Breeding like Flies: The Population Conundrum

By Bill the Butcher

Imagine this scenario.

There is a great city, a city that has been the envy of others in the past, rich in culture and surrounded by heavy industry, excellently supported by communication links, endowed with some of the better schools and universities the nation has to offer. Yes, a great city indeed – but not now, no longer. Years and decades of unplanned and unregulated population growth have swelled the numbers so much that there’s no space for new entrants, and yet still they flood in, for the streets are paved, reputedly, with gold.

It’s a city where the potholed streets are choked with vehicular fumes, a city where entire multi-member families share single rooms and make shanties on the pavements; where the avenues for legitimate employment have dried up and begging, prostitution and crime are the easiest ways to make a living. Imagine, now, that drought visits the land and the parched fields can no longer produce enough to feed everyone, and the granaries begin to empty out.

The shops of the city are half-empty, prices begin to rise through the roof, and food riots are imminent. Services begin to break down. There’s no longer electricity or water enough to go around, and what resources are available tend to go to the highest bidder. Garbage piles up faster than it can be removed. Residents of various localities begin arming themselves with whatever weapons come to hand and form vigilante groups intent on keeping outsiders away and saving whatever they have. Profiteers and black marketers make a killing selling everything from baby food to medicines to those with the money to pay their prices. Fascist politicians have a field day blaming everything on whichever public enemy – always a minority group, ethnic, linguistic or religious – is convenient.

The floodgates, obviously, are creaking. Chaos and anarchy are on the way.

And in the middle of this, imagine this: the people of the city continue having large numbers of children. Not just two or three; the average couple still insists on producing six, seven, eight kids – or more. And so do those living in the surrounding villages, where there are neither roads nor electricity, schools or health-care facilities; they have even more children, so many children that there’s no possibility of them being able to absorb them all in agriculture, the only employment available. So these extra mouths also trickle into the city, swelling numbers further and stressing the services that much more.

With the burden of providing for the immense load of the population already too much to bear, the government of the day throws up its hands and declares that it can’t tell people not to have children; it’s their affair. If anyone sounds the alarm, the government claims that such a person is crying wolf, and that all earlier claims of impending disaster have proved unfounded. And having said that, the government continues to preside over the coming catastrophe, essentially doing nothing.

Now imagine that this state applies not just to a single city, or to a province; an entire nation or a larger part of the planet is affected. Obviously, there would be repercussions, not just on the people directly affected but on those around them, and further, because of the terrific problems of feeding, clothing, sheltering and providing for such a mass of humanity can’t be solved without doing long-term damage to the region.

At this point, it’s useless to say that since each of those teeming millions of humans doesn’t really consume much, the situation is less dire than projected. One might think of it in terms of an increasing number of ants seeking to consume the sugar in a bowl of limited size. Even if each ant eats only one or two grains, at some point the sugar will run out, so long as nobody pours in more from outside. And even if more sugar is poured in from outside, at some point it will run out, and yet more sugar will have to be poured in to feed the uncontrolled increase in the ant numbers. Finally, even though each ant is still eating just one or two grains, there will no longer be enough sugar available to be poured in from outside.

So long as our city above can still depend on food and raw materials coming in from outside, it can still somehow get along. But raw materials aren’t infinite, and at a certain point the growth of population is going to outstrip the inflow of resources; the point when the sugar stops being poured into the bowl, so to speak.

You will appreciate that the situation grows more dire and more disastrous the larger the social unit we’re talking about; when it reaches a point that an entire portion of the planet is affected, it’s time to draw back and ask, why?

Simply put: since the primary cause of all this distress is the uncontrolled growth of population, why do these people still insist on having so many babies?

The standard answer to this question is that agrarian societies typically have more children than more industrial ones. Farming people need working hands on the land, and children who have a stake in the farm will work better and more reliably than hired help who may be seduced away with greater wages.

