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is china’s one child policy environmentally ethical?

By: James Miller

"carry out family planning"
"carry out family planning"

By James Miller

I’ve been following Andrew Revkin’s dot Earth blog at the New York Times. The tag-line of the blog is “Nine Billion People. One Planet” and is premised on the demographic likelihood that by 2050 the world’s population will have increased from six to nine billion, effectively adding another two Chinas to what we have already. 

At the same time, the populations of China, Brazil and India are developing their economies at a relatively rapid rate which means that those populations will be commanding a larger ecological footprint than they are doing already. China’s 2001 ecological footprint was 1.5 global hectares per person. Canada’s was 6.4. Assuming that China’s economic development will bring about an expansion of its ecological footprint, the results could be catastrophic to say the least.

China has 20% of the current world’s population but only 13% of China’s land mass is arable land. Economic development, moreover, has brought about a rapid deterioration in the quality of the natural environment, and a shrinking in the amount and quality of arable land. One tenth of China’s 120 million hectares of arable land is now contaminated, and China seems increasingly unable to provide itself with a necessary level of food security. 

In these circumstances it’s arguable that China’s one child policy is not simply a moral good, but an ethical necessity. It’s impossible to deny China or other developing countries the right to develop economically. The question is can they create a new path for smart growth rather than slavishly following the template that we in the West have created? One element of this has to be grappling directly with the question of population size. 

From the perspective of human rights, enforcing population control is seen as an invasion of the privacy of the individual by the state. But from the perspective of ecological communitarian ethics, population control can be seen as a valid response to the fixed ecological limits or carrying capacity of the environment to support human life. Whatever we think about this issue, (and in particular the question of enforcing limits to the size of families) we certainly need to think about the question of “the right to life” from an ethical framework that takes account of the very real constraints that our natural environment imposes upon the human species.

Categories: Blog, Questions

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