Women and children last!

A year ago I wrote a column on population growth. In it, I made two major points. The first was that the low ratio of births to existing population would inevitably lead to populations of increasing average age. This was already causing economic and psychological difficulties – and would do so increasingly in the future. That is not second sight but simple mathematics. Indeed, the Jesuit sociologist Fr Stanislas de Lestapis demonstrated in the early 1960s that this would happen to Japan as a result of contraceptive programmes influenced by America after the War. And so indeed it has.

At a seminar held last autumn by the Research Council of Norway it was noted that almost all countries except Africa would soon have more old people than children. And the question was raised about the effect on the lifestyle of working couples who may have four elderly parents to support on their own. And there are several related problems which I indicated in my previous column.

My second point was that once this bulge had worked its way through the population, peaking at around nine billion in 2050, it would gradually decrease – bringing deflation and numerous other economic troubles, unless people could be persuaded to have substantially larger families. And in modern economies it is much easier to persuade people to have smaller families than the other way about. In fact, they scarcely need persuading.

I return to the subject because, as we reported in a recent issue, Sir David Attenborough was specifically critical of the Catholic Church for its prohibition of artificial contraception, and the effect of this on population growth. Now, Sir David is a wonderful communicator with no less than seven sets of initials gilding his name. His views carry authority. It is a pity that, in a matter of such importance, he is talking through his hat. Apart from the facts I have summarised above I imagine that the Pope, looking at the scant birth rate of several reputedly Catholic countries, would say: “I wish.”

This week I want to look at a closely connected, and extremely threatening issue. This was discussed in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on March 15 this year. Over the next 20 years there will be a 10 per cent to 20 per cent excess of young men over women in China, India and South Korea. This is a result of a wish to have sons, facilitated by sex-selection abortions.

The natural differential between male and female births is 105 to 100, which compensates for the marginal extra mortality in males. In South Korea and several provinces in China the ratio can be as high as 130 per cent. A 2005 estimate showed that males under 20 in China exceeded the number of females by 32 million. A similar imbalance is found in the northern states of India.

A large factor appears to be the shape of the family. Where the first or second child is female there is a strong tendency to select for male in a subsequent child. While some governments have been relatively successful in campaigning for an equal balance of sexes, the incipient improvements will not filter through to the adult population for another two decades.

Why is this so threatening? We are talking here of countries of immense size which are quickly becoming the major economic powers of the future. What happens there will reverberate with increasing force over here.

We may speculate about the effect of deep changes in culture. The capacity to form partnerships in a society which has a normal balance of the sexes seems to have been optimised by evolution. What happens when the pendulum of power and choice moves strongly over to one sex rather than the other? I do not know the answer to that with any certainty but experience tells us that in this vital area of sexuality a lack of balance has always caused trouble. A relatively small number of females having the pick of a relatively large number of males may seem attractive to those of an extreme feminist bent – but one should be wary of what one wishes for in case it comes true.

The dangers which come from a large proportion of disaffected, un-mated males are clearer. In the absence of a widespread acceptance of polyandry, we can expect multiple reservoirs of seething testosterone. This in itself is a threat to marriage and the family, but it is also a recipe for delinquent behaviour and crime. As the report authors summarise the situation in China curtly, “94 per cent of unmarried people aged 28 to 49 are male, 97 per cent of whom have not completed high school, and there are worries that the inability to marry will result in psychological issues and possibly increased violence and crime”.

We have seen recently swathes of revolutionary activity and, whether we approve of the motivations or not, instability and the spilling of blood is so often the outcome. When the spur to mass disorder is the sheer repressed energy pumping from frustrated young males, rather than the quality of the cause, it becomes random and dangerous.

It is ironic that David Attenborough, who has looked at the life cycles of so many other species, should not have reflected more deeply on his own. Had his perspective been as long as a human lifetime or two he would quickly have spotted the dangers of artificially altering reproductive patterns. I do not say that there is nothing that should be done, but that it should be done with care and forethought. Homo sapiens evolved at a time when a large family was required to ensure population replacement. This is no longer so. Neither society nor the Church has faced up to this issue yet.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Climate Change. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Women and children last!

  1. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, you are spot on. I don’t know what parts of the world Attenborough is looking at, and I would suspect that the influence of the Catholic Church is not a major factor in those areas, but the demographic crisis in Europe is a fact, and if the Continent can only maintain its numbers by non-European immigration we are in very deep trouble.

