October 18, 2010
To Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, and the environmental alarmists who have followed him, the key problem confronting humanity is humanity. They picture our planet as "spaceship earth," a fragile vehicle vulnerable to overpopulation and resource depletion. Much of the modern environmental movement has adopted Ehrlich's pessimistic view, leading to widespread fears of man-caused global warming and to costly responses such as cap-and-trade legislation.
The debate has been fierce, but largely theoretical, since many of the projected problems of having too many passengers on "spaceship earth" remain decidedly in the future. How do you test a theory with so little actual data?
Well, the fact is, for the last 30 years the world has had a huge laboratory to test the overpopulation hypothesis. Let's call it "spaceship China." In 1980, China's communist rulers, fearing overpopulation, environmental degradation, and famine, launched their notorious one-child policy. The initiative forces most Chinese families to have no more than one child.
Communist officials say the one-child policy, which they vow to continue, has prevented 400 million people from being born. So if people really are humanity's biggest problem, then the People's Republic ought to be a paradise right now. So how has the overpopulation theory fared in China over the last three decades?
Supporters point to the country's tenfold increase in GDP, producing a booming economy—now the world's second largest. They point to shiny, new skyscrapers and to an explosion in China's middle class. All these things, like the massive and colorful synchronized displays at the Beijing Olympics, are indeed impressive sights, assuming they can be directly tied to the one-child policy. But at what cost?
Despite the policy, the nation of 1.3 billion people remains an environmental nightmare, with smog choking the air and clinging to lungs. Why hasn't the fact of fewer people cleaned up all the pollution?
And why does China have a suicide problem among its factory workers? Why do they labor in such harsh conditions? Is it because they are viewed more as problems than as potential solutions?
And what about the things we don't see? We don't see, of course, those 400 million people who never had a chance to contribute to China's development. While environmental alarmists might see them primarily as consumers of scarce natural resources, those of us who take seriously our stewardship responsibilities before God view these invisibles as potential creators of wealth, of innovation, of compassionate ministries, all following the template laid down for us in Genesis.
Someone, after all, had to design and install the new solar panels atop the White House, as well as all the countless other devices that contribute to human flourishing. Yet many who would have done so in China are lost forever.
To enforce the policy, local officials sometimes force mothers to abort their children. (There are 11 million abortions overall in China every year.) Other violators face a stiff fine (called a "social upbringing fee") or the loss of their government positions. One Chinese citizen has resorted to painful subterfuge.
"One of my childhood friends, who didn't want to reveal his name, has had to let his daughter, his second child, call him uncle in order to escape punishment for breaking the rule," a Chinese writer reports. "He says it breaks his heart every time he talks about his daughter, who is officially registered as someone else's child."
The one-child policy has already produced unintended social disruptions. Because of the strong cultural preference for boys over girls, there is a huge numerical imbalance as many parents want their one child to be a boy. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the ratio of males to females between the ages of 15 and 64 in the United States is one to one. In China, however, it's 1.06 males for every female. That may not sound like much of a difference, but according to the British Medical Journal, there are 32 million more males than females under the age of 20. This fact has disastrous implications for marriage and family.
The imbalanced ratio has contributed to something more sinister than a bunch of lonely men. The shortage of marriageable women is a huge factor in China's enormous human trafficking scandal. Ugly reports of Chinese men kidnapping women from neighboring nations as virtual sex slaves persist. China, according to the CIA, "is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor."
The implications of the one-child policy to the nation's growing economy are nothing short of dire. "The total number of young people is a problem as well; factories have reported youth-labor shortages in recent years, a problem that will only get worse," Time magazine warns. "In 2007 there were six adults of working age for every retiree, but by 2040 that ratio is expected to drop to 2 to 1. Analysts fear that with too few children to care for them, China's elderly people will suffer neglect."
Many of China's economic and social wounds have been self-inflicted, caused by forced collectivization and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, not by overpopulation. China's problems have not been the result of too many people, but of too many of the wrong people in government. While I am no fan of Chairman Mao, who was a brutal dictator on par with Stalin and Hitler, he knew policies that attempted to limit the number of Chinese people were ultimately counterproductive.
"Even if China's population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution," Mao Zedong once said. "The solution is production. Of all things in the world, people are the most precious."
If even Chairman Mao could see this, why can't China's current rulers? Is it because they are too busy fiddling with the controls on spaceship China?
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of the forthcoming All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books, November 2010). Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.