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One Child To Rule Them All

June 23, 2020

Today we travel to a future where a global government institutes a one-child policy on every single family. 

Guests:

Further Reading:

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The voice of our future ecofascist leader this episode was played by Brent Rose

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool. 

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That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one. 

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Rose: Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I’m your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode we take on a specific possible… or not so possible future scenario. We always start with a little audio field trip to the future, to check out what’s going on, and then we teleport back to today to talk to experts about how that world we just visited might really go down. Got it? Great!

This episode we’re starting in the year 2032. 

***

Press conference, noises.

Human Future Task Force Leader: Thank you all for coming, thank you, please take a seat. Thank you very much for your presence. 

I want to begin by thanking the members of the Human Futures task force, who have been working tirelessly on this initiative for the last six months. As you all know, we’re living in unprecedented times, and many of the members of this task force have given up a large part of their lives to shape the policy I’m about to outline. On a personal note, when Commissioner Ehrlich asked me to lead this group I initially said no. I simply was not sure that what he was asking for, could be done. The question of reproductive restrictions seemed too fraught, and too challenging even for me. 

And let me tell you, it has not been easy. As the press has been keen to report, the debates within this task force have been intense. But we returned each time to the doctrine etched on our seal — the motto we repeat when we’re sworn into the office, and the ethos by which we live and die: the data never lies. And so, I am here to present to you what the data has decided. 

As you know, the earth has not been friendly to us in the past decade. And, perhaps, that’s only fair, as we were not friendly to it in the preceding centuries. According to our official calculations, the only way forward is to limit the number of people on this earth. And our algorithms have determined the carrying capacity of our home planet to be 9.2 billion people. As you are likely aware, we are already precariously close to this number. Of course, it would be ill advised to simply ban reproduction entirely. And so, the task force has come to the conclusion that, starting immediately, the Global Cooperative should institute a one-child policy for every approved couple.

I know this sounds drastic, but perhaps more drastic were the projections our models put out if we did not put out such a policy. This will require adjustment and sacrifice from everyone, but it is our clearest path to survival as a species. And, by the power vested in us as the Global Cooperative, officially adopted by 102 nations of this Earth, we have no choice but to enforce this species saving regulation. 

I’m sure you will have questions, and so I will now answer some of them. 

Rose: Okay, today’s episode is about a future in which there is a global one child policy. And before we really even start, I will admit the big, obvious thing here.

Jade Sasser: A global one child policy. It will never, ever, ever, ever happen. 

Rose: This is Dr. Jade Sasser, a sociologist at UC Riverside and the author of a book called On Infertile Ground, Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change

Jade: There are places in the world, right now, where they’re actually battling to increase their population growth; where population is in such decline that they’re wondering how their economy will be supported in the future. 

Rose: Japan, Bulgaria, Germany, Poland; they all have negative population growth. 

Jade: There’s a really funny campaign called Do It for Denmark. It’s led by a travel agency in Denmark where they have these — you should look it up on YouTube, It’s hilarious — but they encourage couples to take romantic vacations in other places and, you know, to have as much sex as possible during these vacations, so that they can come back pregnant, and have children to boost the population. And thus, you know, in the future, the economy of Denmark. 

Rose: So the ad is obviously not in English, so I won’t play you the audio from it. But I will embed it on the website so you can watch it in all its sexy glory. 

Jade: And Do It for Denmark; it’s funny, it’s tongue in cheek, but it comes from a very serious concern about the negative impact, nationally, of population decline.

Rose: So we know that this global rule won’t happen. But I wanted to talk about this idea because, honestly, listeners ask about it. Whenever I do an episode that talks about climate change, I invariably get at least one email from someone arguing that the real problem is population. That, if we had less people we’d have a smaller problem, and so obviously we should control the number of people on the planet. And I kind of get it, this idea feels intuitive to many of us. 

Jade: It makes sense that it comes across as a natural, obvious thing. But the reason why it does is because we have been taught this by scientists over and over again. 

Rose: In her book, Jade talks about a conversation she had with a close friend about how natural this idea seems.

Jade: We were flying on an airplane. We were returning from a vacation, coming back from Costa Rica. And I lived in the Bay Area, at the time. We were flying into San Francisco, and the area just south of there is very heavily forested. So my friend was looking out the window and exclaiming over how beautiful the landscape was with such a heavy tree cover and saying, “I wish San Francisco looked like this. We need more trees. If people would just start using more birth control. San Francisco could look like this.” And I just remember being so shocked, in part because he was a very good friend, and I thought that I had been talking about my research with him a lot. I thought, “have you heard nothing that I’ve been saying for the past couple of years?”

Rose: I hate to break it to you, but none of our ideas are really natural, or obvious, or original to us. They all come from somewhere.