Of course, modern farming practices aren’t labour-intensive, relying overwhelmingly on machinery. But these societies aren’t modern. They continue to farm in conditions that are anywhere between Neolithic and mid-twentieth century. Machinery isn’t affordable or, since the typical farm is small and produces relatively little, isn’t economically useable. Social divisions run too deep to allow co-operative farming to develop. Whereas a typical farm in a Western country will occupy hundreds to thousands of hectares and make use of heavy machinery and little human labour, in these countries a farm is a small patch of ground where everything from tilling the ground to sowing the crops and harvesting is done by direct physical labour. These people feel they need children.

The downside of this, of course, is when it comes to sharing out the property to the members of the next generation. In most cases, a small farm can’t be cut up further between five or six heirs without becoming utterly economically unviable. And in spite of all the uplifting stories, siblings rarely work well together. So with each succeeding generation, these agrarian people become further immured in debt and poverty.

At the same time, primarily agricultural societies in this day and age aren’t in any case rich societies. They have few schools, few hospitals, and people live shorter lives than in more “developed” communities. The child mortality rate tends to be high. Also, these societies typically have no social security, no guaranteed pensions, and no old age homes. Old people usually live with their adult children who are supposed to take care of them. Since several to most of your kids may die before reaching adulthood, while others may migrate in search of jobs or may be unwilling or unable to shelter you later, the only way of ensuring you have someone to take care of you in your old age is to have as many offspring as possible.

Therefore, of course, if you improve these peoples’ access to health and education, provide them the means to earn enough to be less desperately uncertain about their future, the number of children they produce ought to drop. And, in many to most societies, they do. But not always. No.

Why not? Why did, for instance, China need to impose a ruthless one-child-per-couple policy to control its runaway population explosion? Is it only because they’re evil Commie Red Maoist freedom-hating anti-democratic scum?

Let’s see.

I live in a nation, India, that isn’t just overpopulated; it’s hyperpopulated, with cities bursting at the seams with the pressure of people, villages without water or sanitation or electricity, and a government that has, like our example of the city above, practically given up on managing the population. (It uses an interesting argument to justify its stance, which I’ll get to in a moment). Indians, I’m convinced, will never reach a point where the population will balance available resources, for a series of reasons. In no particular order, some of these reasons are:

1. The influence of religion. Most Indians are Hindus, and one of the tenets of Hindu belief is that if one’s to go to heaven, one’s funeral rites have to be carried out by one’s oldest son. Women, in fact, are usually blocked out from the actual cremation of a corpse entirely. Therefore, religion demands a male child, and couples will keep having kids until they get one. Muslims, who do not have any such religious requirement, are still goaded on to have a maximum number of kids by semiliterate mullahs who condemn family planning as “anti-Islam.” Christian converts in villages are also exhorted by their pastors and priests to have many kids, because the extent of financing from the parent church often depends on the size of one’s congregation.

2. Son preference. In South Asia, the only child acceptable is a male child. Female children are very often selectively aborted or just quietly murdered at birth by suffocation or poisoning. If they are allowed to live, they’re commonly given less food than their male siblings, less schooling and less access to health care. There are several reasons for this son preference apart from the religious angle. Some are:

i. Sons, not married daughters, inherit property. One needs a male heir.

ii. In most parts of India, in order to get your daughter married you have to pay a gigantic dowry. In effect, you’re paying the groom to take your daughter off your hands. Sons are needed to bring dowry into the house to compensate.

iii. Married daughters are no longer considered part of the family. Sons are. So – since you need someone to take care of you in your old age – the son is the one who has to do that.

iv. Farming communities prefer sons since daughters aren’t of much use on the farm.

Whatever the reason, in practical terms the consequence is that parents typically keep trying till they have a male.

I remember when I was a kid, I used to keep hearing how so-and-so had “two daughters and a son” or “three daughters and a son.” Only later did I realise why. The parents bred until the son was born and then they stopped breeding.

