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To Breed or Not to Breed?

At least since the time of Thomas Malthus, people have worried about when the planet will be too full of people. Today there are more than 7 billion Homo sapiens on Earth, a number projected to grow to 9 billion by 2045. As the ecological limits of growth become more apparent, the debate over the need to reduce the number of humans becomes more urgent. Can the planet sustain a population of 9 billion people, especially if they all aspire to live as Americans? And if the answer is No, what does that mean for our personal choices about becoming parents? Environmental journalist Erica Gies says she won’t have children and says people should consider adoption. Naturalist and illustrator Julie Zickefoose believes having children and raising them to love the natural world is one of the best things we can do to protect the environment.

Raising good kids Is Part of the Solution

by Julie Zickefoose

Julie Zickefoose is a writer and illustrator who has contributed to The New Yorker, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and NPR, where she was a regular commentator. Her latest book is The Bluebird Effect.

We’ve done it. My husband and I are replacing ourselves with two children, a towheaded boy and a willowy, redheaded girl. When we go, they’ll take our places. We started late. It took a while for my husband to talk me into having kids. I was 37 for the firstborn, 41 when our son arrived. So I’m smiling wryly as I build a case for conscientious reproduction on an already overburdened planet. I’ve got no statistics to bolster my argument, no worldwide trends to report, nor do I have the energy to dig any out. I have no desire to see my rather hazy ideas strung up a flagpole as exemplifying anything. All I know is what seems to be true: Having children, and raising them to appreciate the natural world, is one of the most powerful ways to affirm your love for life on this planet.

Married at 35, I was afraid. Afraid to add to the world’s masses. Afraid to give up my freedom to travel or do whatever I wanted. Afraid I wouldn’t be up to the challenge of raising good people. Afraid I’d let them down. I closed my eyes and we took the leap. I’ll never forget what my doctor said when the pregnancy test came back positive. “Get ready for the best ride of your life.” When he saw the raw terror in my eyes, he added, “There are people coming into my office every day who can barely tie their shoes, and they still make the most beautiful kids. You’ll do fine.”

Here’s what I’ve figured out, 15 years later, that I didn’t know that day in the doctor’s office: Having a child rang a bell in me never before struck. It brought me into a much vaster and richer reality than the one I’d inhabited. It awakened me to the blindingly fast progression of infancy to youth, adolescence into maturity. It placed me in a larger context, served me notice that I’d have to pass on what’s good and discourage what was harmful and maladaptive. Not only that, I’d have to save a place for them to live, too. I felt bigger, more significant. This felt like a real job.

… more …

What do you think? Can you be a “good environmentalist” and still have children?

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Julie needs to sit down and read this;

By Gail Zawacki on Thu, April 19, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Isn’t it convenient when your beliefs reinforce your personal selfish interests? I’m sure Zickefoose’s children will “save the world” just like the countless other children sucking up resources and destroying more habitat. It’s completely hypocritical to double your ecological footprint and claim you care about Earth or other species. Even in my teens I knew I would never have children because of overpopulation. Things are incredibly worse now than they were in the 1970s—let’s see, we are burning orangutans alive in Indonesia for palm oil. That’s great. I remain happily childless at age 50 and I’m glad I don’t have to try to rationalize selfish behavior to consider myself an environmentalist. She should be honest with herself and admit she is simply a narcissistic hypocrite.

By Angela on Mon, April 16, 2012 at 2:19 pm

People are going to continue having children that’s a no brainer . The problem with any fundamental group is that they are too polarizing . If you start telling people not to have children some will agree but most will get pissed off . And that is the last thing you want to do . We want people to have compassion, be responsible , but no one likes to be nagged or made to feel guilty . If I told you that you need to have more than 10 children you will give me the finger(and rightfully so) . Instead be more on the sly , hand out birth control . Become a government agent   Give huge tax breaks . There is more than one way to manipulate the sheeple . Also for the little humans that are already here , don’t ignore them but teach them about the planet they live on . Most children are smart and their hearts naturally have an affinity towards nature . The charity that works to educate children will be the one that I will donate richly to .

By Anonymous on Fri, April 06, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I wish that both Zickefoose and Gies could have adopted slightly more professional writing styles for this debate. I for one thought that their overly familiar styles distracted from the issues at hand. EIJ’s staff writers would probably have done a better job.

By GDiFonzo on Sat, March 24, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Impact = N * (average consumption).
In the old days, reproduction was necessary for survival. Now, reproduction is suicide.

By Dr Bob Rich on Sun, March 04, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Not to hog this space, so this is my last comment: The original question is, “Can you be a good environmentalist and still have children?” It’s a silly question as phrased: If no enviros had kids, all that would be left would be people who don’t care and those hostile to environmental concerns.

I guess I’m saying it’s the wrong question. The right one? I guess that would be, What are responsible reproductive choices for earthlings?

By Miranda Spencer on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 2:46 pm

On a personal level, I understand Hydrocorax’s perspective. I didn’t have kids either, in part bc of population/environmental considerations. However, we can’t change the world individual decision by individual decision. Mary’s forgoing kids or Martha’s having them is insignificant. We need some kind of larger cultural movement, policy, or plan as a society. And as a people, we need to talk about what that might look like.

By Miranda Spencer on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 2:37 pm

To answer this question requires weighing one’s own pro-conservation effect against one’s own consumption. I try pretty hard to minimize the latter and maximize the former, but when I look at it honestly, I have to admit that my overall effect is negative. The number of children already living who need parents clinches the decision for me.

By hydrocorax on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 12:04 pm

The issue isn’t to breed or not; most people will, eventually. The question is how many children to limit oneself. So if we want the population to stabilize or drop somewhat, then we have to choose to have no more than 2 per person—is that so much to ask? And we have to make all forms of birth control universally available.

By Miranda Spencer on Thu, March 01, 2012 at 4:50 am

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