  2. mike Horsnall says:

    China will probably escape the worst of it. The masses of men you talk about are the countryside population and spread over a wide area. Where they come to the cities in their masses the State has strong control over them and reacts swiftly and harshly to dissent. Many areas of China, particularly the economic powerhouses of Guandong and Hebei are pretty much autonomous zones now with border control very rigourously applied for this very reason, remeber that the Chinese government until very recently had almost complete control over the movement of population and complete control of who worked where- large parts of the countryside remain under what would be termed over here as Martial law with strict limits on population movement.
    The Chinese answer to the problem is to impose a tax on child bearing whereby the penalty for ignoring the one child policy is a fairly hefty fine – increasingly affordable to China’s rising middle class and its richer entreprenurial peasantry. The danger is NOW for China and there have been several tension points over the past 3-4 years which are usually put down brutally. If China is going to crack it will do so over the next 5 years, if and when it does the tanks will return to the streets again and thousands will be slaughtered. You have to remember that China has always been prone to mob uprisings and the governments are quite prepared and practiced in the use of strong force. We went to China not long after Tianmen square for 5 years and the crackdown was a thing to witness.

  3. RMBlaber says:

    Sir David is not talking through his hat, Quentin. You are. So too, I’m afraid, is the Pope, and everyone who agrees with him on this issue. The fact of the matter is, if the planet’s human population reaches 9 billion in 2050, it will be a disaster – no, that’s not a strong enough word – a catastrophe. The planet simply cannot support that many people.

    I strongly suspect, in fact, that it will not do so, because (assuming that no action is taken to reduce population in a planned and humane way – limiting population growth will not be sufficient) there will be a drastic, unplanned and inhumane reduction in population size to prevent it reaching that figure before 2050.

    I call this the ‘rats in a cage’ scenario. If there are too many rats in a cage, they start killing each other. Likewise, if there are more animals in a given ecological habitat than there are resources for them to survive, some of the animals must move out, or, failing that, those animals that fail in the competition for the scarce resources will die.

    We are faced with a multiple Malthusian catastrophe: the United Nations has predicted that there will be shortages of clean drinking water, and we can expect food and energy shortages as well, together with acute problems of food distribution, population migration, and problems (such as droughts and flooding) caused by climate change. I have not the slightest doubt that armed conflict will be the result, especially as competition for scarce vital resources is exacerbated by nationalist, ethnic and religious divisions. Geopolitics, with the superpower rivalries of China, Russia and a declining USA, will play their part.

    Frankly, if we get through the next three decades or so without having World War III, it will be a miracle. That will give an altogether sinister meaning to the term ‘population explosion’, but the kind of explosion I have in mind is thermonuclear, and it will be followed by the peace of the tomb. There is a slim chance we may avoid this, but only if Sir David Attenborough is heeded, on both population and climate change. Otherwise, there will be none at all.

  4. st.joseph says:

    Gosh too,I have only just heard about the supposedly 21.12.2012, if true we need not worry about 2050!!!!.

  5. John Nolan says:

    RM Blaber, the jury’s still out on anthropogenic climate change, and most historians I know are fairly sceptical about it. I understand Prince Charles regards climate change sceptics as loony; I rest my case. Malthus was proved wrong, and I suspect that the doomsayers who confidently predict the future are no more accurate than he was. The fact remains that the European birth rate has fallen below the critical level and this should be of concern for those of us who inhabit this continent.

    I lived through the time when thermonuclear war was regarded as inevitable, and yet it didn’t happen. If India and China want to fire off a few nukes at each other as a quick fix for their perceived overpopulation then let them get on with it, as long as we have the capability of pre-empting any attack on us. The bloodiest war in human history was, I believe, the Tai’ping war in China in the mid-19th century. I suspect that China may well implode sometime this century, but anyone who predicts anything “without the slightest doubt” is a fool.

  6. tim says:

    Why cannot the planet support 9 million people? (keep your hands still!).

    We have had all this before ( “Club of Rome”, “Limits to Growth”, etc.). Previous confident forecasts of doom have been proved wrong by events. So far the end of the world hasn’t happened. That doesn’t prove it won’t this time – it does mean we shouldn’t give up hope.

  7. Gerry says:

    There is much to comment on here. Fr Stanislaus de Lestapis SJ was one of the six original members of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, so he knew a lot, but he did not change his mind on artificial contraception. The problems developing from population control that Fr Stanislaus pointed out would be obvious to the Japanese – and I’m sure to David Attenborough as well – but they preferred these problems to the problems that would develop if they continued to double their population – problems such as extreme poverty, hunger, mass emigration, and conflict. To me this seems a reasonable decision.

    (John Marshall was another original member and he did change his mind. Dr Marshall was the great temperature method expert and I used to hear him explain this method in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. He wrote a foreword to an excellent book on the Commission – The Encyclical That Never Was by Robert Blair Kaiser. Sheed and Ward. Quentin had the great privilege of interviewing him.)