Jade: Common sense is produced. It’s produced by people who produce science textbooks, for example. It’s produced by people who are teaching in the classroom. Those ideas are grounded and circulated through classroom teaching. 

Rose: I, personally, remember learning about this idea in high school. We were shown a graph of — I think it was — mouse populations. Showing them rising and rising and rising, and then eventually crashing. And the lesson was that for every species there is a certain number that is ideal. And if you go too far past that number, everybody dies terrible deaths and probably eats each other. But the idea that there is some kind of carrying capacity of the Earth for humans; that there is an ideal number of people for this planet, there’s a very specific history to that idea, and we can be traced that history back to, really, one guy named Thomas Robert Malthus. 

Jade: Malthus was a British cleric. He was a religious figure. He was also a political economist. 

Rose: Malthus did most of his work in the late 18th century.

Jade: And he was writing at a time in which the industrial revolution had occurred in Britain.

Rose: At the same time, there was a huge surge in poor people in Britain.

Jade: Death rates started plummeting because of infectious disease prevention, better public health surveillance, better access to medicine. 

And when you’ve got a lot of people being born, and not a lot of people dying, you’re going to have a surge in population growth. 

Rose: In response, the British government created social programs to try and help feed and house the poor. And Malthus, who, perhaps obviously, was not poor, looked around and was like “aha, this is clearly a problem,” And he came up with a theory.

Jade: That human populations grow at an exponential rate and that food resources grow at a much slower rate of arithmetic. And his argument was that human growth rates would naturally outpace growth rates of food, and that the result would be poverty and famine, naturally. He argued that this was a natural, scientific, law. He also argued that this was the law of nature as ordained by God. 

Rose: And his ideas took off.

Jade: After Malthus, you know, widely circulated these ideas, they were taken up by people, various kinds of environmentalists, one of whom, most famously, was Charles Darwin.

Rose: A few decades later, Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, expanded upon Darwin and Malthus’s ideas in his own work, in which he advocated for selective breeding to create superior people. Yes, that is eugenics, and Galton is in fact the coiner of the term eugenics. And not long after Galton, the environmental movement adopted all of this stuff as a core part of their movement. In 1906, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created an American Breeding Association, which wasn’t just about things like tomatoes and peppers, but also did work on human breeding to keep the country as white as possible. In 1918 an organization called Save-the-Redwoods was founded in California by three pretty prominent eugenicists who argued that immigration and increasing populations of not-white people in the United States was a huge environmental problem. In fact, the redwood itself was co-opted by these environmentalists as a symbol of imperiled human genetic stock, arguing that they had to protect these plants and animals from the “genetically inferior” people who were breeding and threatening to destroy them.

And this doesn’t end in yee olden days. In the 1950’s, worries about population control in the United States shifted to center around this idea that the Global South might pose a security threat. 

Jade: And questions about what would happen to geopolitical security, the security of borders, the security of nations around the world, when global south countries became independent. When colonization ended. There were concerns about inadequate food production in those countries. There were concerns about rapid population growth in those countries. And there were a lot of concerns about whether poor populations from those countries would migrate to wealthy countries in the global north. 

Rose: In 1954 a guy named Hugh Moore, who is also weirdly the founder of the Dixie Cup, wrote a pamphlet called “The Popluation Bomb” arguing that growing numbers of people could fuel the spread of communism. 

Jade: That pamphlet then later — it went through a number of changes, and then was turned into a book by a different author. And that author was Paul Ehrlich, who was a conservation biologist at Stanford. And when he wrote the full book, Population Bomb, he wrote it as an environmentalist book. So, he makes a number of arguments in the book, mainly about food production and its inability to keep up with exponential growth, a direct Malthusian argument.

Rose: Ehrlich predicted a global famine in the 70’s and 80’s, because, of course, as Malthus argued, we could never grow enough food for all the people on the planet, if people kept breeding.

Jade: And his argument was that everyone needed to institute population control measures. And he very famously wrote, in that book, that if people don’t do it voluntarily, that coercion was in order. And one of the coercive measures that he promoted was putting sterilizing agents in the public water supply here in the US. 

Rose: These ideas, from Malthus to Moore to Elrich, have infused policy all over the world for decades. In some cases, wealthy countries tied their aid packages to contraceptive use. Between 1966 and 1967, 1.8 million people in India were implanted with IUDs or sterilized, and that’s nothing compared to a few years later when in just a single year over eight million sterilizations were conducted in the country. In the 1980’s, in Bangladesh, the army rounded up hundreds of people and forcibly sterilized them. 

And this kind of coercion around population and having, or not having kids, happened in the US too.

