Catastrophe By The Numbers


Just as early humanoids were probably unaware of any connection between sexual intercourse and its subsequent issue, so their descendants today, one could almost believe, are unaware of any between the number of children individual couples have and the growth of the population as a whole. That would explain how the Reader’s Digest can run an excellent article hammering home the implications of the problem, and in an advertisement a few months later, beam upon John and Mary Ann Forristal of Houston and their nine children as a representative Digest family. It would explain the report issued in November, 1968, by a committee of highly qualified citizens set up by the President to recommend steps to deal with population pressure. On one page the report tells us that the current rate of growth of the American population “cannot be maintained indefinitely,” on the opposite that the national objective is “a society in which all parents can have the number of children they want when they want them.” What we do if the number of children parents want must produce a rate of population growth impossible to maintain, which is the case at present, the committee does not say. Last July, in the strongest public statement on population yet made by an American President, Mr. Nixon detailed the enormous scope of the problem and proposed the creation by Congress of a “Commission on Population Growth and the American Future”; then he went on to vitiate all he had been urging with the pious pronouncement that the government’s pursuit of the goal of population control would “in no circumstances … be allowed to infringe upon the religious convictions or personal wishes and freedom of any individual, nor … to impair the absolute right of all individuals to have such matters of conscience respected by public authorities.” One wonders how close to final debacle we shall have to come before a President summons up the nerve to do what is clearly imperative now and gives the American people to understand that if they care anything for posterity, for their country, and for the handiwork of the Creator that has made North America so hospitable and inspiring to human habitation, they are going to have to accept a ceiling on the number of children per couple, and that the national interest will be best served if that ceiling for the present is no more than two.

Even if such a national policy were enunciated, however—as sooner or later it will have to be—there will remain the question of how individual couples are to be brought to conform to it. What results could be expected from a mere appeal to conscience?

Harmful ones, Garrett Hardin of the University of California argues persuasively. The person whose conscience is appealed to, says Professor Hardin, is caught in a “double bind” of a kind that can induce schizophrenia. For he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If he ignores the appeal and has three or four children, he stands to be publicly condemned as selfish, irresponsible, and antisocial. If he obeys it while others ignore it, he can only feel he has been had—one whom others “secretly condemn … for a simpleton.”

O f course, we should not have to fear these consequences if an appeal to conscience were uniformly acceded to. But one thing that experience of this world should teach us is the futility of expecting human beings in the aggregate to curb their instincts or desires for any length of time just for the general good. Were it otherwise, we could have government by exhortation instead of by laws—laws with teeth in them. Can it be imagined that wartime rationing that depended on voluntary compliance would be of any effect? And rationing is what we are talking about.

To move human beings to what is uncongenial and unnatural to them requires the carrot and/or the stick. For the great majority of us, over the long run, nothing else will serve. The question is, what sort of carrot and what sort of stick would be most likely to prove effective in preventing the earth from being swamped by people and at the same time provide an equitable apportionment of the right to bear children? That is the question to which those most concerned with the future of life on earth should address themselves—or show how these ends may otherwise be achieved.

Professor Hardin favors coercion—but “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.” Social sanctions could perhaps meet the need. If anyone with three or four children automatically brought obloquy and ostracism on himself as an antipatriot and an offender against the Deity (who presumably would have some interest in the preservation of his magnificent creation, the earth), we might have the answer. But the world might be close to irreversible disaster, or over the line, before such an effective consensus could form, even in the United States.