    John Nolan wonders what part of the world Attenborough has been looking at. I suspect Africa is one part. For instance, in Uganda, where 40% of the population is Catholic and the Church is influential, the population of 5 million in 1950, had doubled twice to 20 million by 1995, and is on track to double again to 40 million by 2015, and is expected to double a fourth time to 80 million by 2050. Uganda is blessed with many advantages and should by now be a prosperous country. Indeed, there have been good recent increases in GDP with a reduction in the numbers in poverty, but this huge population increase ensures serious poverty for the foreseeable future, and almost certainly conflict as well.

    Non-European immigration will continue for the foreseeable future whatever we do. Increasing our fertility is not a good answer. Decreasing non-European fertility is a good answer.

    John believes that Malthus has been proved wrong. This is not so. The fact that most of the world realised that he was right and took evasive action to prevent disaster doesn’t mean that he was wrong. He was wrong, of course, in believing that the method the world used to prevent disaster – artificial contraception – was a vice.

    Despite his apparent belief that the prospect of millions of people starving to death was less of a tragedy than the prospect of millions using contraception, I have a soft spot for Thomas Robert Malthus: he wasn’t having it that intellectual pleasure was better than the pleasures of marriage. This is a rare view amongst brainy people. Of course, he was still quite young when he wrote his famous essay.

    • st.joseph says:

      This may not be relevant but worth a mention
      Prof. John Marshall,Consultant Neurologist in London University Hospital, perfected the method of actually detecting ovulation, not ‘calculating’ it.
      It had its disadvantages. It involved a lot of abstinance in the first half of the womens cycle. It would not work when a women had a feverish illness. Since the temperature rise occured after ovulation, it gave no warning of impending fertility so could not be used in long, irregular cycles, during breast-feeding, and the pre-menopause years.
      Not to be confused with the method used to-day.

  8. RMBlaber realises that our planet can only support so much human plundering and that decent worlds are rather difficult to chance upon these days.

    Catholic theology has been so overwhelmingly smug about the status of our own species for so long that nature has become ‘valued’ for our sake, ultimately, for God’s ostensibly, and in itself only where no obvious scope exists to regard creation as raw materials for human designs.

    We would do well to dispense with the concept of vermin before the present century reaches its environmentally-ravaged conclusion; or perhaps accept that the Creator may value other lifeforms which an over-abundance of human beings (a lot of whom are evil and/or hugely destructive anyway!) has displaced and devastated with no real let-up in sight.

    The fact is that huge numbers of people will never make the slightest everyday sacrifice to ameliorate their ‘carbon footprint’ whilst theological infatuation with our own species perpetuates the problem.

  9. claret says:

    The trouble with all these kinds of debate is ‘What is truth?’ As far as I am aware David Attenborough is no greater expert on over-population than I am . I rather suspect that we have given more credence to those writings that support our own particular viewpoint. (Being up to your knees in bat droppings in some remote cave does not make you an expert on human over- population.)
    Evidently Russia is supposedly giving a financial bonus to families to have more children because they as are so concerned that their population is not going to replace itself whereas on its borders is China with its one child policy and yet has a supposed ticking time bomb of too many males and not enough females.
    I was also unaware that Malthus was heeded so much that nations took avasive action. I rather suspect that they did nothing of the kind. China is the only country that seems to have made an attempt at it but my guess ould be that Malthus played no part in their decision making. Did Malthus not predict that we would all be standing on each others shoulders by now, or is that myth?

  10. Gerry says:

    Claret, Of course, it was not by reading Malthus that countries realised that repeated doubling in populations would cause catastrophe. They worked it out for themselves and came to the same conclusion as Malthus. They then encouraged citizens to limit their families, again working this out for themsleves, just as Pope Paul VI did when he wrote in Populorum Progressio para 37 “There is no doubt public authorities can intervene in this matter… They can instruct citizens on this subject and adopt appropriate measures… ” (Moral theology removed.) Gerry

    • tim says:

      Repeated doubling of populations must cause catastrophe? But it’s already happened several times. No catastrophe so far. Of course, that doesn’t show that it won’t happen in the future. Gerry may make a reasonable analogy with the man who jumps off a skyscraper – he passes all but the bottom floor without meeting problems. It is possible that – in the longer term – the human race will spread out over the universe. In the shorter term, current estimates (which may be wrong, of course) suggest a planetary population of around 10 billion by mid-century. That would not be catastrophic . You may disagree, but if you want to convince others, mere assertion is not enough – you need arguments. Prophets of doom have a rotten record.

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