The bubble of cheap energy has enabled a sharp increase in food production, and a sharp increase in population. All bubbles are temporary. The coming decades will be a time of huge and turbulent change. Food production is being threatened by rising energy costs, an increasingly unstable climate, unsustainable water mining and soil mining, and the growth in chemical-resistant pests, weeds, and pathogens.
We are approaching Peak Food, while population growth continues. It is most perplexing that population remains a taboo subject for polite conversation among friends and family, and among the leaders of the world. We are choosing to let nature solve this problem, and she certainly will.
For most of human history, family planning was just ordinary business — making common sense choices in order to encourage survival and stability. It’s important to understand that the modern mindset is a strange quirk in the human journey. In order to gain a broader perspective on our morals, let’s take a quick look at the history of infanticide in some civilized societies.
William Lecky wrote that the Greeks were devoted to the greatest happiness principle. “Regarding the community as a whole, they clearly saw that it is in the highest degree for the interests of society that the increase of population should be very jealously restricted.” Infanticide was considered normal throughout most ancient Greek civilizations.
Infanticide was also common in Rome, during its Empire phase. Lecky wrote that an ancient law required “the father to bring up all his male children, and at least his eldest female child, forbidding him to destroy any well-formed child till it had completed its third year, when the affections of the parent might be supposed to be developed, but permitting the exposition of deformed or maimed children with the consent of their five nearest relations.”
“Infanticide” means actively killing a child (drowning, strangling, poisoning, etc.). “Exposition” means setting the newborn down somewhere, and then walking away. In Rome, exposition “was certainly not punished by law; it was practiced on a gigantic scale and with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with the most frigid indifference, and at least, in the case of destitute parents, considered a very venial offence.” Lecky added that the abandoned infants were often taken in by speculators “who educated them as slaves, or very frequently as prostitutes.”
With the emergence of Christianity, the elimination of unwanted babies was strongly denounced, but it certainly did not disappear. There were no food stamps for poor folks living on bread and water. Much later, Christians built foundling hospitals, where unwanted infants could be left in the hands of the church. So, far fewer babies died at home, but the mortality rates in foundling hospitals were extremely high. Some have called this “legalized infanticide.” Most infants perished from neglect, and many were mercifully put out of their misery by wet nurses.
William Langer noted that in 1860s Britain, dead babies were frequently found under bridges, in parks, in culverts and ditches, and even in cesspools. He quoted the coroner of Middlesex, England, Dr. Lankester: “the police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child than of finding a dead dog or cat.”
In many civilized societies, female children were the most commonly destroyed, because they were less likely to benefit the family economically. Edward Moor wrote, “In India, China, Persia, Arabia, &c. there exists a decided preference to male children. The birth of a boy is a subject of gratulation; of a girl, not.” Moor described infanticide in India, “Every female infant born in the Raja’s family of a Ranni, or lawful wife, is immediately dropped into a hole dug in the earth and filled with milk, where it is drowned.”
Langer made one statement that I will never forget. He said, “In the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries to China were horrified to find that in Peking alone several thousand babes (almost exclusively female) were thrown on the streets like refuse, to be collected each morning by carriers who dumped them into a huge pit outside the city.” This practice remained common into the 1830s.
John Cave-Browne noted that infanticide in India was especially prevalent among the upper classes. The Rajpoot caste was elite, second only to the Brahmans. In one Rajpoot tribe, the children under five years old averaged 20 girls for every 100 boys. It was shameful to have a daughter marry a man of a lower caste, and a father lost honor if his daughter remained unmarried. Whenever possible, daughters were betrothed prior to puberty. If a suitable groom could not be found, the father felt compelled to pay a man to marry his daughter. Once his daughter was married, the father lost prestige to the groom, “the very title ‘father-in-law’ (Soosur) is used as a common term of scorn and reproach.”
Because girls were in low supply and high demand, grooms paid large dowries for their brides. Also because of this high demand, women had a low tolerance for sub-perfect husbands. Cave-Browne said, “Few women remain constant; it is no merit to do so; many change four or five times in the course of their lives; some more frequently.” When this happened, the family of the ex-husband demanded their dowry back. Every time his daughter married, the father was responsible for lavish wedding expenses.
So, sons increased a family’s wealth, and daughters decreased it. Sometimes daughters were poisoned by smearing the mother’s breast with an ointment containing poppy, datura, or the Mudar plant. Some were buried alive. Some were strangled with their umbilical cords. Many were drowned. Dead daughters were preferred to the possibility of diminished family honor and wealth. Allowing daughters to live could bankrupt the family.
The stories above describe what life was like in some civilizations prior to the temporary bubble of cheap energy and prosperity. Today, in modern societies, family planning is made easy with readily available contraceptives and safe clinical abortions. At some point in the future, as the collapse proceeds, this will no longer be an option. What will life be like when we move beyond the cheap energy bubble?
Prior to civilization, wild cultures also discarded unwanted infants, but they put a far greater emphasis on pregnancy prevention, which saved a lot of wear and tear on mothers’ bodies. Taboos placed many restrictions on when intercourse was allowed. Typically, births were few, and widely spaced. Hunting bands clearly understood how many mouths their land could sustainably support, and they did what was needed to preserve stability.
An essential part of our healing process is unlearning the dysfunctional beliefs and values of an insane culture that is ravaging the planet. We need to outgrow them. One way or another, effective family planning is mandatory for any form of sustainable living.
Cave-Browne, John, Indian Infanticide, W. H. Allen and Co., London, 1857.
Langer, William L., “Infanticide: A Historical Survey,” History of Childhood Quarterly, vol 1, pp. 353-365, 1974.
Lecky, William Edward Hartpole, History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, Longmans, Green, and Company, London, 1869, vol II.
Moor, Edward, Hindu Infanticide, J. Johnson and Company, London, 1811.