3. Early or polygamous marriage. To this day, in many parts of the country, the average person is married by the time he or she is fourteen or fifteen, and sometimes while literally still a baby in arms. Officially these marriages aren’t legal, but once done, legally again, they can’t be annulled. (More on child marriages another time.) These couples begin having babies early and keep having them at regular intervals until the female component is so worn out she can’t have any more. At this stage, very often, and especially so if there’s no male child, the male component marries again. Outside the cities, most marriages aren’t registered anyway, so there’s no need to get a divorce.

4. Social pressure. It may sound weird and bizarre, but in this hyperpopulated nation there’s an incredible amount of pressure on any newly-wed couple to have children. It’s not just one’s immediate family; total strangers will ask if you have children and shake their heads sorrowfully if you say you don’t. “For whom are you earning then?” they’ll ask. “Why are you so selfish? Who’ll take care of you in your old age?” Try telling these idiots that having children to take care of one in one’s old age is as selfish an activity as one can think of, and they’ll stare at you blankly. Their brains just can’t handle it.

5. The low status of women. Except in the upper strata, and especially in North India, women typically make no decisions about anything. They have no control over their bodies, no right to decide if or when to have sex, and as for contraception, unless it’s ordained by the male, forget it.

6. The complete and total absence of sex education, both formal and informal. Not only do parents not talk of sex to their children, they go out of their way to prevent sex education (even if by some other innocuous name) from being taught in the schools. Recently a parliamentary committee claimed that sex comes naturally, so there’s no need to teach it. This may be funny, but it’s fairly typical of how the Indian mind works when confronted with difficult choices.

7. Lack of foresight. My paternal grandmother had eleven children, and that was nothing extraordinary for her time. Six or seven, in fact, were the fewest a couple had. When I asked her why they had that many kids, she said frankly that they “had so much” (they were minor landowners in what is now northern Bangladesh) that they never thought it could ever run out. Strange, but there it is.

8. Lack of any other entertainment. I remember an Indian minister saying one way of reducing population growth was to give villagers free TV sets and electricity on which to run them. He was right – in villages across India, there’s hardly anything to do after dark except, um, a spot of nookie.

9. Child labour. For the poorest of the poor, children are essential for augmenting the family’s income. As soon as the kid can sit up and understand basic orders, it’s put to work; maybe at making matchsticks or fireworks or anything else at which it can pick up a few rupees a day. Later it might graduate to domestic service or construction labour, or if especially fortunate to doing embroidery work in an export-oriented textile company, until its fingers lost their dexterity and their eyes their keenness. By the time the kid grows old enough to strike out on its own, the parents have recouped the expense of feeding and clothing it for the first couple of years of its life, over and over again. As long as the demand for cheap child labour persists, the incentive for the poorest people is to have more kids, not less. And in a competitive capitalist economy, a firm which, clandestinely if need be, employs cheap child labour has a great advantage over one which doesn’t, so child labour is here to stay.

(I should explain that Indians typically consider their children their properties, theirs to do with as they see fit. There’s no legal requirement to send one’s offspring to school, for example. The government refuses to make such a requirement on the plea that in a democracy the government can’t force parents to educate their children, despite the fact that many democracies, like Britain, have done precisely that.)

Undoubtedly, despite all of this, the average number of kids per couple is declining. The problem is that it’s not declining fast enough. The ants are still crawling over more and more of the bowl. By the time they stop coming into the bowl, the sugar will all be gone. Droughts and declining agricultural output are already haunting the country, and the cities are crashing under the weight of their own populations. We are approaching the point where the sugar bowl will be empty.

I don’t think these features are all unique to India; the son preference one holds as true for China as it does for India. But China has recognised the danger and imposed a one-child policy. Far from emulating it, India has virtually given up all attempts to control the population. Instead the government has come up with a weird bit of twisted logic, called the “demographic dividend,” which claims that a huge population is actually an asset and offers more human resources. How a starving, uneducated, unemployed mass of humanity can be a human resource isn’t a question the government wants to hear raised, let alone answer.

But that’s India for you.