Jade: Racist population control has been embedded in the fabric of the United States from the beginning of the history of the United States as a country. Forced sterilizations of women of color — women and girls of color — in the US, which were rampant in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The coercive flooding of low income communities with birth control; including experimental birth control testing; experimental birth control on women of color in low income communities; tying access to welfare benefits to use of contraceptives, including long acting hormonal contraceptives. 

Rose: All this history matters. When we talk about population control today, we can’t pretend that all of this stuff didn’t happen. If you’re in the Flash Forward book club — which you can join if you become a Patron! — you read about the ways in which the history of eugenics impacts moderns science in the book Superior by Angela Saini. It’s tempting to say “oh well, that was so long ago, things are different now,” and Jade says that that’s what today’s advocates for population control do.

Jade: They refer to it as the dark past of population control. Which suggests that there has been a firm, clear, break from that past, and that what is happening today has nothing to do with it, and is moving in a completely different, opposite direction. And the thing is this: that’s not the case.

Rose: Today, when you or I learn about environmental science, Malthusian thinking is embedded into it, even if his name is never mentioned. All these years later, we think of these ideas as fundamental rules, but they’re not. There’s no agreed upon number, even, for how many humans the Earth can support — which is something we’re going to come back to in a bit. But today, these ideas are so deeply embedded in so many places, they seem natural. Like, if a kid jammed a marker into a carpet for hours, and eventually you just pretended that it was part of the design all along, which is definitely not something that I have done.

In fact, this idea seems so natural that it has even led scientists to incorrect conclusions about what’s going on in certain places, like Madagascar and Guinea.

Jade: When colonial authorities first arrived in Guinea in the late eighteen hundreds, they noticed that there were these little islands of forests that were surrounded by dry savanna. 

And they immediately assumed that these forest islands were the result of environmental degradation. 

Rose: In reality, what had happened was the opposite. Guinea was never heavily forested, and the pockets of forests that existed were the direct result of people planting trees and creating these forests.

Jade: The scientists that were looking at the landscape were actively misreading what they saw because of their firmly held established paradigms, which said that population growth always leads to environmental degradation. 

Rose: Today, people don’t like using the term population control, for maybe now obvious reasons. Instead, they talk about reproductive justice — which they usually define as offering people around the world access to birth control, so they can choose how many children to have, or whether to have children at all. And that’s great! But that’s not actually what reproductive justice is. Reproductive Justice comes from a very specific movement, started in 1994 by a coalition of women of color. 

Jade: And that movement was a direct response to reproductive racism, which had shaped the history of population control in the United States. And they developed a platform with three pillars One focusing on the right to not have unwanted children. So this is what most people think of when they think of reproductive rights. The think of the right to not have children you don’t want; meaning the ability to use contraception and to have abortions. But reproductive justice says you can’t stop there. That’s just one pillar. The second pillar is the right to have wanted children. Meaning to be able to make your reproductive decisions freely, voluntarily and without coercion. So this is a direct rejection of coercive sterilization, and coercive medical experimentation, testing and flooding communities of color with contraceptives. And then the third pillar of reproductive justice is the ability to raise the children that you do have with the necessary social resources and support.

Rose: That third pillar; that’s really important, and it’s the most commonly left out of these conversations. That means, for one thing, not forcibly removing children from their parents, which is a thing that happens, still today, particularly in Native American communities. You can learn more about that by listening to the podcast Finding Cleo, by Connie Walker. And it also means social support for parents; housing, food, jobs. Building a community and system that actually supports people with kids so that they can live and thrive. 

Jade: So when these mainstream groups say that they’re doing reproductive justice work, they’re not. They’re drawing on language that sounds great, and that a lot of people would want to get behind. But if you’re not advocating for, and working toward, pillars two and three, you’re not doing reproductive justice work.

Rose: I will link to some resources on reproductive justice in the show notes, so you can learn more about it. But today, that term is often c-oopted by NGOs and government organizations who really just want a nicer way of saying population control. And that co-option has really worked; Jade’s book documents the ways in which a lot of young activists have been using these ideas and advocating for limiting human numbers as a solution to climate change. 

Jade: I do want to say, I recognize that a lot of people, especially young people, are deeply concerned about climate change, as we all should be. But focusing on having children, or not having children, or whether other people should have children, it really… it’s a distraction. 

I really wish that young people would understand how mobilizing and organizing around policy change, and using electoral voting, as well as public protest, will make much more of a difference toward turning the tide on climate change, rather than simply saying I, individually, perhaps won’t have children. So I want people to sort of look structurally, look institutionally, not fall for this simple smokescreen answer. And I also just want to say, given where we are right now — we’re in the midst of a global pandemic; we’re in the midst of national protests and uprising around racial injustice — population control has to go. It has its roots in racism. It justifies racist policies. And it doesn’t work. Population control does not work. So, if we really care about people’s sexual and reproductive health and lives, then we need to provide the things that people want: full and comprehensive access to a range of sexual and reproductive health services. Full and comprehensive access to education. Full and comprehensive access to clean air, clean water clean environments. The ability to raise their children in safe neighborhoods, free of brutality, violence, poverty, injustice; and all the utopian things. 

