Allan Pacey of the British Fertility Society said that although ‘it’s reassuring that more people are getting pregnant and starting to reverse the population decline… I wouldn’t want these figures to send the message that it’s okay to have babies much later in life’ (3). Why not? What happened to choice? Although it’s true that it is more difficult for women to conceive in their late thirties and early forties than in their twenties, and there is a small increase in the possibility of birth defects, there have been massive advances in reproductive technologies. When 63-year-old Patricia Rashbrook gave birth in April 2006, it was clear that age is not the barrier to reproduction it once was. Limitations on motherhood seem to have more to do with the views of health professionals than any scientific barrier.

The increase in the UK’s fertility rate is positive for another reason: it means the misanthropic overpopulation lobby hasn’t won all the arguments just yet. Most adults still see taking on responsibility for raising the next generation as both important and worthwhile, a reflection that maybe the human race isn’t such a ‘lost cause’ after all. The rising fertility rate also refutes priggish suggestions that the entire British population are far too addled by drink and drugs to bother with children.

Ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, there are those who can only read grim negativity into the increased fertility rate. David Nicholson-Lord of the Optimum Population Trust said: ‘We advocate that people should stop at two or have one fewer child than they planned for environmental reasons. The current population is unsustainable. The closer we get to two births per woman, the more concerned we get.’ (3)

Fears about ‘rising population’ are nothing new, of course. Thomas Malthus saw population increases as problematic because he reckoned, wrongly, that agricultural productivity wouldn’t be able to cope with greater numbers. ‘The power of population’, he wrote, ‘is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ Without checks on population growth, whether human or natural, there would be famine, he argued.

While Malthus was proved wrong by events, other population worries surfaced. From the late nineteenth century until the 1940s, elitist thinkers constantly fretted that the ‘wrong’ type of people were breeding in greater numbers and thus threatened the ‘moral fibre’ of Western nations (4). Eugenics and forced sterilisation of ‘inferior people’ were championed by elite thinkers, until such ideas and practices were well and truly discredited by the Nazi experience.

The revival of population ‘concern’ by organisations like the Optimum Population Trust is in some ways worse than the old elite’s contempt for the masses. At least bourgeois intellectuals in the early twentieth century believed that some humans had distinguishable and worthwhile attributes that needed to be preserved. By contrast, today’s environmentalists see all humans as parasites on nature, a uniquely destructive force on the planet whose presence shouldn’t be welcomed, let alone encouraged. So David Nicholson-Lord sees no difference between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, as previous elite thinkers would have done; rather he thinks that any population increase is necessarily bad because it causes environmental damage. Becoming a parent is reprehensible because it increases the number of ‘carbon footprints’ on the earth.

Environmental policies are often demanded because of the urgent need to tackle climate change and to safeguard future generations. Campaigners insist that reducing carbon emissions is about ensuring the survival of the human race, not just saving endangered species or rainforest trees. This is why critics of environmental orthodoxies are sometimes painted as being ‘selfish’, ‘short-sighted’ and even ‘anti-human’; apparently to ignore climate change is to be blasé about humanity’s future. In truth, if environmentalists had their way, there wouldn’t be any future generations to ‘save’ – or certainly there would be generations vastly shrunken in number. For Nicholson-Lord, if there’s a choice between the environment and humanity, the former must and should take priority. As he tetchily puts it: ‘people aren’t considering the environment when they are planning their family’ (5). Want to do ‘your bit’ to stop climate change? Don’t have any children!

Unfortunately, these sorts of foul outbursts also reveal the extraordinary political consensus around environmentalism and, by proxy, anti-humanism. So instead of counter-debates and discussions on the gloomy prognosis of climate change alarmists, we merely get various shades of green. As a consequence, ‘the environment’ has gone beyond an ‘objective reality’ to become a subjective moral absolute. Mentioning the magic words ‘the environment’ has become a way of imposing an unquestionable ‘good’ over any issue in human society, whether it is on expanding airport runways, building new homes, improving infrastructure for transport or starting a family.

At root lies a sentiment that humans no longer have a place on the planet. The fewer of us, the better.

The increased fertility rate in Britain is something worth celebrating. But safeguarding the prosperity and future of the next generation will require fewer measures to ‘save the environment’ and more arguments to counter environmentalists. Honestly, humanity’s survival depends on it.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield attacked the Optimum Population Trust for seeing people as a plague. Rob Lyons asked if there were too many people. Frank Furedi confronted the new misanthropy and was unafraid of the population bomb. Daniel Ben-Ami disputed the over-crowded world of ‘Safe Sachs’. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) Hints of a baby boom as fertility rate hits highest level for 26 years, Guardian, 8 June 2007

(2) See Making a minefield of motherhood, by Neil Davenport

(3) Hints of a baby boom as fertility rate hits highest level for 26 years, Guardian, 8 June 2007

(4) See The Intellectuals and the Masses, by John Carey, Faber & Faber (1992)

(5) Hints of a baby boom as fertility rate hits highest level for 26 years, Guardian, 8 June 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter