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Too many children?

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Monday 18 February 2008

Dr Barry Walters, clinical associate professor, Obstetric and Internal Medicine, University of Western Australia


Too many children?

My concern with the earth's environment began soon after the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. I read the book as an impressionable adolescent and was moved by its sober recounting of the adverse effects of man's intervention in nature. Many say that Environmentalism was born with Silent Spring , in which Carson demonstrated the interconnectedness of nature with all living things and its vulnerability to human intervention.

The basic tenet underlying worry about the earth is simple - the world we inhabit is not infinite. The world is finite, with borders, not unlimited, and not able to expand. In scientific terms, it's a closed system. We can't order replacement parts. Once the Arctic ice is gone, it's gone.

Our planet exists as a finite ball in space. We've all seen the wonderful pictures taken by orbiting spacecraft. There it is - a blue green sphere in a vast surrounding sea of universal black, supporting us and every living creature, animal and vegetable. A child can understand this concept. The earth is neither more nor less than that blue green ball reflecting the sun's rays, absorbing her light and energy, as it has for aeons.

I don't propose to argue the science of climate change. I'm a physician in obstetric medicine, not an environmental scientist. I start with the assertion that the science behind climate change is undeniable, except to conspiracy theorists who question every dictum of science, whether opposing the facts of evolution, the benefits of water fluoridation or the essential necessity of childhood immunization. There are illogical forces at work in our society that deny the obvious, that see malign influence behind scientific observations that they find uncomfortable, that dispute the aberrations in world climate that we all have experienced.

The truth is the world's environment and climate have changed and continue to change much more than natural variation allows. This is largely due to our actions, the effects of human beings. We are responsible for much of the greenhouse effect. We live, we breathe, our use of energy is profligate - each of us generates a "carbon debt", just like a little oil refinery, or a motor car.

Current attempts to halt our earth's degradation have failed. They can't succeed unless we control our population. There are nearly 7 thousand million of us. In the 5 minutes of this 'Perspective', there will be 750 more babies born, soon to be like you and me, consuming resources, driving cars, burning energy - another million net population gain every 5 days. Will the world get bigger to cope with more of us? What about 50 billion? Of course it won't, we've passed the limit.

If we love our children, we must consider the environmental impact of every new human. We owe it to their offspring, otherwise we'll need another "Sorry day" about 2,060. .......Can we undo the carbon debt generated by each new life? It's extremely expensive and involves planting trees to soak it up - millions and millions of hectares. The alternative is to limit population growth, or both. This is a simple accounting exercise. One human produces 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year; 2 produce 14, and so on.

My thesis is not that there be compulsory sterilisation. My thesis is simply that we should understand what we are doing - that the more of us there are, the worse it is for our earth. In particular, my belief is that no nation should pay women to have babies. In fact an economic rationalist would say we should pay a carbon tax for each child we have...

We should support families with childcare, education, health care, but cash for babies - no - this is irresponsible. This year the Government will give $1,500 million in cash to new mothers. Better give each a solar hot water system or plant several hectares for each baby, better we spend it on Aboriginal health.

We are citizens of this earth neither more nor less than those in every other nation. If they must limit their population, so must we. Australians are not an arrogant people. Racism is anathema to us. If the world suffers, we suffer. We do not acquire a right to produce more man-made gases by living in a relatively less populated area.

The world is limited. There is only one atmosphere - we all share it and are equally responsible for it. Let's recognise that there's no such thing as a free lunch. We love our children. We need them. The world needs them, but, each child comes at a price . The last thing any government should do is encourage population growth in this our only, our precious, our struggling, finite earth.


Dr Barry Walters  

Clinical Assoc. Professor 

Obstetric and Internal Medicine. 

University of Western Australia.

Royal Perth Hospital and  

King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women 

Perth, Western Australia