Rose: But today’s episode is not about utopia! It’s about a future where we actually do go all in on these coercive population control ideas. And while, again, it’s unlikely for that to happen globally, there is one nation that has instituted a very strict population control policy, which you’re probably familiar with. In 1980, China officially codified its so-called “one-child policy,” which remained the law up until 2015. And when we come back, we’re going to talk about that policy, its legacy, and what lessons it might teach us about the future of population control.

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Rose: Okay so you probably saw this section of the episode coming from a mile away right? We can’t talk about a hypothetical one-child policy without talking about the one-child policy enacted in China in 1980. But right off the bat we should clear the air on what this policy actually said.

Leslie Wang: You know, the one child policy was always a little bit of a misnomer. We tend to call it the one child policy; it was always something that was a little more complicated than that. 

Rose: This is Dr. Leslie Wang, a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and the author of the book Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China

Leslie: Every family was only allowed to have one birth. Righ, so this wasn’t really about one child. If you had multiples, you could obviously keep them. 

Rose: And there were a few other exceptions to the rule, too. 

Leslie: So, in China, you have to apply to have a child. If people had one child, and the child was a son, they had to stop. But if the child was a daughter, they could re-apply and have another child a few years later. 

Rose: The one-child rule also only applied to Han Chinese residents; ethnic minorities were excepted. 

Now, China did not enact this policy to save the Earth, or to stop climate change. The goal of the policy was purely economic. 

China wanted to urbanize, and modernize, and to do that they wanted fewer people. And to get fewer people, they started rolling out population control measures. Even before the one-child policy, there were voluntary policies put in place to incentivize having fewer children. And those worked.

Leslie: In the early 1970s, the average number of children that a family would have was almost six. And then by the time the one child policy was enacted, that number had dropped below three.

Rose: But China decided to take things one step further, and codify this one-birth rule in 1980. And there were a few ways that they enforced this rule. Like Leslie said, you had to apply to have a child, and you could be denied. 

Leslie: And then also for people who had more children than they were allowed, they might have their wages docked. or there have been cases of a lot of harassment. You know, basically financial and other kinds of repercussions. 

Rose: In some parts of China, where this policy was really strictly enforced, there are confirmed and horrifying reports of forced late term abortions, and forced sterilizations. In other parts of China, the rule was treated more like a guideline, and not enforced heavily at all. 

Leslie: The further away from Beijing — the capital where all of the politicians are — the further away you get, the more lax the enforcement of these policies.

Rose: Some people would go to a more lax province to have their second or third child, and then not report them when they moved back home. It’s really hard to find good statistics on the enforcement here, because everything was so patchwork and China is, to state the extremely obvious, very large. 

Leslie: Nobody knows for sure, because no one could survey the entire country.

Rose: Now, there’s an interesting wrinkle to the legacy of the one-child policy. It’s actually hotly debated among economists, and demographers, and historians how much the one-child policy actually did to reduce China’s fertility rate. You can look at the graph, from say 1970 to today, and see that clearly the number of children that people in China had, on average, went down. But! And this is a pretty big but. It’s not actually clear how much of that was because of the policy. You see, at the same time as China was enforcing this rule, even if haphazardly, it was also enacting a bunch of economic reforms. Reforms that we know, from other places, directly reduce the number of children people have. And some economists have argued that the vast majority of the drop in births in China was due to those policies, not the one-child rule. They point to the fact that even before the policy was put in place, the fertility rate in the country was dropping, and that nearby countries who had the same babymaking statistics as China saw a similar drop in the number of kids without a one-child rule.

Obviously it’s really hard to disentangle these two things that happened at the same time. I’ll link to some of the papers that make arguments on both sides in the show notes, if you want to dig into that.

But even if we don’t know how much, exactly, the one-child policy impacted fertility rates, we can say that it impacted China. Perhaps the most famous way, that you might have heard of, is the shift in the sex ratio of babies in China after 1980. So, normally, if you have a relatively stable collection of people — no war, no famine, no natural disasters — there are slightly more male babies born than female babies born.

Leslie: Demographers put the number around 105 boys per 100 girls born, in a regular, normal society. 

Rose: It’s actually not totally clear to scientists why this is, and I kind of fell down a little bit of a rabbit hole researching this, and we don’t have time to get into it. But there’s a fascinating debate among researchers about this question! You would expect the ration to be even, fifty-fifty, but it’s not. And the exact reason why is still a bit of a mystery. I will talk more about this on the Patreon and Time Traveler bonus podcasts this week, but for now, all you need to know is that in China, after the one child policy, this ratio got even more skewed. 

Leslie: In southern China, and parts of central China,the reported numbers were about 140 males born per 100 females. 

Rose: And that’s because, in China, there’s a really strong cultural preference for boys. 

Leslie: It’s a patrilineal, patrilocal, patriarchal culture. Everything passes down the male line and there’s a long history of male preference 

Rose: It’s literally the law, in China, that your children are obligated to take care of you when you get old.

Leslie: The idea has always been, like, needing a male heir — at least one — to take care of elderly parents in the future. So the idea would be that once the parents reach a certain age, they move in with their eldest son.

Rose: Which is why the one-child policy allowed couples to reapply to have a second child, if their first one was a girl. 

Leslie: The law, itself, basically created a situation where, you know, everyone’s really working hard to have a son. 

Rose: It is technically not allowed, in China, to find out the sex of your child in utero, but… that’s one of those things that’s technically the rule but… people don’t really follow it.

Leslie: You end up with a lot of sex selective abortions of female fetuses. We’re talking about, at this point, maybe 40 million female fetuses have been sex selectively aborted so that people could try to have a male heir. 

Rose: That’s the population of Canada. And today, this super skewed sex ratio is having all kinds of cultural impacts in China. There are way more men than women, and that has repercussions for things like dating. There’s a really interesting documentary called Leftover Women that follows three women in China trying to navigate these tensions. I will link to it in the show notes. In fact, one economist in China recently suggested allowing women to have more than one husband, to balance things out a little bit. 

And there’s another long-lasting impact of this policy, one that connects to the United States. Families that didn’t selectively abort their girls, would sometimes just abandon them. 

Leslie: Left at train stations, you know, police offices, orphanage doors sort of thing. 

Rose: By the early 1990’s, China’s orphanages were overflowing. 

Leslie: That’s where Americans started getting very invested in adopting Chinese children. And so, something like a quarter million Chinese children have been adopted out to a range of different first world countries, but primarily — more than half, closer to two thirds — to the United States. 

Rose: And this decision did more than just connect parents and babies. It also connected the two countries, culturally, in a way that hadn’t really happened before. In her book, Leslie argues that this move was a way for China to begin exerting a form of soft power.

Leslie: Adoptive parents who have children from China are very involved and active. And they tend to become real advocates, not only for adoption, but for China itself.  There’s, at this point, an international group called Families with Children from China. They would get together, all the time, and do Chinese cultural activities. And we’re talking about white parents in the Midwest, and in the South, who know nothing about China, getting together and doing Chinese calligraphy and making dumplings and, you know, putting their girls into these dance classes. 

Rose: We won’t get too much into this, but Leslie’s book is super interesting, so if you want more on that, definitely check it out. And I’m going to talk a bit more about it on the bonus podcast this week. 

Another way that this policy impacted China, was by changing the dynamics of the family. There’s this concept in China called “little emperor syndrome:” 

Leslie: I’m sure you’ve heard about little emperors. You know, these spoiled — well, probably not all spoiled. But the stereotype is like having… if you only have one child and both parents are focused on the child, and all four grandparents. We’re talking about a society where grandparents expect to be very heavily involved in caring for their grandchildren. They’re often the primary caregivers, not parents. And so, all of a sudden, all of that attention, all of those financial resources go into that one child. It’s just a radical transformation of the family. 

Rose: Some cultural critics have argued that China may have a real issue with this in the next thirty years, as these little emperors grow up and become powerful in their workplaces, or governments. That, on top of the fact that there are so many more men, in an already highly patriarchal culture, seems potentially precarious for China’s women. 

Leslie: You can change a policy, but if you haven’t changed cultural belief systems, then those are going to clash. 

Rose: In 2015, China officially ended its one-child policy. But it’s not a babymaking free for all. The new rules allow each family two children. But the ripple effects of this policy will continue on, and we can potentially learn from it, to consider how a globally applied policy like this might change the world. And we’ll get to that, after this quick break. 

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Rose: As you probably know, since I dropped the first episode in the feed last week, I recently launched a spinoff show connected to Flash Forward called Advice For and From the Future. And the point of that show is to help answer your questions about and from the future. And one of the questions that actually inspired the show, is this question: should I, personally, have a child. Normally Flash Forward is not really set up to answer these kinds of more personal questions. And I should say, right here that I cannot tell you, personally, individually, if you should have a child. But on the next episode of Advice For and From The Future, which comes out in one week, I take on that question with the help of Meehan Crist, the writer in residence at Columbia University’s Biology Department. I do hope you’ll tune in for that whole conversation, but here’s a little bit of a taste. And some of this didn’t make it into the final cut of that episode, so I’m bringing it in over here.

You’ve already heard from Jade about the ways in which population control has pretty much always been racist and ableist. But some of you may be thinking: well wait a minute, Rose, come on, I’m science minded. There’s research here, there’s science, we know that ecosystems have carrying capacity. We know that if there are too many fish in a pond, the balance gets out of wack, and things get ugly. And that is sort of true, there is plenty of evidence that in certain situations, if you have too many of one species, things go haywire. The problem is, we have no idea how many humans is too many humans on the entire planet.

Meehan Crist: So I think there are currently about7.8 billion people on the planet. And demographers are predicting that this will get up to about 10.9  billion by the end of the century. And so, there has been frantic attempts to calculate how many people can live on the planet, given that there are, in fact, finite resources on this planet, which is true. You know, there are a finite number of trees. There is a finite amount of fresh water that we know about. 

Rose: That’s Meehan Crist.

Meehan: The problem is, any attempt to actually calculate the earth’s carrying capacity requires understanding not just the relationship between like, a frog and how much water it needs to put its tadpoles in. But we’re talking about humans, we’re talking about a relationship between population and environment that relies on this really complex interplay of forces, including institutions, and technology, and how we use that technology, and markets, and how markets work, and patterns of human consumption, all of which have to do with systems that humans have built and live inside of, that are not necessarily intrinsic to human nature. They are the things we’ve built, and we don’t understand the relationships there very well. And so, when you say only four billion humans can exist on this planet; doing what? Living how?

Rose: And since we don’t know the answers to these questions, the number that demographers come up with, the number of humans the Earth can, in theory, support, it’s all over the place. 2 billion, 4 billion, 10 billion, 40 billion, nobody can agree. 

Meehan: And I do think one of the dangers of this number, a carrying capacity number, is that it sounds like it has something to do with ecology, and with the nature of humans, and their environment. And, you know, as you say, it doesn’t. It’s also a question of, you know, global capitalism. It’s not a human science number. But it will be used that way. And so, it makes me nervous to have numbers like that floating around, because I think that there is a real profound danger in them being used for profound harm. 

Rose: So, this idea that we know how many kids people should be having is just untrue. And, in general, the people that we’re asking to have fewer children are also the people that are emitting the least amount of greenhouse gasses. And there’s another piece of weirdness around the way the conversation about having kids has shifted in the last ten years or so, towards this idea of personal responsibility for climate change. When you look at lists of consumer choices that individuals can make to reduce their impact on the environment, to reduce their greenhouse gasses, the list includes things like eating less meat, driving an electric car, avoiding airplane travel, and… having less kids. But perhaps, one of these things is not like the other. 

Meehan: Yeah. I just don’t think that having a baby is a consumer choice. Seeing a child as a consumer choice, or a lifestyle choice — like having a car, or like eating meat, or not eating meat — to me seems just like a fundamental kind of category error that ignores the deep weirdness around the biological and psychological desires to have a child, and what those might be and where they might come from. Including also the ways that people are socialized to want to have children, or not want to have children. That just doesn’t seem the same to me as eating a hamburger or not. 

Rose: And it’s worth pausing here too, to think about what these consumer choices even really mean when we talk about climate change. You’ve probably seen things like a carbon footprint calculator online, where you plug in information about yourself and it calculates your carbon footprint, and gives you suggestions for things you can do to reduce it. But what you might not know, is where those calculators come from. 

Meehan: The idea of the personal carbon footprint was actually popularized by BP in a 2005 ad campaign that was a multimillion dollar ad campaign. They put up carbon footprint calculators online, and these calculators have proliferated across the Internet. 

Rose: It was multibillion dollar oil corporations that created this tool to try and shift the onus for climate change onto us, and our consumer decisions.

Meehan: So, when you think about your personal carbon footprint and the guilt that you feel about it, and the responsibility that you feel for making yourself smaller on this planet, and making your own impact smaller on this planet; when you think about the fact that that comes from fossil fuel companies that are interested in you making the changes, so that they don’t have to, so that they can continue to profit, I become less and less interested in discovering bigger ways that I can sacrifice, personally. I’ve become more interested in ways that we can ask the systems around us to change, and the ways that we can make fossil fuel companies more responsible for their actions.

Rose: Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t want for us to fall into nihilism. To say, “oh well, there’s nothing meaningful you or I can do about climate change so… why bother?” I often see this kind of exasperation online, when people talk about things like recycling or plant based diets, there’s always someone who chimes in to say “well actually, the majority of climate change is in the hands of 100 mega rich companies, and what you do doesn’t matter.” I think that’s a false dichotomy, and it’s a false dichotomy for two reasons. One, is that what you do does matter, even if it’s not directly saving the planet from warming. It matters in a more subtle way.

Meehan: When individuals make choices — like eating less meat or deciding to compost, whatever those things are — you can change the way that people in your social circle see the climate crisis, and see the seriousness of the climate crisis. And those kind of individual changes; there’s a term from social science called behavioral contagion. And it looks like when individuals make those kinds of changes in their communities, they end up voting differently. And eventually climate policy will be different, because people have made different voting choices, because they and their neighbors have all decided to compost. 

Rose: And the other reason I think it’s a false dichotomy is that it assumes that the only power we have to combat climate change — or really to do anything — lies in our consumer choices. But that’s not true, right? I mean, look around, right now — the last few weeks of protests for Black lives has had a real impact. Not just in local policies, but also in public perception. Collective action can really make a difference, can change laws, can push the folks with political power to shift their position on things. A global climate movement could do the same thing — and there are folks working on that movement as you listen to this. You could get involved with those efforts, and, I believe, really make a difference. The point is that none of these things are mutually exclusive:

Meehan: I think it’s and, and, and. Don’t eat meat, and also vote differently. And we need to stop pulling fossil fuels out of the ground. And, and, and. There’s no one thing that’s the one correct action that needs to be taken. And that’s actually not how… it’s not how history works, right? History doesn’t usually come just from one top down action. History is the aggregate of billions of choices, some of which are personal and individual, and some of which are made by powerful political leaders and have larger effects. But certainly, all of those choices add up to the direction that history takes, and all of the choices that are being made now are going to add up to the direction climate emissions go.

Rose: I can’t tell you to have a kid or not have a kid. Nobody can, that’s a decision that you have to make for yourself. But I do hope that this episode has helped put some of these worries and headlines in context for you — to maybe reframe this question a little bit. You can make a difference, and shape the future. But I think it’s worth knowing why these questions are being asked of you now, where those questions come from, and whether or not they are actually aimed at making a better future in the first place. 

But now, let’s now really get into what this one-child future might be like. What does it mean to have a future where every single family is limited to one-child? 

Perhaps the most obvious impact would be economic. 

Leslie: Replacement level fertility is 2.1 children per woman. 

Rose: That’s Leslie Wang again.

Leslie: If you don’t have replacement level numbers, then you would start seeing a real shortfall in funding for things like social services, people paying their taxes; pensions would probably fall apart completely. 

Rose: But the impact would go far beyond dollars, and cents, and pensions. Like Jade said at the beginning of the episode, a future in which every couple is forced to have just one child, is one in which we’ve fallen for some non-scientific arguments that are rooted deeply in racism, and eugenics. 

Leslie: We’re seeing this massive expansion of reproductive technologies. And I think there could also be more development of ways to engineer children, right? So, engineering certain characteristics in children, whether that be a sex preference or trying to sort of select for certain kinds of traits over others, or trying to select out — Imean we’re already seeing some of that even without these policies. So I imagine there would be a lot of technologies that would arise to meet the demands for: we only have one shot at this and we want to make sure that this child is as perfect as possible, quote unquote.

Rose: Leslie also said that one thing that China can teach us is that allowing the government to take control over something as personal as whether, and when, you have a child, changes people’s perceptions around the role of government in their lives. If we accept global oversight of reproductive decisions, that means that we’re in a world where we think that this future global government should have access to, and control of, our most intimate private decisions. 

Leslie: And then, you know, I was also thinking, like, right now the choice to not have any children is increasingly popular. It’s very possible that if everyone was limited to only having one, there might actually be more societal pressure from families and from governments for people to have that one. 

Rose: Can you donate your one child permit to someone who wants more? Will there be increased pressure to have your child, even if you don’t want to? 

Leslie: That’s happening in China in urban areas where people are only allowed one — well, up until 2015, people were only allowed to have one. And the government was like, “your duty to the nation is to have that one child, because that child is going to contribute to the glory of our society, and the future of our society” and that sort of thing.

Rose: But Leslie also noted that China can teach us something about rebellion here, too. About how people find ways around these policies. The usual narrative about China is that it has this vice death grip on its people, and that everybody obeys. But that storyline collapses a whole lot of complexity. In some places, the one-child policy was implemented with brutal force. In other places, it was ignored or worked around or subverted. 

Leslie: People found covert ways of having more than one, or two. I just think that, I don’t know, humans will find a way to kind of protest the infringement of their rights. 

Rose: Humans are always tricksier than I think most science fiction gives them credit for. We find ways around, and under, and through. This is not to say that a global policy like this would be good, or even neutral, I think it would be very, very bad. It’s worth noting that most of the people who officially advocate for this proposal today are in the eco-fascist camp. Not really people who I would want in charge of the world. But, it is to say that amidst that badness, there are always people figuring out ways to trick, or break the system. So, maybe that’s my take on the Mr. Rodgers line: be the helper. Sure, be the helper, but sometimes you should also be the one breaking the system down, too. 

[music up]

That’s all for this episode. 

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. To hear more about kids, and having kids, or not having kids, listen to next week’s episode of Advice For And From The Future! My new show! And I promise I’ll stop yelling about it soon, you know I have to do the self promotion thing! 

The voice from the future this episode was provided by Brent Rose. By the way, if you have an interest in being a voice from the future in an episode, and doing a bit of acting, that is something that is open to $10 patrons. So, if you go to patreon.com/flashforwardpod, you can learn more about that. I send out a little note, saying “hey, I’m looking for voices,’ and people who are free, and able to do it, and want to do it get to respond. And you could be in a future episode. So, go check that out, if that’s interesting to you.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send me a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! So, keep them coming And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool. 

If you want to discuss this episode, or other episodes, or just the future in general, with listeners you can do that in the Facebook group! Just search Flash Forward Podcast on Facebook, and ask to join, and I’ll add you!

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give in the various ways. But if financial giving is in the cards for you, you can head to Apple Podcasts and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help. 

Okay, that’s all for this future. Come back next time, and we’ll travel to a new one.

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4 comments

should I have a child? – Advice for/from the Future June 29, 2020 at 9:13 pm

[…] babies, dinosaurs, fear and secrets. And if you can’t get enough of this question, check out last week’s episode of Flash Forward, about a global one-child policy, and what that might look […]

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Duncan Parks July 1, 2020 at 7:22 pm

I have to say I’m pretty disappointed in the overall tone of this episode (and I’m a fan in general). It rather sounds that by criticizing the views of controversial figures who talked about population growth, Rose is trying to argue that population doesn’t really matter to environmental impact. I feel she could have done a similar episode that used Galton and Charles Davenport to sully the idea of Mendelian genetics : these white guys were trying to impose their racist views with genetic window-dressing (they were) so therefore genes don’t really exist, and you don’t have a copy of each gene from each parent, and genetics doesn’t really matter for who you are. Yes, in mid-episode, Rose does acknowledge that carrying capacity exists in nature outside humanity, but then argues that because nobody agrees on the current carrying capacity for humans, we shouldn’t really think about the concept or worry about how many kids we have.

That is, of course, ridiculous; there are all sorts of finite constraints on our ability to, say, grow food, from finite amounts of arable land, finite amounts of fresh water, finite amounts of sunlight on the Earth’s surface, finite amounts of the fossil fuels that drove the 20th-century Green Revolution in agriculture (without which we would find it very difficult to feed the people on the Earth today). Even if we don’t know what the human carrying capacity is (and technology certainly makes it a moving target) the idea that it doesn’t exist is pretty dangerous. And even if you don’t think we are close to limits of human population, it’s just simple arithmetic that, say, carbon footprint = per capita consumption x population. We can certainly use national (or, hopefully, international) policy to lower per capita carbon consumption, but if population grows at the same time, those gains are either negated (more climate change) or we are forced to reduce our standard of living by cutting emissions per capita even more that tehcnology or policy can do alone. Every person born has a basic lifetime carbon footprint, if only to support their caloric and shelter needs…again, this is nothing more than simple arithmetic. And resources (or emissions) shared across a smaller population leads to a higher standard of living for those people.

In short, every gain we make in reducing per-capita impact on the planet is great, but we still have to multiply that number by the population to get the total impact. If both decline, we get a more rapid reduction in our impact on the planet, and if population grows, it negates gains from other policy or technology changes.

It’s not lost on me, BTW, that different people have different per capita carbon emissions, and that reducing population in countries like the US or the UAE that have really high per capita emissions is most effective in reducing global emissions.

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Duncan Parks July 1, 2020 at 7:35 pm

As a postscript, I would point out that many studies have shown that when one improves the health and educational outcomes of a given set of people, they will choose to have less children if possible (this is, essentially, the demographic transition). The most effective intervention appears to be giving women access to a viable education, followed by the development of social safety nets and reductions in infant mortality, which make it possible for women to have an economically secure life with a smaller family.

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Anupa July 6, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Great work on this episode! I’ve always thought about having kids in the sense of it’s impact on the world (more social impact rather than environmental). You’ve brought forth a lot of good talking points I want to have with my future partner.

I also want to share a little story related to what you mentioned. My Indian grandparents were approached by healthcare workers back in the 60s regarding birth control. They already had 4 kids at this point. But my grandparents are Catholics, and the mentality of their generation/their community/their religion was the more kids the better. They were also farmers, so more hands to help with the work. It’s a good thing they didn’t listen to those healthcare workers because their next child was my mom. They had 8 children in total, which was not uncommon for that